Saturday, July 26, 2014


There's a formulation I use when I ask myself why I write--or why I continue to write well past my realistic "shelf-life" as a writer: it's because this is what I am given to do.  That I continue to ask the question is an indication of a level of uncertainty about the way in which I have chosen to define who I am, to myself as well as to others.  And writing is really an odd thing to do.  I make no money at it.  My "name" is known only to those very few people who read my reviews of art and books, or who read my blog.  I receive little in the way of the response to what I write, and have at best a tiny readership--though it's nice to know that there is a handful of people throughout the world who read The Buddha Diaries.  So why do it?  Because that is what I am given to do.  It's that simple.

And yet... I hate that other formulation, "I do it for myself."  No.  I'd be a fool and a narcissist if I did it for myself.  Writing is by definition a means of communication.  Words are a way of reaching out into the world and saying something to my fellow human beings that I judge to be of value.  The other side of the creative equation is the reader, without whom my words are no more than an empty echo.  So I struggle with this conundrum.  How far do I need to go in order to be heard--in order for these words I go to so much trouble to write to have meaning?  I see it to be a part of the responsibility I incur, as the writer of those words, to see to it that they are heard, by someone.

These thoughts recurred as I read David Zweig's Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion.  I say recurred, because I have struggled with them for many years.  On the one hand, I preach the values of invisibility, as does Zweig.  I admire those who toil in anonymity--who seek nothing but the reward of appreciating the excellence of their work. Zweig's criteria for the "invisibles" he writes about are threefold: ambivalence toward recognition, meticulousness, and the savoring of responsibility.  The people he writes about--and they are a fascinating and varied bunch--are those who measure success not by celebrity or financial return, but by the quality of the work they do.  And it's a persuasive argument that they are happier, more fulfilled human beings as a result.  Fame, as Zweig demonstrates, is a hollow, fickle thing, and money is much overrated as a source of happiness.

For me, this is personal.  In the world of art and letters, I'm always delighted to discover the unknown, the solitary painter who might labor for a lifetime without recognition, and yet make work that is worthy of any museum's walls.  I sing the praises of those who devote more time to the studio than to Facebook or LinkedIn.  I published, myself, a collection of essays under the title Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce.  The oldest of these essays, written more than three decades ago, was titled "A Word for the Amateur," and it was written as a protest against the teaching of "professionalism" in art schools.  So, yes, I have been thinking about matters related to "invisibility" for much of my working life.

And, to be honest, agonizing too.  Like Zweig, I find the whole notion of "branding" to be anathema.  The "relentless self-promotion" about which he writes has had a baleful influence on our common culture.  And yet, for the artist, for the writer, there is a responsibility to the work itself, and we neglect it at our cost.  Zweig's ideas are important; he writes about them with great persuasiveness and passion, and his book is an important reminder of some of the less appetizing aspects of our culture, as well as a celebration of some extraordinary individuals.  It calls for the kind of promotion that will ensure the promulgation of its ideas--though there is a healthy distinction, to be sure, between promoting the work and promoting oneself.  His thesis notwithstanding, I wish the author every success in getting the word out.

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