(This is the train 2 promised in my previous post.)
I'm very taken with 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō's aphorism: "Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought." It's such a pithy way to distinguish between actions and motivations, between acting without thinking and having a plan, between following slavishly and understanding. It's also a pithy way to clarify that there's a distinction between goals and outcomes, and that goals rather than outcomes are the right guides to use to frame actions - a favorite life operating principle (and essay topic) of mine.
I’ve mentioned before that I joined Gather.com late last year. The site was suggested to me by a writer friend of mine. She characterized it as “harmless” and so it is, if also not a particularly good use of time. The site tends to load ultra-slowly and the posted articles pile up at an alarming, many-per-second rate. Second-rate is generally the right descriptive word, too. What’s posted is a mish-mash of the kind of stuff you get forwarded on email from people who think you’ll enjoy it, blurbs and essays excerpted from somewhere else, recipes, pictures of flora and fauna, poems with meters so bumpy that falling into a pothole while reading is a real danger, short stories with no point whatsoever, and the occasional gem. Typographical errors (or maybe truly poor grammar and spelling) abound. And a common theme among self-identified writers is desperation. There are lots and lots and lots of writers on the site who plead, cajole, bully and otherwise try to induce readers to read, rate and comment on their stuff. There is yearning evident throughout, both express and all-but-nakedly implicit, for praise and for that presumed holiest of writer grails, discovery a là Lana Turner.
I could go all sorts of directions with this as my starting point. A tempting direction is the breathtaking lack of reciprocity I’ve learned to expect on Gather. Despite another well-known aphorism, there's a lot of "you scratch my back; I won't even acknowledge that you have a back" attitude.
But I want to go a different direction. In the Wikipedia bio of Mr. Bashō, which is pretty interesting, I learned that he was something of an artistic iconoclast, as well as someone who periodically set off on long, aimless wanders (a risky undertaking in medieval Japan). Although he was renowned for his poetry during his lifetime and is acknowledged today as a master of the brief and clear haiku, Bashō was "conflicted over whether to become a full-time poet; by his own account, 'the alternatives battled in my mind and made my life restless.'"
To me, this raises interesting questions about the devotion of one's career to writing. I’ve always been intrigued by the pervasive sense that writing is somehow not a worthwhile pursuit if, like Bishop Berkeley’s tree, it falls unheard in the forest. No one asks painters if they have buyers for their paintings or composers if they have symphony orchestras handy, but tell anyone you’re writing a book and they'll ask you about publishing. As I told an interviewer last month, both publishing a book and, that done, marketing it are huge distractions from writing, not to mention entirely different pursuits that require entirely different skill sets. You have to be very committed to the non-writing part of being a writer to publish successfully, and I'm not. The day-to-day joy of writing is what motivates me.
Judging from my experiences since I became a full-time writer and from the miasma of publishing desire and determination that chokes Gather.com like the thickest of smog, I gather (couldn’t resist) that my view of writing is seriously out of the mainstream. But why should any further justification be necessary for spending time expressing oneself simply to express oneself? Is writing not art in the same way painting and music are art - i.e., the expression is the goal and the recognition is an outcome? Perhaps the better question is why so many writers appear to feel that writing in the absence of external recognition isn’t its own reward. Reminds me of John Candy saying to his bobsledder in Cool Runnings, "Here's the thing about a gold medal. If you aren't enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."