I can tell you what I am afraid of, but first, let me start this fire. After all, in stories about creation, there is often some reference to the important part fire plays at the beginning of a story.
Last night my husband, Nick, filled the wood box, so I need not concern myself with such things. He is thoughtful like that — always considerate of others and how he can lessen their burdens.
To start a good fire, one cannot just chock a stove full and strike a match. There is an art to building a good fire, which men like my husband take pride in; just like there is an art to the carefully stacked woodpile he tends to every spring in preparation of the next burning season.
Behind the barn and sugar house, row after well-balanced row of cordwood is neatly stacked beneath a tin roof covering, so it has time to cure into fine firewood. More routine than obsession, heating with wood in New England is a cycle that runs parallel to our lives — an interdependency which sometimes feels intimate, when I squat in just a bathrobe in front of the Alpine casting and feel the familiar warmth moving up my thighs and across my face. I rip and twist pages of the Sunday Times or local Herald, and use the hatchet to break up kindling — always with the grain, and never against.
Inside the sooty gut of the stove, I make sure to leave space between the paper, sticks, and smallish logs, to allow for the movement of air; for air is essential in feeding fires. I tend to rely on the classic teepee shape to start all of mine. While Nick prefers the cabin shape, believing it is more structurally sound when it comes to adding another log or two.
As the blaze grows, the door to the stove is closed, but not completely. We have found that if you leave the door slightly ajar, a natural vacuum will occur. And if you listen closely, you can hear the hollow whir of air being sucked from the room, through the stove, and up the flue, making the fire hotter and stronger.
On frigid November mornings, when a dusting of snow has fallen overnight, Nick starts a small fire before he leaves for work. The sun will not have even crested over the valley hills, and I will hear the heavy-handed thump of the hatchet and kindling falling to the floor like the hollow clack of a wooden windchime. Then comes the low rumble of the trusty Tundra warming in the driveway, while Nick sips the last of his coffee, fills his Thermos with his afternoon tea, and leaves a kiss on my forehead.
After he leaves, I can hear the crackle and pop of wood settling in the stove, as I lie in bed thinking about the sacrifices he makes every day in order for me to make art; especially on the coldest days, when his energy is spent trying to stay warm at a job site. He assures me it is not so bad, because the timber frame he has been working on has a small potbelly stove where he can warm up his extremities and his lunch, and the work itself keeps the blood moving and the body warm beneath the layers. But I know metal tools are cold in the hand when you are building outdoors, and that it takes a long hot shower, a good fire, and a warm meal for him to feel like himself again, after a long day’s work.
I can tell you there is nothing romantic about wondering if a job will go as smoothly as planned, whether we will be able to pay our bills every month, or if we will be able to eat well in the coming weeks. Wondering whether the six logs it will take to stay warm while writing a silly essay, is worth it or just a waste of resources and time, is a constant consideration.
“What if it takes a while?” I ask him, worried about my lack of income, my art being decent enough to sell and whether I have the wherewithal to live within these meager means.
“Then it takes a while,” he encourages me. “And in the meantime, we won’t freeze.”
Last year, he ordered eleven cords of log-length firewood — three years’ worth of fuel if our Vermont winters are not too brutal.
When I was three, my father, like Nick, worked various odd jobs so my mother could be home with me and my younger sister, and paint. We lived in a drafty Victorian that had been converted into apartments, with an empty side lot we used for a garden. Across the street was the cleverly-named Frost Free Library which we frequented, since my father’s salary at the ball bearings factory just barely covered the necessities. Books and new clothes were a luxury, as were most toys.
Beneath us lived a young journalist and his wife, who I suspected never argued about money, or about which one worked longer and harder hours and deserved a drink. My father’s back-to-back shifts kept him away from home for long stints at a time, and when he would come home, all he wanted to do was catch up on sleep. He demanded quiet. And when it became too loud to be inside, I would go out to the yard and find a place to sit outside the window of the young couple, sometimes, secretly hoping they would adopt me.
The memories I have of that time are spotty and sometimes laden with sadness or nostalgia. But what I remember most about that apartment and my parent’s marriage, is the pride they possessed and imposed on that space. Not only did my father somehow manage to get a six-hundred-pound cook stove up to that second-floor apartment and install it, but he also preferred the old-fashioned technology and ways of doing things. If he could not fix it, he did not want to own it. If it was broke and abandoned on the side of the road, it posed a challenge. He couldn’t read, but he had a way of seeing how all the pieces fit together that could never be taught. He also found intrinsic value in being the provider, while my mother wrestled with the roles of homemaker, caregiver, and artist.
I remember drawing and playing in front of that stove. My mother would start a fire early to make us breakfast and then would retreat to the enclosed porch where she kept her paints and easels. Before we were old enough to attend school, my sister and I learned to entertain ourselves with pastels and construction paper on the bare floors of that apartment, understanding that quiet time meant it was creative time, and as long as we had food, heat and a bed to sleep in, there was no reason to long for anything more.
Because of these experiences, I can tell you that I have never been afraid of being uncomfortable. For ten years I supported myself, believing that responsibility belonged only to myself. Nick was the one who taught me that it is not a sign of weakness to let others lend a hand along the way and that even though I was a self-sufficient individual, I was still capable of sharing a life and myself with him.
But what about rejection? You might ask. Art mimics life in many ways.
I stoke the fire, fight the urge to do a job search, and settle in to write a few thousand words. It is gratifying, but not sustaining. Compromising my relationship in the name of art is what truly frightens me, and that is why I must acknowledge the sacrifices my husband makes every day. The frosty mornings, the frustrations of day labor, and the tired joints and bones are all reasons why I ask myself, each day, “Is it worth it?”
Nick never ushers a single complaint. He checks the wood box to see if it is full, and the woodpile he “did not stack for nothing.” He helps fold laundry and cook dinner. His little labors of love lack nothing.
To speak of all things is to find value in the details that at their most basic level are connected, and therefore essential. These events and decision that may appear separate and isolated, fold into each other to enrich our lives and give us a more thoughtful resolve as we take on each day.
The vacuum, the air, and the fire — one cannot exist without the other. Just as one cannot just chock a stove full and strike a match.
There is an art to building a good fire. And though it may be seen as a simple contribution, it is never small.
“Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
--which what?—something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.”
-Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World,
William Bronk (1964)
When I become frustrated or feel uncertain about the direction the publishing industry is headed, I like to think about how my favorite writers and teachers have held strong to their passion for the written word, despite the current climate or state of affairs. Or how others, after witnessing the strip-mining of the creative sphere, have thrown up their hands and walked away thinking, “There is no longer a place for people like me, destined to tell a story.” And the others, who have courageously attempted to make meaning of it all, I wonder how they find a way to sleep at night.
If Joan Didion’s essay had been called “On Keeping a Blog” instead of “On Keeping a Notebook”, how different my adolescence would have been—reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem at sixteen, would have resonated in an entirely different way. It is curious now to consider, how Didion’s style and voice would have been affected if she had access to such technology in the sixties—if the digital medium would have struck her fancy, or whether as a hot-ticket journalist she would have just scoffed at the sheer commerciality of online writing. More importantly, would she have been capable of capturing the essence of a counter-culture and a country on the verge of revolution? Or would she have been able to feel a pulse at all, being so desensitized and disengaged by the whole business of social media? Lili Anolik, a writer and editor for Vanity Fair, described Didion’s writing style as, “catching, but not so much as her habit of thought.” How Didion approached a story has always been as much of an interest to her readers, as to why she chose to tell a story in the first place.
In 1966, Didion wrote, “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss,” The first time I read this I believed she was writing about me, a young woman hungrily observing a corner of the world with all its beauty and chaos, trying to assign an understanding to my experiences. A year later, I would wake to a phone call from my father telling me to turn on the television, just in time to watch an airplane fly into a pair of already maimed towers.
I remember sitting on the floor in my little studio apartment in New Hampshire, trying to process the abject shock and horror of that scene. People falling through the air. Real people, falling. Buildings, falling.
I was old enough to have witnessed the failed Challenger expedition in 1986. In the 90’s, I watched replays of the Los Angeles riots and the Oklahoma City bombing covered by various news outlets. And though I wanted to believe I was astutely aware of our culture’s connection to the media lens, I never could have anticipated how deeply and directly affected I was from watching two towers collapse in the middle of New York City on live TV. For many, September 11th would become the day the great swathy cocoon of coddling and safety would begin to unravel, revealing another picture of mainstream American culture, rattled, awry and untrusting.
The day I would graduate from high school would not be a joyous day. Ominous weather would brew in the distance, as people would gather after the commencement speeches to say their final farewells to classmates going off to war. Just months after the attacks on New York and Washington DC, the United States would invade Afghanistan—a conflict that would be later compared to our involvement in Vietnam, as it would mark the beginning of a new era for our country.
To ask whether I would have gravitated toward the same endeavors post-secondary, if Didion had been a blog writer with strong convictions regarding gluten-free diets and DIY crafts, I would have to say, I would not have. Like Didion experiencing the sixties, I felt a responsibility to write candidly about what was taking place around me, and what it meant to be a young woman during a time rife with propaganda and shifting cultural attitudes.
Fortunately, Didion chose to revel in the haphazard nature of writing, how it was not just about promoting one’s image or providing some sort of proof, rather it was about being part of a truth and story—how a story may not always be easy to tell because, as individuals, we have flaws and beliefs and idiosyncrasies that inevitably creep into the ways we express ourselves. I saw Didion not only as a brazen woman speaking her mind with gonzo-esque journalistic chops, I saw her as the kind of artist I wanted to emulate.
In 2006, I started keeping a blog and online archive of my reveries, realizations and personal perspective, because a fellow writer whom I held in high regard, told me this was what being an artist in the 21st century was all about. “Why wait around to get picked, when you can be putting yourself out there without barriers, or the bureaucracy involved with navigating an industry full of taste-makers and competition.”
As many blog writers do, I set out seeking affirmation that I had what it takes, and believed that this affirmation I sought would come by generating an audience online. In turn, I would appeal to the all-seeing, all-knowing purveyors of the written word, who would ultimately decide if I was worthy.
“Write and blog every day,” that writer told me. “And it will become as natural as taking a piss.”
Blogging made sense in a direct-to-the-consumer kind of way, appearing as a proactive alternative to creating in the dark, and then trying to market a polished piece of work, that may or may not produce the desired results (in my case, an agent and eventually a publishing deal). Like a jazz musician, working out the nuances of an experimental composition in front of a live audience—improvising where need be or when the inspiration moves him—blogging provided not only an outlet for creative expression, but an online (“live”) community that was willing and eager to give feedback. Instantaneously, I could shuttle off my next big idea and without missing a beat, I could move on to more current topics and material, without having to consider whether my writing was good enough, or whether I should be waiting for validation to come knocking on my door. However, if I had taken a tip from Andrei Corderscu’s earlier writing, I would have found assurance in knowing that, “In the dark, art is at its most artistic.” (“A World Made Trivial”) Perhaps, in my early twenties, I would not have even heeded the advice of a pedantic writer, though it is hard to say now with almost a decade of blogging under my belt.
In The Muse is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans, a collection of essays Coderscu published in 1993, he describes what he believed would happen if art was no longer being produced for the sake of art, but instead for what he called, “for the sake of storage.” He believed we would become obsessed with the “conspiracy of inclusion,” and as we shifted toward “our increasing power to project,” a great loss would occur in our memories and our connection to our “Logos”— our creation story.
Coderscu’s essay, “The Unsurveyed Arts, the Unsurveyable Artist,” reinforces this point, that we were headed into very, different territory with the advent of online technology, data sourcing and the expanded forum. In more modern terms, “surveyors” are the various data collectors which operate on the internet today, mining our personal information and preferences, to aid in the manufacturing of content and advertising campaigns. These surveyors work in conjunction with advertising agencies and companies, and based off of consumer trends, they decide which stories get published and which commercial artists get paid. “Real artists” as Coderscu claimed, are “duty-bound by their art to sabotage the familiar in order to express an unsurveyed personal reality. Their very existence is predicated on the as-yet unexpressed and, hopefully, inexpressible.”
Mainstream artists on the other hand, “Are not really fakes,” he wrote. “They are merely people apt at what they do, apt at gauging public taste and are quite cognizant of surveys.”
When I signed up for my first domain name, I did not have any intention of being a mainstream writer. Even then, I felt I owed it to my audience to be forthright and raw. I attempted to write honestly and with little inhibition. Maybe I lacked that intuitive sense to withhold, but I did not see how a person could call themself an artist, and not be true to their form. As Henry Miller put it in his essay, “On Turning Eighty,” “The most difficult thing for a creative individual is to refrain from the effort to make the world to his liking and to accept his fellow man for what he is, whether good, bad or indifferent. One does his best, but it is never good enough.” As a budding writer, of course I wanted to do my best, but above all, I wanted to be real.
So, I wrote about my fascination with reading the obituaries on Sunday mornings, my morbid obsession with mortality and about being a single woman with a pet fish. I wrote about near-death experiences, obscure places I’d found myself in and the dark places one wanders to after the loss of a loved one. I wrote about my philandering boyfriend, and the moment I realized I had better things in which to invest my time in. I wrote about strip clubs, finding God in western corridors, and sitting one afternoon in a city clinic, watching girls enter and leave a room where abortions were performed. I also wrote about my transient life and the people who entered into it at one time or another, inspiring and challenging me in different ways. These were by no means perfect examples of writing, but they were good stories just the same—stories I wanted to believe others would be interested in, because they hit a nerve or captured some familiar element of the human condition.
Come to find out, readers don’t want to know about how you sat down to write that morning, after trying to fix a broken sump pump, or how your hands still have an onion smell from the dinner you made the night before. People’s lives were already “real” enough. They wanted to watch cat videos and babies laughing, satirical skits and anecdotes about hope. They wanted alleviation and escapism, but they also wanted to be voyeurs of violent acts and exploitation. Here I wanted to be honest and real for my audience, but quickly I could see blogging had nothing to do with reality.
A musician friend of mine, once explained his public persona (as a performer), as the hat he must wear to protect his vulnerable persona (the artist) from being torn apart. This notion of the compartmentalization of a public and private life, seemed to be everywhere I looked online. And the closer I looked, the more aware I became. I was trying to become an artist and writer in the age of avatars and personal branding.
I am reminded of an essay by Paul Auster, titled “Native Son,” where he pays tribute to the late poet William Bronk. Auster writes, “America swallows up its poets, hides them away, forgets them. Except for the few who become famous (often those of meager talent), the poet with no axe to grind or vogue to follow can expect little but neglect—or, at best, the admiration of his peers. No one is to blame for this. We are simply too vast, too chaotic to notice everything that passes before our eyes.”
Auster toyed with the idea that Bronk’s poetry engendered a deeper premise, “that there is no inherent order or truth to the world, that whatever form or shape we feel it possesses is the one we ourselves imposed on it.”
In my early days of blogging, I was easily motivated and influenced by the traffic and comments on my page. Overall, when I was receiving feedback there was a relatively positive response to what I was putting out on the interwebs, and I took it as a sign that my writing was circulating. I tried to correlate how many “likes” and “shares” I was accruing, to what I envisioned success to look like. Though no matter how I tried to connect this information to the value I saw in writing every day, it never lined up, and I became increasingly dissatisfied with the amount of time I was actually dedicating to pursuing my passion, only to feel like my platform wasn’t strong enough or flashy enough to get more hits.
During my grad school years, I was part of many writers’ workshops and conversations, where the focus always circled back around to the same topic. “What are you doing to grow your platform?” and, “You need to find a balance between making art and promoting your work.” Even though I could never form one example in my mind how blogging truly improved my writing, I trusted they knew what they were talking about. Many of them were published or soon-to-be published authors, who had embraced all the means and tools available to artists on the internet. Some believing that their over-extended agents and publishers were not as invested in promoting their work, decided to take marketing into their own hands. Some even braved it and self-published, hoping to retain their creative freedom and control over sales. By having a presence online, they could connect directly with fans and present themselves, not just as a personality, but as an individual who grabs coffee and sends their kids off to school like everyone else. Using social media to break down the mythology surrounding the toiling writer, they were able to present a more humanistic side to the artistic process.
After long residencies, I would inevitably return home believing my blog needed to be more audience-driven, or that maybe I needed to find myself some advertisers to plop down on my page. My quest for an authentic voice was slowly being buried beneath a social narrative filled with catchy jargon, cliches and ideological bandwagons, and I did not have the fortitude of an experienced or tenured writer to speak out and say something, even when it did not feel quite right.
The act of consuming is not rational, it is compulsive and can change on a dime depending on the kind of mood or mental space a person is in. Consumerist behavior on the internet falls right in line with the capitalist agenda of promoting material products and propaganda. The disconcerting part of all this, is the mindless consumption which takes place online, on a regular basis—the general lack of awareness of what we are consuming, how we choose to vote with our money and the types of culture we are supporting in doing so. False identities spin fabricated narratives, and we move further and further away from the truth. We back up our claims using nonreferential language, and with evidence we have gathered from sources heavily reliant on rehashed dialogue and sensationalism. And yet, what is consumed the most online, more than junk we do not need or the fake news that boils our blood, is our time.
When I finally made the decision to shut down my blog, I felt relief. No longer did I feel obligated to stay within the parameters of popular culture, or that in order to be a successful writer I needed to be conscious of my audience every time I approached the page. Recognizing that my audience was made up of mostly strangers with no real connection to me, or me to them, I knew as soon as we parted ways they would not simply gain a few more precious moments of their day, but rather they would wander on to the next flavor-of-the-week, looking for their entertainment fill.
Being able to write for myself again was freeing. My sacred time was returned to me, and I welcomed it back with open arms. Less time on the internet, meant more time looking around. It meant more time looking inside and thinking about how I wanted to have a real effect, on real individuals and how I wanted to be connected to the tangible again—to paint, to muck through forests and to have all my senses piqued with something as simple as a misty, fall day in Vermont.
Another reason why I chose this course of action was because it was becoming painful to watch the sedated deterioration of our civil fiber being broadcasted online, while knowing my own, small community was in desperate need of people actively invested in making change happen. The communities we create online, made up of members who like the same things we like, and who believe in the same things we do, perpetuate a false sense of unity. We surround ourselves with others like us, and then cry segregation, bigotry and racism.“But how is this still happening, today?” we demand, hoping we might find the answers and the solidarity we seek, by engaging in our filtered pockets of sameness.
I understand that part of the reason why people find it difficult to disconnect from social media is because they feel like they will miss something if they do. I know many people, who as soon as they wake up check in on Facebook, worried that in the wee hours of sleeping something happened. But after twenty-odd minutes of scrolling their feeds, they quickly realize their updates consist of an overzealous friend discovering the meaning of life, and many carefully arranged snapshots which objectify and exemplify how fixated we are on achieving an image of perfection.
Of course, things are happening while we sleep. The world does not stop when we close our eyes at night. While we try to recoup that quiet space our minds so desperately need, there are still wars being fought and people starving in their own countries. And with all this information available to us, the constant connection, the plugging in and inundation, we still have not been able to figure out how to get along with others, communicate and feed people. If only we could find quiet time not just for sleeping, but for reflecting and creating. What if the only thing we were concerned about missing out on, was life?
What no one wants to say outloud, is that this is not the same publishing industry or culture that gave us the works of Didion, Cordescu, Auster or Miller. This is a different world entirely, and it is growing into a very noisy place to do commerce and engage. As a writer, I know I cannot possibly produce the most thoughtful prose or contribute the most thoughtful dialogue, if I am not taking the time to hear myself think or really examine the views of others. I also cannot possibly make the soundest decisions regarding what is best for me personally and professionally, if I am not clear in thought. To be an artist, I must be open to inspiration and what makes me feel connected. I must not only have an awareness of my process, but also an understanding of why I am making my offering to the world. As a society, we have the tendency to appropriate who deserves a voice and who doesn’t, but as Robert Hass suggested when interviewed by Tod Marshall (Range of the Possible, 2002), authenticity comes when a writer actually gets to say what they think.
“Where is there a need of expression and empowerment?” and, “Where are we oversaturated with much of the same?” are questions we should all be asking ourselves, every time we choose to contribute to the noise, both as members of an audience and as artists adding content. I want to believe that an artist’s role today is to hold fast to our stories and share them as if we are witnesses of an unfolding history. For we have a responsibility and ability to reflect on our past, calling up the voices of our forefathers, to learn from their insights and the lessons we wish not to repeat. And while the artists who choose to promote themselves en masse over promoting culture through exploration and curiosity, barely scrape the surface of life’s quandaries, we can be certain there will always be a need for truth and for real voices to be heard.