Friday, September 29, 2006

Newly Discovered Absences

Keywords: William Faulkner; writers; conversation; broadcasting words; Earl Babbie; complimentary subscriptions; address lists; media.
The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews. — William Faulkner (see photo)
It’s not that way for other professions. Faulkner’s comment applies specifically to writers, I think. Writers choose a form of communication that does not require feedback – often because they don’t really want feedback. I guess I’m really a writer; I need to do this. A blog is a splendid outlet, but any other mass medium is also satisfactory. I want to put something out into the universe, but I don’t particularly want to know what comes of it afterward, so long as I have any basis for supposing that a few people read it voluntarily.

In face-to-face communication you have to take turns, and your every utterance has to be styled to fit what the other person is sending back. That’s wonderful for some conversations. The excitement comes from the dance of ideas and gestures.

But with mass media, you “broadcast” ideas – spread them around in public places where people will happen upon them accidentally. Their reading, unlike their listening in person, is not a personal interaction and does not mean that they like or agree with you. Reading is often critical, occasionally feelingful, but rarely ecstatic, as are the intimate personal contacts that sometimes occur between individuals.

That’s okay. I like to broadcast my thoughts to people who are not obliged to reply. Such one-way conversations please me, for I control the content and length of the message.

But often I do write with certain people in mind, and I feel a little pleasure imagining their responses upon reading it. Of course, I know that they may never even notice it. As my friend Earl Babbie notes in the signature at the bottom of his e-mails: “Kth Law of CyberSpace: We are all, as individuals, in over our heads.” So we forgive each other for our countless lapses.

But tonight I’ve been managing my lists, with a little pain. For one thing, I’ve checked over my address book for the first time in ages, and had to delete four names of old friends. There’s only a single keystroke involved. I simply hit the “delete” key to erase a person from my current relationships. Nothing requires me to eliminate them, but I will never need them again. I do still have a joint bank account with my mother, who died two years ago, but I deleted four friends tonight, since it was so easy to do. But it was not painless.

Then I went through Peace Magazine’s list of free-of-charge subscriptions for the first time in years. There are three categories of such recipients: exchanged subscriptions, media, and “comps.” We exchange subscriptions with certain other publications — not because we want to read them, but only because the relationship was started long ago and nobody has questioned whether to keep it going. Now we should check it out, for some of those magazines have been defunct for years. But there's nothing upsetting about losing this deadwood.

Second, the “media” list consists of journalists or publications to whom we send magazines without reciprocity. The basic hope is that someone will notice us and explore some of the ideas we’re promoting. It's time for us to review this list as well, for it is obsolete. That's no problem either.

But finally, there are the complimentary subscriptions that I put onto our list myself. Most of these are old friends of mine, or relatives, or former mentors: people whose respect I crave. But to my dismay, there’s a whole batch of those whose names have been deleted from the comp list without my knowledge. For years, I had supposed I was communicating with them. I had imagined them reading my pieces and smiling slightly before tossing the magazine aside. That’s all I wanted – not overt approbation, but the mere possibility of being heard. Now I know that they've not been there for ages. This discovery hurt even more than the business of deleting deceased loved ones from my address file. I had already handled these deaths, one by one, as I learned of them. But discovering this whole new whack of names all of a sudden — loved ones who had never even received my messages – that was hard! I might as well have shredded my manuscripts without publishing them.

So, dear blog readers. I don’t know who will see this and I won’t try to find out. If you tell me you have read it, great. I do have a meter that counts readers without naming them, but I'm not unhappy that the count is low. Because there’s no list of recipients, if you stop reading my entries, I will never know. Someone else – some stranger in Singapore or Capetown — will keep the count respectable, so you won't hurt me.

But if you’re on my special comp list, that means you’re important to me and I want you to receive my every screed. I want you to have a chance to know what I think, should you happen to care. And secretly, I hope you do care.

As Faulkner noted, I’m too busy writing to pay much attention to critics — or even to desultory readers. But I like to suppose that those of you whom I love most are not desultory. Probably Faulkner too cherished the same hope.


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