Look Away, Stay True

Recently a fellow writer, Chelsea Biondolillo, posted on Facebook: “I’m wearying of the push to turn ourselves into clickbait so our writing can go viral and we can get paid.” A number of other writers chimed in along these same lines.

I found myself responding: “Look away, stay true.”

I mutter these words with some frequency when bombarded by news of viral success and the concurrent prescriptions about what writers must do to have greater impact. I feel the grip of a toxic reaction when reading about awards or publications or the holy grail of going viral. Sometimes I have to take myself in hand.

Given the nature of social media, with the retweets and shares, the news of a single success comes over and over again, like the same obituary posted many times. At the first sounding, I may be genuinely pleased for the writer, but after multiple notices during the day, and—with longer-lived pulses in the media ether—the day after that, my pleasure wears thin, and the cuffs start to show wear.

There’s the inevitable turn to self-scrutiny, to what is called, in the technical terminology of emotional health, beating myself up. You assess your own career, wherein nothing is happening for you. No editors or agents are banging on your door after reading that thing you published, because it didn’t go viral. It’s hardly been read, you suspect, except by loyal friends and family.

Many will recognize this way of measuring against others in this socially mediated crapshoot we call writing in the age of the Internet.

Happily, I can also report that, after slushing around in the pits of despair, a more appealing version of myself usually pops back up and sincerely congratulates the Viral One.

It feels odd now to publish an essay in a journal that doesn’t have much of an Internet presence, where the content is hard copy only, a throwback to days when we woke up and looked first at the sun, not our Device. In that era, unless someone wrote me about the experience of reading, I didn’t know how many people read my work. I suspect very few. There was a kind of freedom in that, the freedom of not knowing.

Recently I’ve published two essays, and the differences between the attendant emotional jaunts have been instructive. “Float” appeared in the Normal School, a journal I admire greatly, available only in hard copy. “Float” is the first published taste of the memoir I am working on called Haze, and naturally I wondered if it would garner some attention and response. It did not, as far as I can tell. It came and went, a wing in the dark.

Two weeks ago “Bring It” went live on The Rumpus, an online journal I also admire. The response was modest but satisfying. Some writers I respect commented upon it, and a few shared it. Despite my resolution to remain even-keeled, I felt my pulse, an excitement and anticipation. I did track the responses, and participated by acknowledging comments and sometimes commenting back. There was a small but steady stream of readers the first day. Then the responses dwindled and, before long, my pulse returned to resting state.

During this same period, I posted a video of my dog Omar swimming out into Puget Sound to catch a ball. By the end of the first day it had been viewed by more than four hundred people, a far greater number than read my essay. My husband jested that I could get a bigger audience if I attached one of my essays as a voice-over to visuals of Omar.

The two efforts of mine that received the largest response online were “Weight,” published on the Roxane Gay–edited Toast/Butter, and a blog post, “Waiting.” The first probably got a response because of the following Gay has developed, and perhaps because of its timeless subject matter. The second small hit benefited from being picked up by the WordPress Reader.

I wouldn’t be able to duplicate these two small successes even if I tried, though I wouldn’t want to try because I am resistant to formulas. There is something mysterious and miraculous about writing well, a stance contrary to the advice articles, the packaged wisdom, penned by editors, agents, and writers who tell others, yearning for success, what to do.

I have to remember who I was when I started writing, why I wrote and what I expected my efforts to produce. I want to reclaim the writer I used to be, who never thought about networks or sales, who believed (naively) that if her writing was “good enough,” something would come of it. She didn’t have fantasies about money or recognition. She thought it a miracle that she could create something good. Where did it come from? she asked. Who wrote that? Her writing was a gift, and more than she had ever dreamed.

I never want to forget how much being a writer is—how it has anchored me and given me purpose and outlets that couldn’t have been mine otherwise. I want to remember to write what is mine to write and to write it as well as I can, to look away from what others are doing and stay true to whatever small gift I have.

A prescription you might put like this: go viral inside.

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Making a Book Trailer (8): Starring Omar

In the fullest version of the script, produced in response to Pillai’s request for a beginning, a middle, and an end, the final lines of narration, borrowed from the Companion, mention a location for a symbolic burial: “I have found a place where I would have liked Joel to be buried. It’s a small sanctuary called La Resolana, meaning reflected sunlight. I had no right to say where Joel would be disposed. But I have rights to where I imagine him, what I do to keep myself alive and lay him to rest.”

As a conclusion to the voice-over, these words would have brought the narrative arc back to earth in a good spot. But they did not satisfy me. For one thing, they refer to a locale that couldn’t be filmed, a real place at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. We trailer-makers were not going to get footage of La Resolana, and I couldn’t imagine a visual substitution, though that technique worked well in some parts of the trailer, as when red geraniums stood in for red roses.

Furthermore, the ending was wordy, introducing ideas that are important in the book but can’t be developed in a voice-over of a few hundred words. Like some other passages in the long version of the script that I discussed in the previous post, it was good on the page, not so good on the ear.

While the filming was going on, I was brewing another idea for the conclusion, built on the word companion.

Omar in the “cradle of light”

Dogs have been the companions of my life, in relationships deep and abiding, untroubled by the wounds human beings sometimes inflict upon one another. When Joel came for his last visit in the October before his death, he folded himself into our ordinary daily lives, and that meant spending time with our dogs. They accompanied us everywhere, and there was no escape from their intimacy. As Larry, our golden retriever, rested nearby one night, Joel said, “It must be a great comfort to have him lying at your feet.”

His remark, which at the time seemed casual, though tinged with melancholy, has stayed with me. Joel was a being unaccompanied. The preceding April, he had written to say that he might move to the East Bay and get a dog, which he couldn’t have in his apartment in San Francisco. He had a plan—maybe no more than a fantasy—of building a new life in a less densely populated area. He would not live alone as he had for many years, but have a companion.

After Joel died, I asked myself what I could have given him that might have made a difference in his life. He had turned down our offer to relocate to Michigan and stay with us while he found work. He wouldn’t have accepted money, had we any to give. It was impossible to see him with a wife and children, a deep network of friends. But I could imagine a dog. I wanted to end the trailer by portraying such a companion.

Who else better in the role than my own Omar? He was born to be a matinee idol.

Watching the day’s rushes with Pillai and Tim one evening, I suggested this new ending. I wanted a shot of Omar running toward someone unseen, suggesting the absent Joel. Pillai agreed that it would be good to conclude with an image of life, energy, and light. Omar is almost white in color, a bounding image of light.

Our plan was to have Omar run from the house and down the flagstone path toward the river. A walnut tree that threatened power lines had been felled by Consumers Energy and lay across the path. Omar would have to jump over it on his way to the river, run past the fire circle, and go down steps, from which he would leap into the river.

It was the last sequence we filmed that day, a day full of challenge and invention. Pillai and Tim had filmed pages of drafts of the Companion scattered in the ferns and greenery; filmed through binoculars; torn sheets of stamps and set them afloat upon the river, casting away grief and hurt. It had been an exhilarating day, and then came Omar.

Pillai didn’t know what to expect from Omar, who had no training as a performer, but I had faith he would do well.

Pillai and Tim set up the camera by the river in order to capture Omar running toward it. We didn’t want his handlers to be seen—it had to appear that he was heading toward the river on his own. Richard hid behind the deck stairs, holding him back until Tim was ready. I stood near the fire ring and, when the moment came, called Omar. The first couple of takes didn’t work because Richard was seen in the background. But Omar repeated his part perfectly, bounding over the tree and past the camera and down toward the river. At last Tim managed to get a take he liked.

Omar hits his mark

After that segment was captured, we let Omar continue on and jump in the river. He swam out to the middle, chasing a stick. Tim was using a tripod that didn’t allow easy tracking, but Omar walked to the right-hand edge of the camera’s view and stopped right on the mark, then turned to us for his bow. It couldn’t have been choreographed any better. A star was born!

I felt happy during this final day of shooting. The sequence with Omar embodied a spirit I tried to convey in my book—my desire to accompany Joel, to give something back to him, to give something of him to others. To be a companion.


Fences

Saturday night snow met me as I stepped off the train from Chicago, a wet, blowing snow that stung my face. The train had been packed full of people like me who had attended the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference for the last three or four days. My husband, a quiet man, was waiting in the parking lot to take me home. The silence felt as good as the snow’s chill on my face after days of heated chatter—even the wind in Chicago carried the word I, pushing it along Michigan Avenue, swirling high above the streetlights. I—I—I!

We turned off Mt. Hope onto Okemos Road and that’s when I spotted them—four deer huddling together in the bushes on a slight incline at the side of the road. They intended to cross Okemos Road, a nightmarish crossing because two lanes of traffic go both ways and the road is heavily traveled. In the light of their bright eyes and dust of snow on their backs, I could see they were leaning towards the road, and my heart sank. Crossing roads is what deer do—they move from one open space to another in their home range by traversing roads and jumping fences that intersect their territory. Sometimes they don’t make it. Away in Chicago, I had forgotten about the deer, how my life is enmeshed with theirs, how I share my home with them on the banks of the Red Cedar River, and how what happens to them is not only a statistic on the township’s wildlife ledger—what happens to them happens to me.

The next morning, in a space of five minutes I watched three hawks in a straight line fly through my yard and out over the river, followed by five deer plowing down the banks to the river, high and fast because of melted snow, and swim to the other side. These are the moments I live for.

But later, on Wednesday, on the third anniversary of my father’s death, a freakishly early spring day with the temperature in the sixties and the sun warm on my face, I encountered the dark side of living among animals—it is not all about postcard moments of pastoral beauty. There’s accident and helplessness and dying; there’s pain, long and lingering.

I had just returned from a noon walk with the dogs through the fields and started picking up branches that had come down during the winter. I spied a large branch and was walking towards it when I saw the deer lying still in the ivy under the white pine. As I neared, he—for it was a juvenile buck and not yet a year old—tried to rise and I could see there was some difficulty. His left hind leg dangled limp from the rump. He couldn’t put any weight on the leg because it appeared to be broken in two places. He limped a few steps and stopped to look at me. I immediately turned, walked away, and went inside to watch him from the living room window to see if I could take the measure of his injuries. Eventually he settled back down in the exact place I had moved him from.

I was undone. There is no other way to say it, for I knew nothing good could come from this.

Still, I had to try something. I looked up animal rescue sites in the local area. Every group handled dogs and cats, no wildlife; even Michigan State University’s Large Animal Clinic wouldn’t touch a deer. I called two groups in Eaton Rapids and Ann Arbor that mentioned deer on their website. No one answered and I left messages. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources won’t respond to injured deer, I discovered. Reluctantly, having run out of options I called the Meridian Township Police, and to my surprise two officers and an intern in two cars were dispatched to my address.

As it turned out, one of my neighbors had called earlier in the morning about the deer and this was the second time Officer Reed had paid a visit to my neighborhood. The deer had been found leaning against my neighbor’s house after he had gotten his leg caught in the fence that separates our neighborhood from the natural preserve to the east. According to my neighbor, he broke his leg trying to get free. My neighbors and I hate this fence. We do not count ourselves as fans of the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors” that Robert Frost coined in his poem “Mending Wall.” We are fence-free; our yards blend into a long stretch of open space that follows the curve of the river. I’m like Frost’s speaker who says “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” If there’s a fence, someone or something is going to get hurt. When I was a kid I ripped the whole back of my lower leg in a barbed wire fence my neighbor had erected. The scar formed the shape of a new moon, but I healed.

The female officer and the intern came inside to talk me through what was going to happen while Officer Reed was seeing if he could get close enough to the deer to shoot it. Earlier he had determined he couldn’t shoot the deer cleanly, that is kill it, and he hadn’t wanted to maim the deer and have it drown slowly and painfully in the river, where it would assuredly go to escape. The deer rose up and started off, and Officer Reed again decided he didn’t want to try to shoot it. Discharging a firearm is not something police officers do lightly, and later when I spoke with him I could tell he wasn’t confident that he could kill the deer.

Inside, while Officer Reed was stalking the deer and the female officer, whose name I never got, was trying to calm me down, I lost it. I hadn’t called them to shoot the deer. The idea that the deer was going to be shot in my yard, right here and now, was more than I could stand. I thought about the sound the gun would make, the deer falling. I worried that he would miss and make things much worse. Or as Holly, another neighbor and I discussed later, the deer might fall in the river, and I’d have to go in and pull it out because I couldn’t let it drown.

And then the police were gone. One minute they had swept into my life and the next they were backing out of the driveway. There was nothing they could do, they said. I was told to monitor the situation and call them if I thought the deer was worsening. The deer was now hobbling at the far end of my yard, down by the river, and then he went up the other side and settled behind a large tree trunk, near my neighbor’s fence, in a bed of leaves—a kind of shelter. No one would see him there but me.

That’s when Cheryl, from one of the animal rescue organizations called me back. She told me what I had already figured out—that no one will get involved with an adult deer, or even a juvenile one like this young buck. Sometimes a fawn will be rescued and later released, but adult deer won’t tolerate any form of captivity. You can’t keep them calm enough for their injuries to heal even if you’ve managed to find a vet willing to provide care. Cheryl said, “You can try to get a DNR person to come out to put the deer down or you can let the deer alone, perhaps put out corn and hope he’ll make it.” In a last-ditch attempt to make me feel better, she said she’s seen three-legged deer do fine.

I watched the deer through the afternoon, careful not to let my dogs out or disturb him. And then Officer Reed came back. I know he was trying to be helpful. He thought if the deer couldn’t get up, he’d shoot him. But the buck did get up, and this time he moved out of my yard, and now I don’t know where he is.

That night Holly came over with a bag of deer feed for me to spread. If the deer did return, food would be available. And she spread some in her yard two houses down. And another neighbor came by to say she knew this deer; he was often in her yard, she was sure.

The next morning, at 8:30 Officer Reed returned yet again. I told him the deer was gone. He asked me to call him if I saw him again. I haven’t seen him, but even if I did, I don’t think I’ll call. I understand that the police have tried to help me, help the deer. They’ve been kind. Still, if we can’t treat his injuries and if we can’t kill him cleanly, then we should leave him alone. I believe, but don’t know, that the deer has found a place where he won’t be disturbed to die. Unlike human beings, animals want to die alone, away from all eyes. I don’t believe the dying will be quick; it is probably going on now as I write.

This morning I watch a group of five deer across the river. And I thought about my neighbor’s comment that she knew this deer and what that means. Often at night there is a solitary buck at the edge of the yard. This is my place, his stance seems to say. And yes, I’ve thought, it is.