In Which We End With Pictures

28 July 2003

Oh, good. When I wrote yesterday about how misguided it was to compare pain, Columbine responded by comparing pain. If I had felt the pain of the "get a real job" stigma, he reasons, I would never condemn other writers for being whiny. If I knew what it was like to have stories nobody ever responded to, I would realize that writers who exaggerate their pain are justified.

As it happens, I've had several published stories that have received no feedback. (The "published" is important for two reasons: one, because Columbine says that nothing is respected unless it's published, and sometimes that's not enough, and two, because I don't publish stories on my website, so I want to make it clear that I'm not comparing apples to apples with him, exactly.) No responses. No reviews that I know of, no e-mails, no indication that members of my own household have even glanced at the story, no pats on the back from my mommy...nothing. It's part of life. Sometimes people just don't know what to say, even if they did love or hate a story. Sometimes they don't want to "bother" the author -- I've gotten a few e-mails on other stories that were clearly from scared kids who were in awe of Real, Live Authors. How many more didn't write? Maybe some. Maybe none. You can't force that kind of thing.

You want to talk about being told to get a real job? There was a time I thought I couldn't even have my second-tier, practical dream and would have to be an actuary because physics was such a tight job market and writing was not even thinkable. Writing could not even be considered. Wasn't on the list. I have been told that my hard work is "free time." Don't tell me what I haven't experienced, Columbine. Just don't. "Obviously if X had been through what I've been through, X would believe what I believe." We may wish that was true, but it isn't. Mileage varies. Conclusions vary. X is not you, and you are not X, and sometimes the same input will spur wildly different results.

If your friends don't respect time spent on creative pursuits, whichever creative pursuits they are, get a better group of friends. Seriously. They're out there, and they're worth it. If the rest of society doesn't, deal with it. Try to improve that society, sure, work on it, but for the moment, deal with it, because that's what we've got, and it wouldn't change if you were passionate about painting or teaching or, oh, I don't know, let's take a random example -- nuclear physics. Any vocation that demands a lot is going to meet with blank incomprehension and lots of misconceptions. Actors get that response. Clergybeings do. Engineers do. I would know: nuclear physicists do. It's not that writers are a poor little persecuted group all their own.

We live in a society that doesn't respond well to dreams. We live in a society that sneers and snickers at passion unless it's a fleeting, idealized sexual romance. We can work to change that, but the first and best way is to ignore it completely. It doesn't matter. So what if some jackass teacher, co-worker, or yeah, even friend or family member doesn't "get" that art is work, or doesn't understand why it's important to do it? Why does everybody have to "get" it? You can rest assured that my downstairs neighbors don't spend their time worrying about whether I approve of the rap they listen to or the reality TV they watch, not even enough to turn down the volume. Why should I care if their response to my profession is that it must be nice not to have to work? Who does it help if I get snippy and defensive? Who does it help if I wax melodramatic or wander off and pout? Who does it help if I invest their cluelessness with significance in my life?

It is very difficult for me not to wax exceedingly sarcastic here. I never said that writing wasn't hard. In fact, I said that it was, several times. What I said, and what I stand by, is that it's not on a pinnacle of difficulty -- in terms of achievement or emotional requirements -- compared to which all other professions pale. It's not, it's not, it's not, and nobody has ever demonstrated that it is. People who announce they want to be academics get sneered at to get real jobs, and they have to deal with rejection, and with people thinking that their work is silly or worthless or trivial, and so on and so on. I could just keep naming professions here, because it happens to all of them that require any creativity, any passion, any special spark. Writers' pain stings, sometimes wounds to the core, but not in a special, unique, writerly way that other people can just never understand. And when I pointed that out, your response, Columbine -- and probably some other people's as well -- sounded a lot like "Oh, you can just never understand."


Hard stuff is -- by definition! -- hard. Of course it is. The world does not show up on our doorstep with accolades for our natural brilliance. Not in any profession. Does that mean we should take our marbles and go home? For some of us, sure, evidently it does mean exactly that. I'd love to have the attitude that some of the "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!" folks seem to have, that such people are automatically going to produce inferior work. I don't think that's necessarily true. I can't convince myself that it's no loss. It's very hard for me not to lapse into boot camp mode myself and start shouting that people should, "Suck it up!" and "Just deal!" Somewhere in my head is the voice of the little kid from "Long Kiss Goodnight": "Life is pain, Mommy! You just get used to it!" But I don't think that's right. I would like to live in a world where a higher percentage of people respected creative work, where a higher percentage of people didn't see work as a dirty word or as a necessary evil but as something that could either be frustrating or quite personally rewarding, depending on what it was. I'd like to live in a world where people make an effort to be genuinely helpful to each other's efforts. I'd like to contribute to that kind of world, and reinforcing the supposed necessity of the pain isn't going to help me get there. Boot camp mentalities aren't going to help there. But neither is going into retreat; neither is deciding that it's all Just Too Hard; neither is figuring that it must be someone else who's making the problems.

The world of writing is not all hugs and rainbows. Never will be, because it's part of the rest of the world, which is also not all hugs and rainbows. I try to contribute some hugs and rainbows when I can. I've started e-mailing the authors of stories I especially love and telling them that I loved their story and, if I can articulate it in a way I think will translate outside my own head, why I did. I also do this, more rarely, with poems, paintings, music, and other achievements I've appreciated. This is a very small squeeze, a tiny fraction of a rainbow -- a sundog, perhaps. But it's something. It's a start. It's better than the thundering or the whining, and it's better than a total withdrawal.

I'm not a believer in the cult of Doing Something, Even If It Backfires, but I am a firm proponent of Small Actions. (I'm also fond of large ones, but they tend to be harder to fund or manage.) And I think a recognition that our own pain -- as a person or as a profession -- is not the center of pain in the universe is a good start towards being able to behave constructively and compassionately towards other people and other professions.

Er. So. There's that.

It's Marcel Duchamp's birthday. I have to say that my first idea for how people should celebrate appropriately was, "Go pee on some art." I am not a fan of Marcel Duchamp, and if my Aunt Mary hadn't put it on her calendar, I would not have bothered to know when his birthday was. (I'm almost scared to go to Google today, lest they have decided to observe his birthday the way they did Monet's, Mondrian's, etc.) I think the idea of "found art" is mostly problematic to me in that Duchamp was claiming responsibility for his found art. It wasn't that he decided that his famous urinal was particularly inspired and went to find the designer's name so that he could exhibit it with that name attached. No. He decided that it was art he had done. I didn't think of it in terms of social class before, but it's a pretty classist definition of art: art is that which is determined by the class of people able to do art, not that which is actually made in a different class of people entirely. Seems like the natural endpoint of this is employing lower classes to conceive of and create art, then purchasing the pieces and slapping one's own name on. "That can't be art, it was made by poverty-stricken laborers in an overseas factory! But I bought it, and in the act of purchase, I made it art!" No, no, and yuck, and no. "That KMart sweatsuit is art when I wear it, but not when you wear it!" No.

Ah well. A Slender Thread is not what I expected it would be at all. It's Diane Ackerman's book about working a suicide/crisis hotline...sort of. She keeps going on tangents related to squirrels and Pleiades and the like -- being Diane Ackerman and all. I think if I was in a situation where I needed to call a hotline like that, it might comfort me to hear the voice of someone who could talk knowledgeably about baleen whales or the Jovian moons. I'm not sure how universal that is, though, so I don't know how often she gets to use that aspect of her skills on the hotline. Anyway, I think the subtitle ("Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis") is quite accurate, more accurate than I expected it to be.

It's a very hopeful, very upbeat book. About working a suicide hotline. It's like the response Anne Lamott got when she labeled Hard Laughter a funny book about cancer: skewed, yet totally appropriate.

So. I have birthday pictures cropped, and they'll start here when I get the pages together. Mom asked for lots of pictures, and there are a few garments that have to be seen to be understood (they'll be on the first page). Those do not include an orange velour tracksuit, much to the amused disappointment of some of you. You will live through the lack, I feel sure.

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