All my occupational/vocational/career choices have been opportunistic, defaults. What I really wanted to do was write, but now that I have the time, the place, the subsidy (old age pension), the subjects, the intense motivation -- the whole bundle of things necessary to be a writer -- publishing has fallen apart. I can still write. I DO write -- you’re reading this, aren’t you? But publishing is different. It is merchandizing and merchandizing writing on the Internet is selling snow to Eskimos. (Yes, I know it’s politically incorrect to call them that. Put it on my tab.)
Sam Harris points out on his blog: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-future-of-the-book/ that people now expect all print to be free. That’s only one aspect of it. Another is that the writing now rains down on us like a confetti storm. And yet another is that the audience of readers is totally unlike any we’ve had before. Young, hip, scornful, ambitious, willing to talk sex and the supernatural smushed together, unwilling to sit down and read for any length of time -- partly because they are reading on a two-inch screen embedded in their phone -- the writer has got to be swift, incendiary, and edgy. A strange mix of familiarity (they can handle sci-fi) and surprise (don’t get rational).
Does the same old Campbell hero cycle work? Maybe, but it gets harder and harder to figure out how to get the hero back to his/her community, wised up and helpful. How to describe in a convincing way a transformation that is unimaginable? Yet science is packed with revelations just beyond our fingertips: a renewable source of energy that is cheap as print, an understanding of cell biology that cures every major disease, a way to travel faster than light so we can finally get to the next solar system.
Last night’s second cycle of the Canadian series called “Slings & Arrows” was based on “Macbeth.” The plot gizmo was that the main actor was successful, full of himself, and unwilling to move on because he had it so good where he was. The director had to trick him into using his real talent by substituting a “lesser” actor who did a better job, and by completely disorienting Mr. Hero Actor, which also put the director out on thin ice. A big gamble.
Twice in my life I’ve been on unemployment: once when I left teaching and once when I left the ministry. Major dislocations and big hits to security, but they preserved what makes me a decent writer: independence and a sense of moral outrage combined with love of the sensory world. Those two “vocations” were consciously chosen but quite misunderstood and -- anyway -- transformed into something I disliked because of cultural shifts. Teaching is totally different than it once was and so is ministry. The “consumers” wanted something different that I was prepared to provide.
Other jobs (animal control, clerical specialist) just sort of dropped on my head like burning pianos. No choice. But interesting. And then there was Life with Scriver and the Blackfeet, which was far more than a job: identity shaping. I just couldn’t sustain it. It consumed me as much as it fulfilled me. I didn’t find that again until writing with Tim Barrus. It is the kind of thing this new generation wants to hear about, but if you share something that passionate, it can be very dangerous to both parties. One becomes a burning piano.
The strange thing (maybe it’s NOT strange) is that while the arts have become far more risky (though demanding less skill), ordinary life demands more tech skill, more money, more bland dependability, more obedience. Maybe the two things have a compensatory relationship. The sub-plot of the “Slings & Arrows” episodes was that the audience was aging and leaving because of how boring the productions had become. An advertising campaign -- devised by a charlatan -- that attacked the audience by mocking their age and mediocrity, brought in a crowd of youngsters, Deadheads, poete maudit wannabes, who re-energized everything. Is that what’s happening with the whole arts scene?
The continuing ripping of covers off the money industry that everyone has so worshipped for more than a decade has revealed who’s in bed together. Bankers, CEO’s and senators. Teachers, ministers, and writers. Well, publishers anyway. It appears we’re resuming the Revolution that was started in the Sixties and Seventies. But we have found the enemy and this time he is us, not our parents. It hurts. It is quite possibly fatal.
I never really understood that social bargain between the individual (or the nuclear family) and society that is a “job.” I asked my mother, who grew up in a small town, how to get a job. She said that one went to the business part of town and proceeded from one to the next, asking them what they needed and whether they would hire. That’s how she got her teaching job right out of college (a middle-aged retread) and she never left it. It served her well.
My father grew up homesteading and farming. He was the oldest and the college graduate. He took a low-level job, never was ambitious though idealistic, and was finally unemployable because of a 1948 head injury that by the Sixties had triggered something like Parkinson’s. Until then he was smart, diligent, and resourceful -- but never progressed and never took the family into prosperity, which is why my mother went back to school.
It’s a kind of “bone game” as the Blackfeet would have it. (That’s “bone” as in button except there are two bones, only one of them the true one to find.) An interaction of skill and luck, mediated by a row of people motivated to baffle you for their own ends. Cynical but realistic. One cannot guarantee success even with money, contacts, resources, or else John-John Kennedy would be alive today.
Nevertheless, the length of one’s life trajectory doesn’t mean much. I’m not even sure one’s contributions to the lives of others are significant, given that “contributions” have a tendency to change in value rather radically over time. So for today, a brilliant but overcast, blowing, not-quite-chilly, fall day, I think I’ll just settle for hedonism. It’s a classic solution. Luckily, my greatest pleasure is writing. NOT publishing.