August 01, 2003
Thoughts About How To Package Youth Liberation Texts
Are you an activist who wants to change the world? Then write a book!
Unfortunately, fuzzy thinking can get in the way of using educational texts effectively. When talking about books, I think there's a tendency to forget about the container -- as if ideas in their pure form could just be handed from one person to another. I think how you physically package information is nearly as important a concern as what you actually write. People relate to a hardcover book or a tri-fold pamphlet first as an object; they have to get past that to get to the information. ...To use books effectively, activists have to understand that they are not ideas in themselves -- they are concrete tools.
In this essay, I want to talk both about a book as a physical object, and about the disembodied text that you put inside the book (or other formats). After describing how activists' books get exchanged, I'll discuss the implications for what kind of tone one should use, and my personal approach to generating text.
I. THE BOOK AS A PHYSICAL PRODUCT
You want to write a book. I try think in really practical terms. I'm wondering about what you want to do with this book once you've got it written...
There's the issue of cost. If you use 8.5x11" paper for your pages, even just 20 pages @ $.05 each means these things are going to cost a buck or more, each, to produce. I don't know if you've got the budget to actually get them printed, instead of photocopied, but that'd probably cost even more -- particularly since you'd have to produce them in bulk, rather than a few at a time. At a buck each, you're not going to hand copies out very casually. I'm guessing you'd end up wanting to charge something, to recoup some of your costs. Trying to sell the book as a sort of zine maybe changes the dynamic you had in mind.
Once you make the book, how are you going to distribute it? I ran a bisexual organization for several years, doing community-building, public education, political advocacy, and large events. Our group created some hand-outs -- but then there was the question of how to get rid of them! Whenever we held a discussion group, a workshop, or a conference, we could set them out on tables. If we had been working in a zine format, we could have gotten our lit into the local bookstores. We talked about sending copies to local organizations, so they could lay them out wherever they had other informational flyers (but we never actually got around to doing this). ...So basically my question is this: once you've got copies, where are you going to put them so people see them?
How many copies do you want to get rid of, and how quickly? If you give away the book for free, someone has to look at the thing sitting there on the table and think "hey, I think I'll pick one up". ...But these things are expensive; you don't necessarily *want* them to just grab a copy if they're not really going to read it. I know for myself, there's lots of times when I'll take a pamphlet just because someone's pushing it at me, just so I can keep walking. Even with the lit that I pick up voluntarily, most of it I never get around to reading. You don't just want to get rid of copies -- you want to get them into the hands of people who will really care about reading what you wrote.
So who's a "motivated consumer"? I think there's mainly just two kinds of people who are genuinely interested in reading what you have to say: people who already think of Youth Liberation as a pet cause, and people who are interested in the author as a person. If I wrote a book, I bet that I could sell *you* a copy, and I bet that I could sell copies to my friends. People I meet while doing workshops and conferences might buy copies -- having met me, they feel like they've got a connection. If I'm really lucky, you, my friends, and these other brief acquaintances will recommend my work to people I haven't even met yet. There's got to be some kind of personal connection... I mean, how often do you actually pick up a book you've never heard of, about something you know nothing about -- like "Eating Habits of the Ancient Greeks"?
II. WHAT KIND OF TONE TO USE
I think this model I've described -- of what it's like to create a book, and who's interested in reading a copy -- has some implications for what tone you use.
I don't think writing to convert hardened opponents of Youth Liberation is worthwhile; political enemies seldom read each others' books, or respond respectfully when they do. Twice, I've had friends use my essays to communicate with their partners. When I think about the level of antagonism that I want to counter, I think "friends of my friends" is probably the right audience to have in mind.
If I'm writing for the kind of people that I hang out with, then I'm going to avoid dumbing-down my material. I think I've noticed a tendency among folks who are trying to do public education, to try to make the ideas they're selling as simple as possible. Booooring! I want to read about a topic that I'm already a little aquatinted with, but I want the book I'm reading to take me "to the next level". I want ideas that are exciting. I want the questions that still puzzle me to be answered. I want to read an author that is honest about what they don't know, who are themselves engaged in wrestling with ideas, who will take me along with them on an intellectual journey -- who'll talk *up* to me, not down.
III. GENERATING TEXT
I've been trying for years to write a good, short "Introduction to Youth Liberation" essay. I think it's a damned hard project. My heart's with you, cheering for your success. This may not be useful, *but just in case*, I'm going to say a little about what kind of writing process is working for me these days.
I think I keep getting tripped up by focusing on how I want to physically package my ideas: in a tri-fold pamphlet, a 20 page booklet, or a hardcover masterpiece. I keep on setting out to write one thing, and winding up with another. I discover that I've got way more to say on a subject than will fit in my intended format; or I figure out that I really don't have a clue about what to say on one of the topics in my outline. It will be so cool if / when I eventually pull my book together... In the meantime, I've changed my strategy to just trying to generate lots of material. By writing lots and lots of essays, I'll be able to figure out what it is that I actually know (and am able to articulate) and what it is that I only *think* I know. [When I write, I'm half telling other people what I think, and half just telling myself.] ...Later on I can see what pieces I have and put them all together into something bigger.
When I see outline topics such as "What is adultism?" and "A short summary of the philosophy", I get excited... I'd love to try writing essays on each of those things! Trying to sum each of them up in a paragraph or a page, though? I feel now like what I'd want to do is take a few hours to write the full essay, then extract the summary paragraph. Trying to write a summary for somebody first, without having gone through the process of articulating exactly what *I* believe, feels daunting. Maybe it's more difficult to write "short" than "long".
Generating more text than I actually need has another benefit: I can cut it up and repackage it in lots of different ways. Once I have an essay on some subject, I can put it on my website, put it in a zine format, submit it for publication to various groups. Nothing has to go to waste. This is particularly true with the internet providing essentially free publishing. I don't have to put up my one-and-only thing to say -- I can make everything available and let other people sort through it, pulling out what they want.
Why do we need really short essays anyway? If an essay, by it's own nature, wants to be short -- then that's great. But I've gotten the feeling that a lot of us doing activism are hung-up on turning our heart-felt beliefs into one-liners and billboard slogans. Yeah, when I go to a protest I want to have something catchy on my picket sign -- but that's not where I'm really going to change hearts and minds. Instead of taking what we want to say and condensing it down, let's have more forums where we can really go into as much detail as we want. Ultimately, I think it's in really hashing out the details through conversation (verbal or written) that Youth Liberation is going to take root.
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August 1, 2003