We are all Egyptians: Writing on the Square

We Are All Egyptians: Writing on the Square

Egypt is in the square.

–author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Charlie Rose

I just watched the most moving interview I’ve ever seen: Charlie Rose interviewing Thomas Friedman in Cairo about the revolution. It had tremendous immediacy and even more hope.

Predicting what will happen is impossible, but Friedman sees what’s happening as a growing, authentic, bottom-up revolution involving all parts of Egyptian society from the poor to the wealthy, demonstrating in Tahrir Square. No one is controlling the revolution, and no one knows where it’s going, but for that reason, it’s the most amazing, exciting event on the planet. The revolution is being televised around the world. If you’re not an oppressor, you’re in the square cheering for freedom, holding up humorous signs, helping ot prevent violence, and reading the newspaper the protesters publish.

After I wrote these words,  Mubarak stepped down! The people won! What a victory for Egypt and for humanity! It’s the fourth of July in Liberation Square. (Tahrir means liberation.) It will inspire oppressed people everywhere, including the United States.

If the revolution leads to democracy, it will be one of history’s greatest moments. Who knows what other countries will throw off their oppressors?

Overthrowing an autocrat who had been ruling for thirty years in eighteen days with relatively few casualties. Hope without government is better than government without hope, but let us hope that America’s example will help Egyptians make the transition to the democratic government for which they’re struggling. The military has vowed to help ensure an election that reflects the will of the people.

Watch the interview if you can, but prepare to shed a tear. Friedman quoted the president of Stanford Research Institute who said that “What comes from the top is dumb and slow; what comes from the bottom is smart and chaotic.” But it’s also authentic.

As Egypt reinvents itself, now is an opportunity for you to think about how you can liberate and reinvent yourself so you’re living in harmony with the only person you were born to be. If you have to, start your own revolution.

What’s coming up from your bottom? What revolution do you need in how you think about yourself, your life, and your future? People and institutions tend to change only when change is less painful than the status quo. But yo don’t have to wait until then.

Your revolution probably won’t have to have anything to do with politics, although everything, including doing nothing, is political. But it should have everything to do with being the best writer and author you can be by serving your readers as well as you can. That’s all you can do, but it’s enough.

The revolution has unleashed a torrent of repressed creativity. May it do as much for you. It’s time to join the Egyptians in the square, which, for the moment, is the Earth’s beating heart. Find the authentic center of your life and celebrate being alive.

The Big Bang Theory of Writing, Publishing and Technology

The new frontier lies not beyond the planets, but within each one of us.

–Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Biodynamics

Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor.

–historian Arnold Toynbee

There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate….[We need parents who] elevate learning at the most important life skill.

–Thomas Friedman, New York Times (11/21)

Critical thinking, problem-solving, communicating effectively, and collaborating; all essential skills for writers as well as students. And if learning is the most important life skill, writers have to be perpetual students as well as teachers.

Technology’s Gifts to Writers

The ability to string words together that have the desired effect is a gift as well as a craft. Writing that delivers the value the author intended is a gift to readers worth more than what, if anything, they pay to read it. But technology is also giving priceless gifts to writers, among them the opportunities to

  • learn about anything on the Web instantly.
  • keep up to the minute on new developments.
  • write about more subjects. 
  • making your work immediately accessible to readers around the world.
  • find agents and publishers.
  • promote and profit from your work and your services in a grow number of ways.
  • communicate in the media your audience prefers.
  • collaborate with people around the world.
  • create and maintain communities of writers, fans, and people to help you.
  • accomplish these things without leaving your desk.

How to Thrive in a New Universe

The advent of technology was the Big Bang of a new universe that continues to voyage outward at an accelerating rate. Nobody’s in charge of it; no one knows where it’s going; and no one understands what it means. Publishing is a rapidly spinning planet in the media galaxy of that universe.

What does this mean to you as a writer? How can you plan a future that’s as full of uncertainty as it is opportunity? What do you need to do and have to thrive as a writer?

You need to

  • develop the crafts of writing, storytelling, and communicating online and off.
  • have literary, publishing, and financial goals that keep you passionate and motivated.
  • be a contentpreneur who keeps generating new work, balances commerce and creativity, is responsive to the markeplace, and takes responsibility for your success.
  • keep figuring out the fastest, most productive ways to use technology.
  • build the communities you need.
  • build your visibility while test-marketing your books.
  • promote your work and yourself.
  • stay committed to your future.

What an exciting time to be alive! Discover your future on the frontier of your unexplored potential. Find the stories and ideas that you must share with your unique voice, and give them to the world. And endowed with the gifts technology provides, you will thrive in this amazing new universe.

The Eighth San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / President’s Day Weekend, February 18-20, 2011 / Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel on Nob Hill / Keynoters: Dorothy Allison & David Morrell / Pitch your book to agents and editors from both coasts / More than 50 breakout sessions / 100 presenters / Indie Publishing Contest / www.sfwriters.org  / [email protected] / blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog / twitter: @SFWC /
facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/San-Francisco-Writers-Conference/112732798786104 / free MP3s at sfwriters.info / open to anyone: a day of in-depth classes on Monday, February 21st

New! San Francisco Writers University: Where Writers Meet and You Learn, a project of the San Francisco Writers Conference / Laurie McLean, Dean /  www.sfwritersu.com / [email protected]

Anything is Possible: A Cause for Thanksgiving

There are only two ways of telling the complete truth–anonymously and posthumously.

–author and economist Thomas Sowell

A writer on a science fiction panel once observed that after Philip K. Dick died, the sales of his books shot up, so for him, death was a good career move.

There’s a trend toward shorter books with shorter chapters because they’re cheaper to buy and more important, faster to read. So what chance could a 500,000-word, 736-page, four-pound, $35 autobiography, published by a university press and written by a dead man who had never done anything heroic or barbarous have to succeed? Enough if the man was Mark Twain, who insisted that the book not be published until he was dead for a century.

U.C. Press did a first printing of 50,000 copies, an ambitious number, considering the state of the business. But Autobiography of Mark Twain reached the number two position on the New York Times bestseller list. An article in the Times (11/20) noted that even with 275,000 copies in print after six printings, booksellers couldn’t get their hands on all the copies they wanted. UC Press has its printer turning out 30,000 copies a week to try to meet the demand.

Women buy, read, edit, and agent more books than men, but one reason for the book’s success is that it’s an appealing gift for men that makes the giver look good. The book is at the happy intersection of history, biography, and autobiography, all wrapped up in the life and times of one of America’s greatest writers. Advance publicity and excerpts in magazines helped as did Twain’s wit, insight, and relevance.  Also, it’s a nonlinear book readers can dip into and read as much of as they have time for.

It’s reassuring to know that anything is possible, that the unexpected can still happen. And when a book merits its success, it restores my faith that if a book is good enough, it will find its audience no matter how it’s published. For the second of the three-volume set, maybe UC Press could get Twain to tour and Tweet. Now that would really be a good career move. 

I hope you have enough reasons to keep writing and to have a happy Thanksgiving weekend.

The Eighth San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / President’s Day Weekend, February 18-20, 2011 / Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel on Nob Hill / Keynoters: Dorothy Allison & David Morrell / Pitch your book to agents and editors from both coasts / More than 50 breakout sessions / 100 presenters / www.sfwriters.org  / [email protected] / blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog  / free MP3s at sfwriters.info / open to anyone: a day of in-depth classes on Monday, February 21st

New! San Francisco Writers University: Where Writers Meet and You Learn, a project of the San Francisco Writers Conference / Laurie McLean, Dean /  www.sfwritersu.com

Why Writers Won the Election in a Landslide

“Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are offering voters the kind of change that they seem so desperately to want…. They long for leaders with a clear and compelling vision of a better America and a road map for getting there.

“Neither party is…offering a bold, coherent plan…to reinvigorate the can-do spirit of America in a way that makes people believe that they are working together toward grand and constructive goals. Great challenges demand great leaders. Marian Anderson once said, ‘Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it….’

“Real leadership will have to come from…outside of Washington….America’s can-do spirit can be revived, and with it a brighter vision of a fairer, more inclusive, and more humane society….The loudest message from Tuesday’s election is that the people themselves need to do much more.”

–Bob Herbert, the New York Times, 11/4/10

Writers won a mandate for change in the election. Filling the vacuum for leadership by writing for change is the greatest opportunity you will ever have. Whether you’re writing prose or poetry, short or long, for love or money; whether you’re being the light or reflecting that of others, you can use your passion and vision to make a difference.  

As a writer, you have four opportunities to be creative:

  • how you write: expressing your ideas in a fresh, exciting way
  • how you conceptualize your work: creating titles and subject lines that convince readers to read what follows them
  • how you build a community of believers: building a constituency for your ideas and forging a community of allies to widen the ripples you create in the information stream
  • how you communicate with your communities: using as many media as you can, as tirelessly as you can, and integrating your efforts for maximum impact

As the saying goes, problems are opportunities in work clothes. They force us to make better lives for ourselves, the other residents of the global village, and the planet. We believe writers may be our best hope for the future. If writers, individually and collectively, don’t fill the leadership vacuum, who will?

Elizabeth and I started the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference to help writers learn about craft, community, and communication. If you want to use your passion for writing and change to help lead America into the future, please join us this weekend.

 The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Writing to Make a Difference / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: million-copy selling authors Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

Saving Your Self for Yourself

Did you hear about the proposed merger of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? The new company is going to be called You Twit Face!

In an insightful article in the New York Times Sunday magazine (8/1), Peggy Orenstein, author of the fall book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, wrote about Twitter. At her publisher’s urging, she is trying to raise an army of tweeple to help promote her book. She feels that tweeting about one’s personal life to please others makes us actors in a reality TV show.

She enjoys Twitter’s “infinite potential for connection” and the “opportunity for self-expression.” But she writes: “The risk of the performance culture, of the packaged self, is that it erodes the very relationships it purports to create and alienates us from our own humanity.”

When the world shares our personal and professional lives, what becomes of privacy and intimacy? This conflict will be the basis for thousands of fiction and nonfiction books. But it brings up the challenge of separating “person and persona, the public and private self.” You can appreciate this tension as a source for writing, but how do you forge and maintain two lives—one online that’s personal and professional, and one that’s private, that’s yours and you share only with those closest to you?

Creating a Living and a Life

A song from  A Chorus Line, which is about actors auditioning for a show,  begins: “Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” There are more ways to live, write, and get published than ever. (There’s a book to be done about the vast range of lifestyles we have to choose from.) Who you are determines the choices you make, and they become part of your identity.

As a writer, you need to be able to adapt faster than ever in response to changes in culture, technology, the economy, and the growing number of options you have as a writer as your craft, promotability, and career grow.

Out of this large evolving melange of possibilities, you have to continue to figure out who you are clearly enough to create a living and a life. And you don’t have a moment to waste. Devote your time to developing your talents, skills, knowledge, and relationships. You will need them.

Life, like art, consists of drawing the line somewhere. Good thing writers always have a pen handy. May fate elevate you from the literary chorus line to a starring role, yet enable you to disappear as soon as you leave the theater. Become a bestselling author, if that’s your goal. But if you do, you’ll need a private life even more.

(My thanks to our brilliant colleague, Laurie McLean–www.agentsavant.com–for passing on the humor at the beginning of this post.)

The 30-Year Overnight Sensation

You will never have to worry about a steady income.

–an unwittingly prophetic message I received in a fortune cookie that’s as accurate for  writers as it is for literary agents

Last weekend, Elizabeth and I spoke at the Central Valley Writers’ Conference in Oakhurst. Selden Edwards, a 67-year-old retired schoolmaster, told the remarkable story of how his literary first novel, The Little Book, went from nowhere to the New York Times bestseller list.

The book is a  time-travel story set in San Francisco in 1988 and Vienna  in 1897. What’s remarkable about it is that Selden worked on it for more than thirty years, the longest period of time I’ve ever heard someone working on a novel. Blessed with a steady income, Selden keep rewriting it and submitting it, but couldn’t get an agent or publisher interested. He couldn’t even get feedback on the novel.

But then, luck and four linked relationships led to bestsellerdom. Through publicist Milt Kahn, a friend in Santa Barbara with whom Selden plays basketball, he found out about freelance editor and publishing veteran Patrick Lo Brutto. Selden said the manuscript was 80% done when it got to Lo Brutto. Pat and Selden worked on it for a year, and by the end of it, Selden said it was 90%.

Pat is a scout for the Trident Media Group, a literary agency in New York. He suggested that Selden send the manuscript to Scott Miller at Trident. Less than a week later, Miller called saying that he had to represent the book. Scott submitted it to senior editor Ben Sevier at Dutton, and four days later, received an offer in the “high six figures.”

Ben and Selwen worked on the manuscript for six more months to get it to 100%. With a significant promotional commitment from Dutton, The Little Book went on to become a New York Times bestseller. The second book, in what will be a trilogy, is in the works.

Selden’s story is proof that if you keep learning from your mistakes, find the help you need, and persevere, you will succeed. One thing’s for sure: It won’t take you as long as it took him. So keep at it and keep in mind the words of the sage who said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”