Sunday, March 20, 2011

Words and Deeds and Vision

I like my job, in case you're wondering. I get to meet a lot of activists, people who organize and direct other people's efforts at making the world a better place. I get to interact with them as they try to translate what they've learned, in book form, for a broader network of people. I get a front-row seat, as their editor, for the stories that have been most seminal to them in their work, for the principles that ground them and that they wish they saw more of in the world. Sometimes I even get to tell them what I think they are wrong about, but that's not why I like my job.

(Well, maybe it's a little bit why I like it.)

I got together with one such mover and shaker today. He's in town for a writing retreat, which could easily be confused with a Starbucks bender. He actually carried a Starbucks coffee cup into the Starbucks cafe we were meeting at, like some highly caffeinated Groundhog Day. But I digress. We talked, among other things, about the difficulty of running an organization, caring for staff, advancing the work, and, uh, writing a book. One of these things is decidedly not like the others.

To make matters more complicated, he had gotten counsel from some other organizational activists that he should write not one book but three, because it's after three books that people start taking you seriously as a writer. Think about that: you spend the better part of every week championing a cause, hitting the streets, rallying people and making a difference; and you won't be taken seriously till you've written at least 120,000 words about it. And you're an activist--writing 120,000 words (at minimum) is like a prison sentence. Why would anyone willingly submit themselves to that?

Part of my job, then, becomes "the case for writing a book." And I think it comes down to whether service--the work of the organization--is enough, or whether and at what point a leader is called beyond service to influence.

A certain amount of influence is inherent to service, of course; you're modeling behavior for the people you serve, not to mention the activists you lead. But influence is nevertheless a separate category from service, in that leadership extends beyond any single act of service to the idea of what the world should look like, and that conversation necessarily takes place beyond the scope of the service. Influence takes place in conversation with those who don't already agree, who haven't already assimilated, or who need to be pulled further along toward a leader's vision of the world as it could be.

Again, that doesn't take place, at least in its fullest expression, on the street where you serve or in the halls where you already hold power. Such influence must be transmitted, and the best forum for a cohesive, integrated vision for the world isn't the offhand conversation or even the vaunted stage, but in a well-tempered collection of sentences and paragraphs and chapters, patiently and systematically laid out for the patient and systematic reader to wrestle with and come around to. Without engaging the nonparticipant, your acts of service, however noble and innovative, remain local and limited. Good deeds eventually need good words, or they close in on themselves.

Don't get me wrong: good words need good deeds even more. Talk is cheap and won't gain in value until they're backed up with (a) proof of commitment and (b) proof of effect. I'm less and less interested every day in reading the opinions of armchair activists; the cliche that pays for me, anymore, is "Put up or shut up."

That being said, once you've put up, it makes little sense to shut up. You're in it to mix things up, and comes from mixing it up with people who don't know of you, who never thought about what you're passionate about, who could be recruited to your way of thinking and thus to reshaping the world toward your vision of it.

So set aside some time and write a book, already. But before you write--even before you do anything--make sure your vision is actually good.

Love,
Your friendly neighborhood armchair activist

2 comments:

TBone said...

It is weird how the somewhat "easy" task of writing a book can be much more effective than the "hard work" of actually serving people.

Mark Nielsen said...

I think of it as a farming analogy: the worker gets his/her hands dirty, God "makes it rain" (though not with $$$ so much, at least in your publishing realm), then the worker, editor and consumers gather the harvest.

Keep at it. I'm hungry.

And as for writing that book... I'm tryin', I'm TRYIN'!