Having finally surfaced from final grades, I had a chance to catch up with long-lingering E-mails (the lower priority kind), and headed over to his blog to check out a new post by Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby. CD Baby distributes music for independent artists, and is one of the real innovators in the industry–and since they make a habit of not screwing over the independent musician, they’re one of the good guys as well. So in a way it didn’t surprise me that Sivers decided to write about self-reliance…again. Even though he’s no longer connected to CD Baby, he’s made a habit of creating something out of nothing, so seeing something like “Nobody’s going to help you. It’s all up to you.” is pretty much par for the course. It’s the next line that packs a wallop:
“Does hearing that discourage you or motivate you?”
Uh…hmm. I guess choosing option 1 would make me a pessimist, huh?
Of course, Sivers is talking about music…but I think the parallels to the writing career, and attitudes therein, are obvious. We’re told on a daily basis that self-reliance is the key…no one will help us, so it’s up to us to help ourselves. There’s a certain comfort in this point of view, actually, since it means that our success and failure is entirely up to us. Work hard enough, goes the narrative, and success will inevitably follow. The unpublished authors are the ones who stopped trying to get published, right? And the entire American message is about working harder to achieve more, anyway, so it all fits.
But perhaps the reason I’m not jumping for joy at the thought that no one cares about me but me is that I’m not sure it’s true–or desirable. There’s no doubt that one has to work hard to succeed in this business…exceptionally hard. (Although whether one has to work harder than, say, someone in the Peace Corps is an open question, I think…when’s the last time you saw someone talk about a given profession and not claim it was harder than splitting the atom in your basement? They can’t all redefine the word “difficult,” can they?) But I don’t know if it follows that you don’t get a great deal of help along the way, and not all of it sought. I met the editor for The Third Sign at Gen Con a few years ago attending a panel. Why was I there? Because friends of ours pushed and prodded my wife and me to go, and we finally agreed. Three years later, here I am looking over cover art and double-checking galley proofs of my manuscript. Now in fairness, I did have to go to the panel, and introduce myself, and follow up, and revise, and of course write a good book to begin with! But the point is that the contact was at least partly made thanks to people other than me giving me suggestions and supporting my attempts to follow them. You can’t succeed entirely on your own.
And even if you could, I don’t see what would make that a positive thing. A lot of people commenting on Sivers’ post seem to be practically gleeful about doing things on their own. “To hear that no one will help me but me is VERY encouraging,” Ray Quarles gushes. “To be reminded that I am responsible for my own successes and failures is very empowering. To give that personal power away to anyone else is to diminish myself.” Wow. I guess I never thought of getting help from people to be, you know, a diminishing experience…
Now of course, self-reliance is an important trait for a lot of professions…and for writing it’s critical, since writers have to operate on self-imposed deadlines and self-promote like crazy, at least to a point. But to take that a step further, and revel in an entirely solitary professional existence, seems to me to be over the top. Even worse, it contributes to the worrisome trend of everyone screaming “look everyone, look at me, I have something to say!”…which has the effect, of course, of making it ever more difficult to hear anyone individually.
So sure, rely on yourself; you need to be willing to go along much of this route on your own. But don’t forget to reach out to others while you’re on the way. No one is an island…and there’s no shame in working together to get off the island. In fact I can’t think of anything more, er, encouraging than that.