Friday, September 25, 2009

Booking My Future

Yesterday afternoon I spent a delightful hour with Lynne Elizabeth of New Village Press at her home in Temescal Commons, a small 9-unit infill cohousing community located smack in the middle of Oakland. The community was built in 2000, on the site of a homestead that goes back to the 19th Century and, incredibly, still includes the original barn—used to store the hay they used to cut from the surrounding fields of grass. You have to squint real hard to imagine that the urban asphalt and completely built-out Oakland of today (the place about which Gertrude Stein once quipped, "There is no there there.") once looked like that.

I first met Lynne in 1998, at the FIC's highly successful Art of Community conference held that fall at Christ Church of the Golden Rule, a pacifist community outside of Willits CA. Although that site was over two hours driving time north of San Francisco, we had over 250 people attend and had to turn away 30 more because we couldn't shoehorn them in. At that point, Lynne was just about to launch New Village Journal, a magazine focused on building sustainable cultures. While the magazine didn't last long (at least in print form), Lynne has sustained an interest in urban vitality and sustainability ever since, and it was nice to touch base with her again.

As I walked over to her bungalow yesterday, I didn't have any particular agenda in mind—I was just reconnecting with a friend and wanted to hear what she was up to. Of course, I wasn't completely naive. I knew that Lynne and I are both inveterate community networkers and I expected to discuss potential collaborations. I just didn't know at the outset where the conversation would lead.

As her home is also her office, I was greeted at the door by Terry, her part-time assistant. As I waited for Lynne to finish up something upstairs in her work space, I glanced around at her books (isn't this what everyone does when you first have a moment alone in someone's house?). So, naturally enough, we started the conversation talking about books.

New Village is a small publisher that focuses on titles which build sustainable culture. They bring out perhaps 2-3 books annually, and are picky about what projects they accept. All of which made sense to me. After all, I'm a picky writer. Suddenly, it seemed obvious to mention to Lynne that I was in the early stages of writing a book, and I wondered if she'd be interested in publishing it. She asked me to tell her more, and we were off to the races.

For some years now, I've realized there's a book in me trying to come out. It will be about cooperative group dynamics—essentially a distillation of my 22 years as a process consultant and my 35 years of living in intentional community. At this point in my life, the hard part is not figuring out what to say (two years ago I printed out copies of my collected writing—at least all that's in my computer—and it was half a ream), nor is it writer's block (I author 8-9 blog entries every month, craft 1-2 articles for every issue of Communities magazine, and crank out reports on the average of one per day).

My main challenge is carving out sufficient time in an over-packed schedule to regularly push the project along. Two years ago I started setting aside a half-day per week for the book, but wasn't very far along when Geoph Kozeny tragically turned up with terminal cancer. I laid down the book to concentrate on supporting Geoph for the four months he had left. As part of the deal, I took onto my shoulders managing the completion of his video, Visions of Utopia, and two months after Geoph passed away I started my career as a blogger. (Where does the time go?)

Now, finally, I'm about ready to blow on the coals of my book project and bring that fire back to life. Right after Thanksgiving, I'm committing two half-days per week to the effort, for as long as it takes.

The conversation with Lynne helped in several ways. First, I think it's important that I work with a cooperative publisher. Which is not to say one that's easy to get along with (though that would be nice!); I mean a publishing outfit that operates cooperatively, so that the dynamics of bringing out the book are concordant with the message of the book. While New Village Press is not the only choice that meets that test, they're a strong candidate. New Society Publishers would be another.

Second, talking with Lynne brought into sharp focus that I don't want to be in charge of marketing and promoting my book, which is something all good publishers do. As I listened to what New Village does to promote their titles, I could tell viscerally that I didn't want to self publish (and therefore be in charge of my own marketing). Before that conversation I didn't have that clarity. Don't get me wrong, I'm certain that I'll love giving talks about my book; I just don't want to be the one setting up those talks. While working with a publisher may mean I'll make less money than self-publishing (at least that's a possibility) it will surely mean that there's greater distribution of the book, and that's really the bottom line when you're in the social change business.

Third, Lynne got me to see that I need to be much more clear about my intended audience before I start writing (or re-writing, given how much already exists in the form of handouts, reports, and monographs). While I'm working all the time on clarifying what I think constitutes effective cooperative group dynamics (in fact, at this point, I can't turn it off; I process even casual exchanges recreationally, whether I share my thoughts with others or not), that is only part of the equation.

Think of a book as a bridge, attempting to connect the author with readers. While the traffic is generally one way, it's nonetheless all about connection. My thinking, while important, is only one bridge abutment. My intended audience is the other, and it only makes sense to place both abutments on solid foundations before you start constructing the bridge deck. (Lynne was glad to hear that I grokked this. She shook her head while lamenting the number of manuscripts she sees where the author does not appear to have thought at all about the intended audience.)

Fourth, Lynne is connected with urban planners. In particular, she has ties with progressive planners and the New Urbanists, who are trying to refine and define what constitutes sustainable cities. This is a world I have not entered and I am hopeful that Lynne may be able to provide me with an entree, so that I can learn more about their world and how my work on cooperative processes can apply.

All and all, it was a highly productive hour visiting with an old friend.
This business of building sustainable culture is complicated stuff, and it's important to have friends helping one another along the way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Laird,

What a wonderful surprise to discover your blog post about our meeting Thursday! Indeed it was energizing to reconnect after ten years and touch on highlights of the common ground we share. The last FIC conference I attended in 1999 in Cedar Rapids had been valuable, as I recall it was one of the first times FIC had brought together the interests and skills of intentional community specialists with urban neighborhood builders. Jody Kretzman, who with John McKnight founded Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and has been instrumental in shifting urban community development from a futile focus on "fixing" social pathologies to more empowering methods of recognizing a community's strengths and nurturing those, had given a great keynote.

I'm delighted to hear how excited you are about authoring a book and can see, discovering your rich blog, that you are already an accomplished author! I've only read a dozen posts or so, so far, but am heartened to see the depth of your writing on topics related to collaboration and communication. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and candor and especially enjoyed reading the correlations you made, in your January 15 post, between ten Buddhist tenets and facilitating group process. Coincidentally, I sat my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course the exact same time you and Ma'ikwe did (I was in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts)!

Other posts from your Vipassana series show that you experienced, as I had, a profound calm on your return home that enhanced your ability to listen. And I'm guessing that you also noticed as I did how that ability to listen enhanced the ability to appreciate.

I also observed on my return a heightened awareness of how often I interrupted others. Enjoyed reading your blog on interrupting as well! Luckily I think you and I are pretty evenly matched on the interrupting scale, which can also be understood in the positive as an indicator of robust energy for sharing. Thank you for the double fun of good conversation about significant interests and the chance to observe what was heard in your blog.

By the way, the progressive planners I know best are Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, Planners Network, and the Association for Community Design. Although each organization has been holding individual annual national meetings and conferences for thirty years or more, we'll be holding our second collaborative conference in Berkeley next June. We'd love to involve you and FIC in future gatherings -- your skills in helping groups work together are exactly what's needed in community building everywhere.