Sunday, April 25, 2010


Sometimes I think, as the headless snuffling crake would have me think, that splitting my attention four ways means that I will never get anything done. “Specialize, specialize!” it croaks. But when I think soberly I know it's wrong. For better and worse, I will never settle to one thing.

Of my four occupations, I give my writing the least respect. I would never refer to myself as a poet or a writer, unless jibingly, and I seldom hear someone else refer to me that way without wincing. I respond to other people's attempts to publicize me gingerly. And yet I know that the days of a neat divide between writers and publicizers is nearly over. In the early days of the American republic it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to campaign in their own behalf: other people campaigned for them. Those days seem quaint, now, and soon writers of any name who don't tirelessly popularize their own stuff will seem just as quaint. No one is less suited than me, by temperament or talent, for self-promotion. So probably I have reached the pinnacle of my fame, here: twenty or thirty regular readers, including many writers that I admire very much. I could go farther and do worse.

Partly, as I've said before, I don't believe the old literary models can stand. I don't believe there is a scarcity of great writing any more, and publishing is dirt cheap – I have published all my work on Mole , for six years, for a total outlay (mostly on peripheral software of dubious value) of maybe $20. I could have done it free. There are tens of millions of educated literate people who are writing and publishing for free; and the machinery of “Literature” does not, as we say in software, scale very well. A system that worked reasonably well when there were a few hundred or a few thousand potential writers – although everyone involved, so far as I can tell, has always complained about it bitterly – breaks down completely in the face of a thousand or ten thousand times that. It's overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

(There is, on the other hand, a real scarcity of journalism, carefully researched writing. There are very few of these for-free writers who check their sources and investigate backgrounds and examine competing claims impartially. There are some kinds of writing that are better done by people who have no dogs in the fight; and people will only do that if they're paid for it. We're going to have to do something to support that kind of writing. But that's another subject. I'm talking about literature.)

When I was young I wanted to be a Great Writer. I haunted used bookstores and read introduction after introduction to classic works. I read the classics, too, but I have to admit that I read nothing with greater attention than those introductions. I wanted to be the subject of them. I yearned to have people think I was so important that they would write biographical sketches of me and argue about the profundities of my message. I wanted to have a single name that meant me, only me, and one so common that it developed an adjectival form. (It irked me that my name didn't lend itself to that. Favierian? Favieresque? Not likely.) I longed for my life to be attended to, examined, as a thing of great importance. Somehow being at loose ends and dithering and worrying was transmuted, in these introductions, into something glorious. So hard and huge a task it was, to birth a literary greatness.

Well, naturally, when I reluctantly began to be an adult (sometime late in my thirties), I began to find all this fuss about my thoroughly implicit, unexpressed greatness comical. And when I had spent some years with a regular meditation practice, my attitude of genial self-contempt shifted to one of compassion, as I began to walk this yen for greatness back to its origins, and realize that it was not harmless at all, but a poison at the heart of my life. No real-scale respect or liking, of the sort that might content ordinary people, would do for me. I needed devotion. I needed the whole world, or anyway the part of the literary world I admired, to adore me. And the reason I needed so much filler was that the hole was so huge. I was desperate to be seen, acknowledged, attended to: and I had at the same time a baleful conviction that only a few people in the world deserved this. The Great people. If I wasn't one of them, I was nothing. The conviction of my worthlessness and unloveability gnawed at me constantly.

As I unwound all this, I understood finally that the hole could never be filled. Nobody ever got so great that their greatness was beyond question. I was playing a sucker's game. There was no way anyone ever won it. I overheard half a phone conversation once, at Yale. An acknowledged Great Poet – you probably know his name -- talking to a friend, and talking just like I always talked to myself: he had done nothing, accomplished nothing, everything was hollow, his work was no good. He was close to tears. Even at the top – maybe even especially at the top, because then all your eggs are in that one teetering basket -- you lose the game.

The solution was plain: walk away from it. Stop playing. So I did.

But when I walked away from it, I walked away from something else, as I am gradually recognizing: I walked away from the fact that I am a maker. I delight in crafting things. I need to make beautiful things, and to show them to people, not because the beautiful things are in me, but precisely because they are not. The reason I could not make beautiful things in all that time I was trying to be great, was that I was looking for them in the one place they were not to be found: in myself. In my little-self, as Buddhists would call it: that haphazard collection of favierian or favieresque bric-a-brac that for one reason or another I identify as Me.

Turn it all inside out. Make an art of service, make a service of art. The paradox of losing to find, so familiar in both Christianity and Buddhism, began to operate at once. Making things in this way actually did begin to fill that hole.

The tricky thing, which I am still negotiating, is to treat the making seriously without slipping back into the habit of drinking poison with my morning coffee: without slipping into thinking that maybe I will make an end run and become famous despite myself. I post carelessly, and spend too little time rewriting, because of my dread that taking my work seriously will kill it. It's a sensible fear, but one that I want to get past, eventually. Maybe I want to spend only a quarter of my life on this, but I want to spend it well. I want to make the best stuff I can for you. I want to be able to share this wonder, this delight, this leap and buck of awareness. I want to make perfect paper boats, and send them down the stream.

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