Talking in my sleep

Trolling through old journals when I was at home with a sinus infection yesterday, I came across this little curio.  (Apparently, sometimes in my sleep, I say interesting things.)

Talking in my sleep [again.]  Chris told me that this is what I said last night:

“I like it

when the music

goes

DOWN

LOW

and

DEEP.

If it’s a sound

I’ve never heard before….

I

like

that.”

The intriguing thing about this to me is that this is a pretty good description of the music, especially the electronic music, that I like.  I like intense, psychedelic trance and sample-intensive or  bass-heavy tracks. I have always collected media, especially books, CD’s, live concert tapes, and vinyl albums.  I have an especially large collection of what I might describe as Net Label audio and found sounds.  When Black Lodge Video first opened here in midtown Memphis, I often rented unusual fare, and when I found soundtrack dialogue, music, or atmospheric material that I thought might sound cool sampled into music, I ripped it to cassette, so I have somewhere a fair-sized collection of stuff like that too.  Even as a child, I did stuff like that.  One of my earliest audio projects as a kid involved making audio cassette recordings of  one of HBO’s first original programs.  These shows were a series of very atmospheric, half hour-long renditions of Raymond Chandler’s early 20th century detective stories, featuring the private investigator, Sam Spade.  I faithfully recorded every episode but made the mistake of leaving the tapes in my parents’ basement while I was at college.  My mother, bless her heart, threw them away in one of her anti-stuff purges.  Periodically, I have looked for that series online, with thoughts of replacing those lost tapes, though buying them would only be step one, with re-recording all of those audio tapes a major step two, and I do have other projects.  Of course, the other side of the coin here is that this occurred a long time ago.  Why do I even remember this event at all?  I made those recordings years before I came to understand the reason to buy the highest quality recording medium you can afford, so I most likely recorded those shows on cheap cassettes that would have disintegrated or melted long before now in the less than archive-quality purgatory in which most of my remaining cassettes now live.  At the same time, if I still had those cassettes, I could have used them as sample fodder on my radio show or as fill when I was still doing the DJ thing occasionally.

Nonetheless, the pattern of sampling and archiving is one I began very early in my life.

Perhaps this isn’t a surprise, given that my mother was a librarian, and my father was a teacher for almost 40 years.   My father has always been quite rigorous in his archiving tendencies.  He keeps journals (as I do) and freely admits having kept a copy of just about everything he has written as well as copious notes on anything he’s read that relates to any of his several research subjects.  From my dad, I learned to archive my work, to keep journals, and to take notes on (and in) books, magazines, articles, etc. that touch on my subjects of interest.  My mother’s influences in this area are more subtle but still there.  She is ardently (and increasingly) anti-stuff, where I have always been a collector.  The collector impulse I got from my father, but my mother’s work as a librarian has meant that I spent a significant part of my younger years in and around libraries, and because both of my parents worked for the same academically rigorous and resource-rich private school, I had early access to world-class libraries with college-level resources.  As a child, I spent any afternoons not otherwise engaged in after school activities hanging out in the library where my mother worked.  As time went on and I outgrew the kids collection, I graduated to the teacher’s reading room where the grown up fiction was kept.  From my mother, I learned the importance  of reading, for pleasure as well as for a purpose.  Spending so much time in libraries helped me see the utility of catalogs and lists to create order.  By extension, keeping clippings and notes on an array of subjects has helped me to impose a kind of order on my otherwise chaotic universe of interests.

While on the subject of the personal archives to impose order, I just read an excellent eight-part series of reflections by London-based evolutionary biologist and writer Olivia Judson on the New York Times blog .  Called “The Task,” the series was an extended meditation on the power of stuff and on our complicated relationships with objects, mementos, and emotional debris accumulated over a lifetime. Judson talks a lot about the emotional attachments she uncovered after her father died, when she and her brother had to dispose of forty-five years of her parents’ accumulated stuff.  The author details some of the conflicting emotions that came to the surface, while at the same time conveying to us what interesting folks her parents were.   Apparently, her dad worked for Time Magazine in 1960’s, and he kept everything he ever wrote, as well as file cabinets full of notes and clippings.  And books.  And stuff.  Lots of other stuff.  At the time of his death — he was the surviving parent — his house brimmed with mementos, memories, and emotional landmines for her and her brother.  I read the entire series and can say that it is well worth it and is a surprisingly quick read at that for what it is.  I was most struck by Judson’s last few paragraphs of part one, though, and found these words most germane to my thoughts on the power of stuff.  In closing, I’d like to offer this quote from Olivia Judson’s “The Task” because it encapsulates a lot of my conflicted relationship with  stuff, both having it and collecting it.:

“…To anyone who suggested that maybe he did not need all the stuff, my father would invoke the great psychologist William James, who wrote that the loss of possessions gives ‘a sense of the shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness.’

“I never agreed with the idea that personality is defined by objects; I would rather say that objects are defined by personality. Yet when someone is dead, and their belongings are all that is left, dispersing those belongings feels like an erasing of their physical presence on the earth.

“Moreover, although my father didn’t mean it this way, there is a sense in which James was right. An old T-shirt waves at you and says, ‘Remember when we went to Hawaii together?’; a plastic cup reminds you of a party you went to one hot summer day. A dried corsage — where was the dance? who was the date? — reminds you of the girl you were, who thought a corsage worth saving. In other words, objects are keys to remembering what happened and who you were, and their loss can make the memories inaccessible. So — for me at least — this task also brings with it a fear that in throwing things away, I am also throwing away access to parts of my mind.”

To a certain extent, Judson speaks to my fear too.  On some level, I think my objects (and the collections of which they are a part) are like place holders for the memories and experiences they represent.  I wonder if I’m afraid that parting with my things, whether journals, or books, will erase the memories or experiences they represent.  Should I continue to buy (or collect)  books, music, etc.?  Am I afraid that without such reminders, I won’t remember the present five, ten, or even thirty years hence?  On what level do I use objects to hold space for memories I’ve made and experiences or connections I’ve had, and on what levels do the memories impart relevance unto the objects?  Does collecting these things help me to form or hold on to my memories?  Do these objects enhance connection or insulate me from it?  Which objects enhance and extend my life and which detract from it?  Does having these books, journals, magazines, and media in general offer enough value to my life that it is worth it to have them around, or do they mostly provide another excuse for why I am so rooted in my life in Memphis?  After all, I can’t load all of this stuff in a truck and go on the archetypal Great American road trip across the country, or can I?  And would I even be able to enjoy such a trip if I hauled all of my stuff with me?

All are good questions, really, but there are no easy answers here.

The best I can hope for, I think, is that wrestling with these issues will help me live in the present, write honestly, and continue to engage in my life while not simply archiving or recording it.

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The Re-commitment

I have been less than consistent in my blogging habits this year. A combination of so many other commitments and less than optimal writing conditions, I suppose. And I am easily distracted and have not properly prioritized my writing by giving it a fixed place in my schedule. And then there’s my tremor, which makes typing and long-hand writing difficult, each in their own way. All of these are excuses as much as reasons.

The trick is, can I commit to doing better in 2014?

I believe that I can.

Part of “doing better” involves allowing myself to write about a wider variety of subjects. Since I realized I have readers, I’ve found it increasingly difficult simply to write for myself. It’s like, I can’t just write anything out of fear of disappointing expectations that someone (possibly me) has for what I write about here. The truth is, I set my own expectations on some level, so I should reasonably be able to loosen or change those expectations.  Occasional disappointment is normal, and I have to accept that as I am a perfectionist, by default, I cannot always meet my own high standards.

In other words, perhaps I should accept the process of writing and the possibility of less than stellar outcomes occasionally because, ultimately, writing consistently is more important than striving for a “perfect,” mostly unobtainable, outcome, especially when that will result in me writing and posting less overall.

I don’t think I have to post “shit” in preference to not posting at all. It’s really just that when not posting means I am not writing at all (as often was the case last year), this inactivity is poisonous to the process of becoming a better writer and usually results in a weaker, less frequent output overall.

My goal for 2014 is to try to post more regularly, on more topics and not to limit my writing  as much as I did in the last half of 2013.  Using old journal entries as a starting off point is fine, but I also cook exotic food, brew wines (and, one day, beers), collect media (especially books), and am a ravenous  (and passionate) explorer of a variety of music, often but not always experimental and electronic.  Music blogs like The Burning Ear have been hugely influential, not so much as sources of music but as an inspiration and reminder to keep my mind and my ears open for new sounds. One of my longest-time favorite sites for media exploration, and the source of so much good (& legal) music, spoken word, film, live bands, out of print books, and ephemera, is Archive.org.  A close second for inspiration, though their material is considerably less (intellectually and philosophically) accessible than the Archive is UbuWeb, one of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging sources of avant-garde material that is freely available anywhere.

I have more interests now than the limited survey of my New York Times and old journal reading habits would show. I read books, the occasional magazine, and a number of other blogs that provide fuel for my creative urges.  I follow a lot of blogs and dip into most of them often but find myself returning most often to only a handful of regular ones.  As is true for many people, perhaps, intellectual stimulation is helpful, but only up to a point.  My favorite blogs touch on a number of subjects without fear. Although I respect bloggers who can post continually on the same subject, I am often stimulated creatively by the blogs that are more varied in their content.

Take my father’s blog, for instance, which he calls “Retired But Not Shy” and in which he posts mostly long-form (2000-3000 word) posts on a number of distinct, but often interrelated, subjects.

His posts are monthly and tends to focus on  Blues music (a passion of his), history of Georgia politics in the post-colonial period (one of his areas of experience and the subject of his degree study), and teaching history at the secondary school level (his old profession).   Varying his topics even this much allows him to use old journals (as I do), use notes that he has taken on several subjects over many years, opine on a variety of topics, and dispense words of wisdom on the subject of teaching to younger would-be teachers who find his blog courtesy of referrals by people at his old graduate school.  It’s a cozy arrangement and a clever one.  By blogging on a variety of interrelated subjects he is able to sustain his own interest and publish about subjects that appeal to several distinct and sometimes overlapping, audiences.  More unique readers, as well as a more repeat visitors, are possible with this scenario.

Another multiple-interest blog that I follow is my friend Barbara’s blog, which she calls, “Enamored With Life.”  She blogs about the latest studies on natural health topics, her art and experimental photography, her reactions to other people’s creative work, life, and her writing.  It is, in other words, a robust personal blog, the reading of which, allows me intriguing glimpses of some of my friend’s many facets.  I enjoy catching glimpses of her art work and that of her many talented friends and relatives.  I also appreciate how experimental her photographic manipulations are.

But don’t I write primarily for myself?  Yes, of course, I do write a lot to satisfy myself, but hopefully you, dear reader, will come along with me as I explore a variety of subjects here.  Ultimately, it is more satisfying, at least for me as a writer, to know that I have an audience and to receive feedback occasionally on posts I have written because it keeps me honest, keeps my voice authentic, and most of all, motivates me to continue writing and exploring.  On a related note, I just read a really incisive essay on why bloggers maybe shouldn’t get so hung up on their blog’s statistics.  It was by Matt Mullenweg, a founder of WordPress.com, on his blog, “Ma.tt.”  To summarize,  he finds that he is a better, more consistent writer when he writes for two people: one, his present or future self, and  two, the person whom he considers his ideal reader.  For each new post, he only considers what he feels about the post and how his ideal reader might respond.  It seems like he is saying that not getting hung up on which posts get lots of hits and which don’t has allowed him to feel better about all of his posts and not get discouraged about writing because, as he puts it,

 There is no predictable connection to the effort and thought you put into something and the response it receives…

Anyway, Mullenweg’s post, “The Intrinsic Value of Blogging,” seems very àpropos as I have spent much of the last couple of days pondering this same issue.

Another way for me to contextualize the experience of writing a blog is that it’s like being on the radio, something I did for ten years, as well.  While my radio program was a varied, woven fabric of intelligent electronica, experimental, beat poetry, free jazz, etc, there was a certain percentage of every hour where I had to talk about the music, give the station call letters, and read public service announcements.  When I started doing my show, I had the most trouble with the speaking part of the gig.  Some advice that helped me then is also rather germane now: when you’re on air, don’t think about all the people who could be listening, close your eyes and speak directly to your best friend (or ideal listener).  For one thing, it is probably impossible to please every listener all the time.  Also, when one speaks directly to one or two people (without using inside jokes or personal references that might alienate other listeners), it really is easier to connect the music with the listeners.  The other bit of advice that was probably more germane to radio than to WordPress (due to WP’s ability to generate real reader/visitor statistics) was to consider that for every caller that a DJ got, he or she might have a 1000 listeners.  What is perhaps even more true now than it was then, is that the easier you make it for your reader/listener to interact (read, share, comment, contribute) and the more valuable content you offer, the more potential readers/listeners you could have.

One of the most widely read single-focus blogs I know, according to articles, blog posts, and, yes, TED talks by and about the blogger, is Post Secret.  According to the data tag at the bottom of his home page, “Post Secret is the largest advertisement-free blog in the world.  Visitor count: 648,689,278!!!”  Although Post Secret is a definite guilty pleasure, and this blog clearly needs no help attracting new visitors, I include it because the numbers are stunning, and the fact that such a simple concept clearly resonates with so many people is pretty awesome too.  This blog provides a physical mailing address to which folks from anywhere in the world can and do send anonymous postcards disclosing secrets big and small.  Once a week, on Sundays, the blogger posts photo-scans of the best postcards he has received recently.  From this concept, he has drawn at least one TED talk, media appearances, and at least one book.  Every time I dip into the current batch of secrets there are stunning revelations, often in the original handwriting of the sender, written on whatever random bit of paper or postcard they chose to use.  One of the first “jaw-droppers” I remember from one of the first times I read this blog was a Christmas card with lettering in block print letters that said, “My husband gives me lots of presents at Christmas to make up for the abuse.”  Another that was up the first week of January features cute, apparently hand drawn, puzzle pieces in pale pastel colors.  The block-type lettering has been overlaid and features the following message: “Dear Evil Stepmother, I bet you are still looking for that last piece to your puzzle.  I took it!  Love, your passive aggressive step-daughter.”  There is also a feature called, “Classic Secrets.”  One of my favorites there is a post card of the Eiffel Tower with the following message: “I am secretly learning to speak French.  Then I am going to Paris with him or without him.”  Very clever stuff, really.

Another more singularly focused blog that I follow is my uncle’s blog, “Yellowstone Stories and Images.”  He uses his blog to promote his book, In The Temple of Wolves , which is phenomenal, by the way.  He publishes gorgeous photos of Lamar Ranch (which lies in a remote corner of Yellowstone) and blogs about the experiences he and his wife have while volunteering there for three months every winter.  I have a strong naturalist streak myself, so I can relate to the wish to spend time in the wild, to hike in the snow, to track wolves in the moonlight, to live where the moon and stars are mostly what you see at night.  I love that stuff too, but as I am not yet retired and haven’t made the life choices necessary to live that way all the time, I have to enjoy those adventures primarily through vicarious outlets like this blog.

So what can I learn from this small survey of regular blog gleanings?

Quite a few things, it turns out.  There is no idea so simple that it won’t appeal to someone, so a blogger doesn’t have to make every post a labyrinthine work of court intrigue to engage and keep readers.  Writing about passions and subjects that genuinely interest the writer more effectively engages the reader than subjects chosen to entertain or appease a supposed audience.  Big numbers are awesome, but don’t let stats come between you and your writing.  You write for your self first, your ideal reader second, and if you can please everyone else with that, more power to you.  The more of yourself you put into your writing, the better, but “there is no predictable connection to the effort and thought you put into something and the response it receives,” so don’t sweat it.  Writing consistently trumps writing perfectly; you write consistently to write better, so don’t let anything or anyone come between you and your writing.  It is just fine to put more than one passion or interest into your blog because it is your blog, although subjects that interrelate somewhat have the potential to knit together a larger audience.  Be okay with the process and the possibility that this blog may turn out to fuel a larger project.  Most of all, write, write, and write again.

My goals for my blogging in 2014 are, at least, to write more consistently and  a wider range of subjects that genuinely interest me and to put more of myself into the posts that I publish.  My blog has always been primarily text driven, although pictures and sound files might be nice occasionally too.  (I don’t have a digital camera, so regular picture posts might be farther away than I’d like to admit.  I also have very little experience working with sound, so sound files may not happen quickly either.)  Blogging is a process as much as a product, so I will expect my goals and my output to evolve with my experience and my ability.

Until next time, thanks for reading.