Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Being Naive

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Years ago, there was a joke circulating that went something like this:

A great spiritual leader (insert your sage of choice) visits Los Angeles and is met by city officials. Hoping to entertain the wise one, these bureaucrats suggest a visit to Universal Studios. The spiritual leader politely declines. Nonplussed, they suggest Disneyland but this, too, is quietly declined. One by one, all of their suggestions are turned down until they find themselves out of ideas. Fearing they may have offended the great leader, they nervously inquire: Then, what would you like to do? Without hesitation, the leader replies enthusiastically, “Well, I always wanted to direct..!”

Lame it may be, but this tired joke still elicits a chuckle because we don’t expect naïveté coming from an elder. We presume such a revered figure will proffer sage advice, not ingenuousness. Common wisdom maintains that naivety looks good on the young, not the old. Innocence goes with youthful charm and firm skin. In contrast, naïveté only makes the old look silly and sad. However, for all the old fools out there, I offer this…

As someone who already has directed (mostly a slew of TV documentaries), my own suppressed ambition was to be an author. A year or so ago, I finally put keystroke to wishful thinking and hammered out a first novella. As a middle-aged neophyte, this was a seismic shift for me. True, I had written lots of scripts before, including an early drama that I managed to turn into a really bad TV movie but, as I discovered, screenwriting and novella writing make for a bitter brew. Television requires a writing style of minimalism. Complex speeches are reduced to a few lines of key dialogue. As a would-be author, I found myself churning out thousands of words to describe things that I typically dispatch with an assumed camera shot. Now, I was the neophyte novella writer, as green and naïve as that sage who went to Hollywood.

Naively, I joined no literary associations or book clubs. I took no writing courses. I didn’t study book marketing, track any trends, learn about genres, grapple with publication strategies, follow professional list serves, seek out editors and agents, attend workshops, seminars or book conferences, join Twitter or listen to the wisdom of elders. I had only a vague sense of where the story was going. I worked haphazardly as the muse struck, edited my work as I went, stopped reading and generally ignored sane advice. In short, I committed every heresy known to successful book publisher. Somehow, I managed a first draft.

Of course, the saga doesn’t end there. There was still the little matter of getting published. Even the most naïve of scribblers knows the odds of publication are about as good as the survival rate of a Second World War tail gunner. Bookstores overflow with housewares, as weekend reviewers highlight a few highly commercial and/or well-established authors. Meanwhile, millions of self-published works jockey for digital recognition. Once again, I ignored the odds, closed my eyes, held my nose and pressed on.

Naivety (ignorance?) kept me motivated, even enthusiastic, when impending doom should have permeated every pore. After a lifetime spent in the televised trenches, I worked free of formulas, blind to deadlines or budgets, in search of my own squeaky, but persistent voice.

Naivety gave me the courage to send my first finished novella to an editor. The editor returned it with a note recommending that I send my manuscript to a publisher. Naively, I did so, and to my surprise, that first publisher asked for more stories—enough to make into a first book of fiction, fictitious though all this might sound. That is what actually happened.

Filipe Fernandez-Armesto, a professor of history at Notre Dame University, claims to hate knowledge “because it impedes thought.” Going on, he maintains: “Every time I get to think that I know something, I stop and disturb myself with a new, subversive problem about it.” He argues that ignorance is morally superior to knowledge since ignorance (and by his logic naivety) “stimulates debate” whereas “knowledge stifles it.”

So is there a Disney lesson here, something like: “Remain ignorant and someday your prince will come”? Ok, I’m not that naïve, yet still there is something to be said for carrying on regardless. In fact, looking back, I realize that most of my limited career success had to do with naivety. How else could a socio-phobic pitch program ideas to television executives or send unsolicited story outlines to commissioning editors? Had I known about the legions of gatekeepers who make a good living rejecting, ditching, stealing or otherwise repurposing the ideas of independent producers, I would probably have crawled into the nearest hole, curled up and died. Naivety rescued me. That same ignorance drove me, nourished my delusions and kept me ever hopeful.

Of course there is much to be said for experience, but a little can go a long way and too much can lead to paralysis. Naivety, on the other hand, while neither noble nor efficient, can often prove a winning strategy, provided you don’t mind looking stupid now and again. For what it is worth, that is my sage advice. Sorry if it sounds a bit naive.

1 comment

I suspect most great achievers credit a big part of their success to naivety. It allows them the freedom to dream.

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David Tucker

David Tucker is an award-winning television writer, producer and director. His short story collection, One Way Ticket, is published by BookLand Press.

Go to David Tucker’s Author Page