The Intersection of Art and Commerce

A fellow said to me the other day, “I’ve got a great idea for a book.  How do I get it published?”  Whoa dude, I replied – or words to that effect.  To get a book published, you first have to have a book.  Then, and only then, do you even think about publishing.  That is the point where art meets commerce.

I get a lot of questions about publishing from folks who know I’ve written some stuff and had it published.  My first question is always, “Have you written the book?”  Sometimes, they want me to write the book for them.  Well, I don’t do that.  But I’m happy to share what little wisdom I have about writing, along with lots of encouragement.

The best wisdom I can share is what a graduate school professor gave to me.  He said, “The way you write is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  There are lots of folks with good stories to tell, and many have a facility with words that would allow them to put the story on paper.  But only a few will apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

There are a several tough parts along the way.  The first is simply getting started – sitting down in a quiet place and facing a blank piece of paper that’s waiting for words.  Once you leap that hurdle, the next one is when you read what you’ve just written and say, “Oh, that’s awful!”  Well, maybe it is.  But the remedy is doing it again and making it better.  If you want it to be perfect the first time, you’re doomed.  What you do is get something down, and then re-write.  The getting it down is the toughest part.  The re-writing is where you begin to have fun.

But maybe the hardest part is the absolute requirement for stubborn, patient persistence.  Going to the work every possible day you can, carving out slices of time during which you absolutely refuse to be interrupted or distracted.  A good story, worked on daily, takes on a life of its own, a momentum.  And keeping that momentum is crucial through the long process of making a book.

Only when you’ve done all of that are you ready to think about publishing.  This is the intersection of art and commerce.  A writer is not complete without a reader.  We want as many folks as possible to enjoy and appreciate what we’ve done.  So we go through the tough process of finding a publisher, or publishing ourselves, and then reaching out to the widest possible audience.

The reaching out is hard work, too.  It’s hawking the merchandise, and that means using every possible means to let people know about the work and why they should pay their hard-earned money to obtain it.  Published writers today  know how crucial it is to use social media to get the word out, how important it is to go to places where readers gather, how necessary it is to work tirelessly and persistently in behalf of sales.  Crass commercialism?  You betcha.  Without the commerce part, the art part just lays there.

The good news about publishing is that today, anyone and everyone who produces a work can get published, thanks to the rise of the e-book: Amazon’s Kindle and the like.  Those folks are delighted to have you publish your work on their platforms, and I know from experience that it’s easy to do.  But just because it’s there doesn’t mean anybody will actually buy it and read it.  That’s the writer’s job.

I suppose any successful business is run by people who understand the intersection of art and commerce.  Just because you produce a good product or service doesn’t mean you’ll do well.  You have to do the grubby commercial part too.

We writers are no different.  Stop in the middle of an intersection and you’ll get run over.  You have to keep moving.


From Tragedy, Art

I’m so glad I discovered Sam Baker.  I heard him interviewed on my favorite National Public Radio show, “Fresh Air,” by my favorite interviewer, Terry Gross.  Sam Baker ‘s life is an riveting story, the centerpiece of which is terrible tragedy that he has used to reshape his life and transform it into songs that touch deep places in our souls.

Sam Baker.jpg

Baker was a vigorous, athletic young man in 1986 – 32 years old, a former football player, a rock climber and whitewater river guide.  He was in Peru on a train bound for Machu Pichu, seated with a German family – husband, wife, 16-year-old son.  He was engrossed in conversation with the teenager when a bomb, planted by terrorists, went off in the luggage rack above them.  The German family were killed, and Baker was horribly injured: brain damage, mangled limbs, blown-in eardrums.  He calls his survival a miracle, and 17 reconstructive surgeries later, he is a singer-songwriter of uncommon grace and poetic beauty.  Many of his songs reflect on that horrific day on the train, but there is nothing in them of self-pity or unreconciled darkness.

Sam Baker has a new album, his fourth, Say Grace.  Rolling Stone magazine called it one of the top 10 country albums of 2013, but there is nothing of the rock-influenced pickup-truck, woman-done-me-wrong, hard-drinking stuff I think of these days as country.  Baker’s songs are things of gentle beauty, things of the soul of a man who has been to the brink, survived, and – instead of giving up – opens his heart for the rest of us.  iTunes says, “Baker informs his songs with a sense of life’s fragility, as well as gratitude for small everyday miracles.”  Baker himself is a pretty big miracle, but he takes joy and sustenance from the small ones he sees around him.  There is a sadness to some of them, but a reflective sadness that sees beyond itself.

My favorite song on the album is the last one, “Go In Peace.”  It is full of wonderment, hope, and benediction.  I hope Mr. Baker won’t mind me quoting from it:

Go in peace, go in kindness, go in love, go in faith.  Let us go into the darkness, not afraid, not alone.  Let us hope by some good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

I take from that a sense that Sam Baker has gone in peace, arrived at home, and found that it is in his own heart.  He has made peace with life as he knows it, healed at the broken places, and is profoundly aware that it has given him a gift to share.

Sam Baker has turned tragedy into art, and I think a great deal of art is born of tragedy.  Artists of all stripes pour out their hearts -- in music, painting, sculpture, stories-- and find some measure of solace and strength in the doing,  a way of dealing with inner demons.  Winston Churchill painted, calling it a refuge from the severe bouts of depression, “the black dog,” that sometimes overwhelmed him.  Had he not painted, would he have been the monumental figure who led his nation through the dark agony of war?  Maybe not.

Van Gogh.jpg

Sometimes, even art can’t suffice.  Vincent Van Gogh, that giant of post-impressionism, died in1890, age 37, from what’s believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound after a lifetime of anxiety and mental illness.  Of his 2,100 works of art, some of the best came during the last two years of his life.  A struggle against madness by a genius who left behind incredible art, but failed to save himself.

Sam Baker lived through tragedy, came to terms with it through his art, and when he is finally done, will leave us with those things he celebrates in song – peace, kindness, love, faith.

When you get a chance, listen to some Sam Baker music.  And go in peace.  

Delbert Earle and the Author

“You don’t work,” says my friend Delbert Earle, “you’re a writer.”

My friend Delbert Earle has always had a jaundiced view of this thing I do to make a living.  His idea of work is anything in which you lift, tote, fetch, hammer, dig, explode, or stand around a hole in the ground watching somebody else do one of those things.

“But writing is hard work,” I protest.  “I sometimes sweat profusely when I’m writing.  I have occasionally broken down in tears.  Have you ever had to use a jackhammer on writer’s block?”

“Have you ever shed blood in the course of your work?” he asks.

“Paper cuts,” I answer defensively.  “Paper cuts can be painful.”

“Have you ever filed for workmen’s compensation?”


"Well, then.”

So it was with some trepidation that I told my friend Delbert Earle about this new novel, which I’ve finished after years of sweat, tears, and paper cuts.  “I have even found someone to publish it,” I announced.  “In September.”

"What’s it called?” he asked.

The Governor’s Lady.”

“What’s it about?”

“A feisty woman.”

“Like your wife?”

“Feisty,” I repeated.

“Does she get some of the profits?”

“All of them.”

“Okay,” says Delbert Earle, “what happens next?”

“I shall go forth and ask people to buy it and read it.  It’s where art meets commerce.”

“Shameless hucksterism,” he says.

“Yea, verily,” I say.  “Where two or more are gathered…”

Maybe I bear some responsibility for Delbert Earle’s notion of what it takes to write.  He once asked me, “How do you write a book, anyway?”

I replied, “You stare out the window until you think up something, and then you write it down.  Then you stare out the window some more until you think up something else, and then you write that down.  You keep doing that over and over until you’ve thought up everything you can think up, and then you write THE END and send it off to your publisher.”

Did I oversimplify here?

At any rate, Delbert Earle is my very good friend, and despite his misgivings about my profession, he is pleased by my good news.  He promised to buy a book in September, and says he might even find it interesting to read, since we are both married to feisty women.  And he has decided what he will give me as a congratulatory gift: a box of band-aids.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo.

The Art of Transparency

       When I was in graduate school eons ago, my fiction teacher, the late novelist Barry Hannah, was kind enough to say my work showed some promise.  “When you learn the big tricks,” he said, “you’ll do okay.”

       “What are the big tricks?” I asked.

       “You have to learn those for yourself.”

       “How do you learn them?”

       “By doing the work.”

       I’ve done a good bit of the work since then, and I’ve learned a couple of big tricks.  The biggest, I’ve decided, is learning to trust my readers.  It sounds simple, but it’s not.

       I have to see a scene in my own mind before I can write about it – what the place looks like, who’s there, how they move about, how they interact, what they say.  The challenge is putting what I see on paper so you’ll see something similar when you read the words.  The more I try to describe, the more I inevitably burden the story with so much verbiage that it sinks of its own weight.  The words get in the way.  The big trick is deciding what not to say.

            There’s a sort of magic that transpires between writer and reader, an alchemy that occurs when two imaginations meet.  If I write a book and a thousand people read it, I’ve really written a thousand books, because each reader brings a unique and special consciousness to the process.  And that makes each reading experience special and unique.

            I constantly remind myself that I don’t have to do all the work, and the more I do, the more I’m likely to get in the way.  All I need is a few well-chosen words to set the reader’s imagination in motion.  If I write “cowboy,” you’ll provide your own image.  It won’t be the cowboy I see, but that’s fine.  Your cowboy is just as good as mine, probably better.  My job is to be transparent, to stay out of the way so you get right to the cowboy.  It’s the cowboy’s story, and I’m just there to be a conduit.  If you hear me, I’ve failed.

      Another of my grad school professors, the poet Tom Rabbitt, said there are three kinds of writing:

  • Art -- we know what that is when we see it.  The characters and their story leap off the page and grab us by the soul.        
  • Artsy -- words begin to get in the way, a sure sign the writer is becoming enamored of his own verbal virtuosity.        
  • Artsy-fartsy – this guy is screaming, Look Ma, see how clever I am!

     When I finish a manuscript, the first thing I do is go back and ruthlessly slash modifiers and florid excesses of description.  I may need them in the first draft to help me visualize, but in sober reflection, I realize that for my readers, they’re largely unnecessary and get in the way of the story.  I dang sure don’t want to leave any artsy-fartsy, and I want artsy held to a bare minimum.  If what results is something vaguely similar to art, I’m a happy guy.

     Next time: another big trick: geometry.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo.