The Iceman Cometh
Many moons ago when I worked for “the man,” I’d reached a state of utter burn out. There was absolutely no water left in my creative well. I’d peered into the abyss and fallen in. Even mine own private Resistance had gone on vacation. Even he knew I was toast.
I’d just finished a project with a very high profile celebrity that required an inordinate amount of humility. The celebrity would have none of my rational editor-speak or my insistence on linear storytelling. To make matters worse, the usual tools to enforce my power (really the corporation’s power) over the artist (money and contractual obligations) were useless.
The celebrity (someone with an extremely high I.Q. and an Übermensch sense of self…except when he felt threatened or unsure of himself…which was quite often, fun right?) wisely refused to sign the seven-figure contract I’d negotiated with his agent or accept one penny from the company until he was personally satisfied with the manuscript. He wouldn’t be strong-armed by the publishing machine. God knows he’d verbally agreed to the terms of the deal and had publicly announced his intentions of writing the book, going as far as appearing at the Book Expo convention with much hoopla.
But he simply refused to sign the contract until he was damn good and ready.
You may find it crazy for a publisher to move forward on a book without a signed contract, but publishers often agree to a project, announce it, catalog it, create a cover for it, and set a lock down pub date for it…all the while not having a “signed agreement” in place. It just takes a long time for lawyers to work out the specific language of the contracts and because large sums of money for these projects are at stake, it is very rare for them to go south. Who walks away from a million dollars guaranteed over a “returns clause?” The deals eventually get done long before pub date, checks clear, and all’s well.
Not so in this case.
In fact, two weeks after the book had been published and was on The New York Times bestseller list, I drove to this celebrity’s house, put the paperwork on the hood of my rented car and told him that I’d never ask him for another thing if he’d just sign the damn thing.
Funny that I had to “call in a favor” so that the person in question could be paid more money than I’d made in my career…
The absurdity of the situation did not escape my notice, especially after my reward for keeping the thing alive and actually getting it in print to reach the bestseller list was just getting to keep my job. Oh and a nice bottle of wine.
Here’s the thing:
The place where I was working had just undergone a “regime change.” That’s a nice way of saying that the publisher had been fired and another one had been brought in to right the ship. But what was weird was the “new” publisher turned out to be the previous publisher before the one who had just been fired.
It was a sort of George Steinbrenner/Billy Martin kind of situation where the previous publisher had a few bad seasons and was “promoted” by the corporate hierarchy to a position overseas. Big Big corporation by the way. He was probably under contract for a lot of money so the corporation shipped him to parts unknown to ride it out until he deposited his final check.
Another publisher (the one who hired me) was brought in to right the listing ship that the previous publisher had left…(now the returning new publisher…).
The publisher who had hired me had taken the company in a more “commercial” direction…meaning more big thrillers etc. on the list…hence my being hired. But she’d had mixed results and she wasn’t a very good schmoozer either. So she was canned (and all editors she’d hired were canned too…with the exception of moi) and the former publisher came back to restore the literary gravitas of the place, while he’d also been tasked with increasing net revenue. No easy feat. He actually pulled it off.
You can see why being a publisher ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Just as an aside, I liked both publishers. The boss who hired me was an old school brassy force of nature who’d risen from the secretarial pool to the corner office when women were still being called “girls” and my new boss (the guy who used to run the show brought back to run it again) turned out to be a real mensch.
But I had a boss in between myself and the publisher too and let’s just say we had a complicated relationship…more on that in a minute.
So what drove me into the abyss?
While I’m confident the celebrity liked working with me (we’re still distantly friendly), he could have cared less about my “career” or the fact that his failure to deliver the book when he said he would could easily be grounds for my firing. That’s not a criticism either. That’s the right attitude for an artist; serve the art not the peripheral forces demanding attention around the art.
Remember that this was a “big book” for the company too. It would drive a lot of revenue into the coffers just before the end of the fiscal year. My inner Sammy Glick knew that if I could get this thing together, I’d earn a lot of respect from my bosses and maybe I could become one someday soon myself…. So I kept making promises.
“Sure it’s going great! Don’t worry!”
“Book’s due to the printer next week? Oh don’t sweat it, we’re just doing some little interstitial tinkering.”
“You absolutely need by Friday? Sure, no problem!”
I worked three days and nights straight…didn’t leave the office…and stayed up all night long the night before the book was due on press with the celebrity and his equally suffering co-author to hit the deadline. But we did make it and we did sell a lot of copies.
So after that wild ride, I should have been over the moon happy with the success of the project, right? I should have been energized to jump back into the fray and push that old rock up the hill a little more right?
Instead, I wanted to crawl into a shallow hole, cover myself with soft, handmade quilts and sleep for seven and a half months.
About a week after I’d gotten the celebrity to sign the contract, he called me and asked me if I wanted to hang out and play golf. He’d fallen into a bit of a depression himself after the whole thing too and like freed hostages surrounded by people who just didn’t get what they’d been through, he wanted to have a mini-reunion. To laugh it all out of our systems.
So I went to see my immediate boss just to let him know I’d be taking off the rest of the day to hit the links with the celebrity. You know to decompress?
He did me a great favor that day by refusing to grant my request for the afternoon off.
I realize today (not at the time of course as I was blinded by Black Irish rage-fury that thankfully I was able to suppress before I expressed it) that my boss did what he had to do. It wasn’t personal.
The corporation that employed me at its discretion and of which my boss was its immediate representative wouldn’t benefit from my playing golf with the celebrity now. Before the guy signed the contract? Sure. But now that he had, the corporation had already realized whatever profit it would get out of that relationship. Time to move on.
What the corporation needed from me now, and let’s not forget who paid me, was to plow into the next project. Not wallow in the past.
If my boss were to approve my 18 holes of downtime, he’d be sending a dangerous message to me and to my fellow employees. That message would be that rewards and favor will come to editors who take wild risks, make promises they shouldn’t, and put the company in compromising positions. I was guilty of all of those sins.
That is not a good business model for a corporation. The whole thing could have easily blown up spectacularly. I was lucky it didn’t. I shouldn’t be rewarded for doing such a thing. I needed to be warned not to stretch so thinly. To take the smallest risks necessary for the most monetary gain. Not big ones… And so I was.
So what does this have to do with the photo of the skating rink?
Not so long ago (I confess I’m still in the midst of it) I faced another burn out. This time I called my business partner and told him all about it. How I’m finding myself physically resisting the plunge into the next thing. How I need to get the Hell away from Story Story Story for a while. That I need to do something else with my hands for fun that has nothing to do with Editing or Writing or Teaching etc.
Now, this business partner is known for his defining the very concept of artistic “Resistance.” He’s known for kicking people in the ass, for putting forth that it is through grinding hard work and only for the work’s sake that will we ever be touched with muse-inspiration. That excuses are Resistance’s furies. Isn’t the mother of all excuses “I’m burned out?” Good luck getting this guy’s sympathy.
And keep in mind that this new “corporation” is a two-guy only operation. When one peters out, the other is left holding the bag. There aren’t any side businesses or autonomous imprints in the company that are going to pick up the wastrel’s slack.
After I rang off from that dreaded call, I had the energy to plan and build an ice skating rink for my kids. From scratch. I can still hear the snickers from the guys at Home Depot when I told them what I was going to do with “all that lumber.” I lifted every board, strung all the lights, and turned every screw. And not once did I think about inciting incidents, progressive complications, crisis, climax or resolution.
That’s what the photo is, a moment at the end of last night’s ice time, just after I poured a nice new sheet.
There’s no denying that change require loss. Walking away from an esteemed branded institution that enables rubbing elbows with celebrities is a surefire way NOT to get your calls returned. But your kids will trade that loss for a skating rink any day of the week.
The only problem for me is that I skate as well as I golf.
The Warrior Archetype
A New Video Series from Steven Pressfield
Subscribe here for the full series.