Both idealism and cynicism can result in paralysis

When he was interviewed by Bill Moyers a year ago, Parker Palmer used the term irrelevant idealism, which encapsulates a frustration I’ve encountered often. Irrelevant idealism affects people who want to make a difference but feel powerless, so they remain passive and stay out of the fray. Palmer warned that it’s a mistake to encourage enthusiasm for transformation or an awareness of the need for change and then fail to offer people a way to participate.

Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, a retreat for disheartened professionals who want to restore integrity and courage in their lives. The organization’s goal is to inspire conference attendees to return to their jobs better able to cope effectively with the usual bureaucratic obstacles.

People working in the publishing business today recognize that drastic change is inevitable and the courses their careers will take are likely to be altered against their wishes. Those who aspire to positions in the publishing industry or who hope to achieve success as book authors might have a difficult time finding reliable information and advice at a time like this. What is recommended today could be wrong tomorrow.

The current stage of disruption in the publishing industry, if I’m not mistaken, will become a long-term phase of rapidly accelerating evolution in the business. The companies that stand to gain the most now are the businesses that offer people more efficient and frictionless means of participating in the publication, distribution, and consumption of creative writing. The simplest advice? Look to those companies. Be those professionals.

Tension exists between today’s publishing practices and what we know to be possible. Too much hopeless reality and too little progress toward improvement causes what Palmer refers to as corrosive cynicism: “Oh, I see how the world is made. It’s dog eat dog. It’s whoever gets the biggest piece of the pie gets the biggest piece of the pie. So I’m going to take my share and run, and let the devil take the hindmost.”

The people we most admire are able to confront endless possibility without being stymied by either corrosive cynicism or irrelevant idealism. They don’t shy away from the struggle to learn something new, the embarrassment of being a novice, or the confusion of having neither documentation nor proof that an innovation will succeed. Other people, and the businesses that employ them, are less fortunate. They suffer from disillusionment, burnout, and paralysis while surrounded by eager innovators who take risks—and eventually take over.

Next week, at the AWP Annual Conference at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, I’ll face a small gathering of idealists willing to give Christina Katz, Jane Friedman, David Sanders, and me their time in exchange for our ideas and answers during a panel session titled “What’s Your Platform? What Agents & Editors Are Looking For in Writers.” The session will be held on Thursday, April 8, 2010, from 12:00-1:15 p.m. in room 401. Here’s the program description:

Yes, the quality of your writing still matters. But becoming visible and influential is more crucial to landing a book deal than ever, according to agents and editors in every facet of the publishing industry. Aspiring authors need to develop a platform in order to get noticed. Fortunately for emerging writers in all genres, there are more affordable, accessible tools available for platform development and building, which makes this important responsibility a pleasure and not a chore.

Next Thursday afternoon someone will show up with questions and idealism. My challenge will be to show that person a way to risk participating in change. I hope I can do that. I’ll certainly give it a try.

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