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Doors Will Open

Jacqueline Kennedy in Venezuela during December 1961 trip to South America. Creative Commons

What did Joseph Campbell mean when he said, “Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be” (Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, 120)? By way of answer, let me give you an example.

Campbell died in October of 1987, and seven months later, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers—the six-part series created from conversations between Moyers and Campbell over several years—premiered. “The Power of Myth" would become an enormous hit, for years PBS’s most successful series, introducing a wide swath of the general public to Campbell and his ideas, while making his dictum, “Follow your bliss,” a household phrase.

An associate editor at Doubleday, then one of the Big 8 publishing companies (it’s now an imprint of Penguin-Random House) who had previously sought to publish books by Campbell was told about the planned series and thought,  This has GOT to be a book!

That associate editor contacted Bill Moyers and offered to publish a book that would be a companion to the series. Moyers embraced the idea, and he suggested that his friend and former colleague, Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, be hired to editf the volume. Working from transcripts of the conversations that were simultaneously being edited into the series eventually broadcast on PBS, Dr. Flowers and the associate editor at Doubleday pulled together a complete, enduringly beautiful book—in a few short months.

Who was the associate editor at Doubleday who accomplished this publishing miracle?

Yes. That Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Jackie Kennedy. Jackie O. Jackie.

Jackie, who first became aware of Campbell when she read his essay, “The Importance of Rites” (Myths to Live By, 1972), in which he explained and interpreted the symbolic elements she had interpolated into John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession.

Everyone who remembers her remembers her as President John F. Kennedy’s wife and widow.

That’s the person portrayed (to favorable reviews) by Natalie Portman in the 2016 film, Jackie.

After Kennedy’s death, however, Jackie went on to live a full and rich life, if a challenging one for one born to wealth and power.

From the mid-1970s to her death in 1995, however, she served as an associate editor at Doubleday. There she published dozens of books, including many on history, as well as a number of novels and memoirs.

And of course, in 1988, she helped to introduce the concept of following your bliss into the public consciousness.

Now the story that Flowers tells that I remember best about the creation of that book is this:

They’d managed to pull together the book in a remarkably short time. Flowers had compiled the text (crediting Jackie in the preface), and a small army of photo researchers found images that worked with what Campbell and Moyers were discussing.

The one thing they couldn’t agree on was a cover image.

They wanted something evocative, but not too literal. They didn’t want to use Greek sculpture, for example, because Campbell’s whole argument was about the universality of myth.

Around and around they went, defining just what they were looking for.

At a certain point, Jackie looked up at the painted dragon on a vintage Chinese silk coat hanging from a coat rack in her office. “How about that?” she asked.

That turned out to be one of the more iconic covers of the 1980s. It managed to convey precisely what the power of mythmight be, while managing to pull the reader in. In a word, the perfect cover.

The lessons are many. One is that art takes work—but when something’s perfect, it’s perfect. Another is that people are often much more than what we read about them in books, or see in movies.

Another, from my point of view as an editor and publisher, is that the perfect cover doesn’t tell or even show the reader what they’re going to get (though it has to make some clear promises about genre, etc.); it seduces them into wanting to read the book, and puts them in a mood where doing anything else is unthinkable.

But mostly, this story is a reminder that sometimes, when you follow your bliss, doors will open. Opportunities and ideas and inspiration will come to you that lead you out of the Wasteland and into the light.

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