Sunday, October 03, 2004

When Elsewhere is Nowhere

Somewhere on the East Coast a woman I've never met is getting phone calls today prompted by something I wrote. At least this is what I imagine and expect, based on past experience. A substantial positive review in the Sunday review section of the San Francisco Chronicle, the big cheese in a book-buying town, can be a fairly big deal for an author, especially of serious nonfiction, even one as already celebrated as Kay Redfield Jamison.

Friends probably called her, and if her agent or editor hasn't, they will likely mention it in their next conversation. (I did hear of another best-selling author who happened to be in San Francisco when my review came out, and he called his editor and read the complete short review to him over the phone.) I got an email from Leonard Nimoy on my New York Times Star Trek piece which he said was "a fun read for me" and "I've had a lot excited calls from folks who enjoyed it." Needless to say, I got no excited calls myself.

A quote might be taken from today's review for an ad or a blurb on the paperback edition, but more likely than not, it will be attributed only to "San Francisco Chronicle." That's happened before, and it's how this game is played---I've done it myself: if the reviewer isn't a national name, the name of the paper is more impressive on a blurb. An article or review might get reproduced on web sites and be a cause for a blog comment here and there, but unless I write something else on exactly that subject covered by the site, it won't happen again.

These are ways in which some of what I write becomes consequential in the world. It happens elsewhere. Hereabouts, just silence. I got no calls today, and never do; even though I got some nice emails from people I interviewed or were otherwise involved in the Star Trek story, I got no calls from anyone else about it.

Nor are there usually any other consequences to my life, apart from getting paid, and that's seldom very much. The jury is still out on the further adventures the Star Trek piece might lead me on, but most everything else has had no direct or discernable effect here. Today's review didn't, and won't.

Even though I should be used to this, and probably would be undone if I did get calls, I still find this a bit alienating. You know, feeling alien to this place. A familiar feeling.

Musing on this is prompted by something else. In reading my own review I noticed something I didn't like. Though on balance it's solid and has some music to it, I detect some slackness here and there in the writing. Especially things I should have caught, and probably would have if I had gone through it once more, a day or so after I finished it. And I realize that my state of mind at the time I wrote it had some effect. For one thing, I've concluded I have no immediate future and probably no future at all with the Chronicle, beyond writing for minimal payment. I've contacted other papers who pay better for reviews, but haven't gotten a response. What I have now taken note of is that my feelings regarding this have affected my work, although so far only in small matters of style that few others are likely to detect.

So the motivation of building something isn't there to compensate for the lack of motivation from my immediate environment, or let's say my life. There's not much motivation anywhere for the quality of the writing. Even where this review or that article might be consequential, it's not because of the sentences. It's whether it is a positive or negative review, and whether it has a selling line in it or not. For an article it's whether it is good press or bad press for the subject. (In fact it seems that the reviewers who themselves get attention get it for writing biting negative reviews.)

I am exaggerating a bit---I know that when people say they enjoy a piece that they are in part feeling the effect of the writing. Just as I'm exaggerating about lack of response: I've had subjects of reviews and articles contact me and express gratitude for the attention, the quality of it, and for being "understood." I sometimes even get phone calls and emails from readers,usually no more than one per piece, often from a stranger with a strange story to tell; I am usually discomfited by these calls though I hold them in awe as well. A complete stranger going to all that trouble means some chord was struck, something important to that person. I value all those responses very much.

But most of the motivation for writing as well as I can, comes from an inner compulsion, an inner dialogue (I write things I hope to enjoy reading), and principle. Maybe even some writerly fear and/or superstition, that if you abuse the gift you lose it.

I also wonder if my new-found equanimity about editing that detracts from my work (subject of an earlier entry on 9/09) is the other side of this. I had a piece recently that was essentially strip-mined for a newsier and stylistically blunt and forgettable collection of information. It didn't bother me, at least not as it would have in the past.

Standing on principle seldom gets approval from others when it means offending somebody with power, or cutting off a source of income. I see pretty clearly that caring so much about the integrity of the final product has done me and my "career" far more harm than good. And I take note that the work I feel closest to, that I consider my best, is not generally so approved. So the worth of what I defend is questionable, especially to others. So what do I do?

As the editor of a Japanese art magazine once said to me when I asked him when I would be paid, "good question!" Certainly attending more rigorously to the writing that I am commissioned to do, at whatever price, is an obvious lesson and not that hard to heed. Being able to publish my work myself on the Internet helps enormously. I get more feedback from doing that, especially from the people on my email lists, than from anything else. But for the larger questions, it's hard to say.

There is a sense in which I've always felt it is out of my hands. We are servants of the gifts we're given, and whatever value they have (or are supposed to have) is probably more to the whole than to us. Whatever the "whole" might be. I suspect it includes other times and other places.

Just as the ants probably don't suffer from angst about searching out sugar and not finding much, we just do what we are compelled to do, regardless.

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