John Cage, Zen, & What it Takes to Publish a Book That Matters
Several publishing stories laud authors who buck industry conventions and – through fluke, pluck, and luck – become the next best-selling sensation.
But I want to tell a different publishing story, one that in its convention might be unconventional. I want to tell this story because many of you have books in you that matter, and you might still possess – despite dismal odds – a conviction to hone your craft and seek publication “the old fashioned way.” By earning it.
This is a story about a writer who pursued a hunch, landed her first book deal with arguably one of the publishing industry’s most respected editors, and has written – without exaggeration – a break-through book that matters.
Here’s Slate Magazine’s Seth Colter Walls’ assessment of the book in question in his review Quiet Riot:
Where the Heart Beats may not just be the best book written yet about John Cage; it’s probably also one of the most substantive-yet-readable entryways into the nexus of 20th-century American art and the immortal qualities of Eastern thought.
And here’s discerning BrainPickings.com Maria Popova’s take:
Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in the past year, if not decade — remarkably researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.
How does a person accomplish that with her first book?
(Note: I’m biased, as I’ll betray later, since I worked with the author off and on for about three years on this manuscript.)
Several years ago, art critic Kay Larson was onto an idea that few in her field would touch let alone excavate, and she knew it was a big idea. The idea involved an avant-garde composer and a Zen Buddhist teacher.
It is a hunch about influence that, when launched in Larson’s forthcoming book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists , will stir up the art world and potentially change the way future authors write about art, biography, or both.
The avant-garde musician in question is John Cage. Cage’s musical concepts have helped shape the works of Yoko Ono, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol, Meredith Monk, even – I would venture – experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and countless others who have ventured into making of this one life a work of art.
But who and what influenced Cage?
Enter the unassuming Buddhist teacher D.T. Suzuki whose genuine spirit and style helped usher in Zen in post-World War II America. He delivered a few lectures at Columbia University in the early 1950s.
Before Larson’s book, no one had written about what Suzuki lectured on because no one proposed to know. Larson found out. And she pieced together the trajectory of Cage’s personal life intersecting with these lectures.
At the time, Cage comes to a seminal decision about his sexual identity and his spiritual identity that, again, without exaggeration, changes the course of American cultural history.
Larson’s genre-breaking book tells this story by combining sleuth-like detective work, captivating story telling, art biography, lucid exegesis of Cage’s musical compositions, and sympathetic readings of texts such as the I Ching and the Heart Sutra.
Marcel Duchamp and the Buddha were never on such common ground.
For years during the 1980s and ‘90s, Larson had been a premier art critic for New York, the Village Voice, ARTnews, and the Times.
Then, Zen Buddhism cracked Larson open.
She exited the art world for the most part and pursued her practice. In the interim, her continued fascination with Cage led her to this hunch.
Again, my bias (and I betray no confidentiality): Larson called and came to me a few years ago with the essence of the story and her original unsold proposal. The story was big. It needed to be told.
But her own aesthetic sensibility and intelligent approach to nonfiction were what most excited me. To her, my amateur’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for Cage, art history, and Buddhism was a plus.
To both of our amazement, we lived eight minutes from each other in a farming hamlet in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley.
First, we reshaped the proposal – admittedly a non-standard proposal that articulated what I believe to be Larson’s unique brilliance and voice. Within weeks, her agent Anne Edelstein sold it to Penguin Press and editor in chief Ann Godoff.
We continued working together off and on for the next three or so years, but I take little credit except in redirecting here and there, tracking her story and structure, discussing the art of storytelling, and reminding her what a substantial book she had in her. In short, an honor.
Now, by following this hunch to its publishing conclusion, Larson returns somewhat to the art world in public form but, I suspect, on different terms. Namely, hers.
The traits Larson exhibits as a writer are not often heralded. They lack romantic sexiness. They lack promise for many people seeking publication shortcuts or digital rebels aspiring to buck the paper system and bring in loads of passive cash online.
Still, I’ve worked with enough select clients during the past few years – among them best-selling memoirist Julie Metz (Perfection; Voices Hyperion) and forthcoming first-time novelist Bridget Boland (The Doula; Simon & Schuster) – to know that the following traits hold true among several writers who publish books that push their field’s boundaries.
I’ll risk audacity and say here are 10 adages Kay Larson exhibits that anyone serious about publishing a book that matters with a traditional house (big or mid-sized) would do well to heed:
#1 Have a great idea and believe in it.
Last year, Kay told me, “You know, this book is 15 years in the making.” 15 years, I thought. How many aspiring writers have that kind of patience in an idea?
Lacking that faith and conviction, few writers can weather the inevitable doubt, hardship, and fatiguing work necessary to finish a serious book.
Another client, a successful fiction writer, told me recently that she believes a good novel takes ten years to write and finish.
Once you’ve found your great idea, or it, you, nourish it. Pursue it relentlessly. And even when life’s emergencies seemingly distract you from your project, return to it.
Write it because you must. (But then seek a publisher.)
#2 Find the story behind the idea – and learn to tell it well.
Truman Capote would be proud. From Seabiscuit to Outliers, story in nonfiction is in.
Larson learned this. Numerous times in WTHB, Larson sheds, or blurs, the historian’s or biographer’s voice to relate lyrical stories that include Gary Snyder, Alan Ginsberg, Joseph Campbell, and Alan Watts in addition to Cage and Suzuki.
She takes agile liberties with storytelling and speculation in ways that do not betray the author-reader contract of nonfiction. Instead, she gives new tactics for future nonfiction writers who find themselves in similar quandaries.
In comparing Larson’s storytelling approach to that of other Cage biographers, Walls writes:
Larson is after altogether different game, and playing by different rules. Cage was an unreliable enough narrator of his own life that he probably deserves at least one author willing to venture beyond the bounds of strict propriety in biography-writing.
The story is at once intellectually provocative and spiritually inspiring.
Big publishers seek not only big ideas but ideas told in captivating story frames. The change-makers in different fields learn to tell stories and to tell them in innovative ways.
Study story if you want to make a difference. And then discover how your book’s story must be told.
#3 Know your stuff – and refine what you know.
Kay knows her stuff, namely art history, art criticism, art scholarship + Buddhism, the I Ching, and the Gita + story + sentences. And she knows Cage as well as anyone. But she doggedly persisted in exacting her facts and qualifying her assertions.
Blog advice is oddly rife with opinions about how mastery and expertise don’t matter.
But when you put down $20 or $30 for a nonfiction book or, for that matter, a few hundred an hour for consultations, you want to know that person knows her stuff. At least when it comes to nonfiction, I do.
And if publishers of nonfiction are going to invest 5, 6, or 7 figures in you, they expect you to know your field if you’re going to lead it.
The 10,000 hours rule applies.
#4 Stay in not-knowing long enough to simplify ideas without being simplistic.
Kay lives in questions for extended periods of time. I’ve witnessed it. Perhaps her practice helps her stay in uncertainty. Regardless, she has that negative capability.
Something in us gets uncomfortable with too much complexity and uncertainty. But writers wanting to bust fields must challenge norms and be able to hold paradoxes long enough to resolve them.
There’s an art to crystallizing complex ideas into elegant forms versus over-simplifying complex topics into reductive truisms.
Study that art.
#5 Make your method.
I asked Kay how, given the book’s complexity, she kept her drive and focus. Her reply:
I trained myself, in 22 years of meeting weekly deadlines, to estimate on an ongoing basis (day and night) how much work is left and where I must go next with it. It’s an intuitive sense and I still use it all the time. I almost never am late for meetings, for instance, because I do an inner calculation (a kind of dreaming foreshadowing) of the roads between me and where I need to be. Then unless I run into a major traffic jam I get there on time. Writing is like that too. I keep my focus until I need to stop focusing. Then I do stupid, happy, pleasurable things and don’t worry. My inner sense will tell me when it’s time to focus again.
Most significant composers, writers, designers, scientists, and entrepreneurs who make contributions to their fields over the long run do this: They invent their own methods to persist and their own methods to limit their imagination in time.
Rather than trying to adopt someone else’s, start inventing your own. Experiment. If something doesn’t work, try another method.
#6 Let the right form and structure emerge.
Book structure defeats numerous aspiring authors.
But I relish mapping book structures, forms, and shapes. So does Kay.
Hence, several sessions centered around this book’s exquisite form. She knew almost from the beginning what it would be and its source of inspiration (hint: a Zen saying about mountains). It took several drafts and iterations, though – as well as peeks at Seabiscuit and even St. Augustine’s Confessions – to chisel the manuscript back to its essential three-part form.
For memoirist Julie Metz, finding Perfection’s form meant in part finding the heart and arc of her own character.
Every book has its own form. Your job is to let that form emerge. You might gather five successful nonfiction books you admire. Study their structure. Examine the table of contents. Articulate the book’s argument or what I call its singular elegant idea in one to three sentences. Learn from those models.
Put them aside.
Then, be open to the form that fits your story’s argument and spirit, to the form that reinforces its content.
Few aspiring authors, it seems, get this idea. The ones who do lead.
#7 Let the book come out of your life’s work.
Only Kay Larson could have written this book in this way.
For memoirists, this adage is deceiving. To let a memoir come out of your life’s work often means not simply that you “lived” a book’s facts. It also means that you’ve demonstrated your commitment to being a writer or to working within a field related to your memoir (whether that field is advertising or cooking or science) for years before starting your memoir.
#8 Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Larson knows this. I can vouch. The book attests.
Ultimately, this trait boils down to the fact that you love the material itself. That you love and hate the laborious nature of writing and rewriting, of perfecting and finessing, even when you know that few other people will appreciate the care you took with the fifth word in the twelfth sentence on page 148.
Again, there’s another odd trend in blogosphere advice that pats us hard workers on the back and says, “Don’t over-work. Just get your stuff out there.”
For books that matter for the long run, quality matters. Down to the word.
#9 Don’t go it alone, and seek the right feedback.
I asked fiction writer Charlie Baxter which novel he thought would defeat him while trying to complete it. “Every one of them,” he said.
Like any good writer, there were moments when Kay doubted. But she has her practice. And she sought right support.
She asked other people in her field to review sections of the book for its art history. She asked others to respond to the Buddhist-rich sections. She asked me especially to track its story and structure. And we had good conversations when moods temporarily (and naturally) grew dim.
And she has Ann Godoff, editor in chief of the Penguin Press imprint. The former president and editor in chief of Random House Trade Group, Godoff recognizes substantial books that will contribute to cultural conversations. Yet, even as one of the industry’s most respected book editors, she allegedly has a gentle touch with her authors.
Read John McPhee’s account with New Yorker editor William Shawn to appreciate how crucial the author-editor relationship is.
Why any aspiring writer – especially a first-time writer – thinks he has to “stick it out alone” to be a “real” writer I have no idea. But I fear many such writers are lonely, unpublished, and confused.
Gather your Creative Packs. Find a few trusted creatives who will run with you and your ideas. Reciprocate. Then, find or hire a qualified mentor, coach, or editor before and possibly after you have a book deal.
#10 Learn the industry but….
You don’t have to study The Merchants of Culture (which might make you jaded), but you might be wise to understand in part the industry’s commercial and business sides. Everyone in the chain – from agent to acquisitions editor to publisher to head of sales to book buyer to reader – has needs.
Do not over-think these people’s needs when drafting your book. When it’s time to refine your manuscript and craft your proposal, however, do.
#0 Build your platform with integrity.
Oh, how we can get thrown off-track by the next sizzling platform-building or promotional shiz-bang.
Yet, Kay is a paragon author who has resisted jumping on the social media bandwagon. You will find no glitzy book trailer or flashy website or chatty Facebook page.
You will find a committed thinker honing her craft as a stellar speaker and interview subject. She has an impressive tour slated, and her website offers the right amount of engagement without garishness.
You can share your stories about John Cage here.
All of which is to say, if you pursue the rogue-renegade-non-conforming publishing path, I applaud you. I help numerous creatives do so. Traditional routes have their trappings and flaws.
But those traditional routes are still alive and viable for the committed and talented. At least for now. Soon, they might become nothing, and if they do I hope Cage is writing the score.
DROP IN THE HUT
I’d love to hear your take on these traits and this take on publishing. Anything I’ve forgotten or that you’d dispute? And I’d love to hear your stories about publishing – renegade, traditional, whatever that will help us get a picture of what’s happening.
See you in the woods,