Thursday, June 14, 2012

A New Orleans Story

I just got off of the phone with a close friend of mine from New Orleans who reminded me of a lesson, one that he had actually taught me while Jess and I were there less than a month ago.  It was a lesson and a reminder all rolled into one.  It was a lesson in the little reminders!

I have been struggling lately with the idea of being stigmatized as a self-published writer, and I have gone on about it here on this blog in a number of different ways, all of which if you were to put them into one, cohesive statement, would read: STOP!  NO!  DON'T SELF-PUBLISH!

Now, there is a big part of me that still feels this way.  In this business, the best way to go will always be the traditional way, and that way is by going from the agent to the publisher to the contract.  But what if your books are already out there?  What if, as is the case for me, your first two books are already formatted and saturated on the Internet and are available now in all of the relevant formats?  Do I just turn my back on my own bibliography?

Believe it or not, this was indeed my plan.  I had already done the research weeks before my trip to New Orleans on how to pull my titles from the Internet as to not even exist as a published writer, saving that distinction instead for when something would actually happen, for when I finally sold my first book.  That's right, I was going to destroy everything that defined me up until this point, all of the celebrations by myself and by my family while we held my books in our hands for the first time, shaking the proverbial Etch A Sketch on my vocation as a writer.

I use the word "vocation" intentionally, mainly because I couldn't use the word "career" during the time I was considering erasing myself.  In my mind, I didn't have a career unless I could consider it how I made my living.  "Vocation," then, became a more appropriate word.  So, there it was.  I was going to rip my forty years as a writer-to-be from the history books, regardless of the fact that it would be virtually impossible to remove the books from every database that ever had an Internet spider go out and grab them and put them on their site.  In my mind, all I had to do was cut off the blood source, and the body would die.

And then I took a trip back home to New Orleans.

The last part of our trip was a visit to see some old friends, one of whom I just got off of the phone with, and together we walked through his recording studio and looked at all of the visual art that had poured out of him over the past few months.  It was astonishing.  There were paintings everywhere.  And hidden away underneath all the canvases was the actual recording studio, its shelves still holding tapes from recording sessions that were done years ago, still waiting in some cases to be mixed and put out into the universe.  And it occurred to me just then that no matter how much tinkering would be done to these master tapes, no matter what harmonies would be taken out or added in post, that the songs would still maintain their integrity by their titles alone.  They would all fall into a certain, chronological record of artistic productivity.  As my buddy said to me only a few hours ago, "It would be something else to add to your Wikipedia page!"

This last trip to New Orleans reminded me of what it is that I do, of where it is that I come from, and where I come from is a city of defiant creatives.  The audacity that we had in scheduling entire days around sitting in recording studios was almost as important as what we were recording.  It's where I get the discipline that I have today.  And judging from what I saw on Facebook and Twitter before our trip, it was still happening, and I got confirmation of that as I strolled through my friend's skull there in his recording studio.

And so, during the drive back, I decided that I was going to play ball with my fate.  I contacted my publisher and asked them about the possibility of reissues, like any, say, non-fiction book that would have to be updated in order to keep the information inside pertinent, and they said it was no problem.  Do I plan to do this?  Maybe.  But that would be between my publisher and myself and it would be undetectable.  The point is that I have that option, and the fact remains that those two books, the ones that exist in the universe with their covers and copyright years and ISBNs all over the world, are my first and second books respectively.  Period.  They are mine.  And they mark where I was then as a writer. 

Self-published books get picked up all the time now by traditional publishing houses, which marks yet another change in the industry over the years, and so having books out there that I can be proud of is simply the foundation on which everything else can be built.  Regardless of what harmonies may have been added or taken out, and no matter what changes are made to the original compositions, they are still the same old melodies by title alone that inspired me to want to launch them out into the universe from day one.

In summary, here is an excerpt from the "Acknowledgements" page of Scenes from the Blanket that I think says it all.  Written during the year following Hurricane Katrina, it is exactly what I meant when I said that I was reminded of a certain lesson while returning to the city that made me who I am:

"Lastly I would like to thank the great city of New Orleans, my hometown and infinite muse.  This book is about you -- about your people and your geography, about your spirit and your darkness, about your culture and your ideas.  You exist far outside your city limits, within me and within us all, through the aesthetics you've so graciously given to your children.  For this gift, New Orleans, I humbly thank you."