There is a narrative emerging around how to have a conversation about race, particularly if we are part of the privileged white majority. If we are compelled to care about racial issues, we must first educate ourselves and learn how to approach and engage in conversations about some very sensitive topics: What is appropriate to say and acknowledge about racial differences, and what is not? Should we express our observations at all, or should we just listen? And, how do we express sincere empathy and compassion, without making it personal and about ourselves?
If we are white it does not necessarily mean we are incapable of understanding what systemic oppression is or means to a minority group, or what barriers our BIPOC brothers and sisters have faced throughout their lives. It does not mean we are not outraged by racial violence or injustices and impassioned to make change happen. It just means that no matter how relatable our own experiences may feel, we, as individuals of the white majority, are not authorities on these issues, and we should not feel entitled to act like we are.
I am reminded of this every time the topic of race is raised in conversations with my friends, my family, and my husband — all mostly white and well-intended individuals, who are deeply disturbed and saddened by recent events and acts of violence. I also cannot help but take these conversations personally — this should not still be happening in our country. We should be past this. We should be better than this.
I am white. My husband is biracial; his mother is white; his father is Mexican with Spanish ancestry. If my husband had grown up in Mexico and not the United States, he would have likely been considered white. But here in the United States, he is considered mixed-race.
When we first met, seven years ago, my husband expressed his feelings about identifying himself as a person of color. Sometimes he checked the box, sometimes he did not. He was aware that part of his ancestry was proof of colonialism, riddled with the atrocities the Spaniards and White Europeans inflicted on indigenous populations, while the other part of his European heritage was indoctrinated with the capitalistic American mindset and culture. When it came to matters of identity, there was not a clear choice of which ethnicity he wanted to take pride in; neither seemed to fit in with his values.
My husband grew up and lived most of his life on the Midcoast of Maine and his ambiguous features helped him to “blend in” with the majority white community in which he was raised. On occasion, he did have to deal with his share of racially charged insults and attitudes, but mostly his experiences were not unlike his white peers. However, sometimes he secretly longed to know what his life would have been like had he instead grown up in California, where his father lived, and had exposure to Latino culture through being part of a Latino community. He wondered what path his life would have taken had he been given a different experience and an opportunity to connect with that side of his familial bloodline.
As a married couple, we chose to reside in an even “whiter” place, Central Vermont. The small town we now live in, in many ways, is reminiscent of the town in which my husband grew up; a place that invokes mostly fond memories and great stories.
When we first arrived in Vermont, the community was very welcoming and only a handful of individuals made subtle references to my husband’s darker complexion.
“Is he Italian?” they asked.
“No, he is half Latino.”
They were often surprised and a little embarrassed knowing they had inadvertently brought up the topic of race, their Yankee guilt making its own subtle appearance.
To lighten the mood, I would throw in the joke, “And you wouldn’t even know it with that accent of his.”
To which they would respond, “I didn’t notice a Spanish accent.”
And, I would say, “Oh no, he doesn’t speak Spanish. My Spanish is better than his. I was talking about his Maine accent.”
It was not until my husband began working at a majority white boarding school, did the conversation really change for us at home. It was there, for the first time in his life, I saw my husband contemplate his identity in a new way, exhibiting a newfound pride and confidence in who he was and where he came from.
As one of three faculty of color, he was invited to be a part of a POC group that supports incoming students who come from relatively diverse communities. Adjusting to the rural landscape and lifestyle is for many of the students who attend the semester program, quite the culture shock, as many of them come from densely populated metropolitan and urban areas. But when you are a student of color, or a faculty member of color, in a majority white school in the middle of nowhere, there is a different kind of transition that happens. For some, it is a matter of facing their fear of being a high-achieving minority among a highly-competitive white population, while for others it is a matter of not having the comfort and support of a familiar community close by.
The more my husband participated in activities with this collective of students and faculty, the more he reflected on and opened up about how he always felt the need to “blend in”, and that it was shame and fear that kept him from feeling connected to his Mexican heritage and culture; that it was shame and fear that kept him from claiming that part of his identity as his own.
While it deeply saddened me to learn my husband lived with these feelings for so long, because the communities he was part of lacked the knowledge or support systems he needed, it gives me great hope now knowing that he is able to take these experiences he had and turn them into productive dialogue with others, who may also be feeling the pressure to assimilate into an [educational] environment curated and represented by a majority white and privileged population. My only critique of how “progressive” institutions operate is that the onus is still continually placed on people like my husband to educate their fellow colleagues and peers about what it means to them to be different.
In an ideal world, there would be equitable representation in our melting pot and a reverence for our differences. And, yes, we are a long way from where we should be, at this point in history, but every day I am seeing examples of people making an effort to have the tough conversations that need to be had, while others are finally hearing and acknowledging the voices that have gone for so long unheard. I want to believe our shared goal is true progress and change. I want to believe it will happen in our lifetime.
The conversation shifted again when we learned that we were going to become parents. It was when we were completing the paperwork for genetic testing that we were struck by the significant role we could play in teaching our child about identity. Our child will most likely identify as white and will not know the inner conflict their father has known his whole life, but we will be able to provide our child with an understanding of why such conflicts exist in the first place. Our child will likely not know what it is like to be bullied because their skin tone is a few shades darker, yet we will want them to know where their ancestors came from and will teach them what we can about their Polish-French-Dutch-Native American-Mexican-Spanish-Irish heritage. But above all else, the most important thing for us is that our child is encouraged, no matter how they choose to identify themselves, to be a person of integrity, kindness, and compassion, treating all the way they wish and deserve to be treated themselves. Every parent should be able to give their child a safe place in the world to be who they are, and that, I believe is something we can all agree on.
“Do those bells always ring?” I ask. It is turning six and my time is up.
My therapist looks up from his iPad and smiles, “Only this time of year you can hear them better.”
“They sound so clear,” I say.
The church isn’t far away, just a block up the street. I am embarrassed by my lack of awareness. I’ve been seeing this particular shrink for over a year and never once noticed the bells that ring timely after each session is through.
Jack is kind enough to assure me I’m not the only one who hasn’t noticed the bells. That he, himself, can’t hear them most of the year, when there are leaves on the trees. And it’s not until after the leaves have fallen, do the chimes actually resonate with him — filling the air with a hopeful tune, during a season that sometimes feels apologetically bleak. Still, it is my second winter of not noticing the beautiful-sounding bells and somehow it feels inexcusable.
A year ago, I found Jack on a database of other psychologists — a website set up like any other social media, or dating site. I’d been therapy-free for over ten years and was living, what I believed, a normalized and healthy livelihood. I saw myself as a functioning woman, who on occasion would experience short bouts of panic, when I would bite off more than I could chew. I defended these intermittent episodes as part of my eccentric personality and intensity, always pointing out that passionate creatives were not the boring type.
I held a regular job, I was in a stable relationship, I had no addiction issues, and I was managing stress through productive outlets such as exercise, making art, and communicating with my partner. I was apprehensive, as I browsed the site, still contemplating, Do I really need this type of commitment, right now? I could certainly think of all kinds of other ways to spend my time.
In Jack’s profile picture he had combed-back hair, a Czar-style beard, and a contented smile. In the sub-caption below his image, he had included Buddhism as his religious orientation.
Normally, I would’ve rolled my eyes and thought, Great, another white guy trying to be groovy, and skipped on to the next profile, to a woman with thick glasses, unruly hair, and discerning eyes , the type I had mostly been familiar with in the past, with whom I’d developed patterns of ending sessions abruptly after being told my storytelling habits were interfering with the “real work” of habit-breaking. However, it was when I got down to the first line of Jack’s bio, it struck me how much his definition of health hit home.
“I believe our mental health ‘symptoms’ are often our psyche’s way of calling us to a different way of living. Each struggle in our lives is an opportunity for self-awareness and personal growth.”
In my email I tried to explain why, after so many years, I wanted to start seeing a therapist again. It was a well-rehearsed explanation, one I had practiced and recited many times over, when convincing myself and others, that I finally had my shit together. After all, I knew myself best and I wanted him to know that even though he was an expert in his field, I was the expert of what I needed to thrive.
Reluctant to make that first appointment, I was still skeptical about the effectiveness of counseling and wasn’t convinced that some stranger could advise me on how to better live my life. Though, part of me felt like I just had to stop feeling sorry for myself, pull up my bootstraps, and get on with it.
We agreed to weekly sessions, with me guiding the process along. He would listen, while I would tell my story. This was the arrangement I initially requested, since all my previous experiences with therapists ultimately began as another case study for them, and ended with expensive and unsolicited advice I didn’t feel inspired to take. I was upfront with Jack, “I don’t take pills. I can detect psychological babel and impending diagnosis a mile away, and I am in complete acceptance of my well-formed habits.”Completely unfazed by my disclaimer, the weeks went on, with Jack becoming the sounding board and, I, the storyteller.
Sitting in his socked feet with a mug of herbal tea warming his hands, I felt like I had finally found the uncritical and attentive audience I’d been looking for. Or, should I say, agonizing over? You see, not only was I a thirty-three-year-old woman who was adamant about being the sole proprietor of her life, I was also a woman confronting the reality of being an artist.
Being an artist was not at all like what I had expected, or romanticized from an early age. Having not published anything significant by the age of thirty, I felt I had reached failure status. I had begun to believe that somewhere along the line I must have missed my calling and opportunity, and would be better off re-focusing my efforts on more practical things, like making a steady income and having health insurance. I suspected all those lawyers and accountants I knew, who moonlighted as jazz musicians, had been confronted with similar conflicts and doubts. And, I wondered if I did have it in me, to just give up and walk away, shrug it off, like it was some kind of phase.
It was a similar kind of lucid reckoning, which led me to Jack. Scared of everything at once, I became afraid of my changing perspective and worldview. My imagination which had always been my vehicle for escape, was now just a way of coping. And, at other times, my own worst enemy. The news, in particular, became a source of great anxiety for me, as my mind would spin directly into the worst case scenario.
I feared the world was going to shit. I feared dying young. I feared any provocations that would lead to war or violence. I feared people knowing too much about me, and in turn, judging me based off of those assumptions. I feared that I wouldn’t succeed as a writer and time would run out. I feared I would forever sit passively and never say anything, at all. And, I feared I didn’t have a story inside of me worthy enough of being told.
Even when I would dream, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had nowhere left to hide from fear. It would find me in abandoned buildings, beneath furniture, and behind trees and rocks. Exposed and vulnerable, I was sure there were but a few choices left for me:
I could meet my fears head-on. I could keep wrestling with what I’d been attempting to say for years. Or, I could be a coward and redirect my energies toward other goals.
Becoming aware is often associated with being on a path — the path to becoming an enlightened individual. Unfortunately, in the age of motivational memes and digital gurus, “being woke” has become a catchphrase (and writer’s nightmare!), and “being mindful”, an overused cliche.
Self-help and “soul work” have become trendy, and anyone who has experienced any challenges in their life, is now able to make an income as a professional speaker/blogger/life coach/influencer. All of a sudden, it was like every fearlessly-opinionated, college-educated, entitled white woman had become mindful — Oh, and the luxury of sitting around thinking about yourself! And, being mindful for a man; it was a great way to pick up chicks.
Even in department stores you could find t-shirts with perky little messages — CHOOSE KINDNESS; I HAD A DREAM, BUT NOW I’M WOKE; YOGA DOESN’T TAKE TIME, IT GIVES TIME; NOT ALL WHO WANDER ARE LOST — paired with other misappropriated illustrations of arrows, the “third eye”, Sanskrit text, and other symbolic elements that were once reserved for those with a truly sacred connection to their belief system. And heaven forbid Googling books or philosophies to answer life’s questions, unless you wanted to become a target to every psychic or self-publishing ad out there.
When truly engaged in such a personal kind of work, there is no room for rationalizations or blame. Mindfulness begins by slowing down and quieting your consciousness, so you can be aware of the present moment. When you become open to this way of seeing, there is no past or future quandaries to ball you up, there is only the acknowledgment that you may exist, and that others may, too.
You also learn to acknowledge that you are not weak for seeking out and accepting guidance, but rather a person who believes the evolution of humanity is actually propelled by this kind of mindfulness wisdom, by knowledge, and the work of individuals. As the spiritual teacher, Osho, once said, “Truth is not something outside to be discovered; it is something inside to be realized.”
Being honest with oneself is only the beginning. For the path is long, and there is plenty more to discover within. For some, this may take a lifetime. For others, much longer.
Occasionally, when sitting in the waiting room before each session with Jack, I make the faux pas of initiating eye contact with others, who have also stumbled their way to counseling. These are typically brief encounters, especially with those who have not yet gotten past that initial feeling of shame, which inevitably befalls those seeking out professional help. Because, unfortunately, in the independent American psyche, we have an ingrained stigma associated with asking for and accepting counsel. Whereas, in other cultures and societies, it is viewed quite differently.
Whether it is asking for divine intervention, honoring elders who possess knowledge and understanding beyond your own, or even requesting guidance from a higher place, there are many more places in the world where places of counsel lie at the center of communities and is a large part of a society’s logos, tradition, and belief system. In contrast, within our mainstream American culture, seeking counsel can have an institutional and solitary feel, it can be both personal and impersonal, and it can be more diagnostic than it is holistic.
In these brief encounters, while waiting for counsel, I’ve realized, we — me and my waiting room comrades — are connected in two important ways. First, we are both trying to hide what we feel is broken inside of us. And, also, that each of us is filled with a lifetimes worth of unique stories and experiences, and all we want is assistance in determining which of our stories and experiences define us, and which ones don’t. If we are truly an accumulation of all this narrative stuffed into one consciousness, then we just want to know: How do we accept and love ourselves for who we are?
Before I started working with Jack, I believed I was doing my own mental health work by cathartically writing about my experiences and disguising them as fiction. I was completely unable to tell a story, without hiding in some way. This was before I had accessed the ability to pause or put my insights into coherent forms of self-expression. This was before I understood that my inner-truth should be the place I was tapping into, and that it would be the most relevant writing I would ever do. This was before I recognized that writing only feels and becomes impossible, when you are constantly in motion, and when you believe that everything has already been said; every story told.
It wasn’t until I started vocalizing my story honestly, did I begin to see the world in which we live, not simply as a place made up of brutal truths always working against us; but as a world made up of over 7 billion other individuals, also trying to figure out why they are here. That we are all, every single one of us, seeking validation and some sense of solidarity, as we reckon with our time and purpose on this planet.
The work I have done in the past isn’t all a loss. The unfinished manuscripts I’ve scrapped, won’t completely go to waste. If anything, they are the start of other stories, stories I am finally brave enough to tell.
In 2014, I wrote a short piece about spending time in a city clinic titled, “We All Come From a Long Way Off.” It was picked up by a small, online publication called, The Milo Review, which disbanded not long after its release, making my cynicism of digital media grow ever stronger. It seemed like everyone on the internet had the same dream of being a writer, and if you couldn’t be a writer than the next thing to become was an editor, publisher, vlogger, or your own brand.
Every form of publishing seemed to be headed in a similar direction. Generations of writers who spent years toiling just to see their work in hard copy, were becoming founts of the past. Now, anyone could put their stream of consciousness out to the public instantaneously, after supper. And they did, to the extent where you could scroll through pages upon pages of blog posts without finding anything of substance to read. I was both fascinated by this new outlet of expression and concerned by where it might lead.
It was a changing world and I was pretty certain my soul would suffer if I bought into. It felt superficial and wrong. I had wanted to be a writer ever since I could remember and was invested in life as an artist, even if it meant blazing my own path, not emulating or following others, not being “liked” or “followed”, and speaking my truth, that may not necessarily align with the truth of others.
Between the “How To’s” and the fake news, the propaganda and the lists of useless facts, the celebrity updates and the beauty tips, of course, I wondered who was going to actually weed through all that information, and care enough about a story they stumbled upon about a city clinic where they perform abortions and provide healthcare to immigrants? Like the characters in my story — the nobodies — no one seemed to be itching to read the work of a nobody.
The immediate gratification of an audience validating your worth and intellect, whether you receive praise or criticism, is addicting. And not having to labor at your craft, or wait out the rejection letters, allows you less agony. But that’s when you remember that being an artist is just as much about sitting with yourself (and your sometimes mad ideas) and craft, as it is translating your visions into a work of expressive art. And ‘yes’ sometimes it is agonizing and painful, but on the spectrum of all the other emotions, sensations, and realizations you can experience in a moment, or a series of moments, the agony and pain in the process shouldn’t be the only thing fueling you as an artist.
I have always believed that to be a writer you have to, first, have something to say. And, second, you have to be able to tell a decent story. Over the years, I have been instinctively drawn to unacknowledged people and populations, because their stories can be so incredibly powerful and heart-wrenching, and can reach you in a very real and humanistic way. The unsung heroes and the ones who sacrifice more than will ever be given credit for. The ones who will pass on and be forgotten.
It makes me sad to think about all the unwritten stories we lose each day, because we don’t take the time or make the effort to be quiet enough to listen to others. How much could we learn about ourselves and our relationships with others, if we spent more time listening and less time being afraid of the quiet and the different? How much more could we say as writers, if we were to free ourselves from the stringent labels, and the industry, and the economic constraints, and look at life again as a nobody?
And I would bet, when it comes down to it, a mindful nobody has a lot more to say, than a somebody who takes every opportunity to speak and make themselves heard.
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 hollow clack of kindling falling to the floor. Then comes the low rumble of the trusty Tacoma warming in the driveway, while Nick sips the last of his coffee, fills his Thermos with his post-lunch 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 your bills every month, or if you 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 little essay, is worth it, or just a waste of resources and time, this 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 solely to me. 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 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 decisions 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 then there are 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 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 86'. 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 swarthy cocoon of coddling and safety would begin to unravel, revealing another picture of mainstream American culture, rattled, awry and untrusting.
The day I graduated from high school was not a joyous day. Ominous weather brewed in the distance, as people gathered 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 invaded Afghanistan—a conflict that later was compared to our involvement in Vietnam, as it marked 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. Choosing to revel in the haphazard nature of writing, it was not just about promoting oneself 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. To me, Didion was not only just 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 encouraged 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 themselves 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 partner, 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, could connect with, 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 a faint 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 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 believed that their over-extended agents and publishers were not as invested in promoting their work, and had decided to take marketing into their own hands. Some even braved it and self-published, hoping to retain their creative freedom and control over their meager book 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 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 materialism, 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. 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 wake up in the morning and 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. (With all this information available to us, we have yet to figure out how to get along with each other, communicate, and help those most in need.) If only we could find quiet time not just in sleep, but to reflect and create and contribute to society in a productive and thoughtful way. What if the only thing we were concerned about missing out on was life?
What no one wants to say out loud, 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 and taxing place to 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; if I'm not taking the time to be a considerate human being. I also cannot possibly make the soundest decisions regarding what is best for me personally and professionally, if I am not clear in thought. This means, for me, turning away from the noise.
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 does not, 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 for expression and empowerment?" And, "Where are we over-saturated with much of the same?" Are two questions we should 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 to share them as if we are witnesses of an unfolding history. For we have a responsibility and the 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 there will always be artists who will choose to promote themselves over contribute to the exploratory and curious human experience (barely scraping the surface of the bigger work that still needs to be done), we can be certain there will always be a need for truth, and for real voices to be heard.