I received two interesting emails this week: One from a contributor to the book on film adaptation (From Camera Lens to Critical Lens, 2006) and another from a literary agent. The contributor, now well on his way to academic success as an advanced PhD candidate at a prestigious university, was writing to thank me for the opportunity to be published--now four years ago--in the anthology I edited for the Cambridge Scholars on film adaptation. You can find more information about it on my "Books" page--it's the only title there without a picture. The reason: The book was only published in hardcover and merely had the title in gold lettering on a black background. The book is still in print and is a real hit in college classrooms. It was my first stint editing an anthology, and I admittedly had a bit of help from a very good friend who kindly assisted me for close to a year as we formatted the book, completed the index, and edited every syllable. But back to the email:
This contributor talked about how he now understood the value of being given that opportunity at that moment in his career--and I know EXACTLY what he meant. Typically, in academia, professors editing anthologies look for well-established scholars as contributors. There is a method to this kind of madness, too, of course--it's not an elitist move, more practical than anything else. But for this volume, I was looking to promote people who don't usually get the chance to do this kind of collaborative work because, well, because I could. It was MY book in every sense--not part of a larger book series, like the Blackwell Series I've been working in for years now--but a single volume on film adaptation that was invited by the publisher. It was my project and I could do whatever I wanted with it. And my choice was to help people. People like this contributor. And the fact that this individual took the time, energy and effort to track me down and send me a detailed email--FOUR YEARS AFTER publication--tells me it was ALL worth it. This same contributor thanked me upon completion of the project, too--as did all the lovely contributors--but it is rare to have a collaborator come back YEARS later to express gratitude for all the GOOD the project promoted in that individual's life. What a wonderful gift. So wonderful, I had to share it with you.
But what does that have to do with a new direction? Hang on to that thought....
The other email was from an agent who wishes me to edit a book series; it is the third or fourth time I have heard from this particular person. I'm a writer, an editor--so what's the hold up? Well, in publishing, particularly academic publishing--such projects are largely for no pay. Yes, there is a contract, and yes, there are royalties stipulated, but because the book is published for what is called the "library market," the number of books required to be sold in order to receive any royalties is absurdly high for the particular market. So why do it at all? Well, as a professor, such efforts go toward tenure--or to put it another way for those of you who are not in academia--go toward becoming an "untouchable." It is a small price to pay for a lifetime of guaranteed pay and easy employment--being a professor is a fantastic job where one is paid to think, to write, to explore intellectual pursuits, and to help others do the same--it is one of the MOST rewarding jobs on the planet. And a door that is closed to me now. So there you see my dilemma: If I were looking at building my tenure, then this agent's query would be most welcome. However, it seems that now, there is no reason to pursue this kind of writing project. On the other hand, if I do decide to go forward, I will have a book series in the works with a viable publisher (we'll talk about the difference between legitimate publishers and what are called "vanity" presses another time). The next two or three years will see published books with my name on the cover...ah, the ego. Hard to quash that aspect of our humanity.
The other aspect of this proposed project is that I do not yet have ANY details or conditions of the contract. Aspiring writers take heed: Always, always learn the conditions or terms of the contract, even if you don't get the contract right away. Get something in writing--an email from the publisher or agent is fine--you just need some form of documentation to rely on in case you need to provide evidence of the terms later. It's not unprofessional, in fact, it's the opposite.
When you go "pro," you live by your writing efforts. You must try to get as many paid opportunities as possible. I went plenty of years doing small and large writing projects for practically nothing--sometimes, truly nothing! But I had to build my reputation, and putting in the time is necessary to doing just that. Now, despite the draw of the ego, I will not, cannot , take on a project for no pay--or for the promise of mythical royalties that can NEVER be reached. I will let you know what comes of this new opportunity. But my point in relaying these two seemingly unrelated events is to show one thing: Trust yourself. Maintain your integrity. And you will be successful.
The film adaptation volume never made any money, though it is still popular in many classrooms around the world. And perhaps an even better testimony, the book is still in print. But I didn't do that project for ego, not even for tenure. I did it because I knew I could use it as a mechanism to help others move forward in their lives. And I was right. Even years later, the proof of that effort is before me. Recently, given ALL that happened in 2009, I am attempting to once again trust myself. I am attempting to maintain my integrity. The offer to edit a book series is HUGE. I would LOVE the job. We'll see how that evolves--but I can say this: No matter how it evolves, I will not act against myself--that's where my integrity comes in. That's where your integrity comes in. How can you trust ANYONE who acts, often willingly, against their own best interests? You must know that such individuals will eventually act against yours as well. While it seems elementary, the distraction of ego, the confusion of ambition, the pull to make money--all can make what seems to be a natural constant, shift out of focus. What is that constant? You. Me. Everyone. I put in well over a year's worth of efforts to help others with the film adaptation volume (I didn't even have time to author a chapter myself!) but haven't even given close to a year to help myself move forward. How odd. How awful. How lacking in personal integrity. I was too busy chasing artificial goals to notice I had betrayed myself. Think it can't happen to you? Think again.
How is this all related to deciding on a new direction? Well, they say your past is your future, your future, your past. Whoever the mythic "they" are, matters not. "They" are still right. If you have begun to feel like all you're doing is treading water, or spinning in circles, or running on a gerbil's wheel--you've most likely gotten yourself stuck in this pattern of self-betrayal for what you belive is the "greater good." I'm here to tell you there is NO greater good than learning to help yourself first and foremost. It's not easy to do. Though that might sound counterintuitive, trusting yourself and maintaining your integrity take a kind of courage and imagination that is simply not encouraged any longer in larger society. I think that's why I liked academia so much, oddly enough. In some ways, though conformity is mandatory (even if many academics believe themselves to be inclusive and unique--it's the irony of the "ivory tower" that everyone is the same in their "uniqueness"...), you also have a kind of autonomy to pursue what you wish--you get to maintain some of your integrity, some of yourself. Isn't that good enough? Well, sure it is. But "good enough" will come back to haunt you someday. I've met that day over and over and over again. I've always been afraid to truly trust myself, to truly maintain my integrity, and, sadly, to truly be successful. I have been holding myself back in the name of others, and my "new direction" alluded in the title is to attempt to actually put myself first.
That doesn't mean I won't be helping others; I need to help others to exist, and so do we all. But it does mean that I will be following Aristotle's advice at long last: I will be selfish first, giving second. I don't mean selfish with the negative connotation the word is often given, but selfish in that I will put my own goals as a priority now. There is nothing wrong with that. But as a woman, as a nurturer, as a mother, I've been trained to prioritize others over myself--the chemicals in my own brain betray me! But that's why I have a brain. To differentiate. To determine. To diligently work for myself, and then, others.
Whatever your direction in 2010, I wish you all the best of luck. I hope you can meet this year with positive echoes from your past, as well as positive glimpses of your future. Keep writing! Keep reading! And most importantly, keep yourself as a priority...and your success is sure to follow.
Until next time....