2 October 2009

In the writing and publishing worlds, in the context of digital digital everywhere, we all seem to be looking for the way  forward.  Or out.  Or backwards, perhaps.  And Richard Nash seems to be someone we’re watching, and listening to, for his sense of the possible.

Here, he writes/talks about his new social publishing venture, Cursor.

I’ve read the description — a kind of manifesto (part philosophy, part business plan) — but don’t really know what to do with it.

I am in student-story commenting mode, and the most frequent comment I make is the familiar “show, don’t tell.”  You have to incarnate this abstraction, make it concrete.  (In my mind, when I need to entertain myself while making said comments, I imagine Cuba Gooding, Jr. bending his knees to the imaginary hip-hop beat, dancing around his house, screaming at Tom Cruise on the phone: SHOW ME THE MOOOONNNNNNEEEEEYYY!)

So we’ll be seeing how it all it fleshes out, so to speak.  Everything about the digital and social networking worlds feels that way to me, i.e. complete abstraction in the summation, but once you “get in there,” it starts to mean something.

Like for instance, in the earlier days of this blog, when 10 people were reading it and I wasn’t really sure what this blogging thing was all about; and I posted a response to Dan Baum‘s Twitter-essay about being fired from the New Yorker; and Dan Baum got wind of the post, and commented on it, then Twittered a link to it; then suddenly 600 people came flooding to my blog (which was a little like having 600 people show up at your house before you’d brushed your teeth or gotten dressed or washed last night’s dirty dishes).

Ah, that’s what linking and blogging and commenting are all about, I thought.  A non-abstract incarnation of digital connection.

A friend who is helping me think through the social networking side of book promotions was making the case for why Twitter (i.e. me Twittering) is meaningful in this context, and after a few minutes of, “It’s kind of like… no, it’s more like…”, I finally said: “Never mind, it’s one of those things you just have to do to understand.”  For me, the Twitter jury is still out; but should the empirical experience summon me, you all will surely be the first to know.


11 June 2009

Former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum’s essay-in-tweets has been going around like wildfire for a while now. I started reading it a few weeks ago but stopped; I couldn’t, somehow, bear it. It felt close to home, it touched on something raw. But I couldn’t have articulated why at the time, because it’s not like I’ve ever written for an elite literary publication, nor been fired by a powerful literary figure.

I finally finished reading the essay.  I can see why it was so popular.  Baum did a few things in this essay that an aspiring memoirist might marvel at:  

1) he told the truth about a powerful cultural institution and its head honcho;

2) he did this via scene-based story-telling more than analysis or exposition (the Twitter form limited him productively in this way);

3) he implicated himself, but not really (most readers — non-insiders/loyalists to the New Yorker culture — will be sympathetic; and instead of emphasizing I don’t like David Remnick, he focuses more on David Remnick doesn’t like me);

4) he elevated a certain kind of naivete  which speaks to a non-institutionalized artistic purity that many writers, many anyones, crave.

Publishing the essay — tweeting it — was a brilliant career move on Baum’s part, and it’s hard to imagine that he did so with the winning naivete described in the piece itself.  I would imagine he counted the cost — my career, or the good will of the New Yorker — and probably determined that there wasn’t much of that good will left to speak of; so he went for it.  A calculated risk which seems, from the outside, to have paid off.  He’s even published on his Web site all of the pieces he wrote for the New Yorker which were “killed,” and are now likely getting hundreds, maybe thousands, of views.

The raw feeling I had when first attempting to read it, I realize now, has to do with this very palpable ambivalence one experiences about institutional prestige/acceptance that, if I pause for a moment of self-awareness, is always there.  What is lost or lacking in a life and work outside the circles of institutional sanction and prestige?  What is gained?  

 Here is how Baum puts it:

The big difference between being freelance and on staff – besides the irregular pay and the lack of benefits – is you’re not part of an institution. And every institution has its own character, its own emotional temperature. Freelancing for so long, I’d forgotten that. (If I ever knew it; I never held a job very long, either.) I’d come to believe that all that matters is the quality of the work on the page. That’s what set the writing life apart, I thought. And journalism folklore is replete with impossible personalities tolerated – yea, venerated – because their writing was so good. Hunter Thompson. Thomas Wolfe. William Faulkner. And on and on

In other words, what is at stake, in planting your feet in an institution, is your freedom.  Your voice.  Ultimately, your self-determination.  Someone else knows better — how to frame and judge  your ideas, your time, your talent — or you have to ostensibly concede to that notion anyway.  And the stakes are the same no matter how sophisticated, talented, or respected that someone else is. 

The atmosphere [at the New Yorker] is vastly strained. I’d get back on the Times Square sidewalk after a visit and feel I needed to flap my arms. Get some air into my lungs, maybe jog half a block. And I came to realize I had a really good job. I could write for the New Yorker, but not have to be of the New Yorker.  Therein lies the reason I’m no longer there.

The stronger your ego, the more likely you can maintain and continue cultivating your intellectual-creative freedom, in any context.  But, the stronger your ego, the less likely you will last in an institutional context; because someone else’s equally strong ego — someone more powerful than you — will have something to say about that.  Self-determination is the necessary manifestation of self-trust: I trust my own instincts and vision of the world more than I trust yours, O institutional leader.  

(And the showdown need not be one of animosity, as Baum’s was with Remnick.  I left a venerable NYC cultural institution (business cards and all) for reasons not dissimilar from Baum’s — to reclaim a clear and pressing self-trust that needed to be nourished and born out — except that I left of my own accord, and with both good will and friendship enduring.)    

We all have our own definitions of freedom.  A New Yorker magazine byline no doubt affords many freedoms.  But when I think of freedom — artistic, personal, professional — I somehow hear Theodore Roethke‘s (tortured, yes) voice in my head: Never be ashamed of the strange.  However you need to structure it for yourself, you can’t be free without direct access, experience of, and license to express that which is surprising and strange.  If someone else’s filters and frames — brilliant, influential, and erudite as they may be — are preventing this, then, in my book, you are not free.

Lunching with my agent recently, I mentioned a book that I was reading and couldn’t put down.  “Really?” she asked, partially surprised, a little repulsed.  “That’s so great, that’s not something I’d ever imagine you’d be reading.”  “Really?” I responded.  We beheld each other in perplexity.  Who are you?  her look said.  Who do you think I am?  my look replied.  It was a good moment.  It felt right.

20 April 2009

NY Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan has written a piece in the Times Sunday Magazine about Twitter — “the Twitter bog,” she calls it — that makes me exhale a little in relief.  Reading the article gave me a sense that Twitter might come and go as a must-do adult activity without my ever having participated, and that I might actually be the better for it.  Or at least not have missed much.   Click here to read the full article.

I’ve been reading about how effective Twitter can be for activist mobilization and other group engagement goals; and I don’t want to wholesale diss something of which I have little direct knowledge.  But I think often about what Annie Dillard says: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.  Doesn’t even the word “twitter” imply that it’s an activity meant to be more peripheral than central in a life?  Does one really want to twitter one’s life away?  (I understand that celebrities now hire personal Twitterers — that, in fact, there are many people out there who Twitter all the day long.)

I was thinking recently — as pundits speculate on the nature of “Obamaism” as it evolves and unfolds here and abroad — that our fair President seems to be staking out a rather ambitious transformative vision for, yes, CHANGE: the core of which seems to be this idea that healthy capitalism need not equal excess.  That an economy and a society can be built on creating and consuming things, but not to the point of addiction.  I’m not sure if, in the midst of the myriad massive programs and initiatives the Obama administration rolls out daily, we are able to fully appreciate just how radical — how fundamental to everything that shapes how we live — a vision this is.  

So Twitter as an activity which is productive but not excessive, and not an addiction.  Such a simple notion and yet… the American sense of healthy proportion has really gone awry over the last few decades.  We’ve come to take for granted that when it comes to a good business idea, if it’s working, if people will pay for it, then make it BIG, make it OBSESSIVE.  

As always, God bless, and God help, Mr. Obama.

2 April 2009

It continues to amaze me how quickly our sense of the words “long” and “short” are changing.

Blogging is now considered “long-form” — in contrast to Twitter and other micro-blogging formats; and at The Millions, Max Magee reflects on six years of what’s now perceived as “ponderous” blogging.

I guess that’s all I have to say about that.

20 February 20009

So I’m recovering from yesterday’s post, still considering the apparent fact that not only is the novel dead (passé, at the least), but blogging’s got one foot in the grave as well.  The”now” now, the “it,” is micro-blogging.

I’ve not Twittered, but I’ve observed and tried out the Facebook “status update”:  Sonya is surfing Amazon, one might write on her Facebook homepage, for all her “friends” to see.  Sonya is combing her dog for fleas.  Sonya is off to bed now, good night!  The updates I love-to-hate are the ones which simultaneously thumb their noses and make poetry of Facebook’s default (passive) “is” in the posting box:  Jill is Puerto Rico!  Jane is every day is a winding road!

I have my doubts about a story-in-micro-blog-fragments, a la Goodreads.com; but who knows, the haiku form has flourished and inspired verses of depth and breadth and mystery for centuries.  

But the greater literary potential of the micro-blog, I think, might be found in Virginia Woolf’s notion of “moments of being” (from her book of the same title).  Moments of being are those flashes of insight, of heightened spiritual and sensual awareness, which grace us from time to time in the midst of lives which are comprised mostly of “non-being” — that greater part of life which is “not lived consciously,” but instead embedded in “a kind of nondescript cotton wool.”  Artists may experience moments of being as they work, or as inspiration to work (we writers keep our notebooks on hand for just this purpose).

And now, Facebookers-and-Twitterers-all can take moments out of the day for “being.”  How about suggesting to Facebook to replace the default “is” with a moment-of-being verb like wonders or envisions, sensory verbs like sees, hears, feels, hungers.  In that Facebook world, I might actually read all my news feeds.

19 February 2009

Goodreads.com is having a micro-blogging writing contest:

The novel is passé. The short story is outmoded. Even Lonelygirl15’s videoblog is yesterday’s news. The new medium of creativity is the status update. Aficionados of Twitter and Facebook understand the power of instant communication. We’re taking it one step further: Can you tell your friends a story using only your Goodreads status updates?

I am a little speechless.  More on this as I micro-process it in my micro-mind.