Where Oh Where Have Our Attention Spans Gone…Oh Where Oh Where Can They Be?

booksAs I compose my first blog of 2012, I know it could very well be my only blog or at least one of just a few.  I am nervous and frightened at the future of my lifelong passion and chosen profession: writing.  Forasmuch as I could be tapping out my latest novel at this moment (as opposed to a short-term sequence of thoughts in a blog), readers and literary enthusiasts could be reading my novels (or any novels) at this moment.  But many are canvassing the net for the instant gratification and fast-paced philosophies of The Blog.

I would be remiss to unrecognize or ignore that I am using a blog format and system to announce this announcement…

There is enough strange and messy about being an artist who bares my soul and any impressions of others’ souls on my mind in a book; but to add my personal or regular shenanigans–from frolicking with my niece, to seeing a bad movie, to lunching with my dad–into the pot of words in the world to be found about me is stranger and messier by far.   More than the assassination of an infinite number of trees as a necessary evil my industry of publishing depends on, the wildfire success of Internet writing has proven to be the most pressing danger and threat to the craft of fiction and its essential engagement by a public.  While we do have a critical mass of the world’s population writing now (and reading), it is from an explosion of writing online which means that Internet celebrity and prominence are more attainable in this era than a damned good book.  I do not care when my favorite authors discover a new recipe or have a successful online date or climb Mount Everest.  I care when they make me weep or wince with their art.

In high school, I used to press the “Power” button on my mechanical typewriter after my family had gone to bed and go to town on whatever my imagination fancied.  Usually, I was driven by the latest time-tested book an English teacher had assigned.  Now, I approach my latest in a series of laptops I am known to burn up with so many options I usually wind up frozen—before drifting.  Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn?  Myspace? WordPress? Huffington Post? I used to have a blog roll of my favorite friends and writers.   I love them, so it was natural.  But I no longer do.  I was spending more time reading their micro-chapters than I was writing my own.

Ask anyone what makes the person who whines “I want to write” different from the person who declares “I am a writer.”  The answer will usually boil down to one trait: Discipline.  Before I learned that there was a global machine behind the impressive displays of mental acuity and wit organized into the brightly colored spines of books in my public library, at home and at school, I knew that those we knew as authors were ascribed undesirable characteristics which seemed foreign to my lively high school life and impending future.  Solitary. Cranky. Snobby. Addicted.  Withdrawn.  Nocturnal.  Depressed.  Stormy.

My own ephemeral forays into a cerebral and introverted category of person aside, I would have to become a published author to learn that the personality compartments of most writers were less likely to fit into such dark and stark ledgers.  As a matter of fact, such ledgers were not possible if one were to be the “entertainer” that most writers must be in order to promote, promote, promote—or die.  I have never seen or met a writer of long tomes or masterpiece attempts who could afford not to work terribly hard.

Instead, I saw the grueling pace of speaking engagements, teaching, reading and manuscript advising of poets who work among even less profit margins than fiction and non-fiction artists.  I saw magicians of le mot achieve noteworthy and acceptable split personalities, in their instantaneous switches from long days and nights of solitary toil with Microsoft Word as a lone companion into smiley tours in bookstores, book clubs, book groups and festivals with neverending companions.  The ball in our court is so heavy that elusive popularity is more anguishing than it was in high school.  24/7/365 Twitter or Facebook Apps in between calling Mom, Constant Contact, and online social media gurus-for-hire seem to be weird shortcuts to that end.  They are not hard work.

One of my fondest memories as an author is meeting a prolific New York novelist in her hotel room in Chicago when she visited for a reading.  In between our drinks and dashes to the Hard Rock Hotel conference center for special events that week, she stood up straight at her computer typing out her latest novel with one hand and ironing her best meet-and-greet slacks with another.  There were no assistants to crisp her pants like bacon as she savored finding the perfect word, no entourage to shield her email address from all who asked.  By then, I was on the way to never coming out as a “writer” again.  I needed to stay in. I did not see myself as suited to be an online attention whore, and I had always found boarding or riding planes alone to be a dismal activity.  I formed these conclusions as a phenomenon developed behind my back which remains to be tamed or explained:  people sitting at home or work on computers gaining audiences virally and beyond demoralizing reproach of editing or workshopping.  The possibilities may have expanded: I do not have to be a harried writer in a bookstore signing , or a VIP carrying my own flight bag.  Now…I can Blog!!!!!  But 5 years after these revelations came to me and the toddler stage of blogging has passed into piss-and-vinegar adulthood, I am still a writer in bookstore signings.  And, I can still find my books in the library or bookstores.  This is how it should be.

If any group of artists on the planet should not suffer dilution of celebrity, it is writers.  We exist in a profession where the time to produce a work is significantly longer than most—even muralists determined to cloak buildings that are blocks long, or musicians recording legendary albums which will be pressed out weeks after the last editing strokes.  We strive to reach audiences through a medium and method which plays a dastardly trick on its strivers, amateurs and dreamers.  Anyone can turn on a computer or put pencil to paper, so anyone can write books—right?  The illusion of ease with writing was already a formidable roadblock to authors and poets collecting the leisures and luxuries of our cohorts in the fields of entertainment.  Now, keyboards with WiFi are as well.

While other entertainers find their most positive tabloid coverage being unearthed pictures of their first tap dance performances at 6 or breakout starring roles in school plays at 12, writers find it taken for granted that we learned to recite the alphabet at 3, fashion penmanship at 6, master Mavis Beacon at 13, and finally produce books at 50.  The writer’s tell-tale backgrounds of lifelong geekiness or shewd insights into what most never notice or reveal is neglected.  And now that anyone with a computer can be the writer of their own blog, it is not even required.   It usually saddens me when people really believe—and they do—that becoming a writer is as simple as asking any one you can meet: “Can you write my story?”  While films about writers certainly centralize melancholia, unrequieted or fiery love, addictions, and passionate force behind finishing the novel that will win the Pulitzer, most writers are not that volatile or vain.  Yet, blogging and online social networking almost depend on the two.

The hidden disciplinarians of fiction, non-fiction and poetic writing are spared the commitment to vanity that many entertainment industries often fatally require.  But in the name of vanity, I speak out for my genuine and sincere writers in this world who would be doing so no matter if Blogger had not given so many instant audience in paragraphs or if the shrunken wit of Twitter did not exist for any member of society who can write a sentence without knowing how to diagram one.  Writers would be writing journal, newspaper or magazine articles in our print publications that are steadily dwindling.  Writers would be writing copy for music product, or playbills, or obituaries.  Writers would be critics, striving to be noble at it.  Chances are that these statements do not apply to 80% of people “writing” online. Why, then, have book sales declined and even school book orders evaporated?  My guess is all are online.

I cringed when software developed and computers evolved for any rapper or musician with a computer and microphone to press out an album, really a zeroxed CD.  I do, however, smile and decline politely when one of these homemade records is offered to me as I hit the local fried fish joint.  Let’s face it.  If everyone who aspired to entertain or making a living off of talent circumnavigated the industries that both set and limit its access, we would have fewer doctors, attorneys, nurses, administrative assistants, cafeteria workers and people to pick up our trash in this world.  We all have our own unique callings, and the calling to rise as the crème de la crème of talent is one in which risk, uncertainty, and social sacrifice is paramount.  Few want to really ride it. Anyone can kill two birds with one stone in an office, fashioning their latest micropiece in their chosen subject area—whilst on the clock, or either paid vacation.  Not as many eschew the comfort of employment for MFA programs or English majors or independent presses and newspapers they must fuel, and those who do write in occupational comfort often commit to the discomfort of rising at the crack of dawn or eating into sleep at night in order to compose masterpieces. Brutal honesty is also a trait of writers.  Time theft prevents that.

But that remarkable conscientiousness of a sincere writer, who would rather miss out on sleep or Saturday night fever in order to write and still actually do the day job they are being paid for–until Stephen King’s editor calls–is testimony to the hover of diluted celebrity that most authors expect and obey.  As blog numbers rise and rise and kids learn Textlish before English, let’s hope more writers keep writing for what can be remembered beyond last week or month.  Otherwise, whatever will be tested or taught?