The artist is present
I’m getting a ride home from the IPRC from a friend and she tells me,
“The thing about you is that you come off as a very… aloof sometimes, sarcastic, kind of a curmudgeon. But now I see that it’s actually just a defense mechanism. Really, you’re very sensitive. You put up these barriers to protect yourself.”
Of course, I think to myself.
In high school I rejected that love and sex mattered, I mocked the intensity of my hormonal friend’s feelings and held myself above them, untainted by weakness. Bu all I wanted was a boy to reach out to hold my hand and the courage not to pull away. It wasn’t until I graduated college when I really found that courage. But I had been an ascetic my whole life and was overwhelmed by my feelings. All I could think of was tearing down the barriers between this man and me; I wanted us to be one person, to feel complete. When he broke my heart, because there was no way that was going to work out, I lost the parts of myself I had filled with my love for him. I started hemorrhaging heartbreak. I threw up barriers between myself and everyone I knew, trying to pass a functioning adult with an adult job who did not burst into tears every other day. I stopped talking to my ex, I tried to pretend that he stopped existing because to imagine that he was alive and not in love with me was not a possibility I could consider.
I have more coping mechanisms now, but it’s like I recently told my therapist, I have a lot of big-girl feelings. I make barriers to keep my heart from running wild, or at least to slow it down.
Interestingly, some of the strongest barriers I keep up exist to protect me from people I don’t even know. The general public. There is this casual lack of empathy I find in my day to day life that I find upsetting, and I’m often caught off guard by it: Angry customers who call on the phone who degrade me to feel better about their lives, drunken straight men outside of bars downtown looking to fight someone, couples who scream at each other on the street, and every anonymous conservative on the internet. So I move through the world trying to shut it out with headphones, turning down my own empathy a bit, mentally preparing for people to lash out, carefully selecting how and when to engage, and suppressing my own urges to last out at others. This is maybe not an ideal way to live. This is just what I do.
When I started writing for PQ I made a decision early on to never read the comments on my blog posts, partially as a way to protect myself from the unfiltered opinions that the internet encourages and partially because I am paid a flat rate for each blog and that rate does not justify spending time reading and responding to comments. My system generally works because as soon as PQ posts one of my blogs to their Facebook I share it myself.
Only once was I late. I didn’t think much of it because I was reporting on a study finding that LGBTQ people living in intolerant communities have a shorter life than those who don’t; it seemed fairly cut and dry. But in the few hours it took me to get to the post it had attracted a bit of attention and a few people were actually quite angry about it, their main point of contention: I had titled it ‘Being Gay is the new Smoking: Terrible for your Health’.
The nicest comment I read was, ‘The article isn’t that bad, the title is shit though’
People continued to be upset with it through the afternoon and a few emailed my editor to voice their displeasure, an incredibly gracious man, who has mastered the art of, Thank you, your feedback has been noted. In print your ideas are an extension of yourself, if your ideas are terrible then you are terrible. At least, that’s how the Internet treats people. You get one shot at something and then it’s all just damage control after that.
I’m cognizant that in terms of harassment faced by writers online that isn’t even that bad, I wasn't super upset by it, but it really solidified how I’m just not interested in engaging with strangers from the Internet. Besides, I don’t have the time.
Part of my attitude meant that I generally avoided talking about my life on PQ, the paper already has several writers who do so eloquently and saw myself more as someone to talk about politics, society, comic books, and whatever else caught my attention. Then a few weeks ago I read that a lawsuit challenging the ban on gay marriage emerged in Alaska. I started writing about it; I figured that the happenings of our northernmost neighbor of the PNW would be of interest to Oregon. But I grew up in Alaska, I watched the ban on gay marriage pass while I was in high school. I remembered all those barriers I had put as a teenager and realized that what I really was doing was protecting myself from the disappointment I felt at being told that gay people didn’t matter and they didn’t deserve love. I ended up sharing my cathartic moment with the readers, I broke my rule, and a lot of people connected with the vulnerability. A lot of people ‘liked’ it on Facebook and there was such a sense of gratification, more people probably read that blog post than any story or essay I’ve ever written.
Wrestling with this might seem strange for someone who spends a lot of time writing about his own life, making himself vulnerable on the page, and trying to pass it off as art but there the dynamic between the ‘author’ and the ‘reader’ tends to be one defined by great psychic distance. I write something, it gets published somewhere, and then I generally never hear about it again. The reader takes in what I write and it they internalize it, they either like it or they don’t, and if someone scrawls 'this sucks' or 'this is great' in the margins I'll never know. I get another publishing credit to put to my name regardless. If it doesn’t get published I receive a sanitized form email during regular business hours and move on with my life. But then again, in my writing I’m not usually overtly trying to convince someone of something. I’m trying to make them feel feelings. People seem a bit more forgiving for being a hack than having an opinion.
Bloggers who write about their own lives close the distance between the author and the reader by virtue of the sheer amount of work they constantly produce which is accessible to thousands and thousands of people. They don’t have someone else validate their work and decide what is ‘worthy’ of existing. And every piece of work is they produce is available in one place, you put enough stuff online and eventually you create a persona that readers relate to separate from the work you produce. Unless you are a well-established author who goes on national tours and gives interviews about writing for magazines read by other writers there is still a mystery to who you are.
This blog, recently neglected as it has been, has been kept largely impersonal, but I’m beginning to reconsider that. Partially because I’m considering a huge life change and partially because I’ve been thinking about the differences (if there are any) between ‘writing’ and ‘blogging’ and what I want to use this space for. Lately I’m looking at friend’s blogs like Blcksmth and Somnambulist and remembering the ways in which the reader can enter into a relationship with the writer by opening up. And it doesn’t hurt you as an artist to have a group of people who are interested in you as a person.
(It does however become tricky getting work you published online published in print sometimes. That’s something else to think about.)
I’m not reconsidering reading online comments (I actually make a point to never read the comments on the Internet). I’m reconsidering the barriers that I have between me and the people who might stumble across this blog. So I’m going to make a point to write more openly and more often. I’m going to write the stories I want, how I want, and hope that I find people who connect with them.
Anyway, haters gonna hate.