Note to a poet who don’t know it

If you aren’t doing so already you might wanna set yourself up a WordPress blog (they’re free, but your own domain will cost $18/yr, about three slices of the San Francisco pizza you posted so eloquently about) and after you spill your essays onto Facebook you can cut and paste them onto your blog. Instant posterity. It’s a shame to let pretty writing disappear into the Facebook quicksand. Your FB page is probably a goldmine of long forgotten gems just like the pizza one. Writers never write just one thing. The slightest thing, cold pizza even, brings forth a geyser of words. Look at me, we display like wanton birds of paradise, I can write like a motherfucker.

Of course, most people can’t write worth shit. They talk beautifully but get stiff and amusical putting it into prose. Writing, like just about anything else, involves a certain amount of innate skill, one that’s not yet an inborn human trait. Hell, writing itself is only 5,000 years old and the vast majority of people and their genomes who have ever lived and made babies never knew how to write anything. Wait a hundred generations or so—kids will be born writers. But natural selection won’t help people stumbling through paragraphs today. Look at them on Facebook, the poor bastards. They wax about as eloquently as I played the drums. In the meantime the ones who can write well ought to have their words preserved, if only for the sheer fuck of it.

You’re a writer, deal with it, embrace your inner egomaniac who knows that every word you put in prose is literature. You may not think so but the little twerp of a writer inside us thinks so. He’s in there, the little fuck, scribbling and scribbling, hoping someone will notice. Let him blog away so the other blogging twerps will find him. Dude, they’ll say, I really enjoy your writing, and you’ll smile and never tell anyone how cool that feels.

Invertebratefully

The rush of inventing a word that would make the OED just the once were it somehow noticed before vanishing like one of those synthetic elements invented for the sheer physicist’s fuck of it before vanishing a millisecond later with no impact on the universe whatsoever.

Thus invertebratefully, perfectly logical for one second in one sentence and then poof, gone.

Sometimes I think writing is like a jazz solo in an empty room, perfect for just that moment and then never heard again.

Last sentence

I didn’t start working as a print journalist until 2004. I quit in 2011. Watching print journalism’s disintegration from ringside seats was incredible. Writing for one of the nation’s leading alternative weeklies as alternative weeklies found their raison d’etre disappearing was almost surreal, the medium seemed to go from important to unimportant in months. At the same time I had a front row seat to watching radio begin to disappear, as jazz radio seemed to suffer the worst first. I saw first hand in a particularly brutal way how online journalism is disintegrating–I can’t write about that under fear of being sued, however. I have watched the recording industry fall apart for years. I’ve seen live paid performances disappear. I’ve seen photography destroyed. And now, since I’ve been blogging (just because I write incessantly, not as a professional move) I am watching blogging itself drowning in its own words. There are so many words, they’ve suffocated readers, turned the blogosphere anoxic. The Internet undermines everything. When everything is free and instantly accessible, no one will pay for anything. Pay to read, pay to listen, pay to view, or pay to run ads. Even if it not everything is free or accessible, something else just as good (or good enough, anyway) is free and instantly accessible so there’s no point. And there is really nothing that can be done about this. There is no working revenue model, as they say. Nobody gets paid. Words especially are rendered cheap as air.

The only revenue model anymore seems to be page hits. Every time a viewer clicks a link, a couple pennies change hands. So the only thing of any genuine financial significance on a website are links. Writing becomes nothing but content, stuff to fill the pages around the ads. Whether that writing is good or not is not of any significance at all. As long as it drives people to those ads, as long as it gets people to click the link. Music is no longer of particular importance in western civilization. It’s nice, but it’s not essential. And writing is quickly following. It’s nice to see good writing, but it’s no longer anything people really care about. It’s rather irrelevant. It’s time consuming. It certainly has no way to pay for itself. Writers made a dollar a word once because people once read all the words. If you wrote a five hundred word piece, they read all five hundred words. If you were a really good writer they demanded more. Now people read the first couple lines. Maybe the first paragraph. Sometimes the second paragraph. Sometimes they’d skip to the last paragraph to read how it comes out. They don’t with that bother anymore. Whatever they need to know has to be in the first paragraph or they will never know. And if no ones reads more than a few dozen words of a five hundred word piece, it is no longer worth a dollar a word. In fact, you’ll be lucky to get a dime a word.

It’s a weird time. There are few famous writers anymore, and almost no famous journalists. Everybody is a writer today, and the bar has been set so low by blogs and sponsored content that the very concept of good writing is becoming obsolete. Perhaps it is obsolete already, as people do not read enough of any single piece for the quality to matter. Writers have been trained by centuries of tradition to build up to the big finish, that memorable final line. But no one reads that far now. Everything past the first couple lines is probably wasted. It’s weird to think that of all the writing there is on the internet, only a tiny fraction of percent ever gets read. That is trillions of word wasted. Interesting prospect, that, in evolutionary terms. Our brains have, over the past five thousand years, developed this extraordinary talent for writing language. This is a really new thing. Mass literacy is only two centuries old (beginning in the United States and spreading globally since) and has had a profound impact on humans as a society and humans as a species. Cultures that can read and write thrive, those that can’t disappear. Languages without a written form will disappear quickly once a language with a written form moves in. Literacy has in a very brief time transformed the human world in many ways as profoundly as the evolution of spoken language itself. Yet suddenly almost nothing we use written language for is ever read. I suspect that much of the prose that has been written in this past decade has never seen by a pair of eyes. It is written, posted online in some form or another, and ignored. Texts, of course, are almost invariably read, but texting is more like speech than written language. But of all the writing on all those billions of websites? How much of that is ever read by anybody? Even individual page views mean in almost every case that only a couple sentences were read, nearly always at the top of the page. Most everything else on the page is little read and quite likely unread. Imagine if nearly all the words ever uttered were never heard. That’s what is happening with written language now, with nearly all the words being written never being read. Yet human beings are probably writing more now than we ever will again. This is the absolute apogee of the written word. There is writing everywhere, incredible amounts of it. But if no one is reading it, why is it being written? Language evolved as an ability to communicate. We talk to pass on information, basically. Written language evolved for the same reason. Yet now, in I would guess is most of the time, no information is being transmitted by written language because no one is reading what someone wrote. Semiotically written language is failing most of the time. You need to have a reader. Without readers, writing doesn’t have much of a useful function. Evolution, whether genetic or memetic, does not abide the unused for long. Frills fall by the wayside, forgotten. Nearly all writing is in that category now, useless and forgotten. There is simply no reason for it to exist at all.

In twenty years, perhaps in a decade, there will be less writers and less words. The trillions of words on the internet now will slow to a relative trickle. Everyone writes now because there used to be a profession called writing. There isn’t much of one now. Kids will not grow up to be writers when there are no readers. We will still read, and still write. But writing like we do it now, in books and stories and articles, that is probably ending. Perhaps the only ones of you who would adamantly disagree with that prediction are the handful who have gotten to this last sentence.

last line great gatsby

Ruminations on why you would rather look at a funny cat video than read this.

“Here’s another way of saying it: We are the first few generations to receive most of our sense of the world mediated rather than direct, to have it arrive through one screen or another instead of from contact with other human beings or with nature.”–Bill McKibben, The Mental Environment (2013)

Language itself totally changed and shaped our perception of the world, what we see and what we say our two dramatically different things, with what we see being much more accurate than how we say it. In many ways, information brought to us visually on screen–movie, television, computer–is more accurate and unfiltered than what we read in books, newspapers or magazines. Widespread literacy dramatically changed human perception. But visual information on our screens subverts language…a reversal of a long time trend. Language began to supplant vision, at first at the origin of speech itself a quarter million years ago and then again, dramatically, with the invention of writing. The printing press and widespread literacy began to change how people viewed the world and processed information. Sight and language battle for control in getting us information. For a couple centuries there as reading became universal (first in the United States, we were the truly literate nation after mandatory education was introduced with the founding of the republic) the written word took precedence and people would almost always believe what they read over what they saw. Movies, television and the internet are allowing the ocular part of our brain to increase its control of our information process. People read less now and look at video more. So what the internet has done is to weaken the power of language in our perception by allowing us to watch video. It has also, first through email conversation and then through texting and finally Facebook, made writing more akin to speech. Writers like me are constantly struggling with ways to get people to trust language again. So what we are seeing now is the retreat of written language in the brain as there are more ways now than ever before to watch instead of read things.

Another thing to consider is religion. Even in a world free from any sort of video or writing, as in the middle ages, when most people in Europe read not at all, their perception of reality was less accurate and direct than it is today because religion completely shaped the way people saw reality. You can see that just reading medieval and middle ages texts. Instead of seeing things directly as they were, everything was filtered though religious dogma and belief. So language had enabled religion and written language had enabled codified religious dogma which could be recited to people who couldn’t read, and which then severely limited people’s perception of reality even though few of them could read and there were almost no media at all. Free of ironclad and enforced dogma now (no one gets burned at the stake for blasphemy anymore in this country) we certainly have more appreciation of nature than they did then. People have been walking through the forests now for centuries. We preserve forests in national parks and lace them with hiking trails. But in the Middle Ages and even into the Enlightenment Europeans were terrified of forests. Mountains were a source of evil. Deserts full of ghosts and djinn. Nature more scary than it was beautiful. Even rainbows had their dangerous wee people.

The written word changed all of that. The more we read, the less scared we are. Now, with visual information coming to the fore again, via television and the internet, people seem to be more scared, or at least more wary, scared of each other. Partly, I think, because the brain takes in anything visual as self-experienced, it does not distinguish between you being in a car accident and watching a car accident on TV. It feels it viscerally as if you were in the crashing car. And now, when it sees scary video on the news or YouTube or even scary crime stories and reality programs, it automatically sets off fear and concern, often absurdly out of proportion, because our brain cannot analyze it the way we can with language. It sees everything as reality. Language does not do that. Reality programs are not possible as literature.

So today it is not so much that people who watch the internet all day long are out of touch with real life, it’s that the brain sees everything on TV or the internet as real life, no matter how ridiculous that is, or how out of context that video was. Just shoot it with a hand held camera and it looks real. Language can add context. When we read our language based analytical skills give context, and when we even listen to spoken words–news, for instance–we automatically add context. We look for raw footage of disasters precisely because there is no narrator to ruin the you-are-there sensation. 

The problem now is not the current internet drive world’s lack of direct contact with other people and nature. It is the lack of analytical context, which, unfortunately, is entirely based on language, whether written or spoken (or even thought–we think in language, but we do not see pictures and film in language.) You cannot have, apparently, a world full of video and simultaneous logical explanations. The two literally do not go together, since the parts or our brains that take in visual information and the parts that logically analyzes it are two different things, indeed are in different lobes (back and front, respectively). We haven’t yet figured out a way to merge the two.

I’m working on it, though.