Category Archives: Fame

Blogging’s Faint Stamp of Approval

imagesMy wife and I sat at a picnic table, and next to us were three strangers eating in advance of the same outdoor Shakespeare performance we were attending.

One of them asked the other about a daughter who recently graduated from college, and she answered, “My daughter wants to be a writer.”

“Has she published anything?” the first said.

“No. Right now, she has a blog.”

I tried not to spy but didn’t need to look over to hear the message behind the answer—embarrassment, putting a positive face on the only response possible. She might have substituted, “No, not yet… but, you know, she’s pretending.”

That’s the trouble with blogging. Anything in magazines, journals, newspapers, books, or even commercial promotions comes with verification. Some authority says this writing deserves notice. In contrast, posts only require clicking “publish,” a faint stamp of approval that—most people assume—comes too readily. Based on this overheard conversation, the writer-daughter takes herself seriously, maybe thinks a great deal of her own work. The rest is up for grabs.

Any blogger’s vindication of blogs sounds like rationalization, further effort to gild the author’s own work. I felt for this girl’s mother. Naturally, a mom wants to believe, and, though blogging is hardly the same as appearing in The New Yorker or even the local paper, her daughter means to ply her craft, to pursue a dream, to practice by taking baby steps toward something brag-worthy. More than that, she may want to be read, and creating a blog assures a voice and audience… albeit a limited, often intimate audience. Which, she may think, isn’t so bad and certainly better than no readers. She might even like blogging and regard it as a distinct form with idiosyncratic challenges and potential.

Eavesdropping, I couldn’t help thinking about this blog as it approaches its 500th post. Am I still, after all this time, practicing for something real? Am I more proud (and appreciative) than I ought to be of my tiny audience? Am I alone in valuing my labor while real writers snicker? Have I, all along, been deluding myself to avoid actual evaluation and accomplishment? Does self-expression only count when someone else says it does?

This week a colleague posted on Facebook, “I’m writing everywhere else but on my blog, which means I’m finally working. I won’t be stopped.” In no way did he mean to direct the comment at me, but my spirit sunk nonetheless. My inner Rodney Dangerfield started muttering, “I get no respect. I get no respect at all.”

He meant, I’m sure, to say his blog has faded as more public writing projects took precedence, but the assumption seemed to be—or my defensiveness heard—you can’t be serious and simply blog. Blogging is what you do while waiting for anything better. In itself, as a writing genre (if it is), it sometimes seems the equivalent of copy printed on grocery-brand macaroni and cheese. Though cute, it hardly counts.

A fury of counterarguments rears: if you’re not a published writer does it mean more or less that people choose to read you (based necessarily on content rather than name, reputation or designation by Important People)? What sort of motive to write takes precedence when fame and remuneration are unlikely? Do readers from the Philippines, India, Botswana, and Latvia counterbalance having a small audience? What does it say when readers feel compelled to comment fresh from encountering ideas—can that be bad?

But those are framed questions, as all my questions are. They dig the hole (from which I shout) deeper. They evoke that unfortunate parent proffering her daughter’s blog as proof she’s a writer.

Perhaps there’s no satisfactory vindication or apology. As seriously and carefully as bloggers compose, the possibility lurks they have no place else to be writers and their only claim to the title is one they’ve asserted themselves.

Although, to me, these essays, stories, poems, and haiku feel quite real.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anger, Apologies, Arguments, Art, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Essays, Facebook, Fame, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Rationalizations, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

It’s Okay If You’re Not Listening

imagesA fellow blogger once told me, “Don’t expect too much from summer.” She meant visitors, not summer in general.

She’s right about visitors. Something happens in June, and those WordPress bar graphs flatten to foothills. My first two years of blogging, I worried I’d said something so heinous no one liked me anymore. Now the summer lull is a familiar pattern, and, being a grizzled veteran of the sport of blogging, I accept readers’ attention wanes when the weather encourages healthier alternatives to reading angsty, self-doubting prose.

You can hardly look at an overcoat when it’s boiling out. I get that.

In fact, I more than accept the quiet. I relish it as a resort town must sigh through October or the babysitter must claim the whole couch between lights out and parents’ return. It’s not that I relax so much as I don’t worry about relaxing.

Blogging and publishing offer very different companionship. Real writers must imagine readers. In contrast, bloggers can usually guess how crowded the room is and adjust their volume and tempo, maybe even whisper because more intimate speech is okay right now.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve sent some writing away, and all of it has returned with “No thanks.” So perhaps I’m telling myself summer’s drought shouldn’t be ego-killing the way those rejections are. The alternative is believing I have nothing to say. Maybe I have nothing valuable to say sometimes, but I do desire speech. I want to say something.

And a strange relief arises when less is at stake. The less important the end, the more enjoyable the means. Why not be experimental or confessional or meta-conditional or plainspoken?

Writing is like swimming. It’s strange imagining someone inventing a way to cross a river, but someone must have. Conventional strokes—freestyle and breaststroke and butterfly—have well polished efficiencies, and they work. They aren’t the only means to reach another shore, however. Trying other methods might be embarrassing, but you could dream up something if you didn’t worry about looking like a fool. Plenty of brilliant writers master conventional syntax to compose lovely prose, but others revise the rules. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce all swim oddly.

Probably because they didn’t care and worried little about readers—who readers might be or how they might react to their beautiful fumbling.

Our MFA age is more homogenous, full of MacPoems, MacShort Stories, and MacNovels acceptably well structured, thoughtful, and forgettable. Hell, you might be reading a MacEssay right now. The “focus group” and “workshop” sometimes seem oddly named, as they often center on acceptability instead of vision or idiosyncrasy.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” I hear a classmate criticizing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “but aren’t these opening pages just a lot of throat-clearing?”

Fumbling isn’t always beautiful, but it’s more human than self-consciousness generally permits. I realize all my efforts to “get myself out there” and “learn what editors want” may improve my work because I’ll learn to appraise and revise what’s invisible to me now. But solitude—or an intimate gathering of friends—can be helpful too, especially if I can become comfortable with throat-clearing as I learn to sing.

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Filed under Ambition, Blogging, Desire, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, MFA, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Summer, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Walker Percy, Work

Interview With a Nearly Nobody

200px-Bob_Unglaub_baseball_card“I don’t understand sports all that well (because I’m not an avid watcher) but get what it means to be a ‘utility player,’ a teammate who fills an empty spot, who serves to advance base runners, leaps from the bench when summoned, fills one of the last lines of the stat sheet. The utility player isn’t a home run or triple hitter but reliable and versatile and decent. I’m not ashamed to be that guy.

“As nice as appearing in a headline might be, I’m happy with the fourth or fifth paragraph, a mention when the team needs a timely contribution and not a highlight. Stars swing for the fences, shoot from half-court, swat a tennis ball from between their legs, or snatch a pass from the air as if by magnetism. I’m at work the same time every morning, sitting quietly, slogging through regular and tedious tasks. Finding fault with my performance would be challenging. I make sure there’s little to criticize. No one calls me indispensable, but I’m extraordinarily consistent and predictable. I pride myself on that. I’m just where you expect.

“Predictability has a bad name. Not nearly as pleasing as bold ambition and surprise, a steady hand nonetheless lends complementary comfort and safety. A utility player knows others deserve the spotlight and anticipates being needed. Patience, diligence, and calm add to success too, particularly when everyone wants immediate action or credit for acting immediately. I try never to seek or take credit, even when solutions seem familiar.

“Part of utility is curbing your ego. If you see yourself as background, stepping aside isn’t so tough. Someone levels every tilt, lessens every unchecked swell. If the team needs cool water to make a risky boil subside, call me. The others may have forgotten I’m here, but I haven’t. No one is invisible to himself, after all, and nothing pleases me more than others glancing in my direction and asking me to enter the game. My gratitude explodes in those moments. It means so much to be of service.

“And, if I start to feel low, I try to remember that, in sports, more scholarly types sometimes excavate obscure players, memorize their record, delight in their spark of fame. They take a fetishist’s pride in loving what no one else noticed. History may discover you. There’s consolation.

“Stars don’t worry about utility players’ feelings, and that’s only right. Why should they? You don’t become a star by being accommodating. You become a star by standing in your rightful spot and knowing its rightfulness. The last second shot and the last at-bat belong to those prepared to take advantage, those the fans desire. A moment’s hesitation, a feeling someone else may be better suited to this circumstance, those doubts won’t yield triumph. At least, they seldom do. Oh, you might get lucky, but why trust that?

“Occasionally, the utility player can be of use. Afterward, a reporter catches him on the periphery and collars him for a question about his unlikely and fleeting stature. I’ve been in that position and know what’s required. Say you pride yourself on being ready. Say you are blessed and fortunate. Never boast the team could count on you more often. As teammates remind you—warn you—know your place. You’re unlikely to find a spotlight again.”

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Experiments, Fame, Fiction, Identity, Parody, Satire, Thoughts, Work

On Making It

shootinganelephantWhen an established writer speaks to an audience, someone may ask, “What advice would you give aspiring writers?” This moment often arouses the speaker’s chortling, sighs, and/or eye-rolling. Many times—maybe most of the time—the writer urges that if you can do anything else, you ought to. That answer rarely satisfies, coming across as bragging, chest-pounding over some trying period of struggle and doubt now passed, a period the aspiring writer is still, miserably, in.

The advice often sounds self-indulgent, untrue, too happily—smugly—given.

In George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” he offers a similar answer. He presents four motives for a writer: “Sheer egotism” (wanting to be seen as “clever”); “Esthetic enthusiasm” (appreciation of the beauty of words); “Historical impulse” (the desire to find facts and preserve them); and “Political purpose” (wanting to “push the world in a certain direction”). However, by the end of the essay, Orwell decides in favor of simple compulsion.

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle” he says, “one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” He compares composition to “A long bout of some painful illness.”

His description of writing’s depths of despair echoes more soundly, however, because Orwell adds another distinction few crowing sufferers do. The demon can’t be understood or claimed as a gift, a badge of merit, or a special cargo. “For all one knows” he says, “that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.” The desire to write is a mystery—and also an obsession and a pain and a burden—but mostly primordial, like a wailing child.

The distinction between Orwell and those who claim writing as their special torture may be subtle, but it seems important. Orwell takes no secret (or not-so-secret) pride in survival. He sees agony as central to the process. Creativity is difficult because it requires relentless revision both of the page and the person who fills it. He says, “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” His answer is not the now-clichéd self-congratulation offered by the persevering author who outlasted the hungry phase. He isn’t saying, “If you can do anything besides writing, you ought to.” He says, “If you want to write well, don’t rest.”

The reward of  revelation is great even when it’s temporary. Orwell must have enjoyed what, to others, seems excruciating. Maybe writing takes that.

His outlook gives essays like “Shooting an Elephant” their power—the writer’s willingness to ruin illusions, to strip himself to reveal source material, to reconstruct himself in print… all that subdues egotism. Orwell closes “Shooting an Elephant,” by saying that he shot the elephant, “Solely to avoid looking a fool.” In confessing, he admits to being a fool. Even when the subject does not demand self-effacement, Orwell suggests a writer should seek it.

“By the time you have perfected any style of writing,” Orwell says, “you have always outgrown it.” The restlessness of a writer is also his or her essential trait.

In the final section of “Why I Write,” Orwell tries to respond to those who identify his writing as politically motivated. He says his writing is better when, rather than setting out to change the world, he sees it more plainly. Though political, his impulses arise from a need to face his—and humanity’s—rationalization, puffery, and hypocrisy.

Many authors suggest the chief trouble of being a writer is working long enough and hard enough to make it, and, having made it, they celebrate their difficult journey. Their pride is understandable. Who wouldn‘t feel justified by at last being read? But Orwell’s self-effacement seems more profound. He suggests no real writer ever makes it.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Desire, Dissent, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Fame, George Orwell, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Revision, Thoughts, Tributes, Words, Work, Writing

On More

ambitionMan is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed, the only animal that is never satisfied.  —Henry George (1839-1897)

I wonder sometimes at desire, how the fabulously rich person can covet more profit or how the powerful senator or representative can begrudge the slightest compromise or how the famously successful artist can worry he or she has lost relevance.

Yet truly I understand. Getting whets desire. Having what you always wanted frees you to want more. At least, it must. I don’t know how it feels to be rich, powerful, or successful, but I can easily understand not wanting to stay where you are. I feel the desire for progress and further success. I’d like to think that, if I ever attain a comfortable situation, I’ll be content, but humans don’t seem built for contentment.

Our tragic flaw as a species may be restlessness, a deeply embedded longing to move and move again. Once survival must have rested on shoring up against unanticipated shortfalls or migrating from favorable positions in anticipation of their becoming unfavorable. Once we persisted because of worries, because the contented came to no good end.

Of course we ought to rest sometimes. No one needs Bill Gates’ wealth or Mitch McConnell’s influence or Lady Gaga’s cache. No one needs anything more than today’s meals, a restful place to sleep, and enough activity to prevent boredom and feelings of unimportance. Yet that’s seldom enough. My own life is full enough, and nothing tells me another essay or poem will fulfill me. Intellectually I know. Emotionally, just the opposite. It’s more what not posting means, a concession, a settling, an act commensurate with sacrifice or surrender or quitting.

I think of Odysseus who, having appeased Poseidon at last with his winnowing fan, presses through the Pillars of Hercules and sails off the elbowed edge of the known world. I think of the pursuit of outer space, a place finally empty and vast enough to accommodate our ambition. Must we? Yes, I suppose, we must. Something positively biological compels us.

Still sometimes we shouldn’t. Alexis de Tocqueville said American society depended on “Self-interest, rightly understood,” that our greatest motivation benefits ourselves but should extend only so far.  No benefit should impinge on another’s. He described more than Americans, I think. Humans want and want until every other human disappears—we survive by thinking of current rewards and future advantages, which often don’t include rewards for others. Some people can rationalize, can say “Greed is good,” and assert that what improves one of us improves us all, but when has history ratified that contention? Instead, it’s filled with personal victories that place the hopes and ambitions of native peoples, of workers and slaves and quasi-slaves into shadow.

Societies like the Amish who base their lives on standing still seem eccentric to us. We have the better notion, we believe, which is to forge ahead. We won’t put the genie back in the bottle and won’t even acknowledge the feasibility of doing so. The world moves relentlessly forward, however dubious the word “forward” may seem.

I only wish I could believe in satisfaction and rewire the deep genetic intelligence of our species, but I can’t for me and I can’t for you. Desire confines us. Yet I worry sometimes if our survival depends on the greatest ambition of all, fighting our nature and accepting contentment as real.

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Being Here

McQuayDuring NBC’s broadcast of last Saturday’s USA Track and Field Championships from Des Moines, just before the gun to start the mens’ 400 meter final, the screen fills with each participant, lanes two to eight. Ato Boldon, who does color commentary, offers each athlete’s resume, and, in lane five, he introduces Tony McQuay, former Florida Gator, silver medalist in the 2012 Olympic 4 x 400, and one of the race favorites.

McQuay finishes second. I was there.

In fact, if you pause your DVR at just the right moment and scour the spectators in the second row (just to the right of McQuay’s left ear) you’ll see my daughter leaning toward me. I’m wearing a Columbia blue cap—nearly white in the glare—and sunglasses.

I remember exactly what she said… “We’re probably on television right now.”

We watched the runners’ backs, and two pairs of cameramen and cord handlers played leapfrog as they rushed past the runner on screen to the runner next to appear. One pair had odd lanes, the other even. They deftly reached their spot and froze, listening through earbuds to commentary we couldn’t hear, gathering and playing out cord as needed. Just before the runners took their blocks, they scurried into the narrow alley between track and stadium wall, dragging line behind them. One dropped his camera on a tripod to capture the opening strides.

Perhaps you anticipate where I’m headed. As much as I enjoyed being at the championship (the tickets were a birthday gift from my daughter), I sometimes felt we real spectators were secondary.

I remember the cameramen well not only because I saw them more clearly than the runners but also because everyone seemed hyperaware of them. The crowd booed if the cameras intruded by lingering overlong, and, the day before, fans yelled at one of the cord handlers when he left a loop on the track as the athlete ran up in that lane. Though he yanked it out, it seemed a close call.

In track—as in many sports, I suspect—TV coverage beats being there. Being there, you feel the tension and anticipation of the big moment. You see the subtle expressions of athletes’ off-camera demeanors. The excitement of the crowd and athletes is viral. However, most races are blurs. With the limitations of the human eye to discern depth and distance, it’s tough to tell what’s happening on the far side. You can’t even tell who’s leading down the home stretch because you only have one angle.

You also wonder what television sees and you miss. When cameras eye their own monitors they discover tunnels of frames, a narrowing hall into infinity. Similarly, at a “live sporting event”—an odd label in itself—you fall prey to postmodern disassociation. It’s all about watching. And as I watched, I felt myself watching. If I’d had a portable TV, I might have seen myself and waved at myself waving.

The first time I went to one of my older brother’s high school meets under lights, I could hardly wait to go down onto the track and sprint between its lines. The moment, and place, seemed charged with glory. In Des Moines, some of the same urgency beset me, but usually during un-broadcast junior finals or deep prelim flights. Otherwise, I was strangely confused. Why were we there? Were we actors in the broadcast? My living room is certainly cooler and my favorite chair more comfortable than a bleacher bench. The food is better at home.

I thought about Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, when he describes his main character, Chance, on a television talk show set:

The cameras were licking up the image of his body, were recording his every movement and noiselessly hurling them into millions of TV screens scattered around the world—into rooms, cars, boats, planes, living rooms, and bedrooms. He would be seen by more people than he could ever meet in his entire life—people who would never meet him. The people who watched him on their sets did not know who actually faced them; how could they, if they had never met him? Television reflected only people’s surfaces; it also kept peeling their images from their bodies until they were sucked into the caverns of viewers’ eyes, forever beyond retrieval, to disappear.

Forget my 1.5 seconds of fame—no one watches track!—if I felt licked up and/or peeled what about those at the center of this contest? And why stop with this meet or this medium? What does it mean to become an image, to distill experience and serve it so neatly? What about the living event?

Soon people will begin asking whether I enjoyed myself, and I’ll answer, truthfully, “Yes.” Yet, part of me wonders what I experienced, how much was real at all.

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Filed under Aesthetics, America, Brave New World, Doubt, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Place, Running, Sturm und Drang, Television, Thoughts

Thoughts in Third Person (1-7)

henry-adams-2Another long lyric essay in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention…. the rest will appear on Saturday, 6/8

1.

Henry Adams, great grandson and grandson of presidents, Harvard history professor, and early voice of modernism, wrote a third person memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. In it, he skips over twenty years—much of his marriage—and only obliquely refers to his wife’s suicide. He cannot name her or discuss the event and includes only a description of his visits to the Saint-Gaudens monument he commissioned for her grave.

Is his third-person omission love or cruelty? Did he wish to erase her or was he saying she, and his years with her, were the one aspect of his life beyond words?

2.

After his wife’s death, Adams wrote John Hay, “The world seems to me to have suddenly changed, and to have left me an old man, pretty well stranded and very indifferent to situations which another generation must deal with… I have been thrown out of the procession, and can’t catch up again.”

Adams tastes bitterness in everything, and, even if he never utters Clover Adams’ name in his autobiography, her absence seems another shadow in a dim and disappointing life. Any report of comfort is missing too.

3.

Using third person doesn’t shake the message from the messenger, nor does metaphor, imagery, or elusive syntax. Observers see the author hiding in the scene. That dwindling candle is his longing. The photograph without a frame is his conception of life in our age. Light scattered through that crystal bowl is a spectral vision of idiosyncratic perception.

Authors remain as long as readers look to find them.

4.

Michel de Montaigne believed, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Montaigne thought even his idiosyncratic observations and revelations would be understood because his readers must also be idiosyncratic in their own ways.

Moderns are not so sure. Henry Adams coined the term “multiverse” to describe the product of irreconcilable perspectives. Subjectivity destroys the uni-verse because two people never experience the same scene or reach exactly the same understanding of it.

“Exactly” seems key phrasing. Any degree of disagreement signals the impossibility of a shared perspective. To speak in third-person, as God might, is just as much an invention as speaking as oneself.

Montaigne said he could express himself and humanity all at once, but, apparently, he was wrong—humans don’t know anything, least of all themselves.

5.

Writers sometimes prefer first person narration because they think they can speak directly using a voice that, if not themselves, is at least some facsimile. Yet first person can be challenging too. As inventions, first person narrators must communicate character, and not just in what they say but also in their expression, the fingerprints of their voice.

And omission is no less critical. First person narrators omit without noticing. They still leave gaps for readers to fill and, in the process, allow readers to observe more than the narrators notice themselves. They grant readers judgment, just as third person narrators do.

6.

Hidden authority is ominous. A voiceless, faceless perspective dictates what’s known and also what world readers occupy. Insufferable first person narrators can be smothering, but readers can walk away, rejecting this character’s take on the world. Third person leaves little choice but to believe. Third person says, “This is real.”

Yet it may not seem so.

7.

When a person uses third person to describe him or herself it’s called “illeism.”  Lebron James, the Big Lebowski, and Bob Dole are notable examples, and when they slip outside themselves and look back, a listener senses oblivious—often comic—egotism. Once a reporter asked the baseball player Wade Boggs why he always referred to himself as Wade Boggs, and he replied, “’My father always told me not to be a braggart, not to say I, I, I.”

It’s hard for a person to voice his or her name without elevating it. To go third person is to go big and expand a solitary view into something cosmic.

Parts 8-15 on Saturday…

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