Fiddling with Pieces of the Puzzle
I could easily have stayed and put up with it (and within two or
three years probably been rewarded with a vice-presidency), but
there are times when one must be a fool for the sake of making a
I didn't leave bitterly. In fact, I left very well, with a contract to
write twelve filmstrips for twenty thousand dollars, almost certainly
the highest fee ever paid for a work-for-hire in that medium and
industry. This gave us time to set up Daniel Quinn & Associates,
a development house, devoted to creating products for educational
publishers to publish as their own. It's a feasible business for an
aggressive entrepreneur. For someone like me, who is nothing
like an aggressive entrepreneur, it's just a sure way to go broke.
Nevertheless we did some good things, Rennie and I. Some were
still being marketed ten years later. Some are still being marketed
today, in 1993.
During the time between projects, when our sales rep was out trying
to find customers for products I'd conceived, I had some time to
fiddle with the pieces of a puzzle I'd been shuffling around for the
past fifteen years.
A few years before, I'd had an illuminating conversation with a
young black man I met at a private sale of African art. He'd come to
the sale more or less out of curiosity and didn't know what to make
of the things he was seeing. He was startled when I told him most
of them were fakes—fakes in the sense that they'd been made for
export rather than for tribal use. In effect, they were just a fair grade
of tourist goods. He asked how I knew this, and I had to think about
it. How did I know it? There's a profound difference between a piece
of work that is strange to our eyes but fresh and beautiful and lively,
and a piece of work that is strange to our eyes but crudely wrought
and ugly and lifeless. He'd come expecting to see “primitive art” and
it all looked equally “primitive” to him, and I had to show him how
to see it in a new way—how to see it the way the artist saw it, how
to “think primitive.” I was in the odd position of revealing to him
the values of his own heritage, which white culture had taught him
One thing led to another. Finally, deciding I could be trusted with
this secret, he confessed to me that he didn't really understand how
all this had come about and how it fit together. He knew, of course,
that there were prehistoric times and stone age peoples, but . . .
where had it all started and how had it got to be like this? Talking
to him—and he was not an uneducated person—I realized that this
uncertainty about the fundamental outlines of the human story
must be very widespread. I couldn't imagine—can't imagine—
anything sadder than a whole sapient, conscious race of people
being unable to pass on to their children even the crudest
understanding of their own origins.
It seemed to me it would be a wonderfully rewarding task to
produce a telling of the human story that would be a healing of
that story. A telling that would dispel the lie that human life was
meaningless except for the last half of one per-cent of it. A telling
that would enable that young African American to perceive our
common roots in the human story.
These were the ideas and ambitions that were chasing themselves
around in my head in that spring of 1977 as I sat down to start a
book called Man and Alien, a book I thought would keep me busy
for six months and ended up keeping me busy for the better part
of twelve years.