Saturday, February 13, 2010

Explaining Salinger

After leaving CNET, as I considered my next steps, I arrived at a small pearl of insight. What makes me happy, I realized, is writing well and playing music well. Period. "Full stop", as the British say.

My most cherished moments have been spent embroiled in the creative process. After that comes only problems. I detest having to find channels for my output; the touchy ritual of petitioning
unhip, haughty gatekeepers. And then there's the issue of reaction. While I'm pleased when my work happens to be appreciated, I understand that the active pursuit of acclaim is a house of mirrors.

Creative people quickly learn to expect a zany mix of zealously wrongheaded admiration and flat out rejection in response to their work. And the killer is that success rarely correlates with quality. So one must labor within a madness-making, completely erratic feedback system (it's worth noting that lab animals become mortally stressed when reward and punishment are randomly meted out). There's no predicting or controlling how your work will be perceived - or whether it will be perceived at all. Those lucky few who attain some perspective on it all (usually via great success or failure) quickly realize that it's foolhardy to stake one's self worth on an uncontrollable, capricious system. Far better to just do the best work one can, and let chips fall where they will.

Of course that's not how you build a career. That's not how you get your playing heard and your writing read. That's not how you cultivate contacts and build a following. That's not how you "become somebody". And such things can hardly be disregarded if you aim to live off your creative work. That's why I deeply respect artists like Charles Ives, who plied a humdrum day job so he could compose in the spirit of pure creation.

It's not that I'm too lazy to hustle. I love to work hard; there's nothing more arduous than the task of creating something original and beautiful, and polishing it well beyond the point of "good enough". But the best results come from immersion in the doing, without regard for the distractions and turmoils of the aftermath. When attention divides, quality suffers. And
isn't quality the point?

It seems self-evident that artists require an audience - the bigger the better. This truism is a new development in the history of creative arts, but the striving for attention is now pandemic. When the impulse sneaks up on me, I remind myself that I created a platform once which grew huge, and found its hugeness
a crushing burden. The reality is that unless you are driven by an unquenchable thirst to be projected upon the public consciousness, mass attention actually feels quite disturbing and artificial. For one thing, it's never truly directed at you; it focuses on a facet of a layer of a static image which happens to have your name affixed to it. And you play little part in choosing which facet of which layer of which image is focused upon. The assignment process is remarkably similar to the way children get dubbed with nicknames.

So I find myself writing this Slog (in addition to several projects outside the public eye), read by a few dozen readers, by far the smallest readership of my career. I know a thing or two about guerilla marketing from my experience growing Chowhound into a national brand sans marketing budget, but I've done little to try to expand this audience (in fact, I've actively tanked it by jumping wildly among varied subjects). Rather than scheme about traffic, I bear closely in mind that bigger is not better; that more eyeballs mean more pressure and more non-creative obligations; that what satisfies is to create work which hopefully has some magic to it...period. Full stop.

Anything beyond that is distracting at best and painful at worst. Fretting over low readership can make a writer feel upsettingly puny, but the weight of a large audience (portions of which will mistake intentions, clamor for attention, and
enviously/admiringly shoot poison darts) brings its own world of hurt. As with so much human experience, pain arises only when one pauses to gauge how one measures up. Actual doing never hurts; creation is a peak experience, and it stays peakiest when quality-for-quality's-sake is the sole goal.

We think of JD Salinger as an embittered eccentric because he turned away from us. But consider, for a moment, that any number of people who you don't personally know live with their backs to you. It would be madness to expect a random stranger to live his life within our purview because we, singly or en masse, happened to take an interest. Does anyone really owe us that? Is there a degree of attention which somehow commands submission - and which therefore makes a person something more (and less) than a person?

I'm neither bitter nor eccentric. I love doing what I'm doing, and have never felt more creative or hopeful. But while I welcome you here, and can nearly exhaust myself toiling to make my writing hopefully worth the time you kindly spend reading it, I honestly don't care if there are a thousand of you, or just one of you, or none at all. And I love this newfound heedlessness as keenly as Dr. Zhivago loved Lara. Discovering the nucleus of my happiness has been intensely liberating. I've cracked the satisfaction puzzle.

And so did Salinger - who, vastly more eminent than I ever was, had reason (and wherewithal) to retreat more deeply from commensurately greater pressure and distraction. If there's madness to his story, it's that a deluded public would equate the spurning of limelight with dysfunction. The public's sense of entitlement makes it unimaginable for an object of its attention to opt for a private life; the natural human condition of anonymity seems freakishly unnatural. But most puzzling of all is the notion that a writer writing writing which you and I can't read is hardly a writer writing at all.

Nonsense. The play's the thing.


Dave said...

"Still Bill," the soon-to-be released documentary about Bill Withers, is largely about this very subject.

And it turns out that another person who died recently, writer-director John Hughes wrote long hours every day, for his own consumption.

Dave said...

Add the interview/profile of Sam Shepherd in the NY Times this weekend.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Dave. For those reading along:

Vanity Fair article on Hughes:

Still Bill (the film)

Shephard piece

Dave said...

I should have stated the obvious: I enjoyed your blog post -- food for thought rather than stomach fodder.

Jim Leff said...

Also along these lines:

One Irving Rosenthal wrote a much-acclaimed (though little-remembered) book called Sheeper, then retired from writing to run a homeless shelter.

Here's one of several interesting links

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