Surprised to realize recently that I’ve interviewed some 18 people here, from a Vietnamese IT expert to a US Special Forces chaplain to a former sex worker with a Cambridge degree, I thought it high time I finally got around to interviewing someone I’ve long neglected. Today’s guest teaches writing and literature at a large Midwestern state university and writes under both his real name and a pen name.
I welcome myself to the blog.
Oronte Churm: Silly conceit, don’t you think? What distance could there be between us?
John Griswold: Silly, but the self shaped over time and with much revision is different from the person who writes it. For example, you’re black squiggles on a white page, and I’m having corned beef and cabbage tonight with an ice-cold beer.
I didn’t know you felt this way. You certainly never had a problem cashing my checks.
Cheer up! Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, you’re more polished than your creator. For instance, my wife says I sometimes judge people too harshly. Your wife, Mrs. Churm, recently attended one of your readings at which you made the most awful comic pronouncements on people’s characters, and she came away saying we need even more Grouchos and Twains in these ridiculous times.
And how do you find the times?
The times are hard. I hope to prove harder.
Is that a bawdy joke?
Only you would think so.
Let’s get to the real impetus for this interview. Writer Dinty W. Moore uncharacteristically signed a recent post at the blog for the online journal Brevity, which he edits. The post’s title is, “Yes, You CAN Tell People: On Writers and Self-Promotion.” He writes:
A graduate student here at Ohio University had a nice literary magazine publication recently, and when I asked him for details, so I could share his good news with others in the program, he e-mailed back, “I’m not really one for self-promotion (makes me feel a little icky).”
“I don’t get it,” Dinty says. He acknowledges there are ways of becoming spammily obnoxious—we’ve all seen abuses in e-mail and Facebook bombardment, for instance—but simply letting friends and certain colleagues know about publications is not only courteous, since they might want to share this important part of your life, but also helps lit mags gain audience. Dinty lists half-a-dozen guidelines toward sharing news of work, which end, “Writing is not bad. Publishing your writing is not bad. Don’t treat it as if it were.” Is he correct?
Yes. It’s odd when people act coyly about this, especially when they desire and go after the publication in the first place. Publication is, down to its etymology, about making public.
If you google “self promotion writer icky,” you see that “icky” is in common use in this context. In a community of supposedly articulate and emotive people, who came up with this term? It reeks of the MFA. Granted, manners change with time. Hemingway says, about Fitzgerald trying to discuss Hemingway’s work, “We still went under the system, then, that praise to the face was open disgrace.” But where does the sentiment of ickiness end? I’ve had similar judgments passed on me simply because I have some exposure through you, Creature. But I rarely use social media to promote myself or ask friendly bloggers to help publicize me. I did some of that for my novel, but any other time it’s been to get readers for someone else’s work or to advertise the chance for the public to win free prizes.
Maybe an article in yesterday’s Times speaks to this:
Twitter users are tiring of it: the sharp pang of envy that comes when someone they are following on the social networking site is clearly having a better time than they are…. Even as Twitter says half a million people a day are signing up for the service, some of its most devoted users are warning that the tantalizing window it provides on the lives of friends, colleagues, rivals and celebrities can have a downside. In a blog entry, Caterina Fake, the co-founder of the photo-sharing site Flickr, called the anxiety produced by the technology “fear of missing out,” or FOMO.”
I do know that if some of my Facebook friends who are writers don’t stop with their onslaught of happy successes, I’ll be forced to defend myself by defriending them.
Dinty’s done you kindnesses, by the way, including speaking in a podcast on one of your essays. Is mentioning him a form of self-promotion itself?
One values friends, especially when they make themselves interesting.
So you choose friends on the basis of what they can do for you?
The poet Brian Turner spoke truly in the interview you did with him here at your blog: “What rarely is mentioned by many poets are the influences of their closest friends…. I’ve known Brian Voight since I was seven years old and many of his ideas on art in general (and our arguments about story, politics, representation, avenues into artforms, and more) were incredibly important to my development as an artist.” My closest friends, the ones I speak to daily, aren’t writers either, let alone journal editors. But they do indeed do something for me, and I assume I have the same value to them, or they wouldn’t remain my friends. They and I call this “entertainment,” but it’s the kind that’s vital to our existence and well-being.
And isn’t your linking to my interview with Turner more self-promotion, now that his second collection was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in Poetry? And isn’t mentioning the Times a way of getting your name in the same sentence? And isn’t having two writing names selfish in a world where there are too many writers and too few names to go around? I mean, most writers in history have extended the simple courtesy to their audiences of asking them to keep track of only one name. And isn’t your existing at all, really, a kind of narcissistic self-promotion over the lives of, say, the chickens and radishes you consume?
Kiss my ass and bark at the hole.
Ah, your limitations begin to show. Has what some perceive as self-promotion done you any good?
By participating in a community I’ve gotten to know some truly excellent people and artists. As far as my own career goes, and for my family’s sake, if I’m self-promoting I must not be doing it well. Your question reminds me of those who think that a published book equates to riches, when the reality is, sometimes, even with good sales, a wage of nine cents per hour for time spent on the job.
And the tenure-track job search is over for the year?
Technically, I’m still in the running for one. But the hour is late. It grows late.
Things could be worse. In a recent review of All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Garry Wills writes:
Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante, to worship at the shining caffeine altar. This must be what the Big Thinkers were celebrating—Charles Taylor when he said the book offers “fascinating insights about the search for meaning in our time,” Charles Van Doren when he called it “one of the most surprising, demanding, and beautiful books I have ever read,” or Vartan Gregorian when he intoned that the book “delves into the transcendent values of the classic works…. I could hardly put it down.” Reader, put it down.
A man after my own heart.
And what of the deformity?
My oral surgeon who first used the term was nearly deaf. Once during a procedure he shouted so loudly that it startled the nurse and could be heard in the waiting room: “Well anyway you managed to get yourself a pretty lady so you’re doing okay for yourself!” Perhaps with time and the refinement of my soul I’ll become as beautiful as those they call Abe-Lincoln ugly.
Your words of advice for those students who’ve come more frequently in past semesters, whispering fervently of their desires to be writers?
Flannery O’Connor: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
Or the aforementioned interviewee here at your blog, that sex worker with a Cambridge degree and a book, who wrote a piece last year for the Huffington Post titled, “You Want My Opinion? Never. Write. Again”:
You really want to spend ten hours a day locked to a laptop, chained to your monkey mind, pushing out the niggling concerns that impinge upon writerly creativity, like how you're going to pay the rent this month, and if it's still OK to eat that loaf if you cut off the green bits. Because most writers, as the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society revealed this month, actually earn fuck all.
Really? That’s it?
No. Long discussions of the ascending path of publication. Long discussions of financial survival in the self-revelatory, historical, and contemporaneous modes. Long discussions of motives, of desires, of the false sense of surety in a calling, of the old saws that continue to rasp, “A writer writes—always.”
A student told me recently she was allowed backstage after an art-circus performance. She was shocked to find one of the clowns she saw laughing onstage slouched in a chair complaining of headache. Writers or not, we’re all the clown.
And after a busted-ass-poor childhood, military service, odd jobs through college, odder employment in the corporate world, a graduate degree, a dozen years of full-time teaching at contingent pay with contingent respect, nine years of fatherhood, and work in recent years that amounts to a second job, are you tired?
In places that sleep cannot reach.
So that’s it? No kicking against the pricks? No raging against the dying of the light?
Who said anything about the light? The light is strong, maybe the light has never been stronger or more illuminating. I’ll publish more and better. I’ll improve my family’s situation. Or else I’ll wind up selling squirrels as pets or meat from our front yard. They’re chewing my roof off, after all.
And what will become of me?
I thought of you when I was reading David Shields’s Reality Hunger, which made a noisy splash in the creative writing pond. I haven’t finished the book, but surely Shields must approve of blogs for their tendency toward what he values in the abstract: the use of “seemingly unprocessed” material; “randomness, openness to accident and serendipity…criticism as autobiography…self-reflexivity…a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.” Blogs often have fragmented, subjective natures and a tendency to appropriate the rest of the online world as their own domain, all of which are his thing and key to his “manifesto” for a new art.
Shields quotes Thoreau: “In most books, the I…is omitted; in this case it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference.” You, Creature, self-promotional or not, surely understand this.
And what else has struck you so far in Reality Hunger?
Shields also quotes Alain Robbe-Grillet: “The world itself is no longer our private property, hereditary and convertible into cash.” I wonder if Mr. Shields would mind then if The People—by whom I mean me—came to take their part of his tremendous profits?
Realize that his book is a collection of others’ aphorisms put in collage for his own thesis, and with the tremendous resources of the Random House marketing department he becomes in one sense the ultimate self-promoter. In his appendix, Shields says using “hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of [my book]…is not a bug but a feature. […] The Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations…. If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 207-221 by cutting along the dotted line.” (The dotted line disappeared in the paper edition.)
I laughed aloud at the TV set—an activity I usually associate with the criminally insane—when Stephen Colbert pretended to follow Shields’ advice, tearing out the citations with Shields cheering him on, then threw away the book and kept the citations. Shields’ hurt look was so priceless I ran out into the night and helped a deputy sheriff evict the staff of the local Borders.
You forget yourself. That’s the sort of hyperbolic statement I would make. You, I believe, turned off the TV and went to bed.
To sit up writing words for you.
So you believe my persona useful for future work?
Imminently, as it might be applied to any topic or range of emotion. You rarely show visible anger, of course, unlike me, and when you tell it slant, as with that little satire that got weird reactions, I’m left to deal with the mess. But an editor at another publication told me he’d pay to hear you do an angry rant, given what’s wrong with the world, so who knows? I'm working on two new books. Best get your Men’s Wearhouse jacket dry-cleaned so you’re ready to make the rounds.
I thank myself for spending this time with me.