Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fine Man, Fine Writer

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Have you a passion? For building, sailing, singing or something? Anything?

I, and a few dozen others, (I didn’t count them, or take any notes) spent yesterday evening with a fine man who encouraged us to live our passion. Like a gorgeous wine, such men are to be appreciated as adding a little grace to our life. We sat on soft folding chairs in the little independent bookstore, Owl’s Nest Books. I wasn’t interested in hearing any facts or technical advice, not about writing. Like the rest of the keen crowd, I already knew my craft, well enough for now. Instead, I was there to take in a man, and his more esoteric experiences in being a writer. I was not disappointed.

Can you name any prairie writers? Any prairie mystery writers? Of course not, but you can now: Anthony Bidulka. Thriving in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he knew of only one other writer. (I forget her name) So he went up to her and asked her to tell him about the writerly life. What mattered was her example that it could be done. What really mattered, in that encounter between two people, was not any specific facts she had to say but simply her belief that he could do it too.

Of course the mathematical odds against ever being published are steep, let alone the odds against making a living at writing. And Bidulka would all know about mathematics, since he was a successful chartered accountant. Successful? Yes, he was a partner in a firm… and he gave it all up, to be a writer, after first “saving like a bugger.” You can expect years, plural, before you make your first sale. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is following your passion. He didn’t want to be “sitting on a rock when I’m 85…” and wondering.

I can still hear some of his exact words. But I don’t suppose I should quote him too much, because I know another published writer who is very sensitive about anyone stealing his thunder, and Bidulka might come to speak at a bookstore near you. But I will say Bidulka was a skilled public speaker, humorous, warm, humane and giving of himself. It was so nice to take in a man with a good heart. He said, “time worked its magic” so now he is skilled, and able to help others.

Bidulka explained that it didn’t matter if a passion was part time or half time or if you could somehow make money at it: “That’s a bonus.” In answer to a question about “interests” he named some neat interests, so obviously he has a life, but he had just the one passion. The difference between interests and a passion, it seems, is that a passion makes it all worthwhile. I forget, now, how Bidulka explained the difference, but never mind—I now have lots of time to reason it out.

Obviously Bidulka didn’t mean that anyone’s passion had to be “writing”—although it was for him. At one point he reflected that if he had been braver he could have become a writer straight out of high school—but he didn’t regret any of his jobs. I have noticed that many writers have many different jobs on their resumes. I wondered, last night, if many of them took years in getting free of what they sensibly “should” do, before getting into following their heart. I don’t know. I do know that many good writers have a “real job,” and that seems to work out. (Algis Budrys sold trucks) Bidulka is not a moderate person, he goes all-out, and so in his case trying to do part time writing would just not have worked.

As for the folks on the folding chairs, I would say they all had a life, and real jobs, or were retired. Mostly women. Everyone wore nice clothes, and everyone was over age 30. At one point the ex-accountant told us of going to his first writer’s conference, held outside the prairies, and being delighted at finding people just like him. I know the feeling. This delight is one of the side benefits, I think, of following your passion. I can remember when I was a young man looking for a career: I filed away the fact, according to science, that one of the best predictors of whether a career would be a good personal fit was not by comparing my aptitudes to the job, but by comparing myself to what the other workers were like. Peers matter.

It’s been decades since I went to a conference in my current profession, partly because we are frustratingly short staffed, (Last year I had really wanted to hear Steve Slopak, a guy I once worked with) but at least every year I take a Monday off so I can go to a weekend readers-writers-publishers conference, When Words Collide... held right here on the prairies! Obviously my profession has become for me what musicians call a “day job.” And that’s OK. Not as driven as Bidulka, I can enthusiastically write part-time while holding down a job. Besides, I can count on my fingers the years until my retirement. As for whether writing is my passion… I will need to essay-think my way through that one…

In an alternate universe Bidulka is an affluent long-term accountant—but he’s not as happy. I wondered about a version of myself from age 19 (time traveling) How would I have felt from attending the evening? Probably lost, lonely and alienated from all those rich grownups. Not to mention having despair at lacking enough self-discipline/self esteem to write regularly, lacking any faith or sense of life-purpose. Luckily I have kept my head up, trudging down the years.

Last night I was rich enough to have driven there in a bought-new car (and had learned to drive stick shift) and I was a part of a community, making serene eye contact and talking with three people who knew me: One of whom is on track to submit a manuscript this summer, just like me, and one of whom has way too many books and needs to get rid of lots, just like me—but how? The dilemma drives me mad! Yes, I fit into the writer community.

Gathered in warm community, we writers already knew basically how to write; we were there to see a man, a fine man. I’m glad I went, I’m so glad I follow my passion.


Sean Crawford
Calgary
October
2014

Footnotes:
~As I’ve said before, most notably in my No Links is Good Links essay, archived July 2012, I don’t believe in enabling a person’s frantic undignified skimming: Hence I seldom make links. (And I don’t run downtown in my business clothes, either) But what I will do, as a trailhead to his Facebook and Twitter paths, is write out a web address: www.anthonybidulka.com —and I see my computer has automatically made it into a link: how amusing.

~Coincidently, today I saw the Mexican movie Book of Life where a young man’s biggest fear, the one that torments him the most at night, is the fear of being himself. But of course, he doesn’t realize it: To “know thyself” takes years.

I am reminded of how in my youth, to avoid a clichĂ© but still voice a classic yearning, we said, “I want to do my own thing.”

~Also coincidently, with echoes of Bidulka, today I resumed reading a book (over supper) I sent away for by a foreign novelist I enjoy, Haruki Murakami, called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, subtitled (in much tinier print) A Memoir, Opening it at random, I started reading (again) where he sells his business and re-prioritizes his life around the hours and the health he needs to be a novelist full-time: Hence the jogging. He couldn’t just hire a manager for the business. “… I knew if I did things half heartedly and they didn’t work out, I’d always have regrets.” P. 31

Something I won’t look at too closely is where Murakami writes, “I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. …(Otherwise) you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.” P. 37

~Another coincidence: Last week I essayed about Introverts and Messages. Murakami sheds light on introverts, as on P. 15 he writes,
“It might be a little silly for someone getting to be my age to put this into words, but I just want to make sure I get the facts down clearly: I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. … I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.

Even so, after I got married at an early age (I was twenty-two) I gradually got used to living with someone else….”     

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Introverts and Messages

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Cats Eye Glasses
Some of my best friends are introverts, and some of my best friends are feminists. Nice people. How strange that society “as a whole” might not value folks in those two categories, not as much as “everybody” values extroverts as being regular natural folks.

For me, what makes feminists so sexy, even the ones who wear glasses, has nothing to do with their going bra-less and everything to do with their willingness, like me, to seek enlightenment. In the 1970’s they became willing, and then able, to “raise their consciousness.” They regularly met in their homes to do this. Well done.

Back during my favorite decade, the 1950’s, a time when we still believed Dorothy Parker’s 1925 quip, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” none of us questioned her. Few asked why the reverse of “men” was not women but “girls.” In our formative high school years the socially valued athletes and cheerleaders, besides not wearing glasses, were perceived as extroverts. The truth of course, that shy quiet girls could be cheerleaders too, was not the pop culture scenario. Thinking back to my school, when extroversion was desired and expected, God only knows how many shy kids were despised as snobs. Strange how so much of the “equality and respect” we knew after the 1970’s, we just never knew during the 1950’s.

It isn’t easy to know things invisible on the wind you “could” know. That’s why we love and fear our painters and poets: They see things. It follows that ideologies, from communism to Nazism, must squish their artists away. True believers don’t want to see anything new—they already know their world is cast in stone. “Nothing to see here, move along.” When oppression gets worse the squishing gets worse too. In the 1950’s U.S. critics only faintly praised The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials. Later critics could easily see it as a classic—I saw it staged at Mount Royal College—but back then they dare not “see,” not while the oppressive McCarthy witch hunts were going on.

Conditioned and Washed
We valued Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist hunts back then partly because of something horrible out of the Korean War of the early 1950’s: We learned that some wholesome soldier-boys in the UN forces, while prisoners of the reds, had been converted to communism through force and fear. The dread word “brainwashing” entered our vocabulary. And we feared civilian boys back stateside could be radicalized too.

Back home, in those days of black-and-white TV advertising, Vance Packard had a best seller to expose marketing: The Hidden Persuaders, a book still readable today. (I like it)

It was a time when Helen Gurley Brown, in her best-selling Sex and the Single Girl (I like that one too) said, “Natural is whatever you’re used to.”

Brown said this to encourage young bachelorettes to wear normal makeup and hairstyles. She reasoned that a boyfriend might sincerely tell you he likes “old fashioned” and “natural” looks, but actually he is influenced by what he sees all around him. Brown has a knack of writing lines that swiftly sink in to become part of a young person’s “common sense.”

I think women’s liberation combined knowledge of psychology, propaganda, advertising and Ms. Brown to have an insight: People in society are influenced not only by active persuaders, hidden and open, but by passive messages too, messages they are used to. This insight is why today if we are depicting a little group of much fewer than ten people we will still make sure one of them is Black, even though Blacks are only ten percent of the U.S. population. We want to send a message: Black people are a natural part of society. Natural and valued.

In the 1950’s Americans were known for wanting to be popular and backslapping and talk-talk-talking. During the cold war, Ugly Americans re-e-eally didn’t fit among quiet elders in a bamboo teahouse. Visa students to the U.S., I read recently, are warned Americans don’t like silence in their conversations. I can believe it, since I have viewed some of both the British and the American translations, dubbings rather, of the Japanese Miyazaki animated feature The Secret World of Arrietty based on The Borrowers (I read it, forget whether I liked it) The gratuitous dialogue added into the Yankee version is grotesque.

Invisible Foundation
I have to ask: If there have been things in the past that were invisible, such as a need for equal rights, could there be things in the present, such as the U.S. style of talking, that we don’t notice either? Is our consciousness unraised?

Remembering shy quiet cheerleaders, could it be that we devalue the introverts among us, noticing them much less than their numbers would warrant? Maybe “regular folks” are not the huge majority, not the natural default, that we have been led to believe.

Some years ago I was pleased and relieved—yes relieved, at something that a computer nerd millionaire, Paul Graham, blogged in his essay about why Silicon Valley is where it is, rather than being located in, say, Chicago. The issue is nerds. Graham said (I forget) something like nerds prefer hiking to deafening discotheques, old bookstores and cafĂ© conversations to glitzy shopping malls and fashions, and they don’t want to live in the glamorous cities that regular folks and millionaires choose. The nerds prefer San Francisco and Boulder to Miami and Las Vegas. As for the Eastern Seaboard, Graham has lived in both Boston and New York—and he prefers the quieter Boston.

The next Facebook probably won’t start up in Miami, according to Graham, even though rich investors live there. The nerds won’t ever meet those investors, because they won’t live there in the first place. I was so relieved to read this, because I hadn’t found anyone in print, until Graham, who would validate the existence of a whole group of folk just-like-me.

Brown suspected that at any given party, on any given night, some of the folks walking around with a smile pasted on are faking it. Yes, culture is partly a shared pretense, I get it. Still, in everyday life, it’s as if most people believe in our culture’s official scenario. And so, at a big buzzing party, if I scratch my raffle ticket and win a free trip to Las Vegas for me and a small crowd, I would expect the people around to raise their eyebrows and feel excited for me.

Simple and Plain
In contrast, in Oprah magazine, regarding plain folks who seek “enlightenment” I read… “To you, a “fun” trip to Vegas would be a nightmare; a good time is lying under the stars discussing the meaning of life with a friend, your spouse, or your cat.” I can’t imagine telling people at a party I am dumping my “all expenses ticket to Vegas,” so I can sit with my cat, but … I’m excited to read the validation that some people are like Paul Graham and me, not in the sense of being brainy computer nerds, but in being introverts—and there are more of us than society’s “lowest common denominator” thinking might have us suppose.

In my everyday life I am attending two writer’s groups, one monthly and one weekly. If I enjoy being around writers it is not because they mostly tend to have higher education like me, it’s because they are interested in noticing life. I don’t suppose Jane Austen would be interested in Graham’s computers and his essays, but she is sure good at noticing characters. To me, this alone would mean she’s lively, interesting and, beneath all those petticoats, sexy.

One day, as our group was rising and putting on jackets, a fellow writer (Hi Marie!) dumped books on the table for anyone to grab, but then held one out to me, “I want to hear what you think.” It was a best-seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

I think society is at last getting ready to notice and validate introverts. A cynic might say it’s time to adjust our culture because, and only because, of new economic realities: nerds getting rich with small “start up” companies; a new loyalty to personal “careerism” replacing loyalty to big companies; and a growing emphasis on companies having creativity as a competitive advantage, forcing us to listen more to the introverts among us.

Meaning: There’s no longer enough “bang for your buck,” time-wise, in letting a couple of shoot-from-the-hip extroverts dominate a business meeting, not while denying introverts encouragement to deliberately think and speak. At any rate, I sure found Cain’s book a big relief: Wow, a whole book about people like me. No wonder it’s a best seller.

Maybe we, as a society, won’t be making adjustments, anytime soon, to our scenario of what we “see” and value, but we should: Cain makes a very convincing case that introverts have a lot to offer in our new improved diverse workplace.

Comfortable and Understated
I like Cain’s anecdote of a marriage that was being strained by the couple having two widely differing views on hosting parties. The husband was a bubbling extrovert: Weekly dinner parties were very important to his quality of life. The wife was an introvert, craving quiet and connection. Luckily, they were able to frame their difference in term of ‘-verts.’ Solution: Instead of a big dinner table, trapping the wife, they would have a buffet. The husband got to talk superficially in a crowd of people, while the wife felt permission to circle around the edges to comfortably have the few deeper conversations she craved. Like many introverts, she couldn’t relax to make small talk until after she had relaxed by going deep. I can relate.

If my feminist friends are correct, if society is blowing messages around us, like soft little leaves on the wind, the trick is to raise our awareness so we can feel them. And then choose whether we want to agree.

Becoming aware is fine, as far as everyday life goes, but what about less democratic times and places? Sometimes the folks who send messages will wrap them in fear: “All the better to make you switch off your critical mind.”

In Arabia today they want a whole lot of people—grown women—to be switched off about a whole lot of things. I guess some poor girls in Arabic countries are like Bertrand Russell: He writes that even as a grown man when he is reading and someone comes into the room he feels a fearful impulse to hide his book: His family was against reading, against freedom of thought.

Fear can be as harmless as the emperor’s new clothes, or as devastating as Senator McCarthy ruining lives. McCarthy used fear to make people say, “If you defend an accused witch then you must be a witch yourself, and so you must be accused and dragged away too!” Oppressors have used McCarthy’s trick for centuries, they are using it in the Middle East right now. Such oppressors always hate three classes of people: the artists, the brave and the educated. (For “witch” substitute “communist” … I think of McCarthy when haters refer to skeptics as “deniers.”)

Easy and Carefree
One of my favorite artists is science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Before I was born, long before the Islamic State was overrunning Syria and Iraq, he wrote in 1949 about the U.S. being under a religious dictatorship. His hero joins the underground and is allowed to use their library:

 “For the first time in my life I was reading things that had not been approved by the Prophet’s censors, and the impact on my mind was devastating. Sometimes I would glance over my shoulder to see who was watching me, frightened in spite of myself. I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy … censorship.”


Any religion of peace can be perverted to oppress people. There is a prominent Iranian man right now in the infamous Evin “torture prison”: He was thrown in for daring to say that religion should be separate from government. The Ayatollah might love God, but he surely loves power. I’m sure no Iranian dare say in public that Evin Prison should be only a prison, without torture, lest he or she be accused and dragged off too.

While fashion messages are mostly easy and harmless, if anyone wants to know whether they have been brainwashed by society, conditioned by messages wrapped in fear, then the answer might be found by a variation of an experiment for an Arab student:

If you are a young Arab wanting to know whether the Islam you are naturally used to is an ideology like communism or a religion then here is a test, if you are brave enough: Tell some young fellow-Muslims that Islam has been true and good and beautiful in the past, and as your friends are smiling and nodding their heads, add there are a few tiny little problems with Islam today. Then check your gut. If you feel afraid, you have your answer.

God bless you, everyone seeking enlightenment. You are beautiful.

And God bless you, introverts. You are natural and valid.


Sean Crawford
Calgary
October
2014

Footnotes:
The introvert lady, Susan Cain, did a Tedtalk in 2012 (link)

I advocated giving introverts room to speak during a part of my essay Too Fast, Too Wrong, archived July 2010.

An easy introduction to the McCarthy terror, with archival footage of the senator, is the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. George Clooney directed and acted in it, after mortgaging his home to make the film. Obviously Clooney believes in freedom.

Heinlein’s short novel, If This Goes On—” is published as part of Revolt in 2100.

A fellow Canadian, Irshad Manji, is the young lady who wrote The Trouble With Islam Today. She receives death threats constantly. No wonder someone dedicated a science fiction novel to her.

Here are the Oprah lines in context:
The Oprah Magazine November 2011, P. 166, 4-Step Fulfillment Workbook by Martha Beck, Box title If you’re highly motivated by Enlightenment

Because the things that drive other people—wealth, fame, social ties—leave you feeling incomplete, you sometimes feel like an odd duck. You spend lots of time contemplating what it is that calls you. You may be pulled toward yoga, meditation, religion, or nature. To you, a “fun” trip to Vegas would be a nightmare; a good time is lying under the stars discussing the meaning of life with a friend, your spouse, or your cat.


Another Dorothy Parker quip: You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.