The Best Man, a play by the great Gore Vidal, had its Broadway debut in 1960. The recent PBS American Masters documentary about Vidal includes footage of him on opening night, milling about with various celebrities who are praising him and his play. Spalding Gray—one of the lead actors in that production—comments that whenever he and Vidal have a chance to speak to one another, there always seems to be a television crew present.
In an ultra-droll tone, Vidal replies, “If you remember what Socrates said: The untelevised life is not worth living…” As he walks away, he adds, “I have my own TV crew at all times.”
What Socrates actually said, of course, is that the unexamined life is not worth living. The brilliance of Vidal’s twist on Socrates’ observation is not only in its pitch-perfect irony, but also that—for a large segment of the population—it is so blatantly true. So great is our propensity to be on camera that we have dispensed with having our own television crew. Have phone, will video and go direct to YouTube, thank you.
We live in an era when we have completely up-ended the Socratic value of taking time to reflect on our lives. That turning outward toward the camera may have begun with the advent of television, but the internet and the exponential growth of social media has upped the tendency to externalize our lives by a factor of gazillions (gazillions being a technical term for a whole big mega-bunch more).
As a writer beginning my seventh decade on this sweet Earth, I am often troubled by a force that is both push and pull—the push is a daily demand to be visible and partake in the social network that is pervasive and may be the hallmark of the 21st century. The pull is in the opposite direction, toward isolation.
That pull seems natural to me. After all, the work of the writer takes place in solitude.
Even for people like Natalie Goldberg, who is fond of sitting in cafes and writing for as long as she can make a cup of coffee and a confection last, there is retreat in the midst of the crowd. The very act of putting pen to paper settles her into a boat that takes her to a solitary island. When she looks up and notices the fellow at the next table with bright red hair and a torn black tee-shirt, she is observing him from the shore of that island. It is an isle where she has for company only her own thoughts, emotions, and memories, her imaginary people and places. The words born of that company provide the conveyance that will, eventually, take her back into the world.
The act of writing, even collaborative writing, requires us to remove ourselves from the day-to-day hustle and bustle of the world.
For the contemporary writer who wants to take the traditional route of being published (as opposed to self-publishing) the insistence on being out there is, to my mind, somewhat staggering. It isn’t enough to have written a good book. If you aren’t already a known commodity—a celebrity who has established yourself in your profession—publishers want to be assured that you and your book are marketable (publishers have always wanted that, but I came of age in a time when the weight of marketing, and knowledge of the market, resided more with the publisher). Twitter, Facebook, and a website are now de rigeur, and having a blog is a damn good idea.
I resisted Facebook for a long time (I’m still resisting Twitter, but I’m fairly sure that, too, will fall by the wayside), but I have come to accept that this is the way of the world, and I had better get on board or be left behind.
A couple of nights ago I was in the unique position of spending an hour in the company of two writers who seem to represent the new Socrates and the old Socrates. One is a writer who basically gives all his time to reflection and the fruit of his reflection, which is the writing that become his books and stories. The other is a writer who sequesters herself to write during the hours that her children are at school, and then, in addition, carves out a major portion of her time to promote her work.
I came across these two opposites at the monthly meeting of Writers on the River here in Corvallis, where the guest speaker was Kristina McMorris. She talked about the ways she had promoted her two novels, Letters from Home and Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. With a background in public relations, Kristina has marketing experience and a certain flair for coming up with unique ways to hawk one’s work. She was generous—and organized—in sharing her multi-faceted approach with us, an approach that had taken her first book “…from rejected repeatedly to sold internationally.”
While she was speaking, I was occasionally aware of the person on my left, a science fiction writer named Wayne Wightman who self-publishes his books and stories: two of his books are Ganglion and Other Stories and Selection Event. Wayne is adamant about not spending time on promoting his work. Not that he has anything against writers promoting their work—he simply doesn’t have the temperament for it. The advent of the internet and ebooks means he doesn’t have to develop that particular muscle. He writes, self-publishes, and lets the marketplace do as it will. So far, this method is working pretty well for him.
Indulge me for a moment while I liken Kristina and Wayne to automobiles: it was as if I had the traditional Socratic model quietly in place in neutral next to me, while the new Socratic model was in verbal top speed at the front of the room. At the end of Kristina’s talk, Wayne leaned toward me and smiled. “I don’t have to do any of that,” he said.
I guess that I can best describe myself as a hybrid. I have some qualities of both these writers in my make-up. I have a high need for sizable chunks of time to myself, and an idyllic dream of emerging from my abode only long enough to hand over my finished manuscript to a person who publishes it with infinite care, guided from first to last by me and their own impeccable good taste. All the promotion and marketing is arranged by someone else; I continue writing while big fat royalty checks regularly appear in the mail. This part of me is a loner who lives in a metaphorical garret, only the garret is spacious, well-furnished, and has a fabulous view.
And then there is the part of me that is gregarious, sociable. I came up in the theatre, which is a collaborative art form. I dreamt of being a playwright long before I ever thought of writing stories or novels. I love performing and I love having an audience. This out-in-the-world part of me has fantasies of being interviewed by Terry Gross and autographing my work at crowded book signings.
I was considering this today as I stepped outside into the warm August sun. I looked at the wide blue sky and scudding white clouds. There was a definite coolness in the brisk wind blowing in from the ocean. Autumn in the air. The rose bush in the yard was still popping red, but it was overcrowded with faded blossoms; dusky crimson and brown had become the dominant color scheme. I decided it was time to prune, got my clippers, and set to work. As I trimmed and clipped, I fell into the meditative state that is familiar, I know, to other people who garden. I thought of my mother, her way with plants and all she taught me about their care and tending. I wondered if the need to work with earth and growing things is in the blood.
I remembered a story I once heard about a woman who had been in a coma for a long time, weeks or months. When she awoke, she told her daughter that all the while that she appeared to be asleep, she had been living a different life. She reported that she had been an old Vietnamese man who grew vegetables and sold them at the side of the road. This story had great appeal for me. I could see myself in a remote rural area of Vietnam, an old man growing vegetables, tending my field in a world that was unhurried and kept the rhythm of the seasons.
I couldn’t really live that life, but it is where I go when I’m taking care of my pocket garden. There I am neither the writer alone at my desk or the writer promoting my work. I’m an old man who doesn’t deal in the currency of words. I grow and gather my vegetables, and take them to the side of the road, where perhaps I will talk to my neighbor, a woman named Socrates Thi Giang.