Tl;dr?! In praise of long-form time-consuming activities whate’er that activity is. Perhaps today it is reading the rest of this here whole post with it’s promise of rambling on and and on and oh, it does. Maybe it is taking a long walk. Maybe it is reading a book. Maybe it is cleaning out the hall closet for the first time in five years … er … never mind. Let’s not go there. You do you.
Written in the time BC. Before COVID-19.
I write to know what I think. Sometimes this takes a long time.
The main character, Captain, in News of the World by Paulette Jiles travels from town to town in post-Civil War Texas. He reads to a paying audiences. It is a story about audiences entertained by newspaper stories from all over the world in the time before radio, television, internet were invented. Before fifty states, before interstate highways, before airplanes and airlines, before, before, before. News read like a bedtime story to a paying audience. How wonderful is that!?
Aside: Do not read news before bedtime now.
News of the World
The Captain selects stories from hard print newspapers that are as current as he is able to find or able to afford. Newsprint with days-, weeks-, months-old news. Stories are selected based on his perceptions of what will expand his audiences’ horizons, transport them to other places than dusty old dangerous post-Civil War Texas. Introduces them to teas hosted in gardens, to life lived in and events happening in foreign countries, “ … listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”
Have I mentioned that Paulette Jiles writes beautifully? Meditatively? Given that the novel is packed with action, her prose is a feat. She does the literary equivalent of Simone Biles landing a triple double. Graceful prose delivered in the twist of the moment. A solid landing at novel’s end. She nailed it.
I mention the slow delivery of news from print media to an audience to contrast with the speed of delivery of news now. In an internet micro-second, I have available to me all the news that’s fit to click. Being first is more important than being right. Being first captures the click, grabs your attention, monopolizes and monetizes your time until, wait for it, oh look! Another first. Another click. And we’re off and gone on to the next news, the next idea, the next airborne data presented as information.
But we are the customer and our personal data is a valuable commodity we offer willingly, even unknowingly as we search for meaning, message, news in all the data. We want information. But the information is thin. So click, click, click.
Near as I can figure in today’s environment, the closest to the Captain’s business model is audio books. But audio books usually count an audience of a single listener. Listening is not an event. The listening is not a shared experience. In our age of news as click-bait, the Captain would either starve or be an acquired taste. Like steampunk or cilantro.
Or perhaps the Captain would inhabit that section of society that stands at a street corner on an orange crate with a bullhorn to read the news to passersby. And with that observation, I love the Captain even more than I did in the book. I stand here on my little internet orange crate and bullhorn into the click-bait ether.
Go! Captain! Go!
We are soulmates as separate as pen and ink is from keyboard and screen but I feel the need to stand up and read what I think too. A thought worthy of sharing, worthy of speaking, worthy of writing. It can take a long time to get here.
Go! Viva! Go!
The business model for news has changed to accommodate the internet of clicks. This has not been good. The technology of personal computers and ARPANET morphing into the internet — Bill Gates and the Cisco kids may not have done us many favors — it is not gratifying. We’re never satisfied. Never sated. We keep clicking. Is it the sense of an instant connection? Is that the search? The next click holds life-changing promise? Is that what the internet represents? Connection we haven’t found in the physical? Is that what we long for?
I’d claim that “I digress” but I believe this whole post is best read as digression.
The news is now an escalating tower of click-bait. Personal opinions and ideas up-close-and-personal are formed and flown into the ether to compete with professional observers and reporters and ofttimes we are well-challenged to tell the difference. In this era of connectivity, we are all reporters. News organizations and journalists are left to scrabble their way with click-bait, subscription paywalls, and your data to make their money.
Institutional news behemoths lower themselves to worship in the company of fresh internet-only news organizations at the base of the internet tower of babble. The all of them in search of the magic formula for the click-bait that pays. The click-bait that buys. The click-bait that stays and subscribes. That old gray-lady The New York Times features on the daily click-bait headlines for articles whose content does not match the promise baited. But we clicked! The bait worked.
And the local news has been decimated by the dynamite thrown in the lake. Most of the little fish — the little papers that reported events, recorded announcements, marked the time in increments of weeks and although we didn’t notice, they were keepers of the local collective memory — those little fish are mostly floating belly up. The culture as a whole has moved on to national events, ceremonies, celebrities.
The future will tell us what we’ve lost. The environment of quaint local life recorded and captured in newsprint has gone missing.
If you still have a small local newspaper, subscribe. Give them your support. Write to them. Tell them what they get right. Tell them what they get wrong.
Back to where I started. In praise of long-form <insert activity here>. Specific to me is putting thoughts on paper.
I think back to term papers. Written papers with specific layout — double-spaced in the typewriter font as only a typewriter could deliver and a page requirement or worse, a word count in an age of manually counting words — assigned by teachers, professors as an opportunity to show an understanding of course material. Put forth a theme and offer supporting material with research and quotations and footnotes.
Wrestle ideas to the ground, dig up a clean bone, sweep the street for just the truth and only the truth — these things take time. Libraries and card catalogs and biases and opinions uncovered in the dig, facts unearthed that controvert our tightly held assumptions, pages turned over and back, pans scoured and scraped clean looking for that Hershey’s chocolate morsel of truth. Turn a notion inside and out and against itself, fish it out, throw it at the wall. Does it stick? No. We unknowingly threw the baby out with the bathwater and who would knowingly throw a baby out anyway? Chew on an idea until all that’s left is gristle and you can spit it out. The best is gone, already taken and your assumptions were not complete or imaginative but then where were we headed in this tangle of mixed metaphor? Ah yes! Long form. Taking time. Not geologic time but not click-bait.
Thought. We write to know what we think.
The instantaneous reaction, the internet speed of delivery, the click-bait, the new speed of news delivery is data. Consumers in the flash of the internet where form and meaning have gone missing. Everyone doing their best but there isn’t time for that now. Sure, the truth will out in time. Until then, click, click, click.
And we wait for information.
There is information on the internet. But it lags current events by more than hours, it’s curated, it often is hidden behind paywalls. Information comes with expertise and point-of-view.
During Covid-19 – Safer at Home
I had planned to publish all of the above during the last week of March when the effects of COVID, the transmission of the virus, the impacts on the all of us were a developing story. I was not going to waste any more time lathering up my ire and commentary on the Trump Regime. Longer form pieces would be my jam — observations from my bleacher seat, positive shout-outs from my bullhorn, maybe a book review or two, ramble a bit about a future with self-driving vehicles, reminisce, poetry, short fictions.
But oh that thinking was so March. In a Midwest week like a New York minute, everything changed. COVID-19 hit the top of the charts, became the soundtrack of our lives. We are safer at home, we paint our faces for Zoom meetings, we meditate on mass mask production. Ala Monty Python, COVID-19 is the new Spanish Inquisition. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
I write to know what I think.
Everything is broken.Bob Dylan
During Writing Circle, Helen encourages us to be witnesses to this time and place. But everything is broken and it’s springtime. Daffodils bloom, the fat robins nest, nature and religions claim renewal. We want to ignore the headlines. We want to turn our heads away and not know about hospitals under siege and not enough PPE and available tests and unemployment lines and food pantries and stimulus checks and masks and keeping a safe 6′ distance to avoid 6′ underground and the Regime President OTUS who fires up his kult with tweets hot enough to start a civil-not-civil war and takes available credit and no responsibility and on and on.
Yes, we’d like to focus on what’s growing right outside our windows. But we won’t.
In response to the question, “Are you writing?”
“I’m not writing. I think we have to expand our definition of writing. I’ve taken to saying in recent years that walking is writing. Crying is writing. Talking to your friend is writing. All these experiences help you give a shape to what you’re thinking about the world, and that will come back to the page eventually, even if you’re not able to form words right now.”C Pam Zhang (from an interview with Scott Simon aired April 4, 2020 on NPR
The commutative property of mathematics. If crying is writing, maybe writing is crying.
Witness to this time. We are crying.
Breathe. Peace. Bless.