Steven Pressfield features “Writing Wednesdays” on his website, Stevenpressfield.com. This 8/21/16 is Wednesday and he’s picking up the Emily Dickinson/Van Gogh conundrum: if a writer is never published but is an excellent writer, what does it mean? It’s a bit of a tree-falling-in-the-forest question: if no one observes, notes and publicizes the tree, did it really fall?
One of the senior UU ministers, charged with the task of tracking down his classmates for a fifty-year celebration, found someone he’d forgotten all about and so had everyone else, but who had been a exemplary and well-loved figure his whole career in a small midwest town. No one farther away than a few counties had any knowledge of him at all. Was he lesser than the ones (men) who had the big churches in the big cities? Don’t we recognize cream because it rises and isn’t risen cream a good thing? Didn’t Jesus rise?
“Published” is a brainwash game. “Best-selling,” “most popular,” even “made into a movie” (which may mean it’s totally transformed) is just part of the same game. Why does no one rebuke publishers for not finding really high quality and game-changing books? Why do publishers pay for excellent writing and then tinker with it to make it into something more commercial?
Someone asked to borrow my copy of “The Black Moccasin,” by John Tatsey, a compilation of John’s newspaper columns here on the rez in the Sixties. It should be called the “Black Mock-a-sin”, since that was the content. Tatsey was the only law officer in Heart Butte and made his daily arrests and investigations into Dogpatch tales of great energy and exaggeration, because “Stay Away, Joe” was popular at the time. Mike Mansfield was so tickled by these tales that he had them read into the Congressional Record. It’s unknown whether he realized they were self-mocking comedy that was defending against the real tragedies and poverty of the people. Everyone mistakes the stories for reality. I do not loan the book. But doesn’t that mean it might as well not exist?
When one joins the company of — whatever the company is that is rather sequestered but high status whether ministry or writers or even publishers or politicians— it is a great fascination to hear all the privileged “inside” stories, which is what people thought Tatsey was writing. The UUMA (the ministers for the UUA) are still having to handle the hot potatoes roasted by clerical misconduct. Curiously, very few talk about draining money or letting the church building deteriorate or being rotten preachers — most of the gossip goes to sex and most of it has no helpful context. For instance, if the stories are looked into, they often turn into sad tales of addiction, broken families, domination by powerful people, one of those narcissistic hunger-holes demanding admiration.
I’ve been wrestling with the idea of institutions, because these are the usual context of all this power over individual creativity. I’ve been a blogger for a decade now. Some metric monitors say I’m read by 400 people a day and some say 1,000 or higher. Few single books are read that much. There’s a natural ceiling because of the cost of the materials, storage, and distribution. But blogging costs nothing, not even the computer to write on unless there’s no library around. (A book on the shelf is just one book — a computer on the table is the world’s libraries.) It’s very much a straw into gold project.
Writing on the Internet can be in the interest of a cause, can be “fenced” to be read only by certain people, can use any subject matter or genre, UNLESS the writer can’t resist the big money-making platforms like Facebook or Medium. You can quickly become infamous there. (They don’t make money for YOU, but for the platform owners, who sell their lists of clientele.) It is a way of evading publishers who buy the writers’ works and change them to suit their own purposes which are mostly sales.
Because SALES are what publishing is about. And that means advertising and product tampering. “Listen, Ernie, no one is interested in some old man catching a fish all by himself. There’s a sportsman’s industry you’re damaging by making it seem so primitive and unreasonable.” The youngsters won’t even know what I’m talking about in this little joke. They want graphic, in both senses.
The people who bow down in obeisance to publishing and take “publishing a book” to be the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval are just social climbers who want status, confirmation as though they were still in school and working for good grades. They’re Victorian.
So what ARE the markers of “good” writing? If it isn’t financial and social admiration, what is it? If it has a major life-changing impact on one other person, is it “successful” writing? If John Tatsey weren’t so funny and colorful, which is what got him published far more than any sober anthropologist, would he have been so successful? Or did he do actual damage, like reporting the murder of an officer, so that every time the account was republished due to popular demand (about once a decade), the story of the murder was taken to have just happened. The family suffered again. Finally, they took action by nominating the officer for a hero award, which established the facts and restored the seriousness of death.
Who will EVER be able to disentangle the chaff from the wheat in the present election run-up? The subjects attract everything from stunning analysis to clown-level satire, and that doesn’t include what the candidates themselves write. No doubt there will be incredible novels that inspire absorbing video serieses. A thousand years from now, what will it matter? Whose mom will be proud?
If one can write a truly satisfying balanced and memorable sentence, that’s a good thing, but no one will put a gold star on your chart. (The reviewers and the publishers of reviews have withered.)
If someone has lived a life in the underworld among people no one even realizes are there and then writes about it (without getting killed for breaking the code) is that a good thing? What if you can’t tell a sociopath from a PTA president? (I suppose they COULD be the same person — what a plot premise!) We’re confronted with writers who are convincing misery fantasists and others whose reality is mocked as fantasy. The unmasking might sell better than the original. And then there are the stories that are plainly labeled fantasy — dragons and all that. And all the stuff we don’t really want to know about, fantasy or not. I’ve seen enough severed heads, thank you.
Aside from the honor of it all and the skill of word-smithing and the new knowledge transmitted and the reactions of the readers — all of which tend to push writing and publishing into certain expected channels — now and then some visionary or innocent throws an explosion of words into the public awareness that changes everything. Access to it might not be a matter of publishing at all, at least not in any known mode. That’s where writers and ministers meet. They have in the past and they will in the future. You might not notice.