Monday, October 15, 2012

Jonathan Bower: What Would Montaigne Do?

An adjunct professor in creative writing at UAA, Jonathan Bower has most recently published short essays for The Anchorage Press and also recently released his first CD of new songs after a ten-year hiatus from music. Beginning Nov. 3, he’ll teach the 49 Writers workshop “Writing Wrongs,” in which participants will deconstruct the notion that scandal and confession constitute "truth telling" and will write about their shadow sides through the subtle, delicate art of self-implication, using the timeless tools of restraint and a mature trust in the reader.

One morning a few months ago, I stood at my kitchen counter putting together my eight-year-old son’s lunch for school. While I silently worried over the day’s lunch detail, Sam quietly dug his way through a bowl of Cheerios.

I don't know how long we went without speaking, but at some point, Sam broke the silence, though I couldn't right away make out what he'd said. Without turning, I craned my head and neck and blurted an aged sounding, "Eh?" It was the kind of noise you don’t imagine could come out of your mouth until you’re well into your eighties.
My punctuated inquiry didn't jar him in the least. Rather, he kept speaking at the same soft volume and in a rhythmic murmur. I stopped assembling his lunch and turned around, still under the impression he was explaining something to me. But his attention wasn't directed towards me at all. As he shoveled spoonfuls of Cheerios into his mouth, Sam held in his other hand a Montaigne essay I'd left on the table late the previous evening. It was titled Of the Affection of Fathers for Their Children, and Sam was reading it aloud, at low volume, to himself.
I stood tickled there, Sam’s back to me, his spine curling away from his chair as he hunched over the table, mop of blonde hair still shooting a thousand directions from waking up not many minutes earlier. There are worse ways to begin the morning, of course. He might have been reading the headlines, for instance.

And then, fast on the heels of my otherwise innocent amusement and pleasure, while Sam remained thoroughly unaware of my bird's eye view on him, my neural pathways seemed suddenly hijacked by an unconscious attempt to cleverly summarize what I was witnessing in the kitchen, and to then mold it into a snazzy riff worthy of a Facebook 'Status Update.'

Perhaps: "I thought Sam was talking to me just now, and turned around to see he was seated at the table shoveling Cheerios into his face and reading aloud from a Montaigne essay I left on the table last night. Yes! Montaigne!"

However, I tend to shy away from exclamation points, so perhaps a more subdued testimony was in order: “Just found Sam reading Montaigne at the breakfast table. Next stop, Nobel Prize.”

No matter which way you sliced it, my take on this scene proved more or less the same: “Note my brilliant, adorable, mop-haired eight-year-old reading Montaigne! The boy’s eight! Can you believe it?”

Meanwhile, the truth of the matter, of course, was not nearly as exciting as I thought to craft it for immediate upload on the social network: My oldest boy, a third grader, Sam, is eight. He reads now. Like many kids his age, he started that process in kindergarten or first grade. That morning, there happened to rest on the table an essay by Montaigne. While I was busy with the morning's duties, as he ate breakfast, he occupied his time with the paper. Truthfully, Sam couldn't tell Montaigne from Rilke or Chekov.

More and more I’m puzzling over this strange impulse to punctuate as exceptional the “ordinary,” “stuff of life” details of my day-to-day, and to then consign these moments to the realm of the status update.

Those closest to me well know by now of my ongoing, though perhaps ultimately pointless quarrel with social networking. For one thing, the desire to skillfully appropriate it for any useful purpose as an artist and writer has proven mostly an exercise in futility as I too frequently cave to the distractions the network provides. Also, as a writer, to use the network for little more than the “flash nonfiction” of status updates when I could instead be adding a sentence or two to the novel or essays I’m presently not writing seems not only counter-productive, but also counter-intuitive.

And yet, at an arts conference this year, I heard from numerous instructors and students that to be considered a serious, working writer nowadays, it’s essential that you immediately cozy up and embrace social networking. More than a presence on Facebook, in fact, it was advised that writers open twitter accounts and start tweeting, pronto. At this particular conference, the participants’ reactions to this advice seemed pretty evenly split: Some felt it was outside the realm of reason, as well as insulting, to expect an artist to adopt an online persona in the hopes of luring fans or readers based on one’s ability to offer banal or witty candor via tweets. Others shrugged and found in it the possibility to creatively explore territory they had never before associated with building one’s readership.

Last week, I spoke with a friend whose roommate falls in the former category. A hard working and talented writer, she remains unpublished, and in her desire to make a living at her craft she’s bought the argument that she must warm up to social networking and begin status-updating and tweeting immediately, creating the online persona that followers or “friends” may deem likeable enough to warrant reading.

While she relayed her roommate’s situation, I found myself empathizing with her. I considered the many ways I’ve floundered in my efforts to both “sell” myself as a likeable artist and as a real, flesh and blood human being who is also in some extra-ordinary way on top of his game creatively. This, in the hopes I will come off as the kind of guy you’d want to read, as if I’m otherwise lacking in that department and that an online presence can compensate for that. My friend, however, seemed thoroughly nonplussed with the predicament that both her roommate and I share.

“Well, maybe these ways of conducting business and hawking your wares aren’t for everyone,” she responded, “But it’s the way things are now and it’s not going to change anytime soon, so if you can’t take the heat you pretty much just have to evacuate the kitchen.” Hearing my friend state it so definitively, with a working professional’s “no two ways about it” authoritative seal, stunned me speechless.

In some ways, I have been playing. Enough so that my neural networks default setting presently seems inclined to hurl into the “Status” realm the otherwise “ordinary” act of my son reading Montaigne at breakfast.

But still, I wonder: Is my concern solely one man’s griping about the heat? Should I chalk things up to “the way it is now” and join the party or remove myself from the hot kitchen? And, besides, can the way we fumble or learn to use the various social networking tools truly make a difference in our success or efforts as writers?

I wish I knew for sure. In that late afternoon conversation, I struggled to think up an intelligent response to my friend’s directive. Nothing came. And later, by the time I returned to my hotel room, I still remained stumped, so that I couldn’t even fashion a snarky status update addressing the matter. 


Anonymous said...

This post really resonated with me. I have been struggling several years now with the pressure towards social networking. I think it's a great tool, for some people more than others, but although I admire those who can use it to well and make it fit, it's not for me. I'm fine with that, but I really resent the growing chorus that tries to paint me either as a clueless Luddite or somehow judgmental of those who feel differently. Fact is, we all have our own path to take in regards to our work, and it seems to me that encouraging--and reading--each other even when our paths are different is the key.
Thanks Jonathan.

Teresa said...

There must be a name for that urge to compress daily observations and happenings into status update format. I'm not proud to admit that I find myself doing it too. It's usually a sign that I've spent too much time online and not enough on whatever writing project I should be working on.

I recently read a list of advice for writers compiled by Roxane Gay. One of her list items suggests the following: "Have an online presence or don’t. It’s shocking how much time writers spend stressing over this that could be spent writing. Yes, an online presence helps but only if you actually use it with some regularity. Plenty of writers don’t have a significant online presence and manage to still be writers. If you feel like having an online presence (Twitter, Facebook, Blog, Tumblr, whatever), is a pain in the ass, it’s going to show and it’s not worth having."
Seems like sound advice to me.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Great post, Jonathan, and your opening--creating an entire world and story and characters we care about rather than just tossing opinions at us--illustrates what we crave that isn't available on FB. Stories take time. And the reading of them takes time. And they're worth the time spent. I enjoyed your post with my coffee this morning. Thank you.

A memory from when my teen daughter went off FB for a while summer before last: we were on a beautiful tundra hike and she realized she was preparing in her mind what she would say about it on FB. That's when she decided to leave FB for a while.

What makes me check back in with FB, staying in touch with people, absolutely, but also meaningful links to books, essays, stories, news items etc.