By Bob Litton
Scene: The same stage as in the second post, “Orpheus and Narcissus”. The faded maroon curtains, tinted by orangey yellow footlights, are shut, and no one opens them. Instead, from stage left, the heavy set blond fellow whom veteran readers saw last January, strides to stage center, where he turns almost militarily to face the audience. He is wearing a burgundy smoking jacket over a light blue shirt, with the collar open, and tan slacks above oxblood, tasseled loafers.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Narcissus, Bob’s other half. That turkey Orpheus neglected to alert me last time we had a presentation; that’s why I was late to show then. This time I’ve gotten my revenge by rousting Bob out of his hibernation to produce something special for you ahead of schedule, without Orpheus being any the wiser. Bob had something of a heartburn problem when he wrote what follows, so allow him a bit of critical leeway. Okay?
I’m proud, as usual, to point out that I not only got Bob back to work, at least for a little while, but I assisted him in writing this piece. You can easily tell: There’s egoism striating the whole work.
Now I’ll leave and open the curtains so you can read Bob’s latest opus on our brand new big screen monitor.
Narcissus strides off stage to the right. Then the curtains separate.
I am related, though very distantly, to one of the most popular British authors of the 19th Century: Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton. His many novels, once widely read, are almost completely neglected now. About the only remnants of his writings still mentioned, incidentally, are some of the phrases he coined: “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the great unwashed” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”. But my intent in mentioning him here is not to revive interest in Bulwer-Lytton’s works; rather it is to exemplify the point that what is highly fashionable in one age can become virtually unheard of in the next.
All of that is but backstory for explaining here my rationale for the topics I write about and how my readers respond to the resultant essays and poems.
I once made a living as a reporter and sometime columnist. A reporter most often writes what others tell him to write; seldom does he or she have the luxury of following his own interests. The columnist and the feature writer have significantly broader options. Nevertheless, whether independent or not, the working journalist, as well as the fiction writer and poet, must cue themselves to the interests of a mostly invisible audience.
For about 20 years I worked under that regimen. Of course, the bulk of my subjects were, by analogy, like the elements in “processed meat”: the items on the agendas of the various governing bodies. Still, there was space for feature articles that I had some say in choosing. However, I must admit to some inadequacy there: I too often made the mistake of asking my co-workers for story ideas. One woman, an animal rights activist, would immediately pressure me into writing a story about a horse or a dog. Of course, such beasts cannot talk, so interviewing them was out of the question; and I had to resort to interviewing their owners, who usually were not very forthcoming or cooperative for any of various reasons I will not delve into.
Another bothersome story advocate was a local social worker and counselor who frequently suggested writing about some community assistance program — the senior center and the hospice. Now, those services could potentially bear interesting stories or they could be boring and gloomy as hell. My problem was that I did not have time to scout them first; being on a deadline, I had to go in “cold turkey”, as the vernacular has it, and then “go with what I got”. Usually, the interviewing and the writing were difficult under such constraints, yet I managed to patch together fairly decent feature stories.
But being a creative feature writer also had its downside: One publisher/editor came up with the idea of selling half-page ads with the promise that a half-page feature written by me would be placed on the same page as the advertisement. I did six of those, always aiming my questions toward the background and supposed other interests of the business owners instead of their products or services, for which I expected the ads should be adequate coverage. The first five stories I managed to work through without too much trouble, the main problem naturally being that some of the business owners would look over my shoulder, so to speak, and insist on final approval of the story just as they did for the advertisement. The sixth story almost ended in disaster. My subject was a man who had opened a new restaurant. My God! The poor frame of a fellow had no innards; he had had absolutely no experiences outside his chef’s career! If it had not been for a couple of decent photos I took of him and the restaurant building, I would have lost that account for the paper. I left the paper shortly afterwards, for that and a couple of other reasons.
That brings me practically up to date. I retired from journalism a couple of years back, although the reader can see I certainly haven’t retired from writing. To quote a clause someone coined long ago, I “have ink in my veins”, and it will insist on flowing. Now I no longer have to bow to other people’s whimsies and write ephemera for my daily bread. Nonetheless, last year, during all the local political campaigning, I felt the pressure from friends to write polemical letters to the editor. On my own initiative, I also wrote a lengthy essay for a local newspaper attacking the idea, presently viral here in Texas and in a few other states, of secession. But after the elections were over, I emphatically told my friends that my political days were over. I was going to write exclusively about what interested me at any given moment…and about myself.
As anyone who has read the previous sixteen posts in this blog can confirm, many slices of my personal history are sandwiched in throughout. That is the case for two reasons: (1) I realized several years ago that I could not claim to be an authority on anything except myself; my knowledge of, if not interest in, many other aspects of life are too shallow or skimpy to assert anything definite about them; I refuse to bluff; and (2) my life, looking from the inside out, has been quite exciting, even weird, as I suppose most people’s lives appear to them from that vantage point, the single exception that I know of being that poor sap of a restaurateur mentioned above.
When I started my blog, I optimistically announced to my small circle of friends what I was doing and urged them to keep up with my posts, hopefully to be issued every other week. Well, the rascals started out attentively enough but soon drifted away, returning only intermittently. I asked some of them, why?
Our mayor: “Why don’t you write more about our town?”
A long-time lady friend: “I like some of your things…the funny ones.”
A muckraking colleague: “I’m not interested in your philosophy; I want facts, something controversial.”
An attention-deficit-plagued political consultant: “You need to put in pictures.”
Well, to a decent extent, I have done all those things, but not because my friends prescribed them; they just were appropriate at the time I did them. The content of a writing now is not as important to me as the technique of it: I like to use familiar but neglected words in fresh ways, tweak phrases, and develop grabbing quips. I like to feel words as though they were between my fingertips, to determine their connotations as well as their denotations, their resonances. As I say at the top of my blog’s home page: “This WordPress.com site is philosophical.” And it will remain that, even if I end up writing to myself.
It seems odd to me how some writers, such as Bulwer-Lytton, can reach such grand heights of fame during their lifetime and precipitously lose that position beyond it. But, his mother having cut off his allowance because she did not want him to marry a certain young lady, he had to write for money; so lasting fame possibly was not a primary concern for him.
I don’t make any money from writing now; I write because I have an irrepressible urge to write, because it’s fun, because it’s creative. I like to mull over odd ideas. And I write because — but not primarily because — somewhere over the rainbow there might be a pot of fame.