You can call yourself a writer if you have a need to write. That need can come from different places: joy, sorrow, love, past trauma. But the need does not come from here! Blogs. Twitter. Snapchat. Instagram. Tumblr and a hundred other social media, informationally overloaded, time-sucking pleasures of the internet. Cumulatively, the effect of our time spent online is dilute our Need to write. A dilatory effect. The more time we spend online, the more we are absorbed into the monolith of Cumulative Thought–Group Think–at the expense of our inner, unique selves. The more we post and comment and share, the more of ourselves we give away–all at the expense of our own truths. Our own secret, individual voice. Our unique vision of the world, the one that looks out through our eye holes.
Yet we all have an online life. It’s almost impossible not to. That being the case, my argument is simple: we all need to hit “Refresh” on occasion. We need to try to find our way back to those events, feelings, and images that shaped us in the first place.
For example, I grew up on a farm, and so landscape is a key part of my identity. Fields, machinery, harvesting, the company of men, group labor (“many hands”). But gradually, from a career of teaching and writing, I became a “town guy.” An urban person. Steadily, over the years, I necessarily left behind all the “stuff” that had shaped me, but with a gradually deleterious effect. Enough so that that the occasional objective correlative (T. S. Elliot)–the sound of a tractor, or a smell of freshly mown alfalfa, or a man’s cap cocked at a particular angle (my Uncle Earl)–became dizzying. As if, for a moment, I didn’t know where or who I was. When that happens nowadays, I know it’s time to hit “Refresh.” To get back in touch, however I can, with my original, inner self.
This week I will head up to serious, big-farm country in northwestern Minnesota for the “beet” harvest. Sugar beets, that is. I’ll stay a few days with a farm family, and ride in the harvesters, and drive a beet truck, and eat a long table with the other workers, men and women. It’s the life I had to let go of in order to write well about it, but a life I greatly miss at times. The critic and short story Frank O’Connor coined the phrase “submerged population.” He meant the people, usually from our past, who were authentic, unselfconscious, non-homogenized, and “real.” His point was that we need to stay in touch with them and with other “true” bulwarks of our lives. Our online life might churn us through the great washing machine of wired culture, but we have all a secret stash of memories that belong to us alone.
A serendipitous coda to this post: the mail just came, including the new New Yorker magazine. In a cartoon, one character says to another, “I spend too much time promoting myself, and not enough time being myself.”