Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Face Down at the Me-Pond

(My gratitude to Porter Anderson for the title of this post, which I cribbed from his essay, Social Media: ‘Sharing’ our Narcissism. For those of you unfamiliar with the original myth, Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water, so he lay down beside the pool and stared at himself until he died.) 


Once upon a time, I believed, as many still do, that successful people were extra special because they had superior talent. Then I wrote a book which has actually been read by people I do not know personally. This could be viewed as a form of success (tilt you head and squint a bit) although certainly not enough to make me in any way famous. (I’m talking about being famous in a good way here. Winning a Darwin award is risky and serial-killing is both risky and messy.) Naturally, my failure to achieve fame is a terrible disappointment to me, but it does raise an interesting question: What mysterious X factor separates the famous (in a good way) from the merely talented?

Everyone has a certain amount of natural ability and the capacity to excel at something. But fame wannabes, unless we are genetically endowed with extra specialness as is the case with royalty, cannot just stand on a soapbox shouting, “I’m really, really special!” We may very well be, but who is going to believe us?

If we are serious about becoming famous, we must master and our area of expertise with demonstrable results and—here’s what I think is the X factor—acquire external accreditation. These requirements are difficult to achieve, but having attempted both, I believe that external verification requires greater investment of effort than establishing our base credentials, and is therefore the more daunting. Only those of us with an unshakeable belief in our own specialness have sufficient motivation and perseverance win the fame game.  

In general, fame makers are only accessible to the hoi polloi via ladders of increasingly influential relationships. Fame seekers must cultivate well-placed taste leaders who can focus the attention of the wider world on our specialness. This is extremely time-consuming, not to mention inherently deceitful and occasionally boring. We’re not really interested in hearing about your gall-bladder operation, we just want you to say nice things about us to your millions of followers, so we pretend to be interested. It is also somewhat risky, since exposure of such sycophantic behavior substantially reduces our chances of acquiring accolades.

But is it possible to cut out the middleperson and proceed directly to fame via the internet? Recently, there has been a great deal of speculation about this revolutionary new DIY path to mass recognition. We no longer have to suck up to a few snobby, hard-to-attract experts; we can interact directly with potential fans.

In some ways, cultivating internet relationships should  be easier. Personal appearance is no longer important. No one cares if we shower twice a day or twice a year, because all anyone ever sees of us is a cartoon avatar or an old image cropped out of a group picture and probably photo-shopped. My internet presence is three years, twenty pounds, and ten shades of grey out of date. I’ve saved a small fortune on clothes because most of my internetting is done in this ratty old bathrobe. Similarly, only the appearance of relationship matters. Just because we’re e-friends doesn’t mean I actually read the posts about your gall bladder operation. (Unless, of course, you are one of my real friends, in which case I am deeply concerned and hope you get well soon.) The important thing is slapping that “like” button, or, in cases where more personal interaction seems called for, tossing a LOL or OMG! into the comments.

There are two downsides to seeking fame on the internet:

Downside one: We’re  going to have to do some math here. If F represent fame, and n represents the number of relationships that must be cultivated to achieve F, and f represents an individual fan, and I represents a person who has influence over some number of fans greater than 1, then the following two equations are both true:  F=fn (DIY method) and  F = In (traditional method).  I have no idea how big n is, it really depends on the amount of fame required. However I’m damn sure it’s bigger in the first equation than it is in the second. I’d have to be insanely special to be worth spending that much time promoting me. 

Downside two: Finding a way to stand out from the millions of bloggers and  posters and tweeters competing for the same fan eyeballs. Some fame seekers take the direct approach. “Follow me on Twitter!” “Like my Facebook page!” While I applaud the honesty, I suspect this does not attract all that many eyeballs. Another option is to sneak a plug into the comments of some more famous person’s post. “Great post! I blogged about the same thing last week. Check it out here.” Personally, I think most eyeballs see right through this kind of blatant hijacking. A more sophisticated technique is to craft a tantalizing comment in the hope that someone will click on your ID to find out who you are. “I think we met that taxi driver’s cousin last week in Tangiers, except we ended up at a camel rodeo.  Posted by PleaseCheckMeOut at 2:56 AM” This method may attract a second glance for those who have sufficient material about their specialness to pull it off. I don’t.

Difficulty aside, have you noticed the fatal flaw in the DIY approach to fame? It’s not all that different from standing on a soapbox, is it? Shouting out that we are special, which again we may very well be, does not make us famous. For that, we still need independent verification from an accredited source. Without it, all we are doing is lying face down at the me-pond.

Which brings me to why I haven’t been spending much time on social media recently. After two years of haphazardly working the DIY approach to fame, I have come to the end of my tolerance for me. I’m just not special enough to be worth the effort of becoming famous. It’s time to turn away from the me-pond and move on to something more interesting.

When I figure out what it is, I’ll let you know.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Good News About Writer's Block

April may be the cruelest month for poets, but for novelists, the toughest month on the calendar is November, when National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as we writers awkwardly but affectionately call it, takes place. During November, writers with nothing better to do sign up to produce a 50,000 word (or more) novel in 30 days (or less). The event is misnamed for two and a half reasons:
1) No one, not Stephen King, not Nora Roberts, not even James Patterson, the world’s most prolific collaborator, can produce a novel in 30 days.
2) For many years now, this has been an international event. However the organizers—quite wisely in my opinion--resist renaming it to InNaNoWriMo.
1/2) 50,000 words do not a novel make. In the fantasy genre, they don’t even make half a novel.   

On Monday evening this week, the library hosted an information evening for local writers eager to take up the November challenge. I was reluctant to join in the creative frenzy, but forced myself to attend the meeting and listened carefully  to the lecture on freefall writing in the hope of shattering my writer’s block, which has reached a severity level that could justifiably be characterized as writer’s constipation since I ‘m not even producing crap, let alone a decent story.

Freefall writing turns out to be stream-of-consciousness writing, an excellent undertaking for those desiring to produce brilliant descriptive prose. However, brilliant descriptive prose does not a story make, unless you happen to be James Joyce. At my end of the spectrum, the end populated by impatient readers who skip over all descriptions, brilliant or otherwise, in pursuit of plot, such passages invariably induce drowsiness. Attempting to write one could put me in very real danger of lapsing into a coma.

I slumped home after the meeting in state of hopeless dejection that lasted until this morning, when, while indulging in that first and most glorious hit of caffeine and perusing other people’s blogs, I discovered how narrowly I had escaped disaster on Monday night.

The Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, has recently completed a study decisively linking creativity and mental illness. Now everyone intuitively knows that the more creative a person is, the crazier that person is, and there have been any number of scientific investigations into this linkage. But two factors make the Swedish study stand out from the psychiatric herd:
1) the size of the sample (1.2 million patients)
2) the period covered by the study (forty years)
For the first time, scientists were able to perform reliable statistical analysis on the severity of insanity based on type of creativity, and this analysis has led to one inescapable and chilling conclusion.

To the layman, Vincent van Gogh was the poster-boy for artistic nuttiness, mostly based on that disgusting ear stunt. This type of flamboyance has created the impression that visual artists are the insane cream of the creative crop. But in fact, they are merely the most visible. Statistically, writers are the batshit bad boys of the gifted community. (I can almost hear my friends muttering, “Well hell. I could have told her that.”)  Writing is, quite literally, an insanely risky undertaking. We authors have the highest rates of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety syndrome and substance abuse, not to mention that we are almost twice as likely to commit suicide.

So next month, while those writers I met on Monday night are hunched over their keyboards, risking madness in pursuit of the great Canadian novel, my sanity will be absolutely secure because I have writer’s block.

Whew! That was a close one.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It’s Not Over While the Thin Lady Sings

I came home yesterday afternoon and found a bursting-with-pride email from friend Wen containing a Youtube link to this:
 When I clicked on it, I felt pretty damn proud myself.

I got my first guitar at 17. Within a week, I had mastered three major chords and written my first song. I can’t remember it now, but since one of my three chords was A minor, it was probably some sort of angsty adolescent lament about unrequited love, an emotional state that plagued my teenage years due to the presence in my science class of a boy who could have modeled Calvin Klein underwear, if they’d had those kind of ads back then.

My musical career would have ended there if not for the enthusiastic encouragement of my friends, none of whom had learned to play the guitar yet and therefore had no idea of how remedial my melodious efforts were.  Falling victim to their encouragement, I imagined a glorious future as the next Gordon Lightfoot. In pursuit of this goal, I learned three more chords and set out to write the great Canadian folk song.

Twelve years later, I had eight more chords, a vast repertoire of crap, four songs that seemed halfway decent, and enough money saved to make a demo tape. I hired a producer and three session musicians, primarily on the basis of their willingness to work between midnight and four in the morning, the cheapest studio rental time available. I couldn’t afford a vocalist, so sang the songs myself, which would have been a disaster if the studio technician hadn’t been a special effects wizard on the sound board.

My still supportive friends were impressed with the results, even though by then, many of them had actually learned to play the guitar and should have known better. Unfortunately, the dozens of singers and recording companies who received my demo tapes did know better. I tossed my musical ambitions into the growing pile of unfulfilled dreams at the back of my mental closet. The experience wasn’t a total loss though. All those late night studio sessions became the catalyst that ultimately led to my first divorce.

Years later during a weekend visit with Wen, her seventeen-year-old daughter, Tan, arrived home with a guitar, the same three chords I had mastered years before, and a just-written first song. “This is fabulous!” I told Tan when she finished playing it for me, in much the same way Wen had enthused over my first effort except with the added emphasis of a person somewhat qualified to know what I was talking about.

Shortly afterward, Tan moved to Vancouver and became a street busker. I felt guilty about this and wondered if was my appreciation that inspired such a risky career move. Would Wen blame me for her daughter’s tragic spiral into a heartbroken bag lady living under a bridge? But my fears were groundless, because unlike my muse, Tan’s was made of sterner stuff.

Tan paid her musical dues on the mean streets. She learned many more chords than I had ever aspired to and developed a unique musical style along with a supportive circle of musician friends who were much more qualified to assess her talent than my friends had been. When her first CD didn’t rocket her to the top of the charts, she didn’t fold like a dying camel the way I had. Although she had less time to devote to music when she started her own family, she kept her dreams rainbow bright by performing at open mic events.

Tan is just not the kind of woman to make piles of unfulfilled dreams, which is why I felt so proud when I clicked on that link. I’m not responsible for Tan’s talent. She was born talented. I’m not responsible for Tan’s courage and persistence. She had those long before she picked up a guitar. But I am, in my own small way, responsible for at least one of the little sparkly bits on Tan’s first rainbow of hope.

I no longer see my musical career as a failure. It has served its purpose in the grand scheme of creative achievement. It can never be over while the thin lady sings.    

Monday, September 3, 2012

Bring on the Mustard!

When I was a kid, my parents had an LP* of country and western music, and one of the songs on it was titled: Too Old to Cut the Mustard. Mustard being an extremely soft substance, I imagined anyone too old to cut it must be very, very old and frail indeed. However, I have recently learned that:
a) the “mustard” in question was most likely derived from a slang cowboy expression, the proper mustard, meaning the genuine article, which is in itself a bastardization of the military phrase passing muster indicating achievement of a certain standard
b) the word “cut” was used in the sense of to cut a fine figure or to cut a dash, another slang term dating back to the Georgian era, meaning: to have an attractive appearance.
A re-examination of the song lyrics indicates they were probably intended as a lament to the waning sexual attractiveness of the singer.
I like my juvenile interpretation better, but cannot deny, as I myself descend into the increasingly challenging depths of senior status, that the original etymology gives the saying too old to cut the mustard a dreadful ring of truth. Since it is impossible to turn back the clock (a lovely analogue idiom, soon to become, in the digital age, as quaintly incomprehensible as mustard cutting), I have resorted to the next best strategy in my fight against decrepitude: preserving a inner fiction of youth by ignoring the outward signs of aging. In other words, I’m putting all my ego eggs into the you’re-as-old-as-you-feel basket.
Although the ratio of grey to brown has long since tipped decisively in favor of grey, my hair still appears fairly dark when it’s wet, so as long as I only look in the mirror to comb my hair immediately after my morning shower, I can ignore the dry reality. Fortunately I’m quite short-sighted, allowing me to avoid noticing my wrinkles by the simple expedient of not putting on my glasses until after I’ve combed my hair. Gravity is taking its inevitable toll on fatty tissues—with which I have become annoyingly well-endowed—but wearing loose, oversized clothing makes me feel deliciously petite. Best of all, a summer of extreme walking has proven that while ballerina fluidity is well beyond my abilities, doddering won’t be a problem for a few years yet. I’ll never fold myself back into the yogic pretzels I achieved in my youth, but a sprightly step goes a long way toward creating an internal illusion of flexibility.
Of course, that’s all it can be, right? Just an illusion, precariously maintained by avoiding confrontation with the truth. Maybe so. But in light of my experience last Wednesday, maybe not.
I was leaving the library at the end of my volunteer shift when Kelly, who co-ordinates children’s programs, flagged me down. She stood just outside the double doors of the auditorium, her gorgeous cascade of dark curls topped by a tilting cluster of gaudy paper flowers. Her cheekbones were flushed with exertion. Behind her, a throng of pint-sized party-ers dashed, screaming and squealing, around the knees of a few supervising adults. Just looking into that whirlwind of activity was exhausting.
“Hey Brenda!” Kelly shouted over the soprano babble of over-stimulated toddlers. “Are you busy?”
Having just spent half an hour complaining to the library technicians manning the information desk about the dearth of activities lined up for my afternoon amusement, I could hardly claim to be otherwise engaged. “No-o-o,” I drew out the syllable with a long, hesitant vowel. “Do you need some help?”
“Fantastic!” Kelly turned and pointed to the far side of the auditorium where a line-up of carnival style games had been assembled. “Could you take over for Colleen? Just for an hour or so? Please?”
Well of course I could, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. One of the primary ploys in maintaining the illusion of youth is never placing oneself in a position of comparison. But taking note of Kelly’s slightly desperate expression, I mastered my reluctance. “Sure,” I said weakly and waded into the swirling melee of energetic urchins.
Colleen made no attempt to hide her relief as she handed me a plastic pail full of Ping-Pong balls. She thanked me profusely, then pointed to an arrangement of red and blue plastic tumblers glued to a cardboard platform. “Each kid,” she instructed me, “picks a color, then gets three chances to toss a ball into a cup of the same color. Prizes are in the bowl.” She indicated a container on the floor at her feet filled with brightly colored somethings. “Make the kids pick up the balls, or your back will be killing you,” she warned as she waved good-bye.
To the left of my pitch, one of the library pages was supervising a game involving the dropping of old-fashioned wooden clothespins into milk bottles. To the right, a game played by tossing rolls of bathroom tissue through a toilet seat mounted vertically on stand was in progress. Ahead of me, stretched a line of waist-high contestants, eager to try their pudgy hands at tossing Ping-Pong balls into colored tumblers.
 “Step right up, ladies and gentleman,” I began my patter, then stopped to duck as a poorly aimed roll bounced off the edge of the toilet seat and came flying directly at my head, eliciting a shower of giggles from my audience. “Three balls! Three chances to win! Who wants to try?”
 “Me! Me! Me!” A frilly pink rug-rat at the front of the line waved her sparkly wand in the air.
I handed her a Ping-Pong ball and asked her to pick red or blue.
“Wed” she said decisively and made her first throw in a clumsy but exuberant overhand that caused the ball to bounce off the floor, sail over the tumblers, ricochet off the back wall, and hit me on the hip before it rolled off toward the center of the room.  Completely forgetting Colleen’s advice, I scrambled to pick up the ball before some unwary child stepped on it and turned an ankle. The girl’s next throw, delivered in an identical manner, took a freakish bounce off the back wall and miraculously landed in a red tumbler. “Yay!” she squealed, waving her wand with eye-endangering enthusiasm as she grabbed a prize from the bowl.
And so it began. I squatted to get on eye-level with diminutive contestants as I explained the rules. I chased errant Ping-Pong balls around the floor, but soon gave up on even attempting to dodge flying rolls of toilet paper, much to the amusement of the children waiting to take their turns. I celebrated with the victors as they chose their prizes and  commiserated with the defeated, encouraging them to come back later and try again. Which many of them did. A trio of tiara’d princess wannabes giggled their way through the line several times to collect a complete set of press on tattoos from the prize bowl. Another of my regulars was a laconic grade-schooler whose destiny in the major leagues was clearly foreshadowed by his uncanny ability to pitch his Ping-Pong balls into the same blue tumbler on every throw. One of the youngest participants, more interested in chasing than throwing, toddled precariously around behind the pitch, pouncing on balls that missed the tumblers and returning them triumphantly to the pail.
Kelly eventually sent over my relief, but by that time I was infected with the excitement of the party and waived him away.
Children normally view the elderly with a kind of detached politeness, as though we are too frail, or possibly too boring, to play with. But during my two hour stint as a Carney, the kids treated me like the best part of the game. They taught me all the names of the trading cards in the prize bowl (now forgotten) and we performed a (not very scientific) experiment to prove the superiority of the underhand toss, during the course of which we identified a miraculously lucky Ping-Pong ball that dropped into a cup with amazing frequency (although not every successful toss resulted in a prize, since the ball appeared to be colorblind). They talked to me the way they talked to each other, proudly showing off art projects, buttons and prizes, inviting me to admire their sparkly dresses or spiffy running shoes. I felt accepted, like an over-sized member of the gang.
Then suddenly, the party was over. Children coagulated around their parents and drifted toward the auditorium doors, chattering and laughing like parakeets as they moved on to the afternoon’s next adventure. I stood alone at my pitch, clutching the pail of Ping-Pong balls, feeling strangely elated. I thought: Okay, so I’m grey.  And flabby. And by now, my wrinkles probably have their own wrinkles. But when it comes to playing with a bunch of kids, by golly, I can still cut the mustard.
As the last of the children left the room, the library staff hauled out big, black garbage bags and began the herculean task of returning the auditorium to a pristine state. I watched them for a few seconds, then followed my playmates out the door. Cleanup is what grownups do.


*Those of you born in the final decades of the last century will be unfamiliar with the term LP. It stands for long-playing microgroove recording, an antique form of analog sound reproduction that fell into disuse in the late 1970’s when cassette tapes, which produced better quality sound, became universally available. A cassette tape is a … oh forget it.