Courtney Martin, author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, shares her dynamic journey with young activists.
I woke up on the morning of my new book’s publication feeling like I was marking the end of a wild and surprising journey. Which is strange, of course, since the day a book officially comes out is the day it’s real public life begins. Your words, imprinted on so many sheets of paper, suddenly have a life of their own out in the world. You hope they affect people you never could have met in ways you never could have imagined. This, of course, is why books really can change the world.
But, as it turns out, books really do change the author as well.
Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists
is the culmination of years and years of disillusion, conversations, searching, learning, adventuring, risking, breaking, and healing. It all started when I felt a wave of existential dread settle over me after the 2004 election. I’d been raised to believe that it was my charge to “save the world,” but I couldn’t even get a decent guy elected president. The Iraq War waged on. Everything seemed sullied and stagnant and I felt insignificant.
I had a hunch the malaise I was feeling was representative of something affecting much of my generation, so I started developing a “big idea” book proposal. You know the one—naming a problem that previously had no name (a la Friedan) or codifying something that everyone experiences but doesn’t have words for (a la Gladwell). After a few unsuccessful attempts at boiling a generational experience down to a snazzy sound bite, I sort of gave up. I wrote essays and columns circling around the subject, but I put the book proposal drafts in the proverbial drawer and tried to forget.
And then I met a brilliant editor, Amy Caldwell at Beacon Press, who suggested that perhaps I was starting from the wrong end. What I was yearning to do wasn’t to posit some big, blockbuster idea; what I was yearning to do was have a real intellectual adventure, to uncover untold stories, and then parse some wisdom from all this material. Together, we conceived of Do It Anyway
, which is a collection of eight profiles of people doing diverse social justice work, all 35 years and younger.
Adventure I did. I ate a bland dinner with a family of civil rights activists in Detroit, drank horchata and talked about teenagers in prison in a Mexican mall in East L.A., and stared at the infamous levies in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. I cried over the steering wheel of my rental car after hearing about military sexual assault, camped out on the White House lawn, and watched a convicted murderer struggle to use the Internet for the first time.
The people I met changed me, and whether I liked it or not, the fact that I took the time to witness and listen to them, changed them. In the end, I was dying to see them all interact and share struggles and wisdom, so I organized a retreat. We all came together at my friend’s home on Cape Cod and cooked, ate, talked, laughed, danced, and jumped in the water together (under a full moon and among phosphorescent plankton, no less). During the retreat, some filmmaker friends of mine shot interviews with the activists, which have now served to further the book’s capacity to tell these moving stories.
This book felt like one optimistic and scary leap after another. The advance I was offered was low, certainly not enough to pay my mortgage for the year and change it took to write it. But I believed that I would figure out a way to get by, and I did. Finding my subjects, worming my way into their lives, was also a big personal risk, but I depended on my charm and good intentions, and real relationships followed. Planning and raising money to create a retreat seemed like a pipe dream, but I dug my claws into it and wouldn’t let it go. Asking my friends to make short films to add another dimension to the book, felt like an imposition. Could I really depend on others to take on my project with so much of their own energy and artistry? Indeed.
So there you have it—book as brutal and benevolent teacher. May every author be as lucky to learn.