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A Small Indulgence…

I’ve been reading bits, blogs, and books on writing again. Thanks in part to a vacation I picked up my journal again – for more than cursory entries – and gave it a serious working out. Another part I owe some thanks to is Jeff, an online buddy over at My Nasty Romance (MNR). I took a book on vacation with me called The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo. While reading The Triggering Town, I also ran across one of Jeff’s posts concerning the “Journey” known as writing… To turn this into a nice trifecta (though I won’t necessarily give places), The American Spectator (TAS) had an article entitled Look at Me by James Bowman. Though the Am Spec article wasn’t specifically about writers, it included them in the pantheon of creative riffraff who seem not to be concerned with freedom of expression:

Our concerns lie instead with that more recently discovered but, if anything, even more highly valued freedom, the freedom to be attended to by the world at large. You will of course tell me that there is no such freedom in reality, and you will be right. I have said so myself in this space (“The Shock Is Over,” TAS, May 2008) in the course of noticing how Saskia Olde Wolbers, one of the army of mostly unattended-to artists in our heavily overpopulated “creative” world, has referred mournfully to “the meaninglessness of being unobserved.” Since then, our national crisis of inattention has only grown more acute. Now it’s not just those ever-growing numbers of obscure artists, poets, actors, and other such riffraff that the wider world is neglecting, but the once enormously popular news media, with their delightful fables and fantasies of American public life (TAS October 2009).

Bowman’s entire article is definitely worth the read, especially as it relates to the fantasies and self-indulgence of our current crop of “creative types” who seem to conflate the notion of art with publicity. He notes “It’s hard to tell whether this assimilation of art to publicity has percolated down from the high to the popular culture or risen up, like sap, from the popular to the high. But there’s hardly any difference between the two now anyway” (TAS October 2009). That’s a sad finding.

I like to write, especially poetry – guess I’m part of the riffraff. On the other hand, Jeff over at MNR wrote a post that tells a short story of conversion. In his and Joseph Campbell’s words:

I’ve heard it before. Writing is a journey. Work on your craft. Feel the story. Stock your toolbox. Create characters so real they tell the story themselves. Melt your heart down in a small lead bowl and pour it onto the paper like molten soul and then the world will ache at your truthy tellings…


It all sounded like hippie crap to me. Writing was an intellectual pursuit. It had plot, characters, and theme. Cross those three streams and, like in Ghostbusters, you could achieve anything. Well, like most things I encounter in my life, I was wrong. Writing is, indeed, a journey in more ways than one.

First, it is a hero’s journey in the classic sense. Joseph Campbell summarized the hero’s journey, or monomyth, thusly: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (MNR 20091024).

Jeff goes on to include the journey of self-realization in his conversion story, but worries that writing might be a tad (maybe even irresponsibly) self-indulgent. Makes me mindful of Robert Heinlein’s only half jesting notion that “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” What immediately captures me in Jeff’s commentary is Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey. The reason is that it is a repeated theme in both art history and art criticism… if one steps back several decades. There was a difference between personal notoriety and art worthy of notice. Bowman put it like this:

All art needs heroes. In modernist art, the artist was the hero on account of his art. Now he’s a hero if he can just figure out how to get his art noticed. That’s the whole point of conceptual art, which has little or no content qua art (in the old sense of something beautifully wrought) apart from the concept that promises to get it talked about (TAS October 2009).

Finally, the third part of this trifecta is Richard Hugo, though not my favorite poet, he is one of my favorite teachers. Ever. In The Triggering Town, his chapter called “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching” has a few things to say that tie in here:

Roethke used to mumble: “Jesus, you don’t want to say that.” And you didn’t but you hadn’t yet become ruthless enough to create. You still felt some deep moral obligation to “reality” and “truth,” and of course it wasn’t moral obligation at all but fear of yourself and your inner life.

Despite Roethke’s love of verbal play, he could generate little enthusiasm for what passes as experimentation and should more properly be called fucking around. Real experimentation is involved in every good poem because the poet searches for ways to unlock his imagination through trial and error. Quest for a self is fundamental to poetry. What passes for experimentation is often an elaborate method of avoiding one’s feelings at all costs (Hugo, 1979).

I sometimes think it’s a matter of figuring out that reality isn’t necessarily what is real. Jeff put it like this: “…you let the words come out from under your fake self – the self the world knows – and you put it all out on paper as ugly as it was born. It’s slippery with nasty juices, vulgar, and raw as a rug burn. And most of all, it’s real” (MNR 20091024). In Jeff’s worries about irresponsible self-indulgence and Bowman’s charges of art as publicity (getting noticed) there is, I believe, a commonality of interest and intent. Bowman, after sarcastically ripping up Julie & Julia and to a lesser extent the author, he concludes his article:

Hooray for Julie! Who could wish her less successful, less rich, less famous, or played in the movie by anyone less adorable than Amy Adams? But I’d prefer to rent the video of With a Friend Like Harry…, a French film of 2000 by the German-born Dominik Moll, about a poet whose comatose genius is shocked back into life by the discovery that his long-disregarded juvenile oeuvre has found an audience solely on its dubious merits and not on account of his mastery of publicity or compelling personal story. True, it is an audience of one, and that one a criminal madman, but for any real artist that ought to be enough (TAS October 2009).

That isn’t a far jump to Jeff’s closing paragraph concerning self-indulgence: “I would suppose the answer is that it’s self-indulgent, yes. But not irresponsibly so since if even one person feels a kinship by reading the story, I’ve bestowed a boon” (MNR 20091024). Whether the boon is poetry or prose or both, it will have been a shame to fail to shout in the shower those most primitive sounds we make when alone in those reckless moments that trigger our hearts to sing sentences – which maybe only the person in the shower will ever hear. Like Hugo, I hope your “truth conforms to the music” and we meet to hear it.


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  1. October 29th, 2009 at 10:00 | #1

    Glad you are back from vacation, Steven. Though this post is a bit over my head, I do like your prose and appreciate that you are willing to read some of mine. I think mine is meant to express concern and frustration more than yours which expresses ideas (a far higher level of discourse than mine). I do find, as you allude, that I would rather have a bigger audience. I want people to disagree. I want the challenge of the debate. Unfortunately my prose does not generate enough passion to get many involved. In a year of blogging, I have only averaged a comment a day. It is a bit higher now since I get about 250-500 views daily. I don’t want to be a hero. I just want to be on the field of combat and to do that, I need an audience. It wasn’t a hero’s journey I was looking for when I started blogging. It was participating in the debate that drew me to it. Maybe it is all about the journey.


  2. October 29th, 2009 at 19:00 | #2

    @tom Vail

    Thanks Tom, I am glad to be back! Bottom line here is that I am no different – I would rather have a larger audience! One of Bowman’s points in the article is that we are not entitled to an audience, though Bowman is distinguishing between art in high culture and popular culture. Both your blog and quite a lot of mine are aimed at political discourse in popular culture. I would also draw a distinction between what we do and art, the difference between an artist and an artisan. Where an artist professes to create an imaginative product (painting, sculpting, creative writing), an artisan is a craftsman professing to create a functional product (woodworkers, cabinet makers, columnists). I suppose that’s a crude distinction, but it is the easiest that comes to mind – and I am lazy 😉 I like your prose because it is incredibly functional! You are entering the fray (a hero’s journey of its own) of public discourse and debate and have an audience of up to 500 – wish I could say that!! Neither of us confuses our product with publicity, nor do we think we’re entitled to be attended to by the public. I think it’s a good thing that you use your product, your writing, to get over the wall of public indifference rather than publicity stunts – I could be wrong!! It might be foolishly naïve I suppose.

    For now, I’ll copy you – engage as many people as I am able, invite them to the site, and hope my audience makes it to 500! And beyond. Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey has to do with his specialty, myth, hence his word monomyth. It’s a process of the myth, the story, that the hero grows through stages, a cycle to become a hero. Some adventure to become heroes, others venture into the fray to accomplish a goal – and become reluctant heroes in the process. I want to be a part of the debate too, “on the field of combat,” and it was the desire to participate that drew me to this blog. Be careful, I don’t want to be a hero either, but the first step in Campbell’s cycle is the departure 🙂 !!

    See you at the next skirmish!

  3. Jeff
    October 29th, 2009 at 20:37 | #3

    Frank Miller said (paraphrasing) art is still art, even if it has a large audience.

    And what artist in his right mind wouldn’t wish to reach a large audience? If only Kurt Cobain had given it a little more thought, eh?

    I think I like Leo Tolstoy’s view of what is art: “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”

    Now about publicity… I really, really dislike the publishing ‘wisdom’ that I should be able to sell my book by writing ad copy for it. They claim that if I can’t write the blurb on the back well, then I likely didn’t write the things inside very well either. To me, they’re telling a novelist to be a commercial writer. I don’t know fiction trends. I don’t know marketing. While I know the color orange is said to make people hungry, leading to countless orange dining rooms in fast food joints around the world, I don’t know what words make people want to buy a book. If I did, why would I need an agent, publisher, or publicist let alone an editor? But there it is. To a publisher, written works are little more than paper bricks of publicity.

    I know that’s ranty. It makes me angry.

  4. November 1st, 2009 at 11:16 | #4

    Wow Jeff! Ok, yup, I think most artists in their right mind would wish to reach a large audience. I’m included in that wish, as I’ve mentioned previously, though I’m mostly a wannabe. As for Kurt Cobain, I’m not sure what you meant because he seems to have loathed his fame but somehow loved his audience – and even at his death it was substantial.

    I’m down with ranty – and anger… especially concerning publishers! I’ve had a few not-so-pleasant experiences with small houses that focus on poets and short story writers. So then, I’m hoping the ranting anger portion was aimed at publishers who actually accept the premise that art and publicity are the same rather than with me having agreed with the idea that artists are not entitled to an audience.

    Now, about the question “What is art?” that seems to have been a bone of contention…? I love Frank Miller, but air is still air, even if nobody breathes it. Ok, not a contested issue. The common “it is what it is” pegs my bullshit meter because it explains nothing. Kind of like the Clintonian “depends on what your definition of is is.” About the only real quality of art that changes with the size of its audience is its popularity, eh? There’s the rub, the contest between the popularity of the art and its creator. Going with your use of Tolstoy, I think he makes it clear that the artist is creating something to hand off to others to experience – not in order to satisfy some kind of approbation lust – but to give something to his audience. The satisfaction of approval is grand and desired, but I would still contend that your conclusion is the most important desire of an artist – “if even one person feels a kinship by reading the story, I’ve bestowed a boon.”

    I won’t pretend to have a satisfactory definition of art. Hell, I’m still wading through the subject of aesthetics at the university library. I do, on the other hand, believe art is objective enough to have us argue about what it is or is not. Though the three sources I mentioned in the post were essential to the topic, what prompted the post was an article in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism . I realize it isn’t something most people are interested in, but the struggle over the definition of art was fascinating to me… hence, the post. (I don’t know if that link works because it’s a paid library membership, but if it doesn’t, and you’re interested I’d be happy to send the PDF.) The offending bit that set me off is this:

    “What is art?” is a troubled and seriously contested question, as we all know. Troubled questions are music to philosophers’ ears, grist for their mills. The “What is art?” industry certainly is humming along. But the question is problematic in ways that make it ill-suited to define the identity of a major field of philosophy. It is not at all clear that these words—“What is art?”— express anything like a single question, to which competing answers are given, or whether philosophers proposing answers are even engaged in the same debate. Kendal Walton, Journal 65:148

    Ok, that’s why I’ll never be an artist – I spend all my time thinking about and pursuing useless research! I’ll stop my ranty section now 😛


  5. November 3rd, 2009 at 19:40 | #5

    I loved this post — loved it. Plenty of food for thought. This summer a friend and I were talking about the psychology and mindsets of fiction writing; you’ve got me thinking back over that conversation again.

  6. Jeff
    November 3rd, 2009 at 20:35 | #6

    @The Skald
    Oh, all the anger was directed at publishers and agents. And, if I wasn’t clear, I agree with the entirety of what you said. When I used Miller’s words I was trying to illustrate that something can be art without an audience and that art is STILL art even if the unwashed masses decide it’s good, too. This is especially important to a comic book artist like Miller because, in comics, small run books are considered to be avante garde (sp?) while large run books are usually considered trash. Take a small run book that hits it big and the audience explodes, then all those black t-shirt wearing-eyeliner-angst boys will claim it’s gone commercial and stop reading it.

    This was also my shot at Kurt Cobain. He created music that touched millions and ‘couldn’t handle the fame.’ Bleh. Yeah, fame’s terrible. Especially when it comes with piles of money large enough to ski down. If a man has fame, money, power in his industry, a wife he adores, and a child and STILL isn’t happy, maybe going out like that is for the best because he’ll never be happy. When I first heard of his death I thought it was tragic. When I read the suicide note I thought it was inevitable. But I have to say I’m feeling like I may be a tad judgemental right now so maybe I’m not as sure as I thought I was about that.

    I think we’re having two separate discussions now 😉

  7. November 5th, 2009 at 08:54 | #7

    @Susan at Stony River

    Glad you liked the post Susan! We had a discussion very similar to yours (the psychology and mindset), though it concerned actors in our community theater. I said it was like writing fiction, ala Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A guide to narrative craft, that actors must be consummate liars, i.e., they must convince the audience of a practical fiction that communicates an emotional truth the audience can experience – but for which they do not have to pay. I enjoy those conversations 😀 Why do I like visiting the sites of you writers? Yup, emotions for which I don’t really have to pay a huge price. Glad I found your “writing life.”


  8. November 5th, 2009 at 09:01 | #8


    Well, as my daughter would say, “doh!” She’s a fan of the Simpsons. Reading through after it’s explained to me and understanding it is a little, er, *sheepish grin*

    Yup, two different conversations. I agree concerning Kurt Cobain – while I was in the service I was a “PIO,” preliminary investigative officer… we had two copycat suicides at our command that I had to investigate. I probably came off as somewhat unsympathetic in the final report; however, explaining what happened to their parents was heart wrenching.

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