Monday, November 02, 2009

Maybe We All Need a Little Ubuntu

This post was prompted by two events that occurred last week:

First, last Monday, agent Janet Reid did a terrific post here about what makes a writer.

Then on Friday, a couple of writers on a loop complained about the "poseurs" who self-publish and then go around "bragging" that they've been published.

The thing is, I can remember how irritating it was while I was still querying agents to have someone who had self-published offering me advice about writing in general and publishing in particular. This was especially grating because, deep in my DNA, I am extremely competitive.

My three brothers and I were raised by a father who pushed all of us to succeed. To Daddy, everything was a contest, and he weighed our worth by how well we did. If I came home from school with five "A"s and one "B", rather than celebrating the "A"s, Daddy would berate me for the one "B".

It took some years (and a bit of therapy) for me to overcome my need to be perfect. I'm still incredibly competitive, but now I channel it.

A fair amount of my time as a management analyst is spent encouraging teamwork or "collaborative work" among employees. Periodically, I pull whatever group I'm working with into a large room where we can play games that force them to work together. Afterward, we debrief, talking about what led to either winning or losing in the game. Fortunately for my purposes, more often than not, everyone agrees that working together as a team was the chief key to success.

Now to the point of this post.

Publishing is a brutal business. Writers compete for agents. Agents compete for editors' attention. Editors compete for slots on the publishing schedule. Publishers compete for manuscripts. Everyone competes for readers. It's one big dog-eat-dog world.

While Amazon and Wal-Mart are slugging it out for online market share, this is a great time for us to remember that, as writers, we're all together in this leaky fleet of boats flying the "Publishing" ensign. We may take different routes to the fabled City of Gold: traditional New York print, indie publishing, university press, online publishing, self-publishing. But whatever direction we take, we're a band of fellows, a community of adventurers. As such, we need to watch out for each other, pass along warnings of pirates and offer encouragement to our peers if they begin to flounder.

I think I've pushed that metaphor as far as it will go.

John Donne said, "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind..." I would argue that another writer's success does not diminish me for precisely the same reason.

There is a Bantu philosophy often voiced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is called "ubuntu." The Archbishop described the concept this way:
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished . . .
As I drive into work every morning, I try to spend a few minutes focussing on unbuntu, with the goal that I will affirm at least five people I meet during the day. And not with phony or shallow compliments. I will find something genuinely good in what they are doing and offer each a valid affirmation.

Why should I feel diminished or insecure by another's success (or perceived success)? That's a losing proposition. Instead I seek the company of constructive, successful people. They encourage me to strive harder. They teach me. And they support me.

And I do everything I can to pay the favor forward.

Try offering your fellow writers a little ubuntu today.


Glynis said...

It's funny because I have self published two poetry books yet I don't feel published. They are my stepping out books as I call them. I do not promote them much but am happy they are there should someone want to read them.
If I am lucky enough to be noticed and published I will be a happy bunny, if not I will plod on.
I love reading about other writers, their lives and achievements. I thrive on their support and advice. We need to stick together and enjoy the art of writing, delight in the success of others.

Oh gosh, I have probably lost the plot in this comment, I will leave you with a smile :)

Laura Vivanco said...

When I saw the title of your post, I thought you were going to be writing about the free, opensource Ubuntu operating system. Now I know why it's got that name.

Colleen said...

I agree with you entirely. It is one thing I enjoy about living in my small province: the arts are very accessible to all and artists, generally, are amenable to helping other artists out. I love the idea of ubuntu. I do practice this... now I have a name for it. Thanks for a great post!