Words in Air

November 9, 2013

Dear T. B.,

This week you insightfully suggested several ways that hastily written and shared articles/blog posts are negatively affecting public discourse. You note that we’ve become accustomed to reading poorly constructed pieces which have not undergone any editing and which do not enter a curated space. This regularly shallow diet feeds into a cultural trend toward straw man arguments, battering against a weak version of an opponent’s argument. It’s made us lazy; we would rather read a scholar’s quick summary on a popular blog than stick with her ideas through a book-length treatment.

Upon reading this, I was immediately chastened. My own reading habits tend toward the long form: the New Yorker, books, etc., but I read a fair amount of pieces linked to by friends. I do see the effects of this reading in my increasing laziness of thought. And, as a sometimes blog writer/contributor, I wonder if I’ve simply been adding to the cacophony of poorly researched, shoddily crafted, vaguely personal nonsense in cyberspace.

In thinking about blog writing as a genre, I’ve struggled to see its connection to other literature, until I remembered a collection I read last year. PDG & AKG gave us John Steinbeck’s collected letters (which I devoured during my own year of serious letter writing). It occurred to me that the average blog post has much more in common with the tradition of long running literary correspondences than anything else. Steinbeck’s letter to his son reads very much like a contemporary blog post. It has the casualness of tone, the eagerness of message and the relative lack of formal and researched arguments.

Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

It is a “musing,” intentional but personal. I’ve also read several letters from the Marianne Moore/Elizabeth Bishop correspondence; they are newsy, sometimes containing ideas for work, or questions and worries, or observations about the natural world, as the selection below:

[discussing swans sitting on their eggs] Do you know-you probably do, but I never had before-that they turn them over every half hour, exactly. We went to watch them do it-with their feet-and- it is the nicest thing afterward to see the mother swan stretching her neck all around to see that all the eggs are underneath. (ii June I935 RM)

This is not the stuff of published work or art. But, it has its place, and it obviously had an important place in the life of these two poets, (here’s an article by a professor of poetry that discusses this). Other famous letter writers, Coleridge, Woolf, O’Connor, Hemingway (really any literary figure pre-21st century) write in a manner than reminds me of the blog post. bishop_200-66e11945dbd7c47a4909942f9a1fd53854fc0770-s6-c30Often short, cobbled together thoughts, some of which will be discarded, and others which will become the skeleton of larger projects. I read through a volume of T.S. Eliot’s letters last year, and it was rather surprising how many mundane and hastily constructed pieces there were mixed in with letters that contained obvious outlines of key critical theories. It seems important that these writings are not journal entries, despite their informality. They are what they are because they were written with intention to be sent to someone else.

This unique space to process thoughts in a written, through less formal, context is something that is lost in a non-letter writing culture. I have corresponded via email with several friends on serious topics, but this happens so infrequently that it barely warrants a mention.

I would like to suggest that blog writing could take over this role. It is a space wherein we try on ideas, where we have the freedom to process experiences and opinions in a less-formal environment. It’s hastily written for a reason, allowing us to throw ideas out into the world that upon serious study and reflection we might have kept to ourselves. But, as negative as this might sound, I wonder if it is an important step to the development of good art and clear ideas. It at least forces us to create rather than simply consume. I sense that it can be much of what the great literary letters of the past were, but of course, as you point out, it rarely is. I think this is for the following reasons:

First, a blog is written into the online void. Most often posts are not directed to a specific person, and even if they are, they are usually viewable by the general public. This lack of a unique audience affects the kind of writing we do and leads, I think, to writing that is weighed down by self-serving faults. Writing to someone provides limits and boundaries which are good. Second, a blog post isn’t part of an ongoing writing relationship. It is usually not going to be responded to in kind. Comments, at their best, are limited to simple agreement or disagreement; at their worst, they are repetitive or full of vitriol. This is not the vigorous give and take of Bishop and Lowell, or the deep conversations of the Adams.

But, despite these failings, I think there are ways that our blog writing can be redeemed, allowing us to gain some of the benefits of a letter writing culture.

First, write in response to others, in dialogue with them. I am increasingly trying, in my own writing, to interact with other authors, as opposed to writing in isolation. Placing yourself within a community that is discussing something and inviting lengthy response has an elevating effect. Although I rarely agree with all their content, I’ve appreciated the way that Mere Orthodoxy has made a habit of including responses or lengthy back and forth discussions in their blog lineup (here’s an example). This allows a blog to serve a function entirely unique from the journal article, the well-researched news report or the book-length treatment of a subject. Blogs should be a place for testing out ideas in community, not for a thesis. I think that blogs written by various authors (shameless plug for Wheatstone Writes) might be able to foster this sort of thoughtful back and forth more than single author sites.

Second, write for and read within a community. Even though blogs are usually viewable by the general public, they can be more directed. I know, generally, the community that I am writing to when I outline a piece for Wheatstone Writes. This knowledge changes my writing for the better. It is both more piercing and more loving. I’m not writing to merely air my thoughts or feed my self-image, but to ask questions and suggest ideas to real, live people. As you suggest, I should try to take more care with the quality of writing that I intake and output (M. Anderson has a great satirical piece on this), spending more time looking for quality discussions of issues. I am trying, more and more, to limit my blog reading to people I know or communities I’m connected with. I read the articles that friends ask me to, and make sure they enter our actual conversations; I read the pieces written by members of my community, pushing myself to respond at length (in person or in writing). When reading outside of my community or about ideas that I disagree with, I am trying to push myself to read books and serious articles, forcing myself to find the best articulation of ideas I dislike. But, you’re right, public discourse these days doesn’t make it easy.

So, that was a rather long response. I’m curious what you think. Am I merely looking for a way to substantiate my own writing (which is certainly a possibility)? Should I try and turn the clock back and mail my blog posts across the Atlantic? Thoughts?

R

P.S. Edinburgh is not the same without you all!

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The View from Here

October 26, 2012

N.B. This is a difficult, mature film to watch.  I highly suggest that parents of minors preview the film prior to broader viewings.

One of my students asked me a couple weeks ago about the text we’d been reading in class–a memoir of a child soldier in Sierra Leone (A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah).  After we’d discussed a couple pages, she sighed and looked over at me.  “Ms…why are you having us read such a sad book?”  I replied, saying, “The world is a sad place.”  I expected the fifteen-year old to challenge me, but instead she agreed.  “Yeah Ms.–It’s a true story–but I just really wish it wasn’t.”

A couple days later, after watching the 1993 documentary Silverlake Life: The View from Here, I had to remind myself of this conversation.  The world is a sad place, and it’s important that we listen to its stories.  Even when they’re uncomfortable, we must.  Why?  You ask again.  Because they’re true.

My sister and I are both currently living alone, several states away from each other; we decided to embark on a film watching project together this fall, trying to keep ourselves accountable to watch and discuss good films, despite our busy schedules.  After reading several recent articles, we settled on documentaries addressing the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.  Besides personal interest (our uncle died of AIDS in 1993), we were interested in the way that this epidemic has affected both our parent’s generation and our own generation.  How has it changed the way we view the homosexual community?  How has it changed the way we view medicine, the body, epidemics, etc.?  What can we learn about the way humans die and deal with death?  These are not light topics, by any means, and each documentary we’ve watched and article we’ve read has been a struggle.  Death is hard, and dying of AIDS is particularly hard.  Watching a nation largely fail to love and care for the dying is hard to come to terms with.  But, each conversation we’ve shared about each film has underscored how important it is to hear and interact with these stories.

Silverlake-Life-DVD-F

Silverlake Life: The View from Here is a self-documentary told by an independent filmmaker and professor, Tom Joslin.When he and his partner, Mark Massi, are diagnosed with AIDS, he decides to begin a daily film diary, to chronicle his last months.  The documentary is obviously a pre-digital documentary project.  It doesn’t have the cleanness of our iPhone drenched, YouTube saturated “self-made video” world.  But, it is always obvious that Joslin knows how to set up a shot.  His footage is all-encompassing.  We see him sitting in the car, too exhausted to walk into the grocery store.  We see several of his doctor’s appointments, tense family moments, arguments with friends, happy outings, and even a counseling appointment.  We see conversations, and we see middle of the night strugglings with insomnia.  The desire for the viewer to see his entire life, as it slowly (and rapidly at times) comes to an end is overwhelming.  It is rare to be invited, with such abandonment, into the intimate process of dying.

As death quickly approaches, Massi takes over the filmmaking, and we watch Joslin’s body waste away.  Even weeks later, it is difficult for me to relate these portions of the film.  There is something uniquely awful about the toll that AIDS takes on the human body.  It forces death in one’s face.  It is uncomfortable, in the way that death should be.  Death, the lasting effect of sin on our world, is not comfortable.

Peter Friedman, who finished the documentary after Joslin and Massi died, wrote that the project was a “… perfectly natural thing for Tom to do because as an artist, his way of dealing with just about anything was to make a film about it” (www.truelives.org).  Besides the ever present questions of how humans deal with death, this film raises questions about the place of art in allowing us to face and comprehend death.  In a startling scene after Joslin’s death, Massi reads a trite book written to “grieving loved ones.”  The pat advice and terrible poetry is set in stark contrast to the film that the viewer has just experienced.  In Silverlake Life, we see instead that emotions are rough, uncut and complicated; death is ugly, and the world does not always make sense.

I hesitate to write more.  This is a film that, more than most, cannot be boiled down to scenes and shots.  It’s a rare glimpse of the most painful part of human existence.  It is a story about the love and commitment required to be present for someone’s last months, days and hours, as you continue battle for your own life.

It raises many questions, some that I’ve already discussed.  But, culturally, it raises, perhaps more uncomfortable questions about society’s past treatment of those with AIDS, how families deal with death, and perhaps, our discomfort with beauty and self-sacrifice obviously displayed  in a homosexual relationship.  In whatever ways this film is uncomfortable for you, as the viewer (and yes, it will be), I strongly urge you to engage with that discomfort.  Why is this hard? is the beginning to many a self-examining conversation.

Massi notes, towards the end of the film, that experiencing Joslin’s last days and death together was transformative for his relationship with Joslin’s mother.  They were united by the common and personal experience of human suffering.  The differences and bitterness that had seemed so large were no longer important.  This kind of transformation is at the heart of each shot, interview, and whispered monologue. Suffering, if we let it, can redeem and transform.