Encouraging an author in the heat of battle

Because I have designed a lot of books and written several as well, I get a steady stream of outreach from friends, acquaintances, creatives of all stripes, who are in various stages of wrestling a manuscript into being. They may be looking for ways to get published, or they may have questions about design, production, pricing. Sometimes they are just in need of reassurance. These conversations are among the richest things in my life.

I recently had an email exchange with a friend who has written a monumental work. It will not be the next Harry Potter, but it is a very ambitious and captivating biography that will be in print for a hundred years at least. He wrote to me to ask my opinion about input from his editor. The editor’s comments were very professional, and they boiled down to her discomfort with his book not fitting any of the genres that publishers like.

I share my thoughts to him in case they can help other creators wrestling with works in progress.

Dear George: I received your editor’s comments. Having read your manuscript, I can see where she gets the genre bending nature of your work. There is something in the human perceptual apparatus that cannot stand unclassified inputs. Confronted with something new, our Lymbic brain immediately wants to clump it with other similar things it finds in memory—even of it shares only very superficial similarities. You can guage the originality of a new work in part by the comments. Great reviews—probably good but not original. No reviews at all, probably a dog. Terrible reviews that are all over the place, hang on to your hat, you may have something original! Our human brains want new things in a box of some sort, otherwise our little brains will hurt from being stretched.

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson doesn’t talk about the pain involved, but it’s there. Genres, templates, comparisons are of course necessary for creating catalogs, engineering software, teaching courses on related subjects. For us on the wet end of creation, however, we can’t be distracted by what genre we fit. We have to do what the work demands of us. You can’t win a race looking only in the rear view mirror — you can glance at the RV but you mostly have to stay hyper focused on the road ahead. It is our job, in some sense or another, to make other people’s brains stretch. People rioted after the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Why? It was so original, it was painful. The audiences’ nervous systems couldn’t find any kind of existing mental box for it. Yet today it’s acknowledged as one of the most original and influential works of the last century.

So, dear George, your stated goal is to broaden the appeal of your biographical subject’s philosophy. Your strategy is to tell his life story in the fullest possible context. Your tactic is to interweave stories — some supported by fact, others by intuition — that bring the inspiring man back to life. That is, to my mind, a perfectly fine narrative structure.

There is a monster in Greek mythology, Procrustes. Mr. Procrustes would waylay travelers and lay them down on his bed. If they were longer than his bed, Mr. P. would cut off their feet to make them fit. If they were shorter, Mr. P. would put them on a rack and stretch them to fit. Literary genres are the Procrustean bed of creative writing. Steer clear of that monster and continue on to your destination!

Stay the course; I think you have the balance of fact and imagination well in hand. There are many other highly successful biographies which migrate between fact and imagination, that you could use for comparison, Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hesse’s Siddhartha, and Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy come to mind. I suspect none of them fit a publishing genre of their day.

“I am for richness of expression over clarity of expression… I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.” — Robert Venturi

I should emphasize again that I am not against genres per se, they are useful for grouping culture and organizing catalogs. They make the rear view mirror clearer. They just don’t have much to do with enlarging the possibilities of human expression. For more information about George’s (yet unpublished but excellent project, go here)

David Laufer is Managing Partner of BrandBook LLC, an Atlanta based design firm specializing in branding for expertise-based enterprises. He’s a past president of the National Investor Relations Institute, and a founding trustee of the Atlanta chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design. He currently serves as a design consultant to the government of Indonesia and has more than 100 branding programs to his credit. His book Dialogues with Creative Legends, published in English by Pearson in 2013, also debuted in a Chinese edition in spring 2015. @Dav1dLaufer

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