Stories We Tell
Today begins the YouNiversity Initiative, an ambitious project to mentor college students on the various factors of being a professional writer: How to build a brand, How to submit query letters, How to utilize social media and video as promotional tools, The technical aspects of book publishing, How the publishing business works, How to improve their authorial voice, Different approaches to writing, Self-editing, and Networking. The two men who will be heading the program are journalist-poet-model-professor-novelist Chris Campanioni, and Aignos co-founder, former Editor in Chief, freelance editor, and novelist Jonathan Marcantoni. In this space, the Jonathan Marcantoni talks about his own journey as a writer and how his own experience inspired the YouNiversity Initiative.
One of the defining moments for me as a writer was when I was 18 and working as an improvisational poet and living statue artist for the street performance group Behind the Masque. I was a huge fan of spoken word, particularly the brand shown on HBO’s Def Poetry. Me and another BTM performer, this big Irish guy with a red beard and a love for anything gothic and operatic, went to a Halloween party at this dive bar full of bikers and geeks and old drunks. Everyone was dressed in costumes except for me, the dorky high school kid with big glasses and a poof of slicked back hair. My friend did his performance of Roald Dahl limerick and everyone loved it, then he introduced me and I don’t even remember the piece I did, but what I do remember is that halfway through this guy in Black Sabbath make-up yells out—We don’t give a shit about your stupid poem.—For a moment I was paralyzed and my heart sank, and then before my friend, who looked like he was ready to railroad the guy, could say anything, this woman with long red hair and an even longer red dress topped with armor and wielding a massive sword, like some medieval fairy warrior, swung her weapon in the guy’s face and said—I give a shit. Now sit the fuck down and listen.—And the whole place erupted in applause. The woman looked at me and told me to continue, and who was I to argue?
That experience taught me a lot, about perseverance, about taking public criticism, and about facing your fears of rejection. If you are passionate and courageous, you will find fans. There are more people in the world who want to lift you up than tear you down, but it’s the negative reactions that stay with you. They swim around your mind eating away at any compliment you receive. I’d say it takes ten compliments to overcome a single bad critique, on average. You never really learn how to take criticism well, but what you do learn is how to manage the hurt feelings in a way that inspires positive action.
Being a street performer and stage actor took me outside of my comfort zone and pushed me to squash my personal insecurities, or at least prevent them from holding me back. No matter how down I felt about myself in everyday life, the moment I took the stage, any kind of stage, I was king of the moment. I think about this a great deal when I meet writers. Writers nowadays largely come up in an academic environment that preaches not only a lot of unnecessary rules, but also passivity. The writer is a stuffy intellectual, or a loner. To be sociable is not encouraged, but to form cliquish comfort zones is. Writers are not forced to push themselves, in fact, the more you fit into a box, say, the sci-fi genre or horror genre or high literary works, the better. This mindset does not challenge writers and what happens is that the literature produced by these people is typically bland and lacking innovation.
When I started working as a freelance editor I found that most authors have a hard time communicating what they want from their book. They have set about the task as though a novel was this uniform object, like buying a car. Page count was more important than pacing or cohesive plots. They wanted to have a book out because a book is impressive, regardless what was on the inside. I thought initially this was a typical self-publishing mindset, but when I began working for an actual publisher, Savant Books, I found that the mindset is widespread. People jump at the chance to write a book without thinking of the mechanics involved in storytelling. I found in the theatre world a much greater concern for how one tells stories. In theatre, there is constant innovation, because no production is done alone. Even a one man show has a director, lighting and sound crews, prop guys, some even have script consultants. Actors regularly bring in friends and associates to watch rehearsals and give feedback. There is a community emphasis as well as an understanding that criticism is a good thing. The idea in theatre is always to make the best product possible, even at the community or school level. Perhaps this is because your audience is right in front of, and as a performer, you feed off their reactions. Nothing is more awkward than a joke bombing on stage. Just imagine two hours of bad jokes—the experience is more painful than you can imagine. Writers feel they do not have to experience this sort of scrutiny. In fact, the modern writer can shield themselves from it pretty easily. Even if a writer breaks out and is subject to greater criticism, that criticism comes from a stranger, and can be ignored, and what does it matter, the book is published, no critic can take that away. Therefore, a generation of self-absorbed, thin skinned, cowardly writers has emerged, and I do not want to contribute to that.
Creating Aignos with Zach Oliver was a way of combating this storm of mediocrity. We would pursue the writers who still wanted to push themselves and interact with the world around them, and be bold. I often talk to friends about New Era Writers, and this program is an extension of the New Era mythos, which can be summed up as: Writing as a Community. That means engagement, through your immediate community and an online community. Taking advantage of new technologies to form a truly global network dedicated to your brand as an author. It means challenging yourself and pushing past your inhibitions. Any limits you think you have, knock them down, with the help of your friends. Writers used to be renegades, traveling the world, seeking out adventure and new experiences. To be a writer was to be a bold citizen of the world, and that was before the internet. We can be that again, but in a way that was never imagine previously because technology has made the world more accessible than ever before. That means embracing the lessons of performance artists, who practice and exhibit their works for others in order to improve. Performers rely on their audience to grow, and so should writers. Gone are the days of the writer as hermit. There is no future in solitude.
I wanted to take those ideas and share them with younger people, college age people to be more specific. In the ten years since I started freelancing, I have learned how to do just about everything wrong before getting it somewhat right, and I am still learning. The greatest lessons I have learned has been in the two years since starting Aignos, where I have been able to meet and befriend other publishers and really learn the ropes of the industry. If I can impart the ten years of knowledge I’ve accrued to people who are just getting started, then I can save them time, energy, and even some pain, in making a career for themselves. Of course I cannot do this alone, which is why I have Chris directly involved as well as the dozen or so contacts and friends who have agreed to help out on this odyssey. If there is one lesson I hope to impart to people it is this: knowledge is meaningless if it is not shared. I cannot give much back, but knowledge I can impart in droves.