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?


  1. So what happens when lies are told about you? Lies aimed at tarnishing your reputation? When should you speak up? Will you even know where they came from?... perhaps they were honest errors... or slight exaggerations taken to be truth... travelling through the grapevine they become bigger and more solid. Combined they can lose you work and your reputation and more.

  2. excellent points, Billie Sue! Well written, too.


  3. I didn't address that situation, Morna. It would probably be another blog post entirely. If lies are told about you, then you try to correct it. You get the word out everywhere far and wide that these untruths are aimed at doing you harm and they are unfair and untrue. Once a rumor starts, it does tend to get inflated and off the mark. That's a terrible thing to happen. I'd stand up. I'd find where it was stated or discussed and state it is not true, or it is exaggerated or it is a rumor run out of hand.

    1. Thank you! I appreciate that. Finding the source is difficult - especially when it comes 2nd or 3rd or 4th hand. You can't be sure what was actually said!!

      I guess everyone has enemies... but, its very strange when you haven't even met them!!

  4. Billie Sue, although I don't know you well, or have intimate details regarding the instances you've mentioned (at least as much as others might), I do know how disheartened I felt in learning that our shared cover illustrator was someone who had at the very least mislead folks he was working with. Some ask why it's affected me as much as it has, and I can only say, because this cover illustrator was my first foray into having work "created" to represent my writing. For me (as is the same for all of us), I have been dreaming of publication my entire life. When I had my first cover made for me, it was one of the most proud moments of my life. It inspired my work and gave it new light and buoyancy. Having an "artist" believe in my work enough to take me on as a client was something special and truly unforgettable. When things were slowly uncovered, showing each of us a side of our shared relationships with this individual that was far different than what we thought it was, to say it was disappointing is an understatement. For me, I was crushed. Again, this was my first time up to bat, and I wanted nothing more than to knock my shot outta the park. Now, I go to my computer and still feel remnants of that disappoint swirling around every word I write. Will it stop me, of course not. Has it made me look at things differently, you bet. I don't know that I will ever really get over such a hurt. If that makes me sound weak, then so be it. At least I'm being honest. I don't steal work. I don't use others' words as my own. And I don't lead folks to believe that they're getting one thing, when in truth, they're getting something far different. Although I know that you and others knew this individual longer than I did, it doesn't diminish how betrayed I felt, and continue to feel. I was one of those fools that tried to give him the benefit of a doubt even after the fact.

    Regarding the writer you wrote about, I can't even begin to guess who that might be, nor does it really matter. I think the important things are that integrity and honesty cannot be traded in for any rightful place in a world of artists that are growing at an alarming pace, especially with the not so recent advent of digital self-publishing. I seek only to find MY rightful place in a world I've dreamed of my whole life. I continue to believe it possible, in meeting writers like yourself and others. Each and every one of you give me the fortification to continue to believe in myself, even when such a disheartening event made me feel anything but belief in myself...or my possible talents.

    I appreciate your writing on this to share with others how important it is to not be a fraud. In a world of liars, it is hoped that at least writers and artists will at least get it mostly right. I wish you continued success, and hope that we can all begin to move forward still believing in the transcendent truth that is art itself. Without that...what do any of us really have.



  5. Mark, I'm sorry to hear dealing with our shared cover artist and the revelations about him caused you such thoughts. I was disappointed. I felt more than naive, I felt duped. He even used one of my novel covers for his own novel cover, just changing it from silver and gray to lavender. I thought, okay, but sheesh, you could have told me you were going to do it. As a friend, I thought he would have. Still, that was no really big deal. It was that I worried someone else had paid him good money for something that wasn't what they thought they were getting. Don't let what happened cause you to distrust all artists. Most of them are wonderful people. Don't let anything, especially of this nature, ever hold you back. I can tell by your eloquent writing of your post that this is the profession you should be in. I know losing that cover artist was a shock, but there are many more, (Jeffrey Kosh for one)who won't reuse your cover or charge you an arm or leg or firstborn child or steal artwork to make your cover. It's as I said, the secrets get out. This is the information age. You can't hide and you can't lie, not very much, and think it will fly. You're going to be fine, Mark. At least now there's no threat of being involved in having a cover some other artist claims belonged to him. Just keep believing, live your life with as much integrity as you can, and let the rest of it take care of itself. Thanks for your post.

  6. Morna, in your case you may have to turn into a detective. Go to the last person repeating the rumors against you. Ask who told that person and go to that one. Ask again, go to the next one. Track it down, if you can. If it was not too damaging, however, this could take precious time and energy. Rise above it. Live and act with all integrity and that will overcome any mean spirited rumor mill. I'm sorry that's happened to you and I hope it works out better in the future.