Friday, May 18, 2012

Making A Short Story Long

I've been in the midst of one of those occasional bouts when I wonder if this whole thing is worth the time and mental energy. Several things came in to play, bringing on a week's worth of near-paralyzing existential angst. For one thing, I passed the 3500 post mark. That's a whole lot of stuff I've put out there. Day in and day out, with a few breaks here and there, for over five years. Speaking for myself, I think there have been a few of the posts that are actually quite well done; not just well-written, but transcend the typical commentary, trying to say something important and actually succeeding. A person can't produce this amount of material without doing seriously mediocre stuff, though, a charge I accept. I'm guessing Rod Serling's self-assessment of his output on The Twighlight Zone - overall, equal thirds quality, place-holders, and stinkers - is a good overall judgment on my output over the years.

With absolutely no humility at all but in all honesty, I think when I've done stuff that's really good, there aren't many who can touch me. That's rare, though. Most of the time, I do the best I can within the restrictive bounds of the format and medium. I hit that 3500 mark when I was writing my little series in which I described my intellectual development over the past thirty years. That was a lot of fun, quite a bit of work chasing down various texts, arranging memories, aiming for clarity of narrative as much as explanation. The end was, I think, a bit anti-climactic (at least as I thought about it as I read and re-read it), and missed a vital part of the whole story. While it may well be the case that, for me, the world and human existence aren't so much a series of questions to be answered - always with the only right and true answer! - but, rather, experiences and events and things and people and creatures that are funny and sad and strange and terrible and beautiful and sorrowful, to be understood without getting to caught up in worrying about what any of it means. What does my love for my wife and children mean? Beyond some personal and existential realities, it means little to nothing. Lest you think I'm downplaying my own life here, remember: I think the same thing about your life, and yours. Yours, too, there in the back. It doesn't mean anything. Which doesn't mean it isn't important, that you aren't a creature of worth and importance, worthy of love and acceptance. It just means that I'm just not all that fussed about the whole idea that any of it has any meaning. That's something we human beings, or at least some of us at various times in history, thought was an interesting question to ask. It turns out, though, not to be all that interesting or fruitful at all. So, why ask it? We stopped wondering about all those cycles and epicycles of the planets when we realized it just didn't work as an explanation; so, I've given up asking about meaning without ever once surrendering my wonder and fascination and joy at the panorama.

That's the thing I forgot to mention. I was talking to Lisa last night, trying to work through some of what I was feeling, and I said, "Nothing is unfascinating to me." It's true. Back in February, I wrote a review of Alan F. Moore's Rock: The Primary Text. When Feodor came around troubling me with questions that seemed, to me, to be less about my post than about the book, I did the easiest thing in the world: I emailed Moore. A few weeks back, I received an email response, very gracious and kind, and he made a casual offer of a review copy of his latest book, Song Means: Analyzing and Interpreting Popular Song. In my reply I included my mailing address, never thinking I'd really get sent a free book. Well, it arrived a couple days ago, and I'm enjoying this far larger, more detailed book, and you can expect a review when I've finished it. This immersion in musicology is a symptom of that endless fascination with pretty much everything. It's really quite fun, at 46, to be learning something new, to be offered a new way of thinking about something I love so much.

Having said all that, however, saying that I just don't believe I have any special competencies, any particular gift, and that I cannot communicate any reason why my particular point of view should be something others consider was made pointed in large part by my conclusion. It is one thing to say, "I really like lots of stuff!" It is quite another to turn, then, and shout at the world, "Pay attention to MMMMEEEEEEEE!!!!" I am convinced that, since all the things in which I am interested are out there for anyone to discover, it really isn't any big deal. I hear Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men at this point, growling at Robert Redford, "Someone read a book! So what?" Exactly. So what? Anyone can read books and figure out, even if only partially and in a rudimentary way, what the author is trying to say. Which has always been part of my point; it isn't about knowing stuff, or thinking stuff, or believing stuff. It's about living out of love for others, surrendering one's ego for the sake of others. That's the whole point of this thing called life (quoting Prince may not be a good sign). All the rest, as Parke Godwin wrote, is either bullshit or treacle.

Saying all that last night, Lisa asked me, "So, why do you want others to read you or hear you?"

"I don't have an answer to that, which is what I'm going through."

That is the whole thing, right there. If none of it has any meaning; if I really mean what I say when I write that I do not believe I have any particular gift or competency or perspective to which others should pay attention, it does kind of invalidate not only this little hobby of mine, but my efforts over the past six months at fiction-writing. If I can't articulate any reason for others to hear what I have to say, then . . . um . . .

The specific event, however, that triggered all this was asking for advice about getting started in public speaking. I was bombarded with some pretty traditional advice, most of it sounding like every cliche in every bad business advice book and column ever written. Then it hit me. This stuff, as horrible as it is, is the way people actually think about these things. The world expects us to behave in particular ways, all the while knowing they are shallow and ridiculous. I find vulgar the very idea of promoting myself to others; there is nothing I despise more than people parading around telling the world to pay attention to them, that others need to hear what they have to say (or read what they have written). My encounters with this kind of self-marketing have been pretty consistent - their self-advertising convinces me I need to steer as far from them as possible. Yet, it is impossible, it seems, to break out without doing this very thing to which I am constitutionally and principally opposed. So, yet again, why carry on?

I realized, however, that precisely because I cannot give a justification for carrying on, I don't have to! I am quite happy carrying on without either reason or justification because, well, this is who I am. Despite the occasional internet troll, which is little more than a hazard of life, I get a great deal of personal satisfaction out of this whole thing.

All the same, it would be nice if I got some feedback on occasion. I toss these things out there for the world to see, and wonder if it matters; I may suffer from too little ego, but that doesn't mean no ego. So, I guess I'm asking now for folks to let me know: Am I doing this right? Are my words, is my perspective, something that gives you even a moment's pause? I have no illusions that I've made a difference in the workings of the world; it would be nice, however, to hear from one or two of you that, yes, I have said something that made you angry enough or happy enough or surprised enough to think about something - anything - in a way you might not have before.

Virtual Tin Cup

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