Monday, October 1, 2012

An Artist's Integrity or How Hard is it to be Honest?

Secrets always come out. No, you say, sometimes you can keep them hidden.

Well, probably some can remain secret, but I'll amend my generalized statement to say Secrets Most of the Time are Revealed. Why? Because people aren't stupid.

What does keeping secrets have to do with integrity? It has all to do with it. Writers are like other people and I don't want them to be like other people. In general, people lie about themselves and what they've done, at least now and then. They may only lie to family or to a few friends or co-workers, and the lie may be small, insignificant--or it may be large. It may even be in the human chromosomes to lie when the truth would do as well. I don't know about that. It just sometimes seems that way.

Writers and artists, however, are people I hold to a higher standard. Writers, especially, deal with the human condition and the human heart. If you write well, you write with honesty. Honesty in emotion and in characterization. Otherwise the fiction fails and is junk--worse than junk, it's fodder. Why then would a writer, a good writer of that sort, lower himself to lie about his life and accomplishments? To further himself, you say, and you'd be right. To appear greater than he is, you say. To create a persona that cannot be toppled.

Lately I've dealt with a few secrets artists tried to keep that have backfired on them. One was from a cover artist, MY cover artist, who had grown into being a friend. He always tried to fit my covers to my work, he was fast, and he didn't charge me much because I'd been with him so long and had praised him to high heaven to any other author I could find. Suddenly friends and other writers began to send me messages about how the artist's covers were being reused, showing up on two or more other writers' works with only minor changes. Well, I thought, that's not good, but maybe it's because they were bargain bin covers and he never really told any of us the covers were made only for us. You see we didn't get any of this in writing. We assumed because we were led to assume. Then I got messages about the artist's sordid past and charges of fraud. Well, I thought, that's worse, but that was the past, maybe he's different now. THEN I discovered my cover artist had taken the copyrighted work of other artists and used it without permission. I had to speak out. I felt responsible for encouraging people to use this cover artist and now I felt responsible to tell them he was not as he seemed and their covers, some of which they might have paid top dollar for, might be reused for someone else or the art might not be original. It was a most difficult thing to speak the truth about someone I thought of as a friend. But this friend had not been upfront with me or anyone else and this friend's "secrets" were found out.

Integrity. Had there been honesty and integrity at play, the artist wouldn't have reused the covers without stating in the beginning he was going to do so. Letting the author assume the work was original was in itself a lie of omission, but still a lie. Integrity would not allow an artist to use another artist's work as his own.

Now we come to writers and what all this has to do with them. On the main, writers are the observant, intelligent, and sensitive creatures I expect them to be. Once in a while you discover a few of them are jealous-hearted, revengeful, and even fraudulent, but I think this is rare. Recently I was reading a short story by a fellow writer I've known since the 1980s. I've been around a long time so I've met my fair share of authors young and old. Anyway, I was reading the story, one I'd missed in the past, and at the end was the author's summarized biography. It was an obvious fiction. At least to me, who knew him and his past and his accomplishments, it was fiction. (I am using the generic pronoun "he/his" but that doesn't mean this person was male.) Half of it wasn't true and I knew it. I sat there dumbfounded. Had this friend built his entire reputation on a mountain of lies? How long had these lies been perpetuated? And what was the reason for it? Surely the reason was to empower the author and to help him rise up the ranks to become a grand writer, one others looked up to, one others admired and envied. It certainly didn't hurt to be able to say one had won every single writing award in the known universe. It didn't hurt to claim to have been published years before one really was published. It didn't hold him back to claim numbers of books had been published that hadn't. I was staring into the face of dishonesty and it wasn't pretty. I sat thinking, Oh no, you didn't.

Let's talk about being honest and having integrity. Let's talk about a writer's reputation. A good name is all you ever really have in the end, in any profession. The name precedes you and if you're lucky it will outlive you. In your grave others will be speaking your name, but will they be speaking it in reverence or in ridicule? For secrets cannot remain secrets from people who know you well. If your secrets are about padding your biography or claiming accomplishments you did not earn, the name--all that you really have--is dirtied. Why take that chance in order to claw your way up the ladder? Why not do it with the work, with your character, and with your honest sweat? It's too hard, isn't it? It takes too much time, years and years. It takes your entire life. It's easier to claim this and that and make others believe it in order to leapfrog your way forward. But I tell you this, even if you succeed in turning the lies, told over many years, into what others believe is the truth, someone somewhere will know. I know this author was not as accomplished, not in the least, as he claimed to be. Accolades accepted by him were hollow. His reputation, at least in my eyes, was in ruin.

I know this might sound like a scolding lecture from an old experienced writer, but it's just a fair warning. You do not, young writer, want to one day be found out a liar, a fraud. You do not want a colleague to read your bio somewhere and sit back in shock and dismay at the obvious untruth in it. Can it help you to lie and claim that which you did not earn? Perhaps it can, sometimes it can, and if you want to take that chance, go right ahead. But one day someone who has known you thirty or forty years will come along and write a blogpost (or whatever is being used for communication at that time) saying you lied, you were false, you were ego-driven and ridiculous in your ambition, and you are not an honest, reputable person.

My cover artist fell into ruin and lost his book cover customers and business. Not because of me. Because of his own dishonest behavior. The unnamed writer I speak about? He or she is sailing along fabulously and I won't be the one to name the person to smear that reputation because if it meant that much, let the lies stand. If it meant that much, the insecurity and deceit has to be extreme, which in a way is punishment enough. However, I don't think I'll be the last one to notice the discrepancies and little by little one day that reputation he or she enjoys might yet be tarnished.

That's what can happen if you lie, pure and simple. You are an artist. You are a professional writer. You don't need to pad your resume or claim impossible feats of literary acumen. You don't need to steal when you have the talent to create original work. You need to be honest in all your relationships. You need to stand up for an honest life you can be proud of and not one that might be found to be suspect and lacking in integrity. If you don't achieve the high goals you wish, accept it as truth and work harder. As long as you have breath, you have a chance to accomplish all that you wish. Don't start down the road littered with enhancements, with inflated claims, and with lies. Even if the truth makes you look bad, tell it if you're confronted or asked. Even if the truth is not as grand as you'd wish it to be, take it to your heart and hold it close because what you DID accomplish is real and true. You can then be proud of it.

Any other way lies perdition. Okay, maybe not, that's my writer self penning a literary phrase. But in the end ask yourself--can you live with it? Can you really? Like in the Paloma Faith song title, "Do You Want The Truth or Something Beautiful?" My question is: Don't you know you can have both?