Monday, January 7, 2013

Writing amidst the noise and din

Being a writer now is a very different challenge than being a writer even 20 years ago. We are being crushed by words, by communications, by verbal noise, a steady din, within which a poet, a story-teller, an essayist attempts to be heard.

Trying to find the way to be heard amidst all that background noise, so much of it noise for its own sake, is not easy. Even more, being heard and impacting the culture - no, not easy.

There was a time when sitting together telling stories, reading poems, singing songs of a people's mythology and/or history was the way culture itself took shape, provided meaning, communicated a coherent cosmology that held a tribe or village or empire together.

It's not that this doesn't happen anymore. In fact, it happens a lot. Sit in a quiet coffee house for a poetry reading and observe the expressions on people's faces, the earnestness of the listening; one sees how the longing for this ancient form of community connection is obvious.

But the competition for attention is fierce. On Saturday I drove up to Green Bay with my brother for the Packer football game. He invited two friends, a married couple. For nearly the entire 2 1/2 hour drive, they played Scrabble on their smart phones with some other friends somewhere else. My brother and I do these trips a couple of times each fall and what we do during the long drive is - talk. Not even the radio, just conversation. That, and a deeply felt sharing of our love for the countryside as he always takes the back roads and small highways through tiny towns and farmland.

I know those two people in the back seat no better now than when we met, even after spending 5 hours in a car with them driving across the winter wonderland of Wisconsin. As we drove along the geological ledge where you can gaze out at the expanse of Lake Winnebago to the west, frozen and snow-covered as the sun set and lit up this little patch of brilliant orange glow amidst the clouds - that orange glow, the expanse of white countryside - we were so moved by it. When I said, "Look at the sunset," our friends in the back seat looked up for a moment, barely noticed, then returned to their smart phones.

And so it is. Simple conversation with no distraction seems to terrify some people, and bore others. We are losing culture because culture comes from these things - that long slow gaze out into the world, the chance for people to get to know each other by enjoying a precious winter evening out in the country - taking note.

In a poem about a personal loss, connected to some of the larger themes of the human search for meaning, I began with this line:

I am struggling to understand what it means to be alive.

Seems to me that our whole consumer commodified culture is one long panicked flight from that question.

Later in the poem:

If there is meaning we have not learned to live by it.

Like so many of us, I continue to seek out the spaces where that search, that quiet intense search, is engaged without fear. The best writing comes out of those spaces, both from within the writer and within the community where a writer can flourish. We need to protect those spaces - both the one within, and the ones without. They are what will keep culture (where at its best the search is deeply and bravely engaged) alive within and among us - which is of the essence of what it means to be human at all.

Photos: Margaret Swedish

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