Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Q & A with Roger Greenwald, Poet and Literary Translator of Gunnar Harding

ROGER GREENWALD
POET AND TRANSLATOR
Photo by Alf Magne Heskja 
 
I got poet Roger Greenwald on my radar when we crossed paths at last year's American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference in Milwaukee [see my post Why Translate?], and I began to read his gorgeous latest translation, Guarding the Air: Selected Poems of Gunnar Harding. (Greenwald's latest book, actually, is Slow Mountain Train, more about that after the Q & A. Important point: I have always believed, for it has always been my experience, that the best literary translators are poets.)

Gunnar Harding, a jazz musician, painter, essayist and a translator himself, is one of Sweden's leading poets. Surely Harding is one of Sweden's most prolific as well; Greenwald has selected numerous poems from more than a dozen of his books. Strange, witty and jazzy, Harding's poems wing from the moon's Sea of Tranquility to nickels in a jukebox ("Rebel without a Cause").  



Gunnar Harding,
Swedish literary legend

> Visit Greenwald's webpage for the book, which includes some of the poems and a video of the launch, here

> Read the review by Christine Roe for Words Without Borders. "Spanning a lifetime of poetry, Guarding the Air pays homage to tragically under-translated Swedish literary legend"


> Gunnar Harding on Swedish Wikipedia

(Note: I really do not approve of Wikipedia, but could not find much else on Gunnar Harding. Caveat emptor.)



Q & A with Roger Greenwald, poet and translator of Swedish poet Gunnar Harding


ROGER GREENWALD attended The City College of New York and the Poetry Project workshop at St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, then completed graduate degrees at the University of Toronto. His poetry has appeared in such journals as The World, Pequod, Pleiades, Poetry East, Prism International, The Spirit That Moves Us, The Texas Observer, Great River Review, and Leviathan Quarterly. He has won two Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Literary Awards (poetry and travel literature) and has published two books of poems: Connecting Flight from Williams-Wallace in Toronto and in April 2015, Slow Mountain Train, from Tiger Bark Press in Rochester, New York.

C.M. MAYO: In a sentence, why should readers pick up this book?

ROGER GREENWALD: This selection spans the whole career of a major poet whose work is accessible and appealing– and also strong in both idea and feeling.

C.M. MAYO: What prompted you to translate this work?

ROGER GREENWALD: I was given a book from Harding’s middle period many years ago and found in it some moving poems that seemed unlike those of other Swedish or Scandinavian poets. The work showed a certain amount of American influence, but also had features that derived from Harding’s background as a painter and a jazz musician. Anselm Hollo described Harding’s poetry as “a tapestry that is musical as well as visual — humorous, bluesy, and always compassionate.” The tapestry analogy is apt because there are often several motifs or threads of imagery that run through a poem, gain additional shades of meaning as they interact and converge, and in the end add up to a picture that is more than the sum of its parts.

C.M. MAYO: What were the challenges for you as a translator?

ROGER GREENWALD: First I had to understand each poem in depth, of course, and in this case that meant understanding not only the language and the “argument,” but a broad range of allusions to other literary works, paintings, recorded music, places, people, and so on. (I’ve put pointers to these in endnotes.)  

The biggest challenge, as always, was to write in English poems that had something like the voice and the music of the source. People assume that it is easier to translate poems written in a colloquial voice than to translate work full of neologisms, broken syntax, word play, and other notoriously “tough” features. But the fact is that those features give a translator license to be creative and sometimes to sound “strange”; whereas to translate a whole book in a colloquial voice, getting the literal sense and the line units and the music right while never once sounding odd or “translated” is just as hard or harder.

C.M. MAYO: What advice would you offer others who might consider undertaking a poetry translation?

ROGER GREENWALD: Translate into your native language. If you’re not doing that, you need to collaborate with a poet whose native language is the target language. Try to live for at least a year in the country that your poet and his or her language come from. Read not just the major works from that country’s literature, but some of what children read in school years, like fairy tales. Get to know some of the art and music. Watch TV and listen to radio. And ask a lot of questions, especially about the language, its idioms, its peculiarities. When you start understanding friends’ jokes, stand-up comics, and locally made comedy films, you will know your cultural immersion has worked.

C.M. MAYO: As a member of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), can you talk about what the benefits have been for you as a translator?

ROGER GREENWALD: The greatest benefits have come from sharing knowledge and experiences with other translators. Seeing and hearing their work and discussing how they approached certain texts gave me useful insights into practice. But it was also important to learn about how to navigate relationships with authors and their publishers, how to find suitable potential English-language publishers, how to present work to those, and how to avoid getting burned by unfair contracts. Simply hearing, in the Bilingual Reading series at ALTA conferences, a great range of usually unpublished work, some of it still in progress, has been an ongoing source of delight and inspiration. 

And beyond that, it’s worth saying that literary translators have to be some of the most interesting people in the world, with extremely diverse backgrounds, experiences of foreign cultures, and knowledge of wonderful writers who are little known in English, even if their work has been translated and published. So it has been great to get to know my fascinating colleagues!

C.M. MAYO: Are there are other associations you would recommend?

ROGER GREENWALD: None that I belong to. But I have had it in mind for some time to look into the Authors Guild, because it is focused on advocating for fair treatment of authors and translators. And this seems to be an issue of growing concern as digital media undermine publishing revenue, and as companies like Amazon demand deep discounts and exert downward pressure on the sale price of both paper and electronic books.

[C.M.: See my post Shout-out for the Authors Guild.]

C.M. MAYO: Where can readers find a copy of this book? 

ROGER GREENWALD: I’m happy to say that the publisher of Guarding the Air has excellent worldwide distribution. So readers can buy it directly from the press at www.blackwidowpress.com (choose "Modern Poets" or use Search); they can order it through any independent bookseller they care to support; or they can buy it on line from Amazon or Barnes & Noble

It’s also worth remembering that readers can ask their public library or their college library to acquire the book.


+ + + + + + + + + + 

+ + + + + + + + + + 

From Roger Greenwald's new book of poems, Slow Mountain Train:













Monday, June 22, 2015

Cyberflanerie: Western Digs: Dispatches from the Ancient American West

A new website on my radar: Western Digs, by veteran science journalist Blake de Pastino

Just a few of the many fascinating troves of information (some of them gruesome) in there:


Megafloods Spurred Collapse of Ancient City of Caokia, New Study Finds
Infamous Mass Grave of Young Women in Ancient Cahokia Also Holds Men: Study
Evidence of Hobbling, Torture Discovered at Ancient Massacre Site in Colorado
From Stone Darts to Dismembered Bodies, New Study Reveals 5,000 Years of Violence in Central California

Earliest Evidence of Gigantism-Like Disease Found in 3,800 Year Old California Skeleton (Interestingly, the Indians of Baja California told their missionary that the rock art had been made from "giants" who came from "the north." Read a bit about that in an excerpt from my book, Miraculous Air.)

Hallucinogenic Plants May Be Key to decoding Ancient Southwestern Paintings, Expert Says
 What Really Killed the Dinosaurs? (10 minute video) (A more complicated story than one might have thought... yes, includes Chikxulub... but also the prior volcanic eruptions of the Deccan Traps and massive marine regressions)


My own interest is in the Trans-Pecos region of Far West Texas (more about the book-in-progress here). 

In case you missed it, my podcast interview (with transcript) with Greg Williams, Executive Director of the Rock Art Foundation, is here

Plus here is a batch of brief videos of some of the rock art sites in the Lower Pecos and elsewhere along the US-Mexico border, as well as other sites in the Trans-Pecos.

> Your comments are always welcome.

Friday, June 19, 2015

IBPA 's "Publishing University" 2015: My Notes on Four Outstanding Talks on Selling Books, Making Books, Metadata, and Video— and a Felicitous Observation





No, as an author I'm not all jumping-jacks about self-publishing publishers can and, on many an occasion, actually do provide important added-value to a book. (My own have been published by Grijalbo-Random House Mondadori, Literal Publishing, Milkweed Editions, Planeta, Unbridled Books, University of Georgia Press, University of Utah Press,  and Whereabouts Press whew, that list is as much a testimony to the diverse genres of my books as to the tumult in the publishing industry.) But as I noted in this previous blog post, the light flashed on for me when I realized, no matter what happens with my future books, because I have self-published several ebook editions and the print-on-demand paperback, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution, and because digital bookshelf space is marginal cost zero 24/7 (in other words, click, it's in the store, and nothing digital is going out of print anytime soon), for the rest of my natural life, I will always play some role, whether large or minuscule, as my own publisher. And towards that end, I realized, it would behoove me to figure out, or rather, continue trying to figure out what the heck I'm doing. Over the past few years, for my imprint, Dancing Chiva, I've explored my way around a good part of this newfangled digital labyrinth (PODsKindles, iBooks). But of course, there is always more to learn; publishing is a fast-changing game. 

Ergo, I signed up for the Independent Book Publishers Association's 2 day 2015 seminar "Publishing University"It was, in two words, Austinesquely fabulastic.

Herewith may they serve you or someone you know my notes:


1. How Books Sell 
The keynote at lunch was by Peter Hildick-Smith, CEO of Codex Group, on "How Books Sell." I was encouraged to hear that this veteran of the publishing business, who's crunched more than a few truckloads of numbers, believes that "there is a lot of untapped potential in this industry." [My comment: Crowd pleasingly encouraging! I confess, this prompted evil thoughts about Pet Rocks.]

Hildick-Smith said there are three pillars to selling a new book, and you must have all three:

(1) Discovery (Readers are aware of the book) 
(2) Conversion (They decide to buy it)
(3) Availability (It is available to buy when, where and how buyers want it)

On Discovery

+Most people, when thinking about how to sell a book, conflate discovery with conversion. 
+The vast majority of book buyers are not even aware of best-selling authors! 
+Internet promotions (via email, social media, free Kindles, etc) has "generated a lot of low quality discoverability." 
+Analog publicity remains very effective. The quality of discoverability is key. 
+The book needs to get rated. But books must be read before they can be rated. Therefore offering free ebooks as a way to improve discoverability is low quality. 
+ The discoverability source affects 5 star ratings.

On Conversion

+Many times there is a disconnect here. There is no conversion to sales without discovery. "Conversion" is not about liking, it is about acting actually deciding to buy the book.
+Statistics show that the author series brand is the biggest factor. In other words, author brand is key. Ergo, best-sellers are dominated by brand authors. Their fans are 15 x more
Notice that HarperCollins added
"author of Bel Canto"
likely to buy their favorite authors and to give more favorable reviews. "Brand author" = 500,000 fans or more. 
+An author brand is a "rare and valuable asset" but this is not the same as "being famous." Lots of famous and even belovedly famous people publish books that tank. 
+Readers do not always connect the author with the title of the book. In other words, they may love the book but not remember who wrote it. Key: if the author wrote a book with a recognizable title, it makes a difference to add "Author of XYZ," to the cover. 

[My comment: As a reader, yes, it does influence me to learn that the author is also the author of a book I have read and loved, but mainly when I am browsing in a brick-and-mortar bookstore; on a screen, I have to squint to read that line of text. I plucked out this example, of Ann Patchett's Run, see image right. The simple design with large font size for the author name and title works well for viewing on a screen. It also says, "bestselling author of Bel Canto," though that looks like a mushy blur on my iPhone.]


Hildick-Smith then gave a slide show of a study on buyers' reactions to alternative book covers. Oftentimes it was the ineptly designed books that performed better (!!) And it rarely worked to have the author's face on the cover, even when that author is both famous and attractive.

[My comment: my notes become a bit thin at this point. He went into a lot of detail about the elements of cover design.]

On Availability

The speaker ran out of time, alas, before he could delve into this topic, but I don't think many in audience minded because his slide show about book covers was so entertaining and full of practical advice.
[My comment re availability: yep, it drives me bananas when I visit an author's website, decide to buy the book, but then cannot find a link to buy.] 

Sum up: 

+Be bold, stand out; 
+books are an extreme niche business; publish for the untapped 85 million buyers; +recommendations can take 6 months to deliver; 
+brand authors are a massive sales factor; 
+it's not one size fits all; 
+a book's message is a mini-story that must connect; 
+brick-and-mortar bookstores remain the the largest discovery source, not amazon.com; +to sell books, you must have discoverability and convertibility and availability.

2. The Art of Making Books

Tim Hewitt, sales rep for Friesens, gave an excellent and fascinating talk about the elements of a traditionally printed book. 

I didn't take elaborate notes on this one, but I was delighted that he could answer my question, Why is the POD (print-on-demand) paperback so much heavier than an offset-printed similar sized book? I have two editions of my book in Spanish, one printed in the U.S. as a POD under my own imprint, Dancing Chiva, the other offset printed (traditionally printed) in Mexico by Literal Publishing. The editions are the same design and size (only a couple of centimeters of difference), but the Literal Publishing edition is both nicer and substantially lighter weight. 

Hewitt's answer was that the machinery for PODs requires heavier paper, but with offset printing, you can go with lighter weight but still thick paper, which saves money on paper and shipping, and also maintains spine width. 


[My comment: It occurred to me at this point that if one has a large enough review copy campaign, because of savings on both shipping and postage, it could make sense to print the review copies traditionally, even if the bulk of sales are expected to be POD via amazon and other online booksellers. Well, of course, that's a question of plugging in the numbers at the time.] 


Hewitt emphasized that, before deciding on your paper, it is key to understand, who is your target audience / the end user of your book? 


[My comment: For my latest book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish translation Odisea metafisica hacia la Revolución Mexicana, the answer is, primarily students, Mexicophiles, and scholars. That means a good-looking but affordable and easy-to-find paperback edition available on amazon (and on various other booksellers sourced from Ingram). However, in Mexico, where fewer book buyers buy online, this means a traditionally published paperback available in major urban bookstores, hence the Literal Publishing edition. (A hardcover edition for libraries? I'm working on it. Yes, the Kindle edition is already out.)] 


Hewitt also fielded several questions from members of the audience who were concerned about environmental impact of the printing industry. The Friesen's website has a page dedicated to that very subject, with some surprising information.


[My comment: It's a mistake to assume digital editions have zero environmental impact. It's also a mistake to assume digital means immortal; in fact, digital files degrade much faster than acid-free paper. I've already had some files and software from the late 90s turn into garbage. Sometimes, dagnabbit, paper is superior.]




3. Book Metadata from Head to Toe
Laura Dawson of Bowker, the ISBN agency, gave this super chewie talk about ISBNs, Library of Congress numbers, BISAC categories, and best practices.

I googled around and found Dawson's chapter, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Metadata," from High McGuire and Brian O'Leary's Book: A Futurist's Manifesto (O'Reilly), which is better than my notes.


> Book: A Futurist's Manifesto on amazon






4. The Power of Video 
Tanya Hall, CEO of Greenleaf Book Group, gave this riveting talk— it was at the tail-end of this cram-packed conference, so that's saying a lot. 

+ Why video? Discoverability. Video is 52 times more likely to show up on Google search than text results. 


+Video gives a personal connection, humans are drawn to other humans, used right it can increase the trust factor, use it to set tone at events. 

+It's memorable.

Some types of video you might produce: animation, behind-the-scenes., book trailer, expert trailer, a reading, talking heads, daily tip, tutorial


Tips [My comment: I didn't get all of them, I was flagging.]:


+ Subject should face light to avoid being backlit

+ Add your logo to your videos (a watermark or what's called a "bug")

+ Consider a personal message and/or opening

+ Use music to set tone / build emotion

+ Transcribe video content to increase searchability 
[my comment: Jane Friedman convinced me to do transcriptions of my podcasts for this same reason. Transcription, however, is extremely time-consuming and tedious work. If you can afford it, I would recommend hiring someone to do it; nonetheless, you'll still have to go through it yourself and make corrections. Yes, I know about speech recognition software. I tried it out and there was so much gibberish in there, it turned out to be faster, easier, and far more reliable to get it done by a human being. Yes, that may change.] 

+ Commit to a regular schedule 
[My comment: sounds optimal but not necessarily doable... I'd rather be writing...I've committed to regular schedule with this blog, but that's my limit.]

+ Put your video on your website, a video landing page can increase conversion by up to 80 percent. 

+ Participate in the community, comment on other videos on YouTube 
[My comment: sounds optimal but...I'm out of breath just thinking about it...]

+ Upload your video to amazon and goodreads 
[My comment: Yes, that goes on my "to do" list...]

+ Keep it short, 60 seconds if possible 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++



[My general comment on video: I get that it's a powerful medium and I've already invested time in learning how to make brief, edited videos using iMovie. For example, here is my trailer for my novel in Spanish, El último príncipe el Imperio Mexicano:


And here is my minute-and-a-half video about a rock art site, apropos of my book in-progress on Far West Texas:




My current enthusiasm is for making 1- 2 minute edited videos that can work like a step-up from a GIF to illustrate an article / book / blog post although I realize that these don't necessarily help sell books or "go viral," as would, say, a baby moose frolicking in a lawn sprinkler. I do have a couple of longer videos about my latest book on my "to do" list a trailer and a talk about some of the rare esoteric books I consulted, which I'll get to... oh, lala, one of these days-- and maybe sooner rather than later. 

The thing is, making videos is a very different endeavor than writing, and it eats up time for writing. Delegate the video-making to a service or a freelancer? Ouch, that's a bit of a pricey proposition, and frankly, I've been underwhelmed by most of the ones I've seen. (Translation: I'd really rather make my own.)

More importantly, I doubt my readers, current or potential, are those who spend their free hours surfing around on YouTube. 

Do I sound a bit down on video? I do relish learning about the ever-expanding menu of options for marketing books, what others are doing and have found valuable for them. But  book marketing is a bottomless abyss of more, more, always something more one can do. After listening to all the ideas and experiences and whatever data there might be about this or that, one simply has to refocus on one's intentions and priorities, decide what to do and what not to do, and move on.]


5. And a felicitous observation on the emergence of so many new "hybrid" or "independent" publishers

Greenleaf Book Group is one of several new so-called "hybrid" publishers at the seminar, and I am happy to see them because it seemed to me that there was a yawning gap that needed to be filled. On the one hand, there are traditional publishers and on the other, various vanity presses, from CreateSpace to Lulu and all the rest of those that publish anyone and everyone and their uncle's chinchilla's macaroni recipes. 

What is needed, and so I see from this "Publishing University" seminar is beginning to emerge, is a viable business model that offers not only professional quality editing, design, and marketing, but some curation. So yes, the author does shell out the clams, but his book won't end up swept up with the roaring river of riffraff.

(Put another way: every book is a needle in a haystack, but the smaller the haystack and the nicer the hay, the easier it will be to find it.)

Of course it would be lovely if the author didn't have to pay for anything, and instead received Niagaras of royalties and kowtows from all major bookstores, Oprah, and newspapers of national and international circulation. But the fact is, many books are worthy of readers but, for various reasons, cannot be expected to cover their costs if traditionally published. (University presses take on scholarly and some literary works, but their budgets are increasingly constrained. Oftentimes, to publish a given book they require "underwriting," as they so delicately call the clams, from the author's employer or a foundation.) 

Related to this is the emergence of more accessible a la carte services, including book design, cover design, cataloging and metadata consulting, editing, copyediting, ebook file testing and quality assurance, indexing, and of course, ye olde book marketing. For example, Firebrand TechnologiesTLC Graphics, and Philadelphia-based Parlew Associates are now on my radar.


Another of these "hybrid" or "independent" publishers is poet and novelist Michele Orwin's Bacon Press Books, which has a carefully curated catalog. The latest from Bacon Press Books is the paperback edition of Kate Blackwell's  brilliant collection of short stories, You Won't Remember This, which was originally published in hardcover by the now sadly defunct Southern Methodist University Press. (Buy your football tickets here.)

> Read my Q & A with Michele Orwin here.

> Read Bacon Press Books Q & A with Yours Truly here.



There were more panels I attended, all excellent, and, lacking a robotic avatar, many more I couldn't attend. 

Another benefit was the chance to talk with the various vendors, among them, graphic designers, freelance publicists, editors, and many printers, as well as old friends and workshop students. In addition to Michele Orwin, there were several people from She Writes, including Barbara Stark-Nemon, who took my fiction workshop at the San Miguel Writers Conference, and whose historical novel Even in Darkness is just out; and Denise Camacho, President of Intrigue Publishing. Literary, scholarly, cookbooks, Christian, mystery, history, diet advice, bear attack memoir, marketing how-to participants were publishing an astounding variety of books.

In sum, if you're at all interested in learning about the nuts and bolts of publishing, whether as a small publisher or as a self-publisher, the IBPA's Publishing University is an all-star 2 day conference. Next year, 2016, it will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

> Your comments are always welcome. One of these days I'll get my next newsletter out. You are welcome to sign up for that here.






Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Stephen Woodman's The Mexican Labyrinth


Delighted and honored that Guadalajara-based journalist Stephen Woodman's Mexican Labyrinth has a piece on my latest book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution.

HOW THE TALKING DEAD HELPED FORGE MODERN MEXICO
By Stephen Woodman
June 12, 2015
It is an inconvenient fact for Mexican historians that the “Father of the Revolution” Francisco I. Madero, kept in regular contact with spirits of the dead.
Yet Madero, who served as president from 1911 until his assassination less than two years later, was a deeply committed spiritist and believed he spoke to departed relatives and possibly even former Mexican leaders. Through his practice of mechanical writing, Madero put pen to paper and let invisible beings guide his hand, shakily transcribing words of wisdom from beyond the grave.
With a “Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution,” U.S. novelist and translator C.M. Mayo has written one of the only books to focus on this key aspect of his life.
Featuring the first English translation of his secret work, the “Spiritist Manual,” the book presents Madero’s overview of his own guiding beliefs.
Mayo’s fascinating introduction spreads to 150 pages, with an index that includes everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey, Joseph Smith to Mohandas Gandhi... CONTINUE READING

>Your comments are always welcome.

> More about the book here.  








Monday, June 15, 2015

Two New "Marfa Mondays" Podcast Transcripts: "Charles Angell in the Big Bend" and "Mary Bones on the Lost Art Colony"

You can listen in to all my podcasts anytime, but I know some of you read at a faster clip than you can listen, so I've been posting the transcripts bit by bit. As of last night, new on the website are two more transcripts of Marfa Mondays podcast interviews, both of which provide excellent introduction to the topic at hand, adventure in the Big Bend and the "lost colony"-- of artists who came to this spectacularly scenic region well before Donald Judd.

Marfa Mondays #2 Charles Angell in the Big Bend


"I just love to be in the river. It's like the best seat in the house for the Big Bend, I think. You can see canyon walls. You see desert. You see riparian zones. There's more wildlife there than anywhere else, and even if it's a really, really hot summer day, you can stay cool." [READ MORE]

Listen now





Marfa Mondays #3 Mary Bones on the Lost Art Colony


"Julius Woeltz is my favorite... He was really known as a fine muralist. I think he painted well over 30 murals in his lifetime. He very much was influenced by Rivera and Orozco. He and his very good friend, Xavier González, spent many summers down in Mexico and Mexico City looking at the muralists..." [READ MORE]


Listen now


There will be more Marfa Mondays podcasts until there are 24. The latest, #17, is Under Sleeping Lion: Lonn Taylor in Fort Davis


Your comments are always welcome.










Monday, June 08, 2015

Indian Head in Terlingua, along the US-Mexico Border in the Big Bend of Far West Texas

If you've been following this blog and/or the Marfa Mondays podcasts you know I'm a nut for rock art sites. Indian Head, which I visited back in February of 2013, is one of my favorites. It's only a short drive behind Terlingua's main gas station, but it feels as far away as Mars (and it's that quiet, too).

Here's my mini-clip video, starring my expert guide, Charles Angell (who, by the way, I highly recommend for any adventures on and along the Rio Grande and around the Big Bend).

The soundtrack is courtesy of the phabulous Phizmiz, Ergo, that is.





> Marfa Mondays #2, "Charlie Angell in the Big Bend"

> Marfa Mondays #15, "Gifts of the Ancient Ones: Greg Williams, Executive Director of the Rock Art Foundation, on the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands"

> More of my mini-clip rock art and other Far West Texas videos
(What's a "mini-clip"? It's my term for a very short, edited video-- basically, a pirouette up from a GIF. They're intended to be watchable accompaniments to a text and/or podcast.)

Your comments are always welcome.

Monday, June 01, 2015

So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport

Book Review by C.M. Mayo

So Good They Can't Ignore You:
Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love
By Cal Newport
Grand Central Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978-1455528042


My heart sank when I opened the box from amazon.com. Why had I bought a hardcover edition of what surely must be airport-bookstore-biz-section fluffo? (When I indulge in fluffo it's the cheaper Kindle editions and only for perusing on airplanes, hair salons, and the like). But lo, Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You is a both unusually insightful and practical book.

It's addressed to younger readers, from wannabe movie actors to disgruntled cubicle workers to maybe-biologists-maybe-astrophysicists, but of course I read it as the 50-something literary writer that I am. I've "made it" as a writer, I guess you could say, if only because I'm still at it after having published several books, and every once in a while I get the breeze-at-my-back of a glowing review or an award or an invitation to speak. And I've taught creative writing workshops for over a decade, so I've had many a conversation with beginning writers who want to "follow their passion." In sum, I hereby throw the weight, such as it may be, of my career and experience behind Cal Newport's Rule #1: Don't Follow Your Passion.

That may sound strange, for I am passionate about what I do. In a sentence: passion isn't enough because it will never be enough. (And as any writer, or any artist, passionate about their work can tell you, some days are just head-banging torture.) When beginning writers say they have passion for writing, methinks what they really have passion for is their idea of being a writer, which is as different as the first date with the dorm hottie from celebrating a 30th wedding anniversary.

So if it isn't necessarily following your passion, what describes "great work"? According to Newport, it involves creativity; it has impact; and you're in control. 

Hmm... sounds like writing.


Rule #2: Be So Good They Can't Ignore You 
Newport argues that "the craftsman mindset is the foundation for creating work you love." Certainly that has been true for me. I could retail a hundred stories of beginning writers who couldn't weather their first workshop. They come in with the notion that you have talent or you don't, so they're resentful, even deeply angry when the workshop leader and other students don't shower their manuscript with lotus petals of praise, and they're quick to conclude: I don't have talent, I give up. They don't think: I need to get some skills in the craft of writing. Ah, how rare that is. And the impulse is one of generosity. Writes Newport:


"Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people people approach their working lives."
(Which, I guess, is why most people begrudge their boss / customers the minimum and spend the balance of their days in the Gulag Architelevisiono.)

Newport continues:
"[The craftsman mindset] asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is 'just right.' and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career... you need to earn it and the process won't be easy."

Newport then provides a checklist of jobs to avoid: Those that do not provide opportunities to develop rare and valuable skills (e.g., working on a frozen foods packing plant's conveyor belt isn't going to cut it); those that provide a good or service you think is bad for the world; those where you have to work with people you really don't like. 

That still leaves a wide open world, for many. The point is, if you're fortunate enough to have a choice in where and with whom you work, and you want to find work you love, choose the job that enables you to develop a rare and valuable skill, and then this is crucialproceed to actually do that. To do that, you have to develop the five habits of the craftsman.

Here is where I began to sit up straight and make use of my highlighter. 

Newport's Step 1, "Decide What Capital Market You're In," "winner-take-all" or "auction," was something I hadn't thought about before. (He is using the term "capital" to include "human capital.") In my own case, writer of literary books, it seems to me that I'm not in as narrow a market as the television scriptwriter ("winner take all," i.e., the script is all), but close. So what I need to do is write the best book I can write. (Why blog? Because I want to clarify my own thinking, and to share that with you, dear reader.)

Two points Newport makes here: if you're not uncomfortable, you're probably not developing your skills, and you need patience. In my experience, yes, developing skills is sometimes toe-curling and yes, you need patience, shipping containers full of it. (And boy howdy am I lucky that my first efforts at literary writing date from well before the advent of the Internet.)


Rule #3 Turn Down a Promotion 
Newport asserts, and I agree, that: 


"Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment."

So if you want to love your work, first get good at what you do, then think about getting control over what you do. 

But there are traps. First, taking control too soon, when one doesn't have adequate skill, may be unsustainable (Ye olde "don't quit your day job to write a first novel.") And second, if you really do have valuable skills, you will be sure to encounter resistance to your leaving or at least loosening the leash (from an employer, an agent, an editor). Your employer may promote you not into a better job for you in terms of developing your skills and control over your time, but ye olde "golden handcuffs."

In developing this argument, Newport devotes a chapter to what he calls "The Law of Financial Viability," all common-sense advice for most college graduates and anyone else who needs to make regular debt payments. My one quibble with this book is here: Many people considering a new career are middle-aged or retired, and for some of them a minority to be sure, but an important one the financial viability of any given enterprise is not so crucial an issue. They can afford to take a year to write a novel, or open a yoga studio, or what-have-you; but this doesn't mean they want to remain at the level of a hobbyist. Furthermore, what the market pays is sometimes a poor indicator of meaningful value, and especially in the arts and politics, the best lead with vision, rather than follow the pennies and dimes and dollars and expense account steak dinners. The book would have been far stronger had it considered this demographic as well.

As for myself, before turning to writing, I had a career as an economist specializing in international and development finance. As I am sure you can imagine, dear reader, in saying adios to that for the life of a literary writer, I made some elephantine trade-offs. That said, I did not proceed until I'd already published two books on finance plus an award-winning book as a literary writer. And that said, if I could do it again, I'd do it again because, as the Estate Lady says, "the hearse doesn't have a trailer hitch."


Rule #4 Think Big, Act Small
Newport argues that "a unifying mission in your working life can be a source of great satisfaction," and he illustrates with the case of Pardis Sabeti, a happy and successful Harvard professor of evolutionary biology whose mission is "to rid the world of its most ancient and deadly diseases." 

As for finding big ideas, Newport introduces the concept of "the adjacent possible" and the caveat: you cannot recognize the adjacent possible until you get to the cutting edge of your field. Writes Newport:
"If life transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace. But it's not commonplace; it's instead quite rare. This rareness, we now understand, is because these breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives."
Newport details each step of Professor Sabeti's career, and how she focused on her training and only after achieving a high level in her field did she identify her defining mission. 

That resonated with me. My mission? To bring my readers to richer levels of understanding and an awakened sense of curiosity and wonder. Sounds simple, but it took me several books to be able to articulate that so concisely. And I know the big doesn't happen without the small. As far as writing a book goes, it's one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. And sometimes forklift in the industrial quantities of patience after weeks of work, one has to discard the draft to start over.  It might also mean reading and reading and reading and reading and... whew... more reading, not only about the subject, but the craft itself, which includes, of course, the essential task of reading other books in the same genre, not as a passive consumer, but actively, as a craftsman.

Wrapping up this fourth rule, Newport offers a last chapter on marketing. He argues that
"[f]or a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking."
He illustrates with "rock star" computer programer Giles Bowkett who realized that "the best way to market yourself as a programmer is to create remarkable open-source software." So he did. For Professor Sabeti, the venue was prestigious scientific journals so she published. (Speaking of venues, this is the main reason why, for many authors, self-publishing turns into such a disappointment.)

As for his own book, Newport confesses:

"If I had published a book of solid advice for helping recent graduates transition to the job market, you might find this a useful contribution, but probably wouldn't find yourself whipping out your iPhone and Tweeting its praises. One the other hand, if I publish a book that says 'follow your passion is bad advice,' (hopefully) this would compel you to spread the word. That is, the book you're holding was conceived from the very early stages with the hope of being seen as 'remarkable.'"

Ah, our modern fame-crazed culture. But one thing I've learned as a writer: a good blurb is gold. And word of mouth, though it can't always be quantified(that's another subject) is better than gold. Yes, Newport nails it.

Newport's own career is indeed remarkable. The author of a series of best-selling books, including How to Be a High School Superstar and How to Win at College (which I thought excellent and regret not having been able to read back in my day); and the host of the blog Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success, he is also a PhD from MIT, now a professor of computer science at Georgetown University.  In the conclusion, itself well worth the price of the book, he recounts how he applied the four lessons to his own career. 

I highly recommend So Good They Can't Ignore You for everyone from teenagers to retirees, in short, anyone looking to spend their days in a long-term commitment to satisfying, meaningful activity. You can call it "work" if you want. 

And now I'm going to go work on my book.

> Your comments are always welcome.

P.S. More recommended books on craft and on creative process.