WRITING CHRONICLES #03: Soiled Hands

 

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Image: Saiko Weiss, Flickr

When getting into the process of writing a book, I think all of us worry at some point what if we are throwing pebbles into a bottomless abyss. This is not taking into account that about 80% of the people in our lives thinks we are crazy to pursue such an endeavor. What matters is that we are brave enough to chase after our dreams. We believe in our potentials as writers and therefore guard the manuscripts stingily. Not allowing anyone to read them even for the purpose of receiving feedback until “they are ready”. Only showing the finished works to a handful of very trusted friends, hopefully, true enough not to evade giving their honest opinions but kind enough to word their criticisms constructively.

 

But if we really wish to be published, at some point, we must send out copies of our manuscripts to strangers. These maybe professional beta readers, an agent to gain representation or even directly the publishers themselves. They’re now out there, available for abuse, ridicule and rejection. But we take the bold steps because we loved working on them, and which parent has not wanted to show off their baby’s accomplishments at some point? We hope that someone will see the value of our effort, believe that we are the next best thing to happen to the publishing industry. A publisher will kiss their lucky star that they got a hold of our manuscripts before someone else picked them up. We are prepared to weather what J.K. Rowling went through – even if our work does not become a billion dollar global franchise.

But what if our work is the next best-seller and someone wants to pilfer it? No, we are not so naïve that we did not ever consider the possibility. Yet, we take a chance on fate because with fear, we can never get ahead. Our work deserves to be read and therefore we test our luck. However, sometimes luck does not favor us. I was reminded of this when I read a post by a fellow blogger earlier this weekend. Jarring, the experience was – to be shown again that integrity is one of the rarest commodities in any industry.

For those of you who have been following my blog already know that after years of dabbling I only recently took up writing full-time. While preoccupation with my career was the primary reason, another reason was wondering if I would manage to get my manuscript ever picked up. I am sitting in Bangladesh writing fiction based on American characters for primarily a Western audience – what are the possibilities of finding representation and a publisher willing to take the hassle of working with me, right? And I harbor all of those hang-ups on how easy it would be for someone to steal my work once I send out my manuscripts overseas or for people to swindle me out of a worthy contract since it would be so challenging for me to take it to court. This aside from the apparent 30% withdrawal income tax I would have to pay the US government for being a foreign payee! But I somehow managed to convince myself that no, God willing, I will only find decent people down the road and I will get published and people will love my romance novels…

Then I read this blog and all those fears just came back. Because I know what it feels like to have my work stolen, to see someone else’s name on the cover of my writing. Soon after I finished my Bachelor’s, I was invited by the Head of Economics Department at my university to discuss the possibility of working on a research article for a global forum. I was one of the top students of my cohort, a Summa Cum Laude in fact, and all of my professors at one point or another had approached me to consider joining the faculty once my MBA was also completed, and if I do become a faculty member, to join their respective department. I imagined the meeting with my Economics professor would be of similar nature.

When I got to his office, however, he had a more concrete proposal. He asked if I wanted to collaborate on a research paper with one of his university alumni, a prominent businessman, who will be visiting Switzerland to share a paper at an international development conference. My professor told me, whether I wish to pursue collegiate teaching or receive a good scholarship for further studies, having research articles published in international journals would add unparalleled value to my resume. I jumped at the opportunity. For months I read up literature, hit public records on trade and commerce in Bangladesh, looked up potential industries that may become the next frontier for foreign direct investments in our labor intensive country, wrote and polished the paper. I e-mailed the draft to my professor and he was effusive with his praise for my effort, forwarding the work to his friend for review while keeping me in CC. I didn’t hear anything for over a month and asked my professor if his friend did not like it. My professor apologized for his lack of attention to the matter and then reached out to his friend. Only to find out the paper had already been delivered and the friend had not had enough time to give a feedback before he traveled to Switzerland and back.

My professor then broke me the news that his friend had also delivered the paper under his sole authorship and it was on its way to being published by the forum as such. As I sat there in his office, my professor could not meet my gaze while he apologized, telling me he had never expected his friend would stoop to such poaching. All I could ask was if his friend made changes to the paper, adding his own materials. No, he had not. So it was not a collaboration because I worked on the paper all on my own; he just corresponded its content to the audience? My professor was in an awkward position and reluctantly informed me his rich powerful businessman friend wished to compensate me for “a job well done”, as though I was working on hire. My professor advised me to take the compensation since contesting it in court in Bangladesh against the director of a chamber of commerce no less would be futile.

Naïve as I was, I wanted to contest it still. My professor gave me the address to reach him and offered to go with me but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it so I released him from the obligation. I did take a friend with me though when I went to visit Big Businessman. My friend was already working as a researcher with the local branch of an internationally renowned development agency and maybe I had hoped his presence would shame the Big Businessman into ensuring my name gets on the paper before it is actually in print. But thieves are without shame, aren’t they? I was given an envelope full of cash and that too without apology. He completely avoided acknowledging what he had done, his smile jaunty throughout the time we stayed in his office. Everyone loved my paper at the conference. Isn’t it great that I could put together such a contribution to our nation’s economics in such a short time?

I was so young and it took every cell in my body to hold back the tears as I came to the realization that I can never win against such a callous individual. Beside me, my friend’s head hung low instead of the Big Businessman seating across the giant executive desk that had done its job in making me feel dwarfed. My friend felt more shame at the actions of his fellow mankind than the perpetrator. We had been served tea and biscuits but I don’t remember taking anything. Eventually, I said a polite goodbye and the man showed us out very cordially all the way to the gate of the building. Maybe he was afraid we would create a scene once outside his office. My friend hailed a cab, we got in, and only then did I cry. It was such a violation. I remember blabbering that no one else should ever have to suffer it. A bit dramatic it seems now but I think that was one of the few times in my life I cried in front of anyone outside my immediate family.

We went back to my home, where my friend gave me the envelope. He had picked it up for me, figuring I should get something out of the ordeal. It was such a vile sight, I told him to give it away to charity. Then I showed him the e-mail containing the attachment of the article, as though I still needed to validate that it was my work. It was only then that I realized that the draft I sent was without any citations of the facts and figures I incorporated, and everyone knows a research paper without source information is worth zilch. Does it make the last laugh mine? No. It doesn’t matter that the article was published without the bibliography section. I will never be able to publically claim the paper as mine. Months later, when the paper was published online, I downloaded it with his name as a reminder to never be that naïve again. I have actually gone online almost every year since to see if the article is still up there, as though Big Businessman would miraculously grow a conscience and have it removed. I went back today, in fact, as I typed this post, wondering if I should just hyperlink it here and reveal that person as the farce he is. It makes me mad but I curb it.

But the fact of the matter is that we are still putty to fate. At least, so it appears according to the blog I just read. When I write now, I am subconsciously aware and fearful that the past might repeat itself. Still, I write, whether I make a cent or not, with the possibility of having my work stolen again, only with the vague hope that I will work with people of integrity. Though I would not know how I would handle having another one of my works stolen and published under some other person’s name. I guess we can only cross that bridge if and when we get to it. God forbid.

Image used is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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