Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why It's Natural to Need Help

Here’s to The Helpers —

A Lone Wolf Sets Out: 
In my earlier life a driving passion and talent for the theater led me to believe I’d pursue a career as an actor, but in the end it was the written component of drama that drew me into literature. Always somewhat ill at ease in the communal, collaborative atmosphere of the thespian world, I found in the more secret art of writing a quietude, concentration, and privacy that appealed to my solitary nature. Here was something you could do (perhaps had to do?) alone.

Writing required no facilities, no stage lights or auditorium seating, no orchestra pits, no janitors to tidy the lavatories. Most importantly, perhaps, it required no return at the box office. String together a few healthy advances and you were set (after all, you weren’t aiming for world domination). As a writer you didn’t have to fit your life into a rehearsal calendar or the matrix of personalities (outsized egos amongst them) that make up a theatrical cast. Writing required nobody else’s presence. The writer could be cast, crew, director, conductor, usher, and janitor — all in one, and all it took was pen and paper, discipline, and yes, self-reliance.

Given those basic tools plus a strong commitment to excellence, it looked like a writer really could “make it” alone and enjoy the gratification of success earned by pure individual merit as well as the liberty of being one’s own man.

I embraced this vision early, and believed that in doing so I was parting ways with the false American Dream, a.k.a.: the rat race. No nine-to-five or gold watch for me, thank you very much (even if I worked full-time to pay the bills — and for periods I did — it would not be my employment that defined me, but my calling as a writer; this I determined early, and so it was).

It was a useful vision in its way, and galvanized me to great productivity. Later on, however, even after successfully completing and publishing numerous works, I developed a lurking suspicion that my Lone Wolf outlook might be a bit flawed. Most prominently, it seemed to engender mild but undeniable feelings of humiliation whenever I filled out grant or fellowship applications. And months later, receiving the form letter containing the phrase “your application was not successful,” a strange dejection would dog me for days: Some Lone Wolf you are! Spurned Puppy is more like it.

Something was out of joint.

Recently, upon reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, it occurred to me that my early go-it-alone vision was never really a break with the American Dream, but more precisely a variation upon it. That is to say, I had subscribed to the (western capitalist) idea that one succeeds alone.

Thornton Wilder once described American individualism thusly: 
"The inability to draw strength from any dependency."
I had crept dangerously close to feeling ashamed of myself for seeking, or needing to seek, help.

Success Myths: 
In Outliers Gladwell encourages us to see through our culture’s success myths, and presents numerous compelling case-studies to help us do so. It seems to me his message is particularly beneficial in a present moment rife with job loss.
"In the autobiographies published every year by the billionaire/entrepreneur/rock star/celebrity, the story line is always the same: our hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit and talent fights his way to greatness. … [But] people don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." 
Later he goes on:
"The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think Outliers [Gladwell's term for the brilliantly successful] spring naturally from the earth."
Meritocracy: “Those Worthy of Success Should Need No Help”:
America, we are encouraged to believe, is a pure meritocracy. But we do well to remember — especially in tough economic times like now — that faith in meritocracy is often a recipe for unhappiness, for as Alain de Botton eloquently reminds us in his remarkable book Status Anxiety:

"In a meritocratic world in which well-paid jobs [can] be secured only through native intelligence and ability, money [begins] to look like a sound signifier of character. The rich are not only wealthier, it seem[s]; they might also be plain better."
De Botton quotes this creepy sentiment from Andrew Carnegie, written in the latter’s 1920 Autobiography:
"Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do."
Anti-Gladwellian myths have long obtained all around us:
  • The self-made icons of success did it on their own
  • Success is won by individual virtue and determination
  • To need help is to be unworthy of success
As these success-myths persist, the following equation too often applies:

Belief in myth of self-made success + Belief in meritocracy = Shame/Disillusionment/Despair/Resignation

The Lone Wolf Was Never Really Alone:
Though it’s true that the discipline of writing must ultimately be honed and matured in solitude, the sustainment of this endeavor calls for help, be it moral or financial, from beyond the writer’s solitary zone. The bracing encouragement of friends and loved ones, the inspiration of teachers or literary luminaries long dead, and indeed, the material assistance of grants and endowments — all are essential to the writer’s survival and vitality.

I may give my best, do my all, and still need help. We all need it sometimes. Without the unfailing support and encouragement of my wife it would have been immeasurably more difficult for me to write and publish two novels before I was thirty. This is just the tip of the iceberg of my moral debts.

This month I’ve partnered with United States Artists to raise funds for my latest book, which will be something of a special offering: an illustrated, limited edition short story collection. In the two weeks since the fundraiser launched, 27 supporters have come forward to take us 45% of the way to the funding goal. Here’s to USA for helping out artists like me — and here’s to all those who have so generously lent their support so far, whether by pledging, helping me spread the word, or both.

I have not done and cannot do it alone. That, paradoxically, is a freeing thought.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Date of Disappearance Fundraiser Update

The Date of Disappearance Administrative Assistant has just drawn the name of this week’s PATRON EXTRAORDINAIRE!

Ray and Joanna Shields will receive a complete, personalized, downloadable audio version of my short story “Summer.” Congrats, Ray and Joanna! I’ll be in touch.

Yesterday, in a blog post that contemplated Malcolm Gladwell, Andrew Carnegie, and American success myths, I wrote:
“Though it’s true that the discipline of writing must ultimately be honed and matured in solitude, the sustainment of this endeavor calls for help, be it moral or financial, from beyond the writer’s solitary zone. … I have not done and cannot do it alone.”
Continued thanks to all my supporters for stepping forward to help with what I envision as a beautiful and unusual project. Because of you, Date of Disappearance is now 30% funded.

We’ve still got $3,315 to raise in the mere 54 days left until United States Artists pulls the plug on this fundraiser. In effect right now, a special matching grant is doubling all incoming pledges until we’ve reached the 45% line. If you've intended to pledge but haven’t gotten around to it yet, please know your money will go twice as far.

And have I mentioned pledges can be made offline, without a credit card? Here’s a helpful link: http://www.unitedstatesartists.org/pdf/USA_Manual_Donation_Form.pdf

All supporters who have pledged in the time between this fundraiser’s launch and the end of Saturday, October 2nd will be eligible to receive (in addition to the standard pledge perks)…
An eye-catching Western Meadowlark coffee mug from what is said to be the largest independent bookstore in the world, Portland’s own Powell’s Books. Impress your friends and stir envy among fellow bibliophiles!
PLEDGE BY: 11:59 p.m. PT, Saturday, Oct.1st

In gratitude, and for the love of books,

Date of Disappearance Project Goal:
Amount Raised as of Today:
            $1,445 (or 30%!)
Remaining Amount to Raise:
Fundraising Days Remaining:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Announcing the Date of Disappearance Patron Extraordinaire! Program

We're entering week two of fundraising for my illustrated limited edition story collection, Date of Disappearance. Many thanks to all those who have pledged. We're at 15% of the project goal! Now I'd like to add some extra perks to encourage your support.

Each week, beginning next Sunday, Sept. 25th, my Administrative Assistant (my three-year-old son) will select by random drawing a Date of Disappearance PATRON EXTRAORDINAIRE! Every person who has pledged $15 or more since the project launched will be automatically entered in the drawing, and each week’s Patron Extraordinaire! will receive, in addition to the official pledge perks, an EXCLUSIVE NO-EXTRA-COMMITMENT GIFT!

Make your pledge by the end of Saturday (9/24), and be eligible to receive…

A downloadable audio version of my short story “Summer” in its entirety, including my personal audio greeting and dedication to YOU. Listen in the car, on the bus, or during your workout! This is story #7 in the collection. Here’s a two-sentence sneak peek:
“Ingmar came over today. We hung around in the fort and it was like a hundred and ten degrees in there under the fiberglass but we just kept shooting each other with water-uzis.”

PLEDGE BY: 11:59 p.m. PT, Saturday, Sept. 24th

As we move into Week Two of funding, please remember:

a)      This is “micro-philanthropy.” — Anybody can pledge any amount from $1 upward (and every dollar helps)
b)      Your pledge can reserve you a book. $25 gets you the finished, numbered limited edition. You’ll receive a low-numbered copy hot from the printer, plus additional perks!
c)      Support takes many forms. If you can’t pledge monetarily, you can pledge in spirit by helping to spread the word. Embed the Date of Disappearance video on your blog, “Like” it and pass it around!

Now, have a listen to and/or download this audio clip from “We Are Not Civilians Here.” It's Story #4 in the book.

We Are Not Civilians Here, a short story excerpt by M. Allen Cunningham

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Special Way to Support the Literary Arts!

I've launched a project page on the Unites States Artists website, in support of my envisioned limited edition short story collection, Date of Disappearance. This book will feature the astonishing artwork of fellow Portlander Nathan Shields.

The video below illuminates. Please take a look and consider following the link to lend a hand. You can donate as little as $1, or choose from several pledge amounts and receive special gifts (right up to an original short story I will write based on prompts you provide).

A $25 pledge gets you a signed and numbered copy of the limited edition, plus additional perks. All donations are tax deductible. If unable to donate, please help me spread the word! I've got until November 18th to rally the resources.

For love of the codex, and with many thanks,