Terms of Engagement

I’ve been suckered into some maleficent plot. The walls are closing in, water is seeping through the cracks in the brickwork, and the lever that could stop it all is just out of reach. Countless others have suffered the same fate already, as the bright red smears on the ceiling will attest. I am merely the latest victim to breathe the dank fumes of this dungeon, to scratch my fingernails off trying to stave off the inevitable.

I have created a blog.

My name is True Shields, UC Berkeley graduate, writer and (semi-)reluctant participant in the exodus into the far reaches of the Blogosphere. Why reluctant? Let’s just say I’m atavistic.

I don’t have any concrete evidence of the perniciousness of personal blogging, but something about it feels self-obsessed to me. Thoughts of self-publishing conjure images of what Chuck Palahniuk describes as “creepy old, retired people clutching their one good story,” of a “world Socrates couldn’t imagine, where people would examine their lives, but only in terms of movie and paperback potential.” Part of me wants to toil in obscurity, to emerge from my cave with some Actual Chops that’ll allow me to transcend the whole capitalist-sweatshop scheme. But the simple fact is that I’m not ready yet, and I may never be. Where do you discover all the stuff that transforms you from a callow youth into a man of letters? Surely you can’t display it all, betray yourself, on a blog?

Part of the uncertainty may have to do with a kind of tragic perfectionism. For a long time I’ve wanted to write something crafted from pure imagination, something divorced from myself, as if written by a disembodied hand. A rare few people are gifted with the kind of Michelangelo-esque vision that enables them to yank that piece of perfect art straight from the aether, the way you imagine Chekhov did. Most of us aren’t so lucky — the fear of failure to live up to that shining image in our heads paralyzes us. Countless more of us think we really are creating something perfect but aren’t, and become defiant and hurt when we are told otherwise. All of it produces a kind of mild insanity.

It doesn’t help that blogs demand immediacy and frequent updates. Initially, I conceived of this blog as a showcase where I could hang a few samples and mostly forget about it. But the demands of the Blogosphere — and of youth — are manifold. I’m part of the Millenial generation, a group able to leap tall websites in a single bound, hoover up information as we go and leave start-ups in our wake. To get ahead of your fellows you’ve got to have cunning and a body of experience stretching back to your Little League days. If you’re not busy, you’re not worth it. Practice that piano just six more hours a day, Timmy, and you’ll be great by the time you’re fifteen. Land another half-baked essay in a literary magazine so you can slap it up as a published credit, Bobby, and you’ll be a Real Writer before you know it. Actually writing is one thing, but straining to display it is another altogether, especially when it consists of the musings of a good-for-nothing twenty-something.

Perhaps I’ve simply got the wrong attitude. Why do I veer from the experiential, believing it to be trivial or banal, and deny the rich fabric of my own life? Plenty of my literary heroes have noted the folly of this method. “Somewhere (in my youth) I had come up with the notion that one’s personal life,” Thomas Pynchon writes in the preface to Slow Learner, “had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the opposite.” Maybe it’s time to do as Mavis Gallant did in Spain during the 1950s and “live on bread, wine, and mortadella,” to write about the girl “with the long jaw, blackish skin, (and) thin mustache” seen in the streets. Likewise, as Colson Whitehead suggests, perhaps it’d be prudent to go out and “rustle up some dysentery: it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone.” Or maybe, following yet another suggestion, I am to ask of myself, as Hunter S. Thompson demanded, “who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed on shore and merely existed?”

Having a blog may just fulfill a few of these conditions.

So enough foolish mewling. Enough painfully self-conscious prose. It is better to write unapologetically, fearlessly, the arrogance of a then-17-year-old delinquent notwithstanding. I’ll forge ahead like an icebreaker ship hell-bent on reaching an unknown pole, its crew gnawing on husky shanks and dead comrades’ leather boots. I’ll follow If on a winter’s night a traveler‘s Silas Flannery, and “think I am writing a whole library” as opposed to some opus, so that “I feel suddenly lightened: I know that whatever I write will be integrated, contradicted, balanced, amplified, buried by the hundreds of volumes that remain for me to write.” The path laid out for me is long and treacherous, but  what are a few burrs in the ass for a chance to grasp something sublime?

All that remains, then, with that garbage out of the way, is to consider a final piece of advice from one of my father’s friends:

“Ramrod at it, all day long.”

You got it, man.

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