Tag Archives: fame

The World Is Me-Deprived?

Tonight it was suggested to me, by one of my small band of loyal-but-merry admirers, that I’m depriving the world of my artworks. (This was said by someone who had been reading my blog, and so, you know, the blog is how I’m actually NOT depriving the world, but giving the world more than it necessarily wanted.)

I am pretty brilliant, I’ll admit, but I just don’t know that the world needs my work — or anybody else’s, really.

I mean, in my younger days, I did work  that was necessary, that supported life and/or that people were willing to pay for: I made food as a McEmployee (“made” there being used in its loosest sense), I picked strawberries, etc. I have more recently done work that my bosses were willing to pay me to do: write crop report articles, read soybean futures into a microphone, teach teenagers how to punctuate dependent clauses. These are things I do with the understanding that those who write my paycheck want these things to be done.

But no specific exchange, of course, exists when an artist puts some art out there. Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe nobody pays for ideas (I’m thinking here of artistic or philosophical sorts of ideas — and of course, there is the problem that ideas can’t be copyrighted; only expressions of ideas can be). I mean, I doubt I’d be willing to pay for one particular story or essay or cartoon in The New Yorker magazine. I subscribe, perhaps, not to receive specific articles on specific topics by specific authors, but to feel I’m getting what the magazine’s editors think is worth printing. I’m subscribing not to get particular articles, but rather to feel I’m not missing anything, I’m not being left out.

Lately I’ve been thinking that what an author needs to make money and/or get famous is the attention of lots of people he/she doesn’t know — in other words, anonymous people. It’s nice when my friends and family appreciate my creative writing (although I will also say that there may be less mystique in encountering the work of one’s friends and family, no matter how good the work is).  But if I wanted to publish and make a profit, I’d need thousands more people, more than I know, to buy. But it seems so strange to want people I don’t know and, frankly, don’t personally care about, to do me such a kindness.

And maybe this is the weird emptiness of celebrity: people who don’t know you as a friend are just interested in you as an idea, as an image, as a persona, or maybe as a myth. Gopnik makes the point that

There are certain artists, and some art, that become so popular that everyone peers into them, finding whatever they will, however they will. All the usual tests of sympathy, natural feeling, and do-I-really-respond-to-this? are lost in the gravitational pull of ubiquity. Not surprisingly, the artists who are, briefly, the beneficiaries and thereafter the victims of this kind of attention get totally freaked out by the intensity of it all: not too long after, Bob Dylan, another of the tribe, recorded his notorious “Self Portrait,” just back out in a new version, trying to demonstrate to his admirers the simple truth that he was an American singer, with a broad taste for American songs, not some kind of guru or mystic or oracle, please go away. It didn’t help.

In this condemnation of Jack Kerouac’s poetry, which is being printed in a Library of America edition, Bruce Bawer says it’s unfortunate that other writers who made better poems haven’t received the reward of having their work printed in that “magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature.” Well, duh — and it’s unfortunate that flowers die in the frost.

Printers print and re-print Kerouac’s writings because, well, there are people who want to buy Kerouac’s writings. I have no doubt that the three writers Bawer names — Louis Simpson, Donald Justice, and Frederick Morgan — are also fine writers, but they don’t stir the imagination as Kerouac, for better or worse, did.

I mean, why do we buy any book? Isn’t part of what we want from a book a sense of being transported, of reading words of someone who has lived differently from how we have lived, and hoping that reading these words will show us that life can be lived differently? I was attracted to the sense of possibility that I found when I first read Kerouac, and then I became disenchanted with both Kerouac, and eventually, the idea that others’ lives are somehow more interesting, more vivid, more meaningful, than my own.

Instead, part of what drives me as a thinker and a writer is becoming aware of and dismantling the myths and images that make me think life is better someplace other than where I am.

But I can recognize the power of myths and images to move products — what would advertizing be if it didn’t use the incantatory power of words, the inebriating power of story, the seductive power of image?

I don’t want that to be an indictment of advertizing or of consumers (but maybe I’d be OK indicting words, story, and image?). I don’t want to change the world, at least, not by criticizing others. I don’t need to appeal to all people, as if that were possible. Maybe, more than impressing others, all I really want to do is write what I want to write (something that’s easier said than done!). Maybe all I really wanna deprive myself of is the illusion that I ought to be loved by all.

We write for others like ourselves

I don’t know why I share the things I think.

I write a lot of my thoughts privately, in journals and notes, and I share most of these things seldom, with maybe only close friends and family members.

But then I also post some of these thoughts online. I also sometimes email ideas or even jokes to my co-workers, many of whom won’t be interested in the ideas or may not get the jokes.

Probably, most of what I say is of interest only to people whose minds think like mine does, and then only a subset of those people will be interested in what I say at the time they encounter what I say.

Communication is hard.

The textbooks say there are three main purposes to nonfiction communication: to entertain, to persuade, or to inform. These are bullshit, of course, for all but the most formal communications; I usually only think “this interests me, and may interest others” before I say or write something to others, and this “interest” might be some combination of all three purposes, or may be beyond those three. I’m not even sure it matters why I say a thing — I may not even be aware of why I express a thing before I say or write it. (After all, we don’t even have to mean all that we say. Or, as happens to me during a free-write, I may say something before I know if I mean it or not.)

And once I’ve said a thing, I don’t know that it matters to me whether others find what I’ve said interesting or not. Sure, it’s fun to make others laugh, or to receive a “that’s interesting” response, but it’s not like I’ll stop sharing things online even when I get very little response.

I don’t, and can’t, know how others really feel about my sayings or writings. Very often, when we’re around others, they don’t want to receive my “sayings” or “writings” at all — I’m learning that some ideas and messages fail to be interesting when I ask a person to read them in front of me. We need silence, separateness, for these things. We need to encounter certain messages when their authors aren’t around.

And then, as readers, how are they to respond? They may respond with a positive comment, or a critical one, or no response at all. Some of the things I’ve read that have had the most influence on my thinking are things that settled in over time, that resonated and stayed with me for months. Eventually I may write a letter to that author, saying, well, what? That “your work has been influential to me”? That’s nice, but … but what if what authors really want is my money rather than my praise?

This may be why promoting a piece of writing, or maybe promoting any artwork, seems kinda silly. (Here’s an example of someone trying to promote Bruce Springsteen, which seems difficult. How can you argue someone into sharing your taste?) An author or marketer can promise that a book is a thrilling read, or an incredible story, or is thought-provoking — but the reaction to an artwork is ever and always particular to the reader. Some readers may feel thrilled or provoked, while others are not. It’s to this first group I write, I guess, and yet, I may be writing to those who are similar to me in outlook, in thinking habits. I want to write to others who aren’t like me (maybe so they will better understand me?), and I want to read the writings of those who aren’t like me, so that I may understand a different perspective, and yet, if the writer and reader are too different, there may not be the basis for communication. I tend not to like reading self-help or positive-thinking books (as one of my brothers does), and that’s just not something I’m gonna connect with. It feels too different (it doesn’t share my philosophical values and/or assumptions) and I’m not gonna learn from it.

And I find myself feeling this way, at times, around some of my small-town neighbors, who are much more engaged by football, hunting, and Polaris jackets than I am. Of course, it’s not that I couldn’t do these things myself, but from an early age, I’ve sorta seen (whether from an emotional need or an intellectual disconnect, or both, or a nature-and-nurture combination) myself as different from those I grew up with, and so I have avoided small-town culture (such as it is) on principle.

So I tend to make friends with others who avoid small-town culture, many of whom have left the small towns (thus I’m a little like Gonzo the Great in the first Muppet movie, who says he’s gonna try to become a big film star but not in Hollywood. Also, I’m someone who references both Unte magazine and Gonzo the Great — not that that makes me a great person, but that these references come to my mind naturally, it’s not always easy to communicate with others who don’t catch these references, don’t share at least some of my patterns of mind). This makes me aware that most of my neighbors don’t give a crap about my interests — as Annie Dillard says, writing is beyond the pale — and it makes me wonder whether most writers felt understood outside of a small group of other writers.

Watching a PBS documentary about James Baldwin the other day, I realized that most of the people praising him were fellow writers, rather than people from society in general. No doubt there were even people in his own family who didn’t like everything Baldwin wrote. (Baldwin says he became a writer against the wishes of his father, who wanted Baldwin to be a preacher, which he did before becoming a writer). If our neighbors and families don’t appreciate our ideas, our talents (and why would they, other than out of “tribal” pride? Just because we live near someone or share DNA with someone doesn’t mean they’ll share our mental life.), we need to seek like-minded others, and we will be valued by those whom we value, those by whom we want to be valued.

Of course, this narrowness would seem to question the whole idea of fame, and even, for writers, being canonized. Being liked by those who are already like us doesn’t seem like such a worthy accomplishment. It could be all accomplishments are bullshit, of course, as they are either A) easy/natural for us to do, or B) mainly accidental (being in the right place at the right time and simply reacting), and C) our value, our dignity, as human individuals can’t rest on accomplishment, anyway.

Maybe wanting to share, wanting to be understood, even wanting acclaim, are just emotional or psychological needs that can’t be further dissected.

I write because I find the engaged-in-writing mind to be very satisfying. I share writings with others because, I guess, of a hope that others might feel they can, by reading, recognize or commune with a like-mind, a like-mind that stretches their understanding in ways their minds are ready to be streched — and that I would likewise benefit from having my writing be meaningful to others.

I feel I need to end this post, thought I don’t quite feel I’ve broken through to a deeper idea or understanding here. That happens too, sometimes.

Addition:  Several years ago, my wife and I were swimming at a glacial lake in California when we saw a man tell his children to wash their hair with shampoo in the seemingly pristine water. He said something preemptively defensive about how the environmentalists wouldn’t like them using shampoo. We couldn’t think of anything to say to the man that we thought would work to change his mind and his actions.

Not that this was a big deal — it was just shampoo, not toxic waste — but this incident has come to mind lately as an example of how it might not really be possible to argue someone into changing his/her mind. People probably have to be receptive to other viewpoints, willing to change their mind, or else they get defensive and more-resolute in their views. Perhaps arguing a point, trying to convince someone of your point of view, only works when the audience hasn’t already decided one way or the other, like our jury system. Both sides in a trial try to convince unbiased jurors — if the plaintiff had to convince the defendant, or vice versa, in order to bring the trial to a conclusion, surely that’d make decisions more difficult.

Writer’s High: Are Writers Having Enough Fun?

I’m gonna stake the claim: Writing, the act of doing the writing, is fun, and writers who aren’t having fun may be doing it wrong.

I find something enjoyable, fulfilling, satisfying — in other words, fun — about the act of letting my brain-words flow out onto the paper. Sometimes even editing and rewriting can be fun — fun not in the light sense of how eating ice cream is fun, but fun in the sense that being engaged in writing can completely absorb my attention and help me forget my worries (including any ego-worries about whether anyone will read what I write).

The reason I write is because I like to write. I write because it’s fun. Of course, not every single thing I write is fun; sometimes a person has to create a text to match an assignment or to fulfill a purpose in having an effect on a reader. But when I am writing on my own, I feel no need to write for anybody but myself.

Perhaps, Dear Reader, you’ve read enough of my posts to have already sensed that I had this priority. While I do appreciate knowing that readers have found what I wrote interesting or valuable, I don’t primarily write to appeal to readers. I don’t want to think about others when I write. (Richard Hugo writes: “Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing,
glance over your shoulder, and you’ll find there is no reader. Just you and the page.”) I want to think about what I find interesting. I want to be free to go wherever my writing and my thinking lead me. If that also interests others, OK.

And writing whatever I want to write is glorious. The things I write — journals, notes, blog posts, etc. — help clear my mind of extraneous concerns and concepts, but they also teach me new things — I have insights, epiphanies, that help me see the familiar world in new ways. It’s pretty terrific — it’s actually heart-poundingly exciting at times. I’ve had writing experiences (not yet with this blog post!) that feel transformative, transcendent, experiences that are beyond my normal daily mindset. Perhaps this is like “runner’s high” for those who use our minds rather than our legs.

I knew I liked to write but I got some insight into why after reading this essay by Alan Shapiro, in which he talks about the value of having one’s attention fully absorbed into one’s writing.

I recently posted a three-year-old piece I had written about fame, and I knew the desire for fame was juvenile. But since posting that, I’ve realized that fame may be actually the last thing I want if I just want to write. Publishing and promoting a book, giving readings, trying to make more money from writing — these are all things that actually take away time from my writing. If what I actually love is just the writing, I may not want to be famous, or even publish my work in any form more complex than this blog. Here are my words; I don’t need to have to do anything more.

It’s possible that some of my desire to be a Famous Writer comes from having taken literature classes where the teachers revered the Wise Writer and we read his (almost always it was “his”) writings that were canonical, revered (another attitude I had to get over was thinking that these earlier writers were special, were doing something truly Great. But there’s no need to think of them that way. They were just writers, putting words on paper, as I do. Some of their works are highly valued by others; some weren’t. I recall reading somewhere Whitman’s opinion that his frequently anthologized “O Captain! My Captain!” wasn’t his favorite work of his poems). In wanting fame, I must be partly thinking that if I become famous, my works would live on (to be assigned to students who’d rather be choosing their own reading materials).

But of course, worrying about one’s legacy is complete bullshit. What will I care whether people read my works when I’m dead — I’ll be dead! My time for writing is while I’m alive, and writing is one way in which I love spending the life-time that is allotted to me.

There’s a famous quote by Sam Johnson — “No man but a blockhead every wrote, except for money” — but this makes sense only if one doesn’t actually like writing. I love it enough to do it for free. I’m not saying I wouldn’t accept a hefty advance from any publishers reading this blog who find it brilliant beyond belief, but I’m saying that an advance is not my goal.

But I can’t control that. What I can do is use what free time I have to get the deepest satisfaction I can from writing, and that satisfaction comes from just doing it.

Thought of the day: Why aren’t the people I know more famous?

Queen Anne's lace & chicory, Ogle Co., July 2010

Queen Anne’s lace & chicory, Ogle Co., July 2010

Wisdom spilling from the tip of my pen on this day, 3 years ago:

28 June 2010

It’s juvenile to want to be famous, or, maybe, it’s not entirely juvenile. Maybe it’s even common to adults to want to feel you are/were/have been/will be seen as a Great Person, to not be just another human eating and breathing and crapping, which of course, even the “great” ones do. Even great people have boring times, too. It seems that only unique times are valued. It’s only for the book-writing or the inventing or performing; it’s only for these minor parts of their lives that we respect/honor/value other people. Nobody cares about Lincoln’s early years–it’s only the last few years of his life that we remember (and he’s still dead; he doesn’t care if we remember him or not, although maybe in life he appreciated the attention, the thought that he’d be remembered).

Why don’t I know more famous people? I mean, why are the people I know not more famous? Why do so many people lead common lives–comfortable, sure, but not notable? Maybe it’s because the things for which one could get famous seem extraneous, besides the point, outside the normal routines of life that actually matter?

I know this — I have realized before that, of course, fame isn’t real compared to one’s daily existence. One’s reputation is B.S., anyway; it’s external to you, you can’t control it.

I don’t want to be famous in the sense that people would ask for a photo with me, movie-star famous, “autograph” famous. But sometimes I think it’d be fun to be a guest on a talk show — not someone who does a five-minute walk-on with Jay Leno, but someone who gets to talk about his upbringing, influences, and artistic processes with Terry Gross. That’s the NPR nerd accomplishment-fantasy I have sometimes.

But I think I’d have to DO something first, like getting a book published by a legit publisher. They seldom put interesting people on radio or TV these days just because they’re interesting (and I do say so of myself).