Monthly Archives: January 2009

Obscurnymity

Some statistics: according to my blogstats, viewers visited this site 32 times this week—two days it received two visits—and one person viewed my last post.

Which means, of course, no one may be listening right now.

At school, I’m teaching a Personal Writing ISP (Independent Study Project) to two wonderful students, and Friday we discussed Montaigne and the idea of what an audience is in essay writing—how a writer thinks of his or her readers, these people the writer can’t know or watch in real time. We talked about how a writer encourages and tries readers’ trust or affection, how voice communicates the sort of relationship the author seeks with readers. We did not, however, discuss whether the audience is real.

Yet the internet makes voices come out of the wilderness–writers, like me, who speak from need, not for profit or acclaim, and with little realistic hope of being heard by any sort of mass audience.

In an interview in November 2007, Derek Gordon, vice president of Technorati, reported that 99% of blogs receive no hits, and, as this blog dives and flies along the WordPress baseline, it comes close to that standard.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m presenting fact, and the facts are strangely liberating. I don’t worry about revealing my pathetic readership because this revelation may be a cybertree falling in a cyberforest—I’m unlikely to attract or drive away readers who don’t exist.

I write because writing is something I can’t not do (if you follow that poor wording) and, besides, I need the practice. I teach composition, and a writing teacher should speak from experience if he of she desires credibility. And, okay, I do aspire to a little wider audience. I appreciate any regular readers and anyone who lands here accidentally, and, if only for those few, I hope Emerson is right, “Condense some daily experience into a glowing symbol and an audience is electrified.”

But, just as I can’t say who’s listening right now, I can’t answer “Why write?” for any other blogger. What do all these cries into the wilderness mean?

David Cronenburg, the director of A History of Violence and other films, said in a 2006 interview on Rocketboom, that the industrial revolution really created the concept of a mass audience, that the patron-driven art of Bach or Beethoven aimed at a particular aristocratic, elite, and definable target. Our “democratic” art, he suggests, relies on the assumption that we can speak to everyone and appeals for the attention of an audience with dramatically “splintered” interests. “You can only spend 220 million on a film” he says, “if you think it has a mass audience.”

Then he adds, “The possibility of doing that”—of spending that sum with the assumption of success, “is going to diminish.”

While I have trouble imagining the disappearance of popular films, he raises an interesting question about audiences splintered down to one or two…or zero—does writing (and art in general) require a mass audience or any audience at all? And that question raises an even bigger one, “Is it doing or acceptance of what we’ve done that matters?”

Thoreau wrote in his journal that we gain greatest insight into friends when they speak in public. The friend, he said, “will be stranger to him as he is more familiar to the audience. The longest intimacy could not foretell how he would behave then.” However, I wonder if the estrangement he attributes to the friend can occur on an individual level, when no one but you is listening. In the imagined presence of others, with just the possibility of being heard, you might see yourself anew.

Do we bloggers really write to hear ourselves speak? Saying so sounds like the rationalization of readerless writers and fulfills the public image of bloggers as self-absorbed and uninteresting to anyone but themselves. Yet, a writer can seldom say, at least while writing, whether there’s a market for his or her words. A writer never knows who’s reading or if a reader understands.  So is the audience what it’s all about?

Some time ago, I had an important presentation of the revised freshman curriculum to make and devoted a couple of hours to what I wanted to say, crafting and recrafting my exact words. When I arrived at school, however, I discovered I was mistaken. I was simply to answer questions, and I sat nearby listening to a colleague do what I’d thought was my task. I hated wasting the labor, and I couldn’t help thinking I might have done a better job, but those were matters of ego.  Another sensation dwarfed them—an odd disorientation, as if the presentation I heard and the presentation I prepared were somehow both real, superimposed from alternate dimensions.

I often feel that way when I blog. No one might be out there right now, or they might have only made it to word 550 before stumbling off to another site or getting up for a sandwich, but this essay seems real.

And I’m glad I wrote it.

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Filed under Blogging, Essays, Meditations, Numbers, Teaching, Thoreau, Writing

And Counting

Recently, at work, we completed a count-your-steps wellness program sponsored by the PE department to encourage exercise during the holidays.

My total between November 24th and January 7th:

864,916 steps, or approximately 430 miles.

Averaged out, that’s about nine and a half miles a day.

You may think I’m bragging—and maybe I am, a little—but you should know a person covers four or five miles daily, and my number isn’t that large when you consider I add almost two miles walking to and from school and three or four more miles running or elipticizing at the gym.

And what does that number—or any number—mean?

Truth is, counting steps is only the most recent manifestation of my growing counting fetish.  Since July, I’ve been carefully recording calories on a health site and monitoring the number of pounds I’ve lost.  I keep track of daily haiku, how many books I read a year, and the total pages my classes need to finish to reach the end of novels in timely fashion.  Add all the other things ticked off—the items on my to-do list and the number of appointments or meetings each day—and my life seems all enumeration, all noting, recording, accounting.

Does that make me strange?

We sometimes think of numbers as neutral, amassing on their own, figures growing on some counter we can’t see but readily imagine.  Right now, the amount you owe for heating your home is rising.  Right now, you’re accumulating debt or, if you’re lucky, interest.

And scientists attribute powers to numbers.  If we knew all the numbers, they seem to feel, we might open a hidden window on reality…as if, in those exact figures, we can find something lost, including truths we didn’t know were lost.  I remember a childhood friend who carried a pad in his back pocket for a year, marking every emission of his body.  I saw him as the quintessential scientist.  He thought those numbers would mean something, and any missing data would ruin everything.

Now I sometimes feel like that boy.

But counting isn’t always neutral.  It also compels us.  The clicking of that pedometer in my pocket became a comfortable sound, and I might not have had so many steps if I hadn’t been entering the digits on a public site every morning.  Counting is rarely pure recording.  It quickly becomes a variety of self-consciousness. We affix the expression “but who’s counting?” as a way of alerting the world we are counting, we’re paying attention.

Which is also why counting is the first step of economy.  You can’t conserve without comparison.  You need to know where you’ve been to decide where to go.  I lost pounds that were slowly and unaccountably accumulating when I began measuring today’s consumption against yesterday’s and against an ideal number.  I discovered when I was off-course.

People sometimes encourage me to stop counting.  They call me a nerd.  Everyone, they say, needs a little abandon.  Everyone needs liberation from self-consciousness, planning, and schedules. Sometimes I am nostalgic for the days when I didn’t have to worry about what I ate or spent.  I miss the holidays when, instead of carrying a pedometer, I added foil wrappers from chocolate kisses to a growing ball in my pocket and laughed when it reached tennis ball size.

The trouble is, counting is in me.  Even that tennis ball was counting.  For me, the real trick isn’t knowing when to count and when not, but knowing which numbers should grow and which shrink.  I like to believe those numbers, nerdy as they are, help me lead a deliberate, thoughtful life.

As a world, we’ve gotten into such messes by not counting, but perhaps our biggest messes arise from counting the wrong things or heedlessly amassing what we might have diminished…or shared.

Maybe I should stop counting.  Maybe I should let numbers change invisibly and simply live in the moment, but I wonder if I can.

When the pedometer challenge was over, a colleague and I celebrated the silence of our steps, but, now that I’ve thought about it, I’m ready to admit…

I miss my pedometer.

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A Recollection in Solitude

“David…” he said, and put his hand on my shoulder. Quickly, that spot became a puddle of heat, the sun of my self-consciousness. I wanted the hand off.

“You have to understand…”

Something in me resists kindness. I recognize its intent and take it seriously. And I appreciate the people who extend kindness to me. But I don’t feel it right away—few acts of kindness penetrate.

Mr. Ashby was retrieving me after I’d exited rehearsal in a huff. Two eighth grade classmates off-stage laughed at me and I didn’t know why. I lost the little calm I’d fought for through weeks of practice. Between lines and falling, no net beneath, no knowledge of what I’d said or should say next, I walked off, leaving three actors behind to sow the shredded moment to the rest of the play. I passed my laughing classmates as I walked out a side door that slammed behind me.

“David, you have to understand…” It’s hard to listen beyond those words. When you don’t understand—or, more accurately, won’t believe—consolation never reaches you. I feel sweet warmth remembering the Mr. Ashbys in my life and mean to do better. Still, I go deaf during moments I should hear everything.

Mr. Ashby was an immense man, impossibly round in the middle and pointed head and foot—a walking, unspinning top. We laughed at his girth. We imitated his overenthusiastic direction and turned away too many of his invitations to conversation and friendship. He must have known more about secret laughter than I’ll ever know. My sensitivity to classmates’ laughter must have seemed absurd to him. He should have been angry instead of solicitous, dismissive instead of caring.

“David, you have to understand they could’ve been laughing at anything. You can’t take everything as if it’s directed at you. And even if they were making fun of you, that’s their problem, not yours.”

I wish I could so simply heal imagined wounds. I’m sure I’m better at it now, yet perceived slights sometimes seem more real than any correction. The hurt can’t be knit up instantly or entirely, and I can’t think straight. I revisit the big questions from other angles—”What’s wrong with me that I’m so easily bothered?” or “How can I misunderstand so painfully?”

If I could transport my mind to that fifteen year-old in a Hollywood movie, I’d ask Mr. Ashby how he did it, how—in response to heartlessness—he’d found enough kindness to extend to me.

In the actual situation, I fussed and fumed. More wasted time and a forced, smirking apology finally brought me back. But I can’t repeat what I said to Mr. Ashby when he came out to retrieve me, before he’d brought me back. I don’t want to think about it. Fifteen year-olds don’t have the resources to say what they really feel and should say.

And now I have to content myself with hoping Mr. Ashby understood that too.

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Filed under Essays, Memory, Teaching, Writing

Seeming

One of my students opposes the word “seem” and won’t include it in his essays without a tussle. For him, too many uses of “seem” show uncertainty and make his interpretations and ideas less convincing.

I shouldn’t pick on him because many of my students feel the same way… and I’m partly to blame. My students might be parroting other English teachers, but perhaps they’re echoing me. I hear myself telling them they need a more contentious thesis or argument, more evidence in their essays, a more compelling case. I tell them to be more credible, persuasive, and convincing, more winning. I say they should be irrefutable.

My colleagues and I spend much of our time preparing students to write legal briefs in rigid five-paragraph form. No wonder they recoil when I ask them to admit some uncertainty—so much for Aldous Huxley’s famous statement that “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything” or the origins of the form in the French word essayer (to attempt) or Montaigne’s formative efforts mulling over irresolvable issues.

Of course essays need authority. If a writer were truly “writing to think,” we’d quickly lose confidence and patience. We’d walk away. However, does the need for assurance suggest a need for absolute certainty? Is a reader in better hands with a demagogue or a real human being who accommodates doubt?

Phillip Lopate, in his brilliant introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, writes, “to essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed.”

The essays I write are nothing like the essays I teach. I have a habit—maybe an annoying habit—of undermining my own reasoning and never quite overcoming the word “seem.” If I have a thesis statement at all, I’m often arguing for looking at the subject in a more subtle and complicated way. My cases focus on reasonable doubt. I mean to get the suspect off.

Huxley identified three sources for an essayist’s authority, what he called, “a three-poled frame of reference.” An essay writer could use an “objective… factual… concrete-particular” authority akin to a legalistic compulsion, but he or she could also have a second sort of authority born of personal experience, reflection, and anecdote. The third sort of authority he describes, “the abstract-universal,” is more rare, derived from a philosophical perspective we might call wisdom. Every writer, Huxley says, is more comfortable in the vicinity of one of his poles, but the good writer operates near two or three.

Am I helping my student writers feel comfortable in this three-poled frame of reference? I don’t think so. Personal experience has little or no place in the writing I assign, and wisdom? Forgetaboutit. My colleagues might tell me it’s not my job to make them three-poled, but to make them well-organized, focused, and confident. They would tell me my students aren’t ready to address doubt, or they’d warn me to be careful about what I ask for. “Do you really want a bunch of Socrates,” I hear them asking, “asserting all they can know is that they don’t know?”

But I’m ready for questions. If I’m choosing essays that are sure or essays that are real, I’ll take a class of Socrates Jrs. At this point, I might prefer aimless rumination to essays that are only right because they are safe or essays that are more sensible than they are stirring.

Lopate says, “Part of our trust in good personal essayists issues, paradoxically, from their exposure of their own betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust.”

I’d rather focus on what seems.

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Setting Out Again

Growing up across the street from an empty field, I never watched television sports long without feeling the pull to go outside and play.  I wanted to participate instead of observe, to answer instead of listen.

But I didn’t say I was good at football or baseball or whatever games were underway, and so, when I ran from the TV, I only found another sort of escape, fleeing into another fantasy world.  The color commentator kept talking in my head, praising my puny moves and replaying them moment by moment in loving analysis. He placed me very near the top of the greats, and, in my imagination, my name rung like the tolling of time immemorial.

Yet, even if I’d had the self-discipline, unassailable confidence, and drive of athletes I admired, I could never equal them physically. I had no reasonable hope of being 6’5” and 250.  My body would never cover 100 meters under nine seconds or a mile under four minutes.  No crusty coach would ever curse me to the top of the boxing world.

Some years ago, on the first day of my MFA program, the director asked us why we were there.  I answered that I was tired of listening without speaking.  My classmates nodded approvingly—they understood—but I wonder if they did really.  I wonder if, then, they knew the burden of needing to play, of drawing on a dwindling battery of patience as you leaf through collections of poetry, turn another page of a novel…or scroll through someone else’s post.

Turns out, MFA school, like all school, relies on paying attention. If you aren’t interested in watching, watch you must, for what hope do you have of being anyone’s equal if you haven’t the perseverance to listen? Without input, there is no output, and being a writer means standing on whatever parts of giants offer footholds.  It means exploiting every anxiety of influence until you find yourself in uninfluenced territory.

And the need to speak, it turns out, is more curse than blessing, an urge you’d gladly outgrow or exhaust…because no one ever promises you’ll be good at it.  You might never know if you have the skills to excel or ever hear your name outside your own imagination.

“Signals to Attend” is my fourth blog, another resolution for another year. I start it with the same familiar questions, wondering why listening is never enough, why watching even the best grows old, why silence doesn’t become me more.

I guess I can’t help thinking I have something to say.

Dear reader, I hope you’ll find I’m right.

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