Evolution of a blurb

I signed a book contract and announced the news a few days later at a party. I suppose I should have known that someone at the party would ask me what the book was about.

Oh, I suppose I did expect it. Maybe I even prepared a little. But it might as well have come as a complete surprise since I made such a mess of it. An answer or sorts spilled out, awkward and halting – all over the place — and a sharp friend who thinks fast on her feet said, “Man, you need to work on your elevator pitch.”

No doubt she was right. The elevator pitch is Marketing 101. If you have a book, a screenplay, a creative project of some kind, and are entering into a marketplace glutted with such items, you must be able to say what your project is about to someone on an elevator as the two of you ride from one floor to the next. Whether or not you can do that, and do so in a way that the eyes of the person in the elevator don’t immediately begin to glaze over, speaks to the basic viability of your project.

Here’s the problem: throughout the process, from writing the first few notes to proofing the last pages for the publisher, nothing has made me go tongue-tied faster than being asked the “about” question. Because the book was developed out of my doctoral thesis, some of this may amount to dissertation committee PTSD. One of the members of that committee, never sympathetic to my topic, or maybe just providing what he saw as the academic version of tough love, kept asking me, from as many directions as he could manage, what the hell was the point? Who was Gregory Bateson and why is he significant? Here’s one construction that became very familiar to me: “How would the world be different if Bateson had just stayed home and tended his garden?” Nothing I said in answer seemed to satisfy him, and his dissatisfaction fed my anxieties and doubts.

I went to songwriter’s workshop once, and the facilitator, a professional songwriter, said that she liked songwriting as a creative outlet because the risk was so low. If you write a song and it’s no good, what did you lose, a few hours, a couple of days? She felt sorry for her friends who were book writers. If you try to write a book that eventually fails to find a publisher, or that even if published fails to connect, what did you lose? A few years? A decade?

With this risk of colossal waste as a backdrop, I would often pause to interrogate my motivations for pursuing the project at all. What was it about, really? All the most important things, it seemed. Climate change. Fear of climate change, despair over it. The seeming inability to do anything that didn’t somehow make the problem worse. What’s in store for my children? And are we really alone in the world? If I had answered my committee member’s questions this way, it wouldn’t have strengthened my case with him. Yes, Bateson was one of the first ones to speak of global warming to a lay audience. But he didn’t discover the greenhouse effect; he just read about it once in a science journal and happened to mention it to a group of hippies and radicals in London in 1967. This wasn’t the sort of significance the committee member was insisting upon, which is to say, this wasn’t the kind of significance that warranted a book-length work.

At the party, at some point in my botched rambling, I mentioned that Bateson had once been married to Margaret Mead. “Oh, he was married to Margaret Mead!” the friend concerned about my elevator pitch broke in. “That’s your in. You should have started with that.” Grab people’s attention with something that they know, in other words; don’t scare them off with unknown stuff. Many more people have heard of Margaret Mead than they have of Gregory Bateson.

It occurred to me later that her response had something in common with that of my committee member. If I’d been doing a dissertation on Mead, the questions about significance would have likely been different. Of course, he knew of Margaret Mead. He’d never heard of Bateson.

I once came across an article in the New York Times where the writer referred to Bateson as “one of the lost giants of twentieth century intellectual history.” I was excited at first, thought about showing it to the committee member. But then I realized it wouldn’t have cut much mustard with him because the writer who made the claim was not particularly significant. I would need a whole dossier of such claims, and I would need to work them into the dissertation. Certainly, that could be done — quite a hefty dossier could be put together — but this wasn’t what the project was about.

If not that, though, then what?

Here’s the good news: lately, it’s gotten easier. I’m beginning to think that a boiled-down and stand-alone articulation of an answer to the about question was not wholly possible until well past the end of the writing, after the book contract was signed, after the editorial work was done, and all the parties – editorial, marketing, and myself – had settled on a title: Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. Sometimes I’d sit down and an answer would come out all of a sudden. I began to collect those notes in a file. Sometimes I’d imagine them in the form of a gambit, the first few sentences of an elevator pitch. Other times they’d take the form of book jacket blurb. Here’s one of them:

Conventional science could readily explain why things fell apart. But what held things together? What explained, in other words, the mystery of form? In the years after World War II, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson proposed a fundamental reorientation of the life sciences, away from the old myths of linear force and around the new postwar concepts of circulating information.

Writing these words, especially the last sentence, was followed by a feeling of deep contentment. Yes, this was it. This was both very significant and a fair articulation of what I’d discovered. Yet still so dense! Would this make sense to anyone who hadn’t been absorbed in the material for years? Would it make the sort of immediate sense that was necessary on an elevator or book jacket? Here’s another example from the note file:

In the years after World War II, anthropologist Gregory Bateson participated in the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, where a group of mathematicians, engineers, and social scientists laid the theoretical foundation for the information age. “Runaway” was the term they used for what happened when a computer met a paradox in its programming. Bateson applied this concept to the life sciences and called the paradox the “double bind.”

This one was less fluid than the first and did nothing to reduce the density. Its strengths were the attention it paid to the keywords in the title: runaway, double bind. It was hard to imagine how these terms might be defined and connected more concisely than in these two sentences. Double bind was the important concept. In an important sense, the book was about the career of that idea. Bateson coined this term in 1956 in a paper that speculated that schizophrenia might be seen not as a disease coming from inside the victim’s body but some pathology of communication in the victim’s relational field. In the victim’s environment, in other words. My book ends in 1967 when Bateson evoked the double bind in the way it’s typically used today in the discourse of environmental crisis. There it’s used to describe how humanity is caught up in an environmental dilemma, how that dilemma seems to get worse, and how its conditions seem to accelerate the more human beings try to extricate themselves from it. It was in connection to this in London that Bateson mentioned the greenhouse effect.

I was pleased by the way the two sentences connected runaway to double bind. Yet the meanings they conveyed were still obscure. They didn’t provide the sort of immediate understanding that was necessary on an elevator. Knitted brows were preferable to glazed eyes but only slightly.

Another thing I noticed was how often methodology crept into my descriptions. Here’s an example, from an imagined book jacket blurb:

The widespread consciousness that emerged in the 1960s of a human ecology out of balance was, writes author Anthony Chaney, “a learning that hurt.” That hurt remains today and obscures our ability to contemplate actual conditions. Chaney addresses current apprehensions with a story about the thought and life of anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson.

It was good to be able to articulate my method. Anything can be borne, if you can tell a story about it. This paraphrase of a quote from Hannah Arendt, I think, had been a guiding sentiment for me throughout the project. It was hard to confront climate change — it was just too painful. But like many realities that must be faced, a lot of the discomfort is wrapped up in the avoidance. On the other side of avoidance, much of the pain falls away. Narrative was the avenue for getting past that first obstacle, and its path allowed a prolonged gaze. Bateson himself had never been the point. The Bateson story was the avenue to the point: to face at length a topic that called out to be faced and yet was surrounded by obstacles.

Rather than bring methodology to light, I thought I might carry methodology into the pitch/blurb itself. Ignore the concepts. Any attempt to explain them in shorthand would only create confusion. So let them stand as they are. Rather, introduce the main character of the story, and then boil the story down. Maybe something like this:

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has been called a lost giant of twentieth century intellectual history. In the years following World War II, Bateson was among the group of mathematicians, engineers, and social scientists who laid the theoretical foundations of the information age. In Palo Alto in 1956, he introduced the double-bind theory of schizophrenia. By the sixties he was in Hawaii studying dolphin communication. Bateson’s discipline-hopping made the experts wary, but he found an audience open to his ideas in a generation of rebellious youth. To a gathering of counterculturalists and revolutionaries in London during the Summer of Love, Bateson was the first to warn of a “greenhouse effect” that could lead to a climate in runaway. Surrounded by voices calling for liberation of all kinds, Bateson spoke of limitation and dependence. But he also offered an affirming new picture of human beings and their place in the world — as ecologies knit together in a fabric of meaning “which we might as well call Mind.”

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