Sunday, June 1, 2014

Mike Rowe's Corn Chex



I'm neither a fan of General Mills nor Dirty Jobs, but I love the way Mike Rowe writes:

 "Mother and I don’t give a gluten-filled, whole-grain, fiber-packed crap about the 'oven toasted advantage' or the 'unique structural design that allows every single scrumptious square of Corn Chex to absorb the optimal amount of milk.' But we’re very impressed when people do what they say they’re going to do. And we’re doubly impressed when they go out of their way to be honorable when they don’t have to."

That's what a great writer does. They suck you in with their words, whether you're interested in the topic or not. Anyone else could have written a similar story and I would have passed it up. No thank you. I don't read posts about General Mills--aren't they in cahoots with Monsanto? But Mike Rowe manages to make the story funny and meaningful, so I read it.

I've been thinking a lot about writers and writing and readers and reading lately. Actually I've been thinking about not-writing and not-reading lately.

We live in a world with more writers than readers, it appears. One of my jobs at the library is incredibly depressing for an aspiring writer. I print off a list of books each week. I pull the books off the shelf. I open the books to their last page and mark them with a dot of ink. All of this work is done so, after a set amount of time, our collections specialist can assess whether or not it's time to "weed" the book from our collection.

Books get weeded when they become damaged, but they're also plucked out when they sit on the shelf, acquiring dust. It doesn't matter if they're well written or not. Many of the potential weeds have covers which proudly tout their place on the short list of Man Booker Prize recipients and other such respectable awards. Awards, schmawards. If people aren't reading it, what's the point?

It makes me sad that books are subjected to this sort of popularity contest, but I understand that a public library's purpose is not to store unread books, but to put books into the hands of people in the community. If no one in the community is interested in reading a book, it's time for it to move off the shelf to make room for the next big thing.

Each time I open a book to the last page, raising a marker to brand it with a little dot, I look at the author's photo and little biographical blurb and I think, "Dude, you managed to get your work published and still no one wants to read it. What chance have I got with my two unpublished manuscripts?" The only attention they're attracting is from the dust on my desk where they sit, unread. I sent them out to agents, but the only feedback I got amounted to, "sounds interesting, but this project is not for me."

Sometimes if a book looks good, I'll open it up and read what it's about. I nearly always close it back up and think, "sounds interesting, but it's not for me."

When I was in seventh grade, I decided I wanted to be a professional writer. I had just finished reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. As I sat in my twin bed in my tiny bedroom in the suburbs of Overland Park, Kansas, I closed the book and thought, "Wow! I want to do that!"

I told myself I'd publish a novel by the time I was 18, like Hinton.

After a brief reverie in which I decided instead of becoming an author I wanted to quit school, dye my bangs blue, and run off to be the a backup singer for Duran Duran, I returned to my original goal when I discovered that I cannot, in fact, carry a tune. Or dance. Or carry off the whole blue bangs thing.

In ninth grade I took my first writing class. I will never forget my teacher, Marla Barr. She encouraged me like no other. She took me aside after class and told me I had a gift and that I should practice it and work hard, and not try to get by on talent alone. I probably hadn't bothered to turn in my homework. It was a lecture disguised in applause.

Mrs. Barr told me the story of how her roommate in college and she were both English majors who aspired to be writers. Mrs. Barr said that her roommate was a much more talented writer than she was, but that she didn't practice her skills enough. She liked to party too much. She didn't want to work hard at it. Mrs. Barr did work hard at it. And after all these years, her roommate had dropped out of college. She had become a waitress, never publishing any writing, while look at Mrs. Barr: she had a great job teaching kids how to use their gifts.

If they'd listen. I sure didn't. That must be the worst part about being a teacher. Especially a teacher to ninth graders. Ugh. Whoever can get a ninth grader to listen to your good advice is a miracle worker.

In high school I partied too much, if you count laying in bed, moping at home as partying. I turned in homework inconsistently, only when it piqued my interest. I didn't take school seriously. I dropped out of college. And although I am not a waitress (I get tired just thinking about working that hard) I do dish out the latest books and information to library patrons to earn a buck or two to pay the bills.

To pay the bills, badly, I might add. I'm not even good at that. Most of the time I worry how we're going to pay for the next car repair or air conditioning bill. I read Patti Smith's mesmerizing memoir, Just Kids, and I thought, "Wow! I want to do that!" But I don't do the whole poor, starving artist thing well. I can't imagine living in a hotel room, fending off lice and hunger. I want to produce art that lasts for generations, too, but I like my comforts. I get cranky when the air conditioner breaks or when I go to bed without first gorging myself on carbohydrates. I can't imagine having to sweat and starve to make my art. It's a catch-22, though. In order to pay for such consumption, I have to spend time away from my art to make a living. I'd like to meld the two. I'd like to make a living off of my art. But it's not my time.

It's time for me to put aside the idea of getting one of my manuscripts published. It's time to focus my energy on paying the bills, on raising my family, on comfort and love, not rejection and disappointment. I tried, and it didn't work out. Time to try something new.

Not that I'm going to give up blogging. I love blogging. I'm just going to give up the notion that I'm not a true artist unless I have a novel or memoir published. When I read S.E. Hinton's words in seventh grade, they inspired me to be a novelist. But there was no such thing as blogging back then. Now I get inspiration from writers like Mike Rowe, who rattles off great stories as a Facebook status update. You no longer have to submit your writing to an agent who ok's it for a publisher who ok's it for a public to ok it. You can just hit "post" and let your audience leave their comments below.

Does blogging count as art? I sure hope so. A blog is the best medium for a writer such as myself who appreciates the art of slackery, too.