The Great Text Awakening

These days, there is no bugle call. I don’t have to set the alarm for 4 am across the room to ensure I get out of bed now and hat up for a drive north to Seattle rather than hit the snooze button evermore. And these days, days will pass without my getting a single legitimate call. When I do get a call, the ringtone plays a bit of Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” and I’m inclined not to pick up but to dwell in the sound of the violin reminding me my mother’s tears no longer flow.

These days, I’m not sure why I still bother to maintain a phone, one that no longer rings till the cows come home. The cows don’t leave home anymore. Indeed, like Hamlet, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space” were it not that I get text messages.

These days, the text messages I get are usually automatic. For example, my phone provider will text my bill, usually at an absurdly early hour on a weekend morning, as if a dozen or more cows were restlessly mooing to be milked. Or there’s an urgent message from some pollster who can’t take another breath until he has my opinion on who should be the next President. Or the local pharmacy is alerting me that once again my doctor is in denial.

Yet this morning, deep in some recurring dream reconstituting an old commute and the reasons whyfor, at not, it might be argued, an unreasonable hour for someone departing the docks for an adventure, but arguably still a bit early for someone who has no call to wake up let alone get out of bed for a walk along some deserted slipway, I received the following headline-worthy news item of personal note from an old friend who I might add has I think never before texted me any message whatsoever and who indeed calls less frequently than my poor mother used to:

“We are on our way
to Texas. I am
enjoying the book
you sent: Three
Men in a Boat.
Thanks.”

8:20 AM

I picked up the phone, read said message with interest, got out of bed, made some coffee, bringing a cup to Susan and taking mine out for a yard walkabout where I decided I really should cut at least the back grass today, came back in for a second cup, and sat down to put up this post, thinking, I hope he’s not texting while driving. I hesitate however to discourage text messages from, say, a reststop. I remember Kerouac’s general advice not to use the phone, because, he argued, people are never ready to talk, and he advised using poetry instead. And, indeed, “We are on our way” is a perfect poem written evermuch in the Kerouac style.

Blog It As It Lays

My sister Lisa knows I’m a Joan Didion fan and linked me this week to a New York article describing Didion’s recent reactions to electronic reading and writing. One Didion comment quoted in the article gives us to understand that writing is a slow business: “‘Well, I don’t really understand blogging,’ she [Didion] said. ‘It seems like writing, except quicker. I mean, I’m not actually looking for that instant feedback.'” Truman Capote’s cryptic critique complaining that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, written, according to literary folklore, in a three-week bennie frenzy on a single roll of paper, comes to mind; what Kerouac had put out, said Capote, was more like typewriting than writing. I suppose if Kerouac had been tapping on an electronic keyboard instead of pounding away on an old standard his novel would have taken only a week or two to knock out. But no, for as it turns out, from start to publication, Kerouac clinched his draft in the ring for six years. The difference between blogging and real writing, as Didion and Capote would have it, is that with blogging there is no editor.

The problem with Didion’s concern is that blogging (not blogging, exactly, but the notion that blogging is talking, as opposed to writing, and the apparent ease of writing therefore that blogging suggests, and also the vast number of bloggers) actually diminishes the important irrelevance of the writer, for it’s the irrelevance of her writing that Didion values. Writing is, for Didion, the objective correlative for the emptiness of the Hollywood her characters experience. Lore Segal, in her August 8, 1970 New York Times review of the then new Didion novel, Play It As It Lays, points us to the irony: “The problem is how to write people till someone comes up with a new convention. But the trouble with Miss Didion’s novel is more radical. In the preface to her essays [Slouching Towards Bethlehem] she says that she has sometimes been ‘paralyzed by the conviction that writing is an irrelevant act.’ Her new book feels as if it were written out of an insufficient impulse by a writer who doesn’t know what else to do with all that talent and skill.” If, for Didion, writing seemed an “irrelevant act,” the average blogger takes that very irrelevancy and makes it irrelevant, for writing can only be irrelevant if you’re the only one doing it. In other words, blogging makes writing as irrelevant as talking; Didion must deny that blogging is writing or risk seeing her own writing reduced to talking, and talking is only irrelevant if we are talking to ourselves, which, of course, is what most bloggers are doing. Most great writers, like Didion, spend most of their time talking to themselves, but with the conviction that the rest of us should eavesdrop on their conversation. Most real writers value that eavesdropping of their reader, while most bloggers are looking (in vain, usually) for a conversation.