Monday, December 3, 2012

True protection

Political blogger Heather Parton, who writes under the name "Digby" for her blog Hullabaloo, visited my campus a couple weeks ago, soon after the election.  Parton discovered her passion for blogging almost by accident, but is now one of those rare few who make a living solely through that work.  She discussed many interesting subjects during her visit, including the experience of "coming out" as a woman at a blogging conference to which she was an invited guest.  (Apparently, because her pen name didn't give her gender away, everyone had assumed she was male.  The reactions to the real Digby, she reported, were a bit odd and fairly disappointing for this day and age.)  During her public reading--at which she read some of her favorite posts to a mixed group of students, faculty, and local
residents--I noticed that some of the pieces were surprisingly long.  The next day, in a talk with a small group of students, she broached this subject.  She explained that she got into blogging in the very early days, and of course with no training or particular guidance.  She said that friends who are quite serious and studious about the art form (and I agree that it is one), keep telling her that she has to keep her posts to a paragraph or two.  This, they explain, is the professional "rule."  While she appreciates their advice and concern, basically she ignores it.  Not that all of her posts are long.  Some are quite short.  (She updates her blog several times a day and tweets frequently.)   But she says that certain subjects, certain passions simply move her to write at length.  She's not FOX news, after all.  Or the AP wire.  She's not a bottom-of-the-screen news crawl.  She's a person making personal commentary.  And she sees no point in not being true to what she has to say.  She told the students she has resigned herself to being a "long form blogger"if that's what it takes.  As you can imagine, it was heartening for me to hear such comments.  As blog posts go, some of mine are ridiculously long, and all I can say is thank you readers for your patience.  I do hope that by limiting myself to once-a-week posts the length of any given post is not too offputting.  Or perhaps that's simply an excuse.  It's true that writing, and perhaps especially blog writing, has to come out of who you are; whether you like it or not, it's a revelation of who you are.   And I'm someone who has "written long" my whole life.  Tough to fence myself in in a platform that's my own, so to speak.  (But believe me, I try to make every sentence count.)  Thanks to Heather Parton for extending her "permission" for the longer posts.  I'd be curious if anyone has thoughts on the "long form blogging" phenomenon.  Is there a better way to handle this animal?

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This next topic is related to the above discussion, if somewhat tangentially.  In nonfiction class this week, the students were saluting two classmates for writing about rather personal  and potentially embarrassing subjects.  I seconded the students' applause and reiterated to them one of my favorite all-time writing quotes.  It comes from nonfiction writer Terry Tempest Williams: "Nakedness is our shield.  You can't protect yourself anyway, so you might as well tell the truth." Indeed, what Williams gets at is that the willingness to be open in our art becomes its own protection.  We're not simply exposed; we're protected because of our exposure, counterintuitive as that might seem.  The best example I can think of in this regard is the poet Allen Ginsburg.  In the extremely homophobic America of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Ginsburg went around essentially unfettered and unharrassed, and for one reason only: He expressed, without apology, in both his poetry and his life, exactly who and what he was, and thus earned a kind of grudging respect from those who otherwise would have despised and attacked him.  Again, we're back to Parton's subject of remaining true to who you are.  But Williams's quote speaks to me in other ways too.  Finally it comes down to reverencing the art above everything else, even concerns about protection.  As I said to the class the other day, when you sign the mythical Writer Contract with your life's blood, you are agreeing that the art matters more than anything.  So when it comes down to a choice between your own protection and what the work of art demands, you give in to the work of art.  I really can't see any other choice an artist can make.  Of course, this is not an easy thing to do in practice.  It can take an inordinate dose of courage; and I think for the students, early in their writing careers, their emotional sensors so wide open and feeling so watched by their peers, it's a courage that amounts to craziness.  I do hope for their own sake as well as the sake of their art they eventually find it.  (Courage, that is; not craziness.)

For my own inspiration to courage, I need look no further than the man who is the subject of my historical novel.  Van Gogh, for all his personal quirks and dubious life decisions, rarely if ever made a misguided or callow decision about his art.   When he finally, after several false professional starts, committed himself to becoming an artist, it is as if he had an immediate and permanent fix on exactly what he needed to do--and what he would need to give up--to accomplish his goal.  He understood the weaknesses in his talent and attacked those weaknesses through incredibly hard work and a deliberate, self-imposed, program of study.  He literally never wavered in his commitment to painting, even if that meant imposing on siblings, on parents, on friends.  Even if that meant denying himself many various comforts and contentments.  With a kind of autistic bullheadness (see my earlier post about this) and social clumsiness, he gave to each piece of art whatever it needed, paying for that out of his own life.  Admittedly, for this reason, his life was in many ways a sad one.  His romantic life was an unqualified disaster.  And of course (unless you believe the newfangled story put forth in a recent biography--I don't--that he was shot by goofing teenagers in Auvers-sur-oise) he apparently ended that life with his own hand.  Yet, at the same time, Van Gogh has never struck me as a "sad case." That's not how I regard him and not how I try to portray him in my book.  Or at least not only how I portray him.  The man lived ferociously.  He lived with fire and with insight and with risk.  He accomplished much in a relatively short amount of time.  Van Gogh becoming an artist was the longest of all long shots.  Van Gogh becoming internationally famous and universally revered was next to impossible.  (Those who knew him personally would have been astounded at the idea.)  And yet he pulled it off.  For one reason only: He signed the contract with his life's blood and was willing to live by its terms.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, John. Thanks for the TTW's quote. Love her work!