Predator and Prey

bigmacattack_bvcThere’s been a lot of unrest in the online world of late. A lot of speaking up and speaking out, and a whole lot of spelling out of uncomfortable things. Racism, sexism, inequality of all kinds–in the world of blogs and writers and genre as well as in the wider world.

My recent industry posts have been part of that. Saying what I believe has needed to be said. Expressing hard truths in a public forum.

When I put up the first post, I expected a horde of trolls to show up and start slinging offal. But the discussion here has been unfailingly polite and constructive. I’ve heard of trolling elsewhere, but none of the trolls and naysayers has come here to say any of it where I might answer.

I’ve been thinking about why that might be, and pondering a related discussion on forced civility. And also, because I do the Horseblog, too (and it will be back, because I have more to say about that, too), considering how one deals with large animals whose interests may not match one’s own. And it’s come together in my head.

When I was thinking about what publishing has turned into, I kept coming back to the idea of learned helplessness. The idea that a person’s agency, and ability to act, can become suppressed by an ongoing pattern of abuse or subjection, to the point that the person no longer believes they have any such ability–even when in fact they do. It’s one way power structures maintain power, especially when the powerless are in the majority. Keep them barefoot and pregnant, ignorant and misled, and well breaded and circused, and they won’t, you hope, ever wake up to the fact that they’ve been had.

Until, gradually or suddenly, they do. Maybe it takes a Voltaire or a Robespierre; maybe everybody snaps en masse, a la the Arab Spring. It’s the point at which not only the oppressed realize they’re numerous and have power, but also the price of oppression exceeds the price of resisting it. Or to put it another way, they’re mad as  hell and they not gonna take it any more.

That’s the mass response–revolution. But there’s an individual form, too. Rosa Parks was tired and had just plain had it with going to the back of the bus. Gandhi sat down and wouldn’t move. They said, Enough.

Authors in general aren’t laying their lives on the line to the degree that these great activists and revolutionaries have done (though the likes of Solzhenitsyn and the Arab bloggers jailed and tortured for speaking out would certainly qualify), but many have had to face hard choices about their work and their livelihood. And for those broken or critically blocked by the changes in publishing, the process of recovery has required some intense self-examination as well as realization of what’s been done to them.

Being civil. Accepting what they’re told they can’t change. Putting up with abuse because there’s no apparent choice. Keeping their heads down and their mouths shut and doing what they have to do in order to keep their careers alive–under the terms and according to the definitions of the old-style publishing industry. No power, no choice. Take it or leave it. Want to get your words out there? Put up and shut up.

My personal wake-up call happened by sheerest chance, or karma if you will, to coincide with a major upheaval in the equestrian part of my life. That for me is equally important, and can be equally emotionally fraught–and in the summer of 2008, boy howdy was it. I’d been systematically dismantled and several of my horses damaged by one of those fast-talking fraudsters who infest the horse-training world, and reduced to sitting at ringside while “someone who knows what they’re doing” rode my horse.

And I sat up one day and said, “Whisky Tango Foxtrot, Over?” I looked at the horse I’d foaled out, raised, and trained, the fruit of decades of study and training–and saw him being ridden poorly by someone with far less experience or understanding than I had, who happened to be a devout disciple of Madame Fraud. And I realized I’d been royally had.

It took several years, lots of tears and bruises and a fair bit of stress, and a sharp left turn out of the training regime I’d been in, but I survived, and I’ve recovered. Just as I have as a writer, and on about the same schedule.

One thing I learned from that combination of experiences, that I’d known for a long time but had been induced to forget, was that I was nowhere near as ignorant or as powerless as I’d been led to believe. I had been taught to act like prey–to lie low, make myself small, and fear the predator flying overhead or stalking my track. I did as I was told, believed what I was told, and let myself be used and abused by people and corporations that cared only for what they could get out of me.

I had to learn not to be prey. To recognize when I was being manipulated for someone else’s benefit, but more than that, to change the way I thought. To stop thinking small and making myself small.

In horse training there’s something called “The Two Minds.” Ironically enough, Madame Fraud was big on it. The idea is that no matter how fearful you may be inside, you present an appearance of calm confidence on the outside, and that’s what the horse responds to. Or to put it more bluntly, you don’t let him smell your fear.

It often happens that calm and confidence outside expands toward the inside as well, as the horse calms down and becomes safer to handle, and therefore more trustworthy. Pretty soon, if all goes well and nobody explodes or dies, the fear fades and even vanishes–on both sides. And you have a trained horse and a trained self, and a solid working partnership.

The same can apply to the author dealing with the world of publishing. So many of the awful terms have been allowed to happen because authors and agents let them happen–because they believe they have no other choice. Which once might have been true, and still may be so for some–but for many if not most, there are other choices. Other ways to get the work out there.

The hard part is not just facing the fact of choice, but being able as well as willing to accept the price. In a negotiation, the party with power is the one that can walk away. That is willing and able to let the deal die if the terms are unacceptable. That can say no, and mean it. And leave if that’s what it takes.

That’s hard. Especially if one has been conditioned to take what’s given, no matter how rotten a deal it may be. With horses one sees this in the timid rider whose horse is running all over her on the ground and running away with her when she’s in the saddle–as well as in the abusive trainer who damages both horse and human.

It’s also hard because the consequences may be difficult or scary–leaving the safety of contracts, learning to go on one’s own, fearing the loss of income and sales. It’s not a decision taken lightly, unless the decision is made by the other side: being dropped or severely lowballed, in which case it’s even harder because of the emotional as well as financial and creative shock.

Being not-prey means learning not to be afraid; or if one is afraid, working through the fear. It means keeping one’s eyes open to scams and manipulation, and understanding where one has power and where one has to accept less sanguine realities. Choosing one’s battles, gauging one’s capabilities accurately, and knowing when to say no as well as when (and how) to take the reins and ride through.

All of which brings me around to this series of blogs, and a realization of my own. I am not presenting as prey. I don’t have to. I’m still fighting a number of battles with both the books and the horses, but the old fears and insecurities are much reduced. I don’t have anything to lose by telling the truth–and I have a lot to gain by sharing it, especially if it leads to new books by authors who also were broken, but who are waking up to the possibilities of the new world.

That’s happening all over. It’s messy, it’s uproarious, it’s frequently ugly. But it’s not going away. I’m far from the only one saying, All right. Enough. Not putting up any more. Not ducking my head and forcing myself to deal.

The time for that is over. A whole lot of us are sitting tall on that horse, and we’re not ever going to let ourselves be relegated to that chair at ringside again, watching someone else make a mess of him.

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Predator and Prey — 20 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post. It’s exactly what I needed to hear today on so very many levels.

  2. I just finished Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie, a 600+-page memoir of his life, virtually all of it about the time between the Iranian fatwa calling for all good Muslims to kill him and the (more or less) retreat from that position more than ten years later.
    I found it fascinating, and it’s right in the heart of what you’re talking about here. You might appreciate it.
    Meanwhile, thanks for what you do!

  3. In the cases of revolutionaries, people rose when they had nothing left to lose.

    Though, as you say, we are not talking about physical survival, we are talking about something that matters to us, in which we have invested a great portion of our working lives.

    If someone leaches away our livelihood, then what have we to lose? We are not destroying the structures of those in authority, burning all their work and dragging people off to the killing ground, we are creating our own authority, one heart, mind, pair of hands at a time.

  4. Perhaps not coincidentally, I dreamed last night of a conversation with a woman several decades my junior, who confidently introduced herself as a writer. “Oh?” I said, always happy to talk shop. “What have you written?”

    “I’m the author of the Stained Glass books. The second will be out this year.”

    “And how long have you been doing this?”

    “Three years!”

    I thought, as I quietly said I’d been selling professionally for over 30 years, Why am I being so insanely modest? It’s not that she has no right to brag, but what’s keeping me from tooting my considerably-more-than-two novels career? By what internal standard am I not measuring up?

  5. Thank you for this. I have just discovered that a contract I signed was negotiated in bad faith, and have spent the past two days developing potential exit strategies, some of which involve walking away from the agreement entirely. It’s not a writing contract, but the same principles definitely apply. Great post.

  6. I read lots of blogs about self publishing and the point most repeatedly make is that it is part of what a writer needs to be aware of these days, no matter how she gets her words out. I see so many people who look at the work involved and throw up their hands in surrender before they even start. Too many writers are so sure that it’s all too much work for them and I hear the echo of that learned helplessness you mention. Even before Amazon and the Kindle changed the landscape I knew I was more interested in publishing my own work because I didn’t want to have to dance thru all the hoops I saw between me & ‘published’ in the scheme of publishing Before. Get an Agent to get an Editor so we can *maybe* get a Publisher just seemed like too long a road.

    I found my way here via the Stockholm post on Mz Kit and the Shattered Writers post. I knew you from Alf & Thea and Roland. I was annoyed to find the only ebook I have of yours (which I’m currently rereading) is Devil’s Bargain. I’m hoping to see more books in those worlds coming in future. In any case, thank you for your perspective. It’s always interesting.

  7. Wow. During the same time period, I was going through the same type of oppression in my personal life. I had married a man that was amazing but over the years, bit by bit, he stripped away my personal rights and freedoms. I had to learn the same lessons about inner strength and self empowerment to get out of that situation as you needed to learn to get through your horse and writing struggles.
    “Live free or die” has become my mantra. It’s the motto of the state I grew up in but it never really hit me until my own struggle for freedom just how powerful a statement it is. That motto was always in me, I merely had to embrace it and stay true to it’s meaning.
    Your power source lies in characters you have written. View them as messages from your past self as examples to follow. They will lead you back to the assurance of your strength to hold yourself free and powerful.
    Lori