The Rock You're Gonna Die On

A long time ago, in the Land of Enchantment, I was a graduate student in English. And as graduate students are wont to do, I got all worked up about sometime and went to complain to the dean of my college about whatever it was.* My dean was an awesome woman named Dr. Patrice, and, after hearing me out, she said this:

Jay, you gotta decide which rock you're gonna die on. This isn't it.

In other words, Dr. Patrice was saying, the thing that I was getting all het up about wasn't worth it. Sure, I could go on a rampage and make things happen and whatever, but ultimately it would be a lot of heat and light and energy for something small.

I was reminded of this story recently, when Jessica Faust over at Bookends blog took some heat for saying that writers might have to censor themselves in their online personas, and in their work, in order to sell their projects. The most succinct statement of her position is this:

Certainly I don’t support censorship. I think we should all have the right to read what we want, express our beliefs and opinions, and be who we are. That being said, I think it’s na├»ve to think that others don’t judge us or make opinions about us and our work based on their own beliefs, opinions and, yes, prejudices.

I'm surprised, really, that this should be a controversial position. Of course you have to censor yourself in order to have a career in writing. You have to do it to have a career in anything, really, except I suppose maybe performance art or something.**

I would love to tell people what I really think of them all the time. I could tell the guy I work with my real opinion of his abilities (low), or an ex-boyfriend how I really feel about the fact that he's my ex (happy, actually), or a friend of mine what I really think of her behavior over the past 12 months (selfish and immature). And I can. This is America, after all. I can say pretty much whatever I want about other people, as long as it's true (and even sometimes if it's not).

But it is a fantasy, and a foolish one at that, to think that I can indulge in such self-expression and not face consequences for it. In fact, that's one of the most effective limits on free speech that exists--the fear of repercussions.***

An example: recently, Agent Ted sent me an email saying "hey, can we take this sentence out of the Book." The sentence dealt with a controversial subject (of course). I basically had two choices at that point: I could say yes, or I could say no.

So I thought about it. The sentence adds something to the Book -- it wouldn't be there in the first place if it didn't -- but the question isn't "does it add something?" but does it add more than it takes away? Does it add more than the risk it creates in alienating editors and readers (and the parents of readers)? How important is it?

Ultimately, I said yes, we could take it out. It didn't add enough. It wasn't worth it.

Oooh, I censored myself! I have been censored! I am censorific! I have been censified! Whatever shall I do? My artistic integrity has been compromised!

Or, you know, not at all. I chose. I get to. I could have disagreed with Agent Ted on his suggested change. But I didn't actually disagree, after I thought about it.

Now, at some point down the road, I might find that rock. Someone--Ted or an editor or the buying agent at a major bookseller or someone--might want me to change something so big that to do so would ruin the book I want to write. I might need to die on that rock. But, this?

This isn't the rock I'm going to die on.


* I don't even remember, actually.

** I wouldn't know, I'm not a performance artist.

*** A friend of mine who is a journalist says that that's why so many journalists are horrible people--in order to be good at their jobs they have supressed the normal human fear of consequences for asking the hard questions. I suspect that's why so many lawyers are horrible people, as well. :)


Nice post and so true. There are lots of choices to be made in writing and publishing. You have to pick your battles carefully. That said, I hope it was a rather innocuous sentence Agent Ted wanted removed, not a wonderful sentence it took you hours to write, ha ha.

Guy you work with, eh? Well, since you chose present tense, I'll take that as not referring to me!

Censoring one's online personality is almost a given. My blog readers know that I'll give them a pretty accurate presentation of my opinion but I've made it clear over the years that I can't tell them everything. There's no point in needlessly offending my relatives by telling them EVERYTHING I think. As it is, one aunt said she enjoys reading my blog . . . most of the time.

Sounds like you got some really good advice back in the day and have put it to use over the years.

Friday, February 5, 2010 at 8:58:00 AM EST  

It was an innocuous sentence, ultimately. I mean, I liked it and I thought it added a nuance, but that's all it was--a nuance. Big picture, it didn't change the character or the story except in the most minute way, so OUT! It wasn't the right rock, you know?

And of course I am not referring to you! Don't be ridiculous.

Friday, February 5, 2010 at 10:51:00 AM EST  

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