Sunday, February 15, 2009

Paper writing, random thoughts

I used to write and submit essays and short stories to the slush pile of all sorts of magazines, most of them big-time famous. (Why aim low?) Occasionally, they were accepted.

That was great fun, but to my surprise, none of it amounted to "getting my foot in the door," which my father always claimed was the key to success in any profession. In writing, unless one sets course for an editorial career first, in which case writing assignments are a part of the job -- every time is always the first time. I have never had an editor call me asking me to write something for him.

I mention this not to whine into the ether but because, first, the editor with whom I at least used to have some contact has retired after forty-odd years in the business, so I no longer have that one ear in New York that I was rather proud of having. And second, blogging is so different and makes me so productive -- for good or ill -- that I think I will never submit another paper esssay or story to anybody again. I look back and marvel that I used to offer things up to, for example, The North American Review. Ploughshares. Tin House. Black Warrior Review. The Atlantic and Harper's, of course. I submitted enough to The New Yorker to finally get a rejection slip, which I considered a small triumph after years and years of being ignored. Prestige publications, all. But I wonder if some of them are still in business and even if they are, I look back at them as if at dusty, cobweb-draped tombstones littering the road of my past. (Dear me, how picturesque.) What would be the point, now, of being embalmed in the North American Review? When was the last time anybody in the world ever read it?

Still, what I might call paper writing is different from blogging, and the difference makes me uneasy. It's not just that it is more formal. I wonder if paper writing must necessarily force you to create a denser, more interesting product than the screen which only shows you a few lines at a time as you scroll down into the bottom of the monitor, typing almost anything because you are your own editor and publisher and there's no one to stop you. Who knows, maybe you're being brilliant. Somebody might think so. The very difference in format makes all the difference between working on a substantive project and merely reacting to events and emotions, which is easier and more flattering to see in print. But any writer, any professional, wants to do the best he's capable of doing. But -- if your absolute best can only be done on paper that no editor will ever permit to see the light of day, why not adopt a new medium that reaches people, even a handful, despite the risk that this medium does sort of flatten out the peaks and valleys of your best?

I suppose the compromise is to make terribly deep and significant paper writing, polish it, finish it, and then transfer to one's blog. Which takes time. Which makes the blog look like it's not being updated. Which loses the handful of readers for whom one is serving as one's own editor. Sigh, and ;-> as all the bloggers say.


Random thoughts on the stimulus package, or "generational theft" (John McCain) or "porkulus" (Rush Limbaugh -- and by the way, here's another problem with writing and blogging, or both. It's reacting to politics that can make you, as a writer, just as productive as hell. In my case the trouble with that is that I am, for the most part, only regurgitating other people's information and opinions, people who know more facts and can respond intelligently to events much faster and therefore more pertinently than I have ever been able to do. All I tend to be able to offer is a kind of woozy, speculative pre-nostalgia on how Future Historians will regard This. The good political writers amaze me, really. Even though I know they have their own little demons perched on top of the computer. Charles Krauthammer once acknowledged that he has spent his career following, week by week, hundreds of unfolding, miniscule events which future historians will not care a whit about. Then again, he's got a Pultizer, in this life.)

Beyond politics -- we're talking about writing again -- I've never had much interest in making up fictional stories although God knows I have tried. I am always too anxious to teach something. Trivia, sad to say, is my great love. And although I love history, I don't have access to the really interesting primary sources which would form the skeleton of original historical writing. (More whining? Possibly.) When younger I always envisioned myself in the British Museum, delving into medieval records and making some terrific discovery. My professors who wanted me to research local high school basketball statistics from the 1910s and 1920s were responding appropriately to what it's possible for the local historian to do, but they also reinforced my innate understanding that I do not want to do that. I could drive down to Kankakee and investigate how that poor Smith family all died of yellow fever in 1892 ... but I've not done it yet.

What's left, as far as writing is concerned, is the private diary, which is getting tiresome in all its sublime-to-ridiculous daily rhythms -- is there a God? I framed that picture today -- and blogging. About wine. About food. About anything. Rush Limbaugh complains that, back in the days of the Fairness Doctrine, radio stations learned quickly how to avoid giving over program direction to angry, boring amateur listeners insistent on their right to on-air "fairness." They did it by shunning politics and all controversy from the get-go, broadcasting shows on the best fruit cake recipe for the holidays, or how to clean your bathtub ring. In blogging on Wisconsin cheddar spoon bread, am I really doing the best I am capable of? What if I've always liked reading cookbooks and even descriptions of food in novels and stories, and always liked food photography? Does that make it all right?

Who knows? No editor would ever permit any of this and so here I am, my own editor. What's funny is that blog host editors still perform the paper editor's time honored functions, even though no money is changing hands, and there are no sales to consider. They still have an eagle eye and um, exacting standards. This will never be an Open Salon "Editor's Pick," although my recipes usually are.

To return to politics. The stimulus. I'd call it the great Democratic Enslavement Act of 2009, enforcing as it does a return to unfettered welfare benefits and the introduction of socialized health care, among who knows how many other provisions. Wait till the Baby Boomers turn elderly en masse, and find out nationalized health care means them, too. How they'll scream.

But I have hope that even this enslavement act will not cripple the economy, based on a couple of things. One is an observation culled from the blog Theory Bloc way back in the summer. That day's contributor wrote that a genuine new Great Depression is probably unlikely, if only because the United States' population now is double what it was in the 1930s. That means double the number of people who can potentially create wealth, and fend off government foolishness. Charles Krauthammer, or other smart political react-ers, could perhaps refute that with brilliant logic based on other, equally accurate modern day measurements. I wouldn't know. But it sounds comforting.

And I have faith, however idiotic it may be, in the breezy ignorance and unconcern of the American people. About politics, about this stimulus act, about a lot of things. Over the centuries of our nation's existence, our three greatest blessings -- personal freedom, wealth, and a civilization and state that are powerful for good in the world -- have been conflated in most people's minds. Most of us are on automatic pilot where politics is concerned, or we think the nation is, or we behave as if it is. We equate wealth and freedom with benign state power, and freedom with a wealthy state, and benign state power with the ability to create wealth. This last is the problem, since of course no state can make wealth. I remember being flabbergasted when an economics professor declared to all of us, oh by the way, "nations don't engage in trade." Then what the hell are all the news headlines about? They're about ignorant journalists for a start, but that's another story. Another whine.

But my faith. I wonder if it is just possible that the American people may breeze on with their lives and keep the economy going in spite of the Democratic party's gigantic attempt to make like an octopus and reach its suckers into everything we do every day. Can citizens successfully ignore and thus obviate government power, as they tend to ignore dull things like mid-term elections (and newspapers)? I'd guess a healthy proportion of the citizenry know nothing about the existence or composition of such a thing as a state legislature, for example. That's after being made to study the Constitution in junior high school and high school. I've not yet met anyone who knows that the stimulus bill includes nationalized health care. To be fair, Senator Specter didn't know about it, either, until the morning of a vote this past week. Can that kind of automatic-pilot life inoculate people against a government trying, once again, to be all- compassionate and all-predatory?

Perhaps not. Once a government bureaucracy is established, it's very hard to take down -- "like bombing a colony," as a pundit once said. All the countryside may blithely ignore what's going on in the sty, but once a pig or two attaches itself to a tit or two, it's unlikely to let go. And then that shapes policy, forever. Thomas Sowell pointed out recently at Townhall that we are still subsidizing millionaire farmers today, because farmers were having a tough time in the 1930s and Roosevelt decided they couldn't fail. The next generation doesn't remember when that wasn't normal. And so government grows, and the money goes.

There may be grander and more depressing reactions to the course of events in the last few months, by which 53% of Americans voted, as if on a crack high, for The First Black President WOO HOOO Hope and Change. Voted for a man who is, so far, keeping his big promises. Nations wither and die inevitably. Spoiled, ignorant people become unworthy of freedom. Human beings may naturally divide themselves into ruling aristocracy and cared-for peasantry; perhaps the human psyche is more comfortable with those trammels than with the alarming bore of republican self-government. But these reactions are so grand as to be Gibbon-esque, not necessarily sensible when applied to mere mortals here and now. The national story is not over yet. He could even lose in 2012. And oh yes -- Americans do tend to overreact to stuff.


"The pitch of ecstasy." It's a wonderful phrase, which I first came across in reading a book about old movie stars. Among them was Norma Shearer, who described the life of a screen actress, her life, in those terms. She looked radiantly happy in the photograph on the opposite page.

Yesterday at work I saw a young woman who fit that description, too. Ah -- a stilted ejaculation, but useful -- ah, to be an American high school girl, with all flags flying! Eighteen years old. A graduating senior. Tall. Pretty, but not too freakishly pretty, not pretty enough to make other girls say "you could be a model" and then avoid you. Beautiful teeth, good eyesight or at least a tolerance for contacts. Happy. Able to wear workout sweats and carefully sloppy hair, and still look good. Full makeup. Moneyed parents, your own car, your cell phone, your boyfriend. Daring multiple piercings in and about the ears. Keys jingling. She came in to the store and chatted with the other young girls there for five minutes. Beautiful voice, too, throaty and lilting, and they talked almost in their own language, hard to make out amid the breathless laughter and the staccato code phrases -- creep, I was like, slut, get out, didja hang out? retard, I was like, whatever. Having been a quite ordinary teenage girl myself, I still look at a specimen like this and feel fourteen all over again, looking up at a big sister or a fairy princess. I say, yes, I'd gladly trade places with her, just for a day. This is the pitch of ecstasy.

And the young woman I work with, in her early twenties, long auburn hair skinned back sleekly from a thin, mild, almond-eyed face that belongs in some cool, amber-green-and-grey Renaissance portrait -- the woman who might be a Borgia or an Orsini? She told me she had been kidnapped and held hostage for three months by a local gang member when she was eighteen. "I was raped every day for three months." She only got out when the police raided the house and took her to jail, too, on charges of visiting a public nuisance (as far as they could tell, she was living in a drug house). When her story came out and her broken bones and eardrums were treated, she chose not to testify against him, because his threats against her would have meant her entire family going into protective custody for who knew how long. She is now married and a mother of two, and looking forward to growing her family. Her serenity is mind-boggling.

Do I believe her?

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