I recently (but pre-Covid-19) had to have a medical test done. Because the procedure took a while, I got chatting with the technician. When I mentioned that I had (in an earlier life) taught literature courses, he effused about what a great writer his wife was – she wrote whole novels even – but other than a few short stories, his beloved had never been able to get anything published. He felt bad. He said a few of her friends were also great writers, but they had not been published either. It was a familiar story and the litany of every writing group I have participated in. I assured him that it was still a wonderful thing that his wife wrote – publication did not matter as much as the process. He looked dubious and sad despite my reassurance. Of course, I was also reassuring myself, reminding myself not to mind about those novels in the bottom drawer, not to look at the statistics on my blog, not to dwell on the thought of reams of my stories ending up in a dumpster when someone cleans up after my existence in this realm.
But these musings led to bigger questions. Would Emily Dickinson’s life have been any less worthwhile if her poems were never found and appreciated? What if Kafka’s instructions had been followed and all his manuscripts had been burned upon his demise? These, in fact, are monstrous questions – but worth thinking about. And how many Emily Dickinsons have we lost because the heirs had to get the rooms cleaned out to avoid paying another month’s rent?
And it is not just writers who face obscurity. There are many artists who face the same problem. I watched my son, who studied opera (but saved his financial future by also getting a degree in computer science), perform with his classmates – some of whom seemed to us to be very talented. At this point, most of them are lucky to be performing occasionally at weddings or at community Gilbert and Sullivan productions.
Two questions: Should a capitalistic framework tell us how to think about everything in life (think the demise of amateur athletics and the monetizing of human lives in all kinds of ways)? Should the artist feel compelled to keep producing (and I hope she does) – what should be done with the results?
First on capitalism. It creeps in everywhere. I go on the internet to look at a meaningful poem and an ad for my favorite brand of sneakers pops up. (They know me so well!) Sellers distract me for their advantage. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not sure that capitalism is inherently evil (but also not sure that it is not), but in the days of global communication, production, and marketing, everyone has access to what society considers the “best” (the most marketable). Recordings of music mean there is less demand for local performances, movies mean local theater is less attractive, and those bestselling books mean there is less need for a neighborhood storyteller. Everything has a price and an approval rating. Even human life is monetized; we might not be slaves but if we die in an accident, the insurance company can tell us what our lives are worth. It was not always so. Capitalism is a form of trade, but I think it must have bounds as to methods and scope. (More on this in another blog.)
And then we have the question of what to do with the art if it is not a livelihood, not part of a financial transaction. Lewis Hyde in his wonderful book The Gift reminds us that talent is thought of as a gift, and that many of the oldest cultures operated on the basis of gifts (think potlatch). Pablo Neruda wrote a wonderful piece about an exchange of gifts in his childhood that gave him the basis on which he wrote and shared his poetry. Both Hyde and Neruda eventually backed off the idea of “free” exchange, but it is an ideal worth nurturing.
Until recently I shared very little of my writing. I have cabinets full of work, for some of which I am the only reader. Sometimes I would send someone a story for which she was the inspiration (if it portrayed them positively); some stories I shared with writing groups. A couple of years ago I gulped hard and started this blog. But this blog only works for me if I don’t worry about the statistics that my provider pushes out to me on a daily basis. Sometimes those statistics are gratifying, but other times discouraging. And yet, I am sharing more than I ever did and that feels like a good thing.
The internet has given us all access to an audience – but while the audience may be almost infinite, so are the creators. I have lost track of so many good blogs because there just isn’t enough time and attention. In the end the real joy must be in the doing.
All of this reminds me of one of my favorite Kipling poems, “The God of Things as They Are,” where he imagines creativity in heaven:
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!
As I was writing this blog, the coronavirus/Covid-19 spiraled into my consciousness. It got me thinking about mortality and time. In some ways, mortality has come to the door at the same time that our sequestration leaves us with time… and perhaps a year’s supply of toilet paper (please don’t hoard!) In the midst of this, this snippet of a conversation with Wendell Berry came to my attention (thanks to Contemplify):
It was the Shakers who were sure the end could come anytime, and they still saved the seeds and figured out how to make better diets for old people. Thomas Merton was interested in the Shakers. I said to him, “If they were certain that the world could end at any minute, how come they built the best building in Kentucky?”
“You don’t understand,’ he [Merton] said. “If you know the world could end at any minute, you know there’s no need to hurry. You take your time and do the best work you possibly can.” That was important to me. I’ve repeated it many times.
It’s important to me too, and reminds me a little of Thoreau’s Artist of Kouroo. The Shakers continued to work and create and improve things, even under the shadow of the apocalypse, even though there might never be people to reap the harvest or sit at their wonderful tables. So we should do what we are moved to do and do it the best we can. As the Bhagavad Gita says, we must attend to the work but not to the fruits of the work.
I once wrote a novel about a pandemic, an abstract of which can be found here. Interestingly, I also wrote a story about ten years ago about a flu originating in China that I am reworking and will post next time. Truly, I had no premonitions. I always thought that if we ended up hunkering down like this it would be due to war or a hazardous waste spill, and not to a virus. How little we know. Take care of yourselves out there.