A recent joy in my life is writing features for a monthly magazine distributed throughout northern New Mexico. Most of Local Flavor‘s articles center on food. Other contributors offer restaurant reviews and culinary advice. My newfound specialty is sustainable agriculture and the preservation of community identity.
In the last few months, I’ve written about Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic produce business; the New Mexico apple industry; how the cultivation of lavender has saved a failing economy; and conservation easements in a village near my hometown.
Sustainable agriculture means finding suitable crops for a particular area that provide a living for local farmers and result in good products for consumers. The idea is to waste as few resources as possible for maximum gain — all the while respecting and replenishing the earth from which the crops grow. It’s "Think globally, act locally" in action.
When I look at the publishing industry monolith, I marvel at its contradictions. Mammoth corporations gobble up big houses while smaller publishers inch toward renown. Writers feel powerless as a group and display astounding individual optimism.
Where’s the center in all this flux — editors leaving, contracts dumped, writers abandoned, the pull of copycatting vs. the desire for originality?
Where’s the most accurate snapshot of our industry?
Where’s the truth in the paradoxical information we get and propagate?
In college, I read Small is Beautiful by E.M. Schumacher. In it, the learned economist questioned the most fundmental assumptions of his field and eschewed many well accepted concepts including: centralization makes industry more efficent and everything is about money.
I’d forgotten the book’s profound affect on my youthful idealism for almost thirty years. Then I started talking to micro-farmers and other growers, to government leaders struggling to maintain the souls of their communities in the face of development, to architects and urban planners.
We writers now live with tremendous conflict. We rush to promote, to find commercial recognition, to network and work meaningfully. We want to make a living at our craft. We fizzle and burn out. Our creativity is affected by all this frenzy.
Part of the beauty of focusing on sustainable agriculture is its emphasis on long-term and continued success. It considers the entire operation — nourishing the ground, planting, harvesting crops, collecting seeds for the future, getting products to market quickly and closeby.
It’s a quiet, but powerful, way to frame one’s approach to the world . . .
I’ve been chided for some of my posts that are critical about the current norms in the publishing industry. Yet, I remain hopeful that if enough of us respect ourselves — and enough of our readers do, too — we might change a few of the truly dehumanizing aspects of this business.
I believe we writers could learn from the concept of sustainability. At the very least, it might remind us to stop and breathe deeply,
to take the time to meet with — and support — the people who matter,
to nurture a creative space and the calm within it to work.
All of these small affirmations will feed our hearts as well as our careers . . . and will help us to find our own truths in the middle of the maelstrom.
Pari, the next book in my reading pile is Barbara Kingsolver’s newest, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The concept of sustainable agriculture is not new to me, but it’s become so much more do-able since we moved to our little horse farm.
A writer friend down the road sells free-range eggs via a sign in the front yard. A horsewoman/vet the other way down the road offers organic beef raised in their back pastures. The Thursday afternoon Farmers’ Market has everything in season, grown locally. Our hay guy has organic hay and keeps us posted on each cutting; we are intimately attuned to how much rain we/he need to insure our horses enjoy his wonderful hay all through the winter.
There’s a biodiesel co-op a few miles from us and our high speed internet is the brainchild of a small but wonderful software company who engineered a network of antenna among interested customers. We each provide the link for the next customer out, and if/when something goes amiss, Scott, who lives, you got it, right down the road, comes on over and gets it fixed. It still amazes me that when my internet goes out and I get frantic, I call Scott on his cell phone and not Time Warner and their labyrinthine if this, press 1, if that, press 2 number.
I’d never really thought of applying this idea to the publishing world. Apparently though, my husband and my mother have – when I told them recently of a friend’s very huge 2-book deal, for two books not even truly conceived yet, both said, independently of the other: Seems like it would be better if they gave her half as much and used the other half to buy your book and J’s book and L’s book, etc. etc. All of which are already written and have authors just itching to jump in and work to build an audience and a successful career.
It made me think for days after: if I were offered one of those gargantuan deals, would I take the money and run, or would I suggest they give me half as much and use the rest to support some new authors with good books that just don’t quite fit the market specs?
I don’t even know if such a thing is possible in the publishing world, but it’s nice to think it might be.
Wow, Billie. The opportunities you describe make me want to move to a farm close to yours.
Actually, my gut-level awareness of sustainable living really just began when I started writing for the magazine. Talking to people who grow food — without subsidies — will do that for you. Don’t get me started on corn . . .
Now, we’re members of a CSA (community-supported-agriculture), buy a fraction of our power from wind production, and search for ways to live more lightly on this earth.
As to those big advances . . . they’ve never made sense to me and I’ve never wanted a huge one. Like you, I don’t know what I’d do if I got one . . .
But I do know that the idea of sustainable writing is a way of life worthy of exploration.
Another thought provoking post! I, too, love SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL, and have it on my cookbook shelf. (Somehow it seems appropriate there although I don’t use its recipes.) I also write about horticulture and agriculture and wonder if their business models can be applied to other industries.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my work as a writer is pretty much like a gardener’s. Really. We only get paid for as much as we work–only the very elite ones get those top-notch jobs. We are in competition with other gardeners, but we can help each other with information about pesticides, etc. Our rates are little bit of a secret–only those who hire us know for sure. We spend our work day in isolation but enjoy partying in our off-hours.
In terms of “sustainable” writing, I think that you practice it now. It seems more applicable to nonfiction than to fiction. People perceive a need for nonfiction; people need food. There are regional-based presses everywhere. I think if you stumble across an underserved niche, you can sell quite a number of books, depending if your product is good. It requires a lot of speaking engagements, however–because how is your readership going to find you?
I know some authors who do belong to supportive writing groups–these groups help keep their creative juices flowing and provide a safe haven. They sustain one another.
I try to keep one foot in locally-based projects, just for the reasons you’ve mentioned. NYC is on the other side of the continent from me; it’s good to work with people who I can see on a regular basis.
You’ve drawn an interesting analogy between the two industries, Pari, and I like the image of writing as sustainable farming. Except for the “sell it only locally” part, of course.
Oh, and I do know what I’d do with that mega big advance, greedy sot that I am.
Naomi,I knew this might resonate with your own experience and expertise. You bring such a nice twist to the discussion of this subject; thank you for your thoughtful comments.
And, after sending a link to the publicist at UNM Press, I realized I do practice sustainable writing a little.
Louise,Sustainable doens’t have to mean provincial or limited . . . not really. Though the focus is on the local, “local” can be very broad.
As to that big advance, I still wonder. Billie’s noble suggestion probably wouldn’t mean squat to a corporate honcho.
But I still absolutely question the rationale for providing huge advances to some and tiny advances for others. Sure, I’d like to earn good money on my work, but millions just doesn’t make sense to me.
Pari, you’ve had me thinking all day long. 🙂
I’ve been trying to apply sustainable very specifically to my writing life. The few things I’ve come up with:
I go 3-4x/year to a nearby writing retreat. It has a lot of meaning b/c it’s here, and feeds my writing spirit as much as it does my ms in progress.
I recently rejoined a writing group I was in 2 years ago. One member published her novel with a small press and has retired and moved to her vacation home, but she will keep in touch via mail. There is one new member working on a first book. Otherwise, it’s the same crew, further along than before, one being agented now w/ a ms on submission, another being considered by an agent.
There’s something wonderful about this group being around for so long, with many of the same people, enjoying the stories we all write, giving feedback to make them better, and sharing the bumps in the publishing road.
There are another handful of writers I regularly have dinner with to network and bounce ideas off of and mostly just to enjoy the company of engaging people.
We have a wonderful statewide writers’ network w/ two conferences/year and more workshop offerings off and on all year round. I haven’t been in several years and need to reconnect with that group.
Still thinking. 🙂 I love the idea of making this writing work something more than Selling The Book.