To Be Read, and To Be Understood

Recently, I noticed a flurry of views on a post I wrote in January. The post was my reaction to an article in the Washington Post Magazine, an article about a writer, Cynthia McCabe, who was e-mailed by a man, a complete stranger, announcing his intention to commit suicide. The reasons this man gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.”

It was an article to which I had a visceral reaction, and I don’t mean a positive one.

I won’t summarize my reaction–you can read it for yourself–except to say that I felt McCabe, as the writer of the article, was missing the bigger picture. I also figured that she had said what she needed to on the subject and that the story would be laid to rest.

Not so.

I was curious about what was behind the uptick in views of my post, so I decided to find out. The recent increase in views, evidently, was provoked by the story reappearing on the radio program Snap Judgement. Don’t get me wrong, I like the program and have listened to it on several occasions. But I question the resurrection of the story in a new format, the motives behind it, and the approach taken by the producer of the piece, Julia DeWitt.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

The story, in my opinion, should have been that a person named Dennis Williams (aka Katry Rain) had dedicated a lifetime’s worth of energy and effort into a body of work that has been essentially ignored, and that this emptiness led him to end his life.

I’m not alone in this. One commenter on the NPR website had this to say about the handling of the story:

I found this story very troubling. Not because the writer committed suicide, but because the producer, Julia DeWitt, seemed to so completely fail to respect or understand his decision…. It doesn’t sound like Ms. DeWitt read a single thing he wrote beyond the letter. How is what he died for not the story here?

And a commenter on my January post said this:

My uneasiness with reading The Washington Post article…was [from] the writers’ callous tone (listing her course of options rather than expressing genuine sympathies, or her semi meta-judgmental of the publishing world, yet failing to recognize her part in it).

It appears that McCabe has given some further thought on the matter. In the radio show, she says this:

You know, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a fair amount of success as a writer. And so perhaps it’s not fair for me to say this because perhaps I would feel differently if I weren’t as successful as I’ve been, but it would never occur to me that my writing was the most important thing that I had contributed to this world.

So she really doesn’t get it, in the way that, I would imagine, Michael Phelps can’t understand non-swimmers.

Interestingly, many writers–successful ones–have felt exactly what Williams felt, that their writing was vitally important to their lives. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “On the other hand, for a shy man it was nice to be somebody except oneself again: to be ‘the Author’….”

John Updike observed that the embodiment of the New Yorker, Eustace Tilley, “was like a god to me, the guardian of excellence; he weighed my mailed-in words and paid a grand or so for tales he liked. A thousand dollars then meant we could eat for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes. My life, my life with children, was a sluice that channeled gravelly water to my pan; by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I at the end of day might find a fleck of gold.”

Here’s the thing: why did DeWitt feel the need to re-warm this story for the radio? Was it because it really needed to be told again, that radio would provide something that print could not? I doubt it.

Yes, Dennis Williams has received a boost of attention from these events. But DeWitt seems to have no interest in Williams, and she admits that the people interviewed for the story don’t either. I rather think it was because it was a nifty story to tell, and DeWitt would get some feathers in her cap for doing it.

Williams was not looking for fame per se. He just wanted to be read, and also to be understood. DeWitt and McCabe clearly don’t understand.

Writing is a Crap Shoot

I want to let you in on something that I’ve learned the hard way: writing is a crap-shoot.

Case in point: Elizabeth Gilbert is the best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love. I have not read anything she’s written, but I’m sure she’s a fine writer. Fine enough to impress the editors at Esquire magazine, where one of her unsolicited manuscripts was pulled from the slush pile and published–a dream that most writers can only hope to achieve. That one event catapulted her into a career as a writer.

editor

Actual rejection slip from an editor (I have many).

It does not mean that she is a remarkably better writer than all the tens of thousands who silently toil with no success. Let’s all admit that she got lucky.

And about editors–they are human too. They have feelings, they have biases, and they make mistakes. They can be arrogant, misguided, and sometimes they cheat, steal, and lie. But they are the guardians of the gate, and they will exercise their power to either make someone’s career or make sure that a writer is never heard from again.

Recently, I submitted a short essay to the Washington Post Magazine. For a few years, they have been running a regular feature where the essayist describes a small, seemingly unimportant object that has significant meaning for them. After six months (editors are soooo busy), I finally received a response from an editor. He declined my essay, giving the reason that, while it was a “powerful” story about my grandfather, “there’s not a particular narrative about the object in question–which enters late in the piece.” (I subsequently self-published the essay here.)

Quietly, I accepted his explanation, believing that my essay just didn’t meet the magazine’s standards. I don’t know what constraints exist in the magazine’s editorial processes, and figured that if I studied other published essays, I’d understand what he meant.

Yet, in a recent issue, an essay was published that included everything that this editor said was wrong with mine.

When editors contradict themselves so blatantly, it’s hard for me to take any of them seriously.

If anyone tells you that there is a writing community–a network of support where writers find strength–then they are lying. Writers and editors eat their own, and secretly (or not so secretly) rejoice in the failure of other writers.

A few years ago, I realized that I wanted needed writing to be a significant part of my life. The need is there, the drive and desire. Maybe it is just that I don’t have the talent. Or maybe that I’ve started too late, that I have too many other competing interests in my life, that I don’t have the time and the space necessary for proper reflection.

I continue to roll the dice, hoping that I may get that magic combination that will take me to the next level. But it’s possible that I will never find out.

Heart on the Sleeve

“The things people choose to talk or write about, the careers and relationships to which they’re drawn – these aren’t necessarily just simple expressions of their preferences, but rather a clue to the things they struggle with,” says Oliver Burkeman, an educated and entertaining writer about social issues for The Guardian.

It’s pretty clear what I struggle with.

What do you struggle with?

Take a Survey: Attitudes about work and life

People have various attitudes about work and life. Some are enthusiastic about their careers while others are much less so. Some are optimistic about life while others find it a struggle.0206150838

Individuals, of course, are the product of a complex set of unique variables. But larger groups, affected by similar social and economic forces, tend to share similar views (called the “cohort effect”). These generations may collectively have attitudes about work and life that are noticeably different from each other.

Below is a link to a quick survey (three questions) that I hope will shed some light on this.

Let me know what you think in the comments section of this post. I will share the results at a future date.

The Few, the Young, the Underemployed

Recently, I wrote about how people of certain age and generation have found themselves locked out of the opportunities presented by our current economy. And I wasn’t talking about the very old or the very young.

Many (myself included) have remarked about how tough things are for young people just now finding their way in the job market. And while that continues to the true, these recent graduates have something in common with people a generation or so older who were caught off-guard by a massive economic shift.

Specifically those who graduated from college between 1989 and 1992. Let me explain.

Picture with me career advancement as a made-up metric called “level of opportunity” (hey, it’s no weirder than the term “utility” used by economists). Granted, there is no way to project across a population how successful each individual will be, due to the unique circumstances of each person. What this metric measures, then, is what the chances are (the probability) that someone at that age will be able to achieve career goals and a satisfying return on their education.

Normally, the expectation is this:

oppur_graph1

Generally, under normal circumstances, one’s level of opportunity rises with age and experience (ignoring other factors such as financial means, gender, and race). As you get older and accumulate more experience in a career, you are regarded as more valuable. You have a greater ability to receive higher pay and to make a positive influence on your field of expertise. The curve drops off around retirement age.

This stands in contrast to what people of my age group have been dealing with:

oppur_graph2

As you can see, instead of rising over the years, our professional lives have been slammed with repeated setbacks that have left us far below where we expected to be.

I thought that by now I’d be in a position to make a difference in this world instead of continuing to be underemployed, plodding toward retirement. As I approach the 50-year-old milestone, I am only as far along as someone in their early thirties.

I actually know several younger people who have surpassed me, doing what they enjoy in a way they want to do it, including:

  • a senior principal at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association,
  • the senior manager of communications at the Share Our Strength non-profit,
  • the executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators,
  • the chief executive officer of an international luxury jewelry company, and
  • an assistant television editor for such programs as “Jennifer Falls,” “Whitney,” and “Mulaney.”

In addition, I know many others who’ve started their own businesses.

This proves two things. First, being too young is not the problem. For years, I told myself that if I just was patient a bit longer, my worth would be proven, my years of service recognized, and opportunities would open up. Now I’m convinced that ain’t gonna happen.

And second, my generation–or my slice of it–is especially blighted. Due to the fickle nature of economic and demographic trends, we, for the most part, have missed out on the benefits that should have accrued to us. We’ve been overlooked, swept aside by the tides of history and there’s no going back.

The upshot is this: for those of us who are low on the opportunity totem pole, the impacts to our lives are very real and quantifiable. We don’t get asked to join meetings or conferences, which in turn means we have a very small network of colleagues. Our contributions are undervalued, which leads to a corresponding devaluation in our career field, both inside and outside of our organizations. This can lead to lower than average salary and fewer chances to move up. We don’t get asked for advice or input despite the fact that our ideas are as good as, or maybe better than, those of better-known colleagues. We aren’t recruited for new job openings.

Which only reveals one thing that we already know: life ain’t fair.

Now that I’ve vented a little, maybe it’s time to get something done.


 

Stay tuned: in the next few days, I will be inviting folks to take a survey about how your work/life attitudes may be affected by your generation. I hope you will participate.