This blog was featured on 12/29/2018
Making Oneself Known

I read an interview recently in the Paris Review with the mysterious and gifted Italian writer Elena Ferrante, whose “Neopolitan novels” took the American readership by storm several years ago. She is a woman who has stayed in the shadows throughout her career, her name admittedly a “pseudonym" and her whereabouts kept a guarded secret. She said this about an artist promoting oneself: “I’m still very interested in testifying against self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. The demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art.” She went on to say that once her book went out into the world without her she knew that she had “released the words from myself.” I find her argument both reasonable (each one of us is a product of our cultural lineage) and baffling (the odds of succeeding at gathering readers without any publicity help are problematic) at the same time.

Ferrante wrote books that seemed to have had a magnetic appeal and she apparently didn’t need much publicity to become widely read. I’d argue that this is not what usually occurs for today’s writers… Her gritty realism, nostalgia and romance, combined to hit a nerve, certainly amongst Italian readers, and ultimately and amazingly amongst Americans. This entire series of four books ended up on best seller lists. It all seems quirky and inexplicable, sort of like Ferrante’s own interior dense thinking around creative process and maintaining anonymity. I sense that her persistence in staying anonymous has definitely paid off for her. Odd. Why is this? Are we the potential audience captivated by mystery? I know for myself that the more the so called truth is kept from me, the more eager I am to dig in like a dog with a bone to unearth what is “real.” We want what is withheld from us…

When I publish my book next year (September 2019), I will have to do a lot of legwork in advance to have anyone pay attention to it. According to most publishers, this is the way it is in the industry. Writers are expected to show up for interviews, write articles, participate in thematic panel discussions, develop their social media presence, and the like. Gone are the days when you simply hit the road to show up for a “book tour.” Exceptions to that are with the high and mighty, like Joe Biden or Michelle Obama, who could easily sell out any event in any town in this country. It turns out that the crafting of the original book - itself a deep and arduous journey - is not the only work the writer does. You the author must shepherd your beloved creation by various means, and you must blow your own horn and make yourself appealing to large numbers of potential readers.

This business of blowing your horn is a bit foreign to me. I stayed in the shadows a lot of my childhood, and even when in school, I held myself back while excelling and privately feeling proud of my academic prowess. So there’s that cautious and shy part of my story, and then there’s my 20 year old Buddhist practice, which teaches among other things that all beings are without permanent sustainable existence. It’s called “no self,” a tough concept to grapple with. The point is that we see a persona called Mag whom we believe to be solid and permanent; this being is in fact a result of what the Buddha called “causes and conditions.” Since the causes and conditions of human existence are always changing, so are we. We are fluid beings. So, to identify ourselves as “neglected child” or “world traveler” is incorrect because we continually move in and out of these identities. So, now my question is: how do we reconcile this fluidity with showing ourselves off to the world as distinct character, for example a travel writer of deep insights and cultural education?

Or, am I not looking at another element in this whole conundrum? That would be the difficulty of just standing up and saying something like, “hey, please pay attention to me, to my words … they are worthwhile, they will touch you and perhaps change the way you see the world.” Yes, I think that’s it. This tooting of one’s horn, grabbing the stage and saying “yes” doesn’t come naturally to many of us. I’ve known a number of artists who have been pushed and shoved to stand up for themselves so they can then convince people to appreciate their art. Many of them never learned how to do it, and receded into obscurity.… Like I said earlier, it’s complicated this promotion of the self.

There are human beings who never had to think about self promotion, like Jesus Christ whose “birthday” is upon us, or the Dalai Lama, or Gandhi, painters like Diebenkorn and Matisse, or writers like Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte whose genius screamed out to the public and pulled them in. For the rest of us, there is work to be done to show off our authentic creative selves to the public in such a way that they’ll eagerly reach for our work, because even in this technologically ass-backwards world, we all need the solace of sitting with a real book and losing ourselves in its soft creamy pages, following the journey, or witnessing a piece of music or a painting that lifts our hearts and reminds us what it’s like to be a vibrant, compassionate human being.

What I’d like to believe lies in the hearts and minds of writers out there today struggling to find their audience is the dedication to the craft of telling one’s story, painting one’s unique picture, so that you can touch others like yourself and perhaps change the world just a little bit. If that doesn’t drive people who are swept up in publicity campaigns, then I am truly sorry. No matter where we show up to talk and do our dance, we need to remember they why of it all. Joan Didion wrote long ago: “I write in order to live.” And if I were to continue her thought, I’d say: “I write in order to live, so I may touch others, open doors and windows to see the possibilities of a better life.”

Wishing all of you out there more open windows, some peace and ease, and love…

DECEMBER 23, 2018


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  • Tracey Bussanich Writing

    Such sweet, kind, and thoughtful wishes you have given. Thank you, Mag. I, too, write for the same reasons as you. We have this in common. I smile when I think about how in my drawer is a children's book that I wrote while I was an elementary teacher in 2003. I have journal entries recorded and kept for 13 years that I am now including in the book I am currently writing. Isn't it wonderful how when we write in order to live, that at just the right moment is the time meant for publishing? Then all is well that follows, because we will finally touch others with our published work. I wish you the very, very best.

  • Wonderful article, with loads of insight for writers; also, introduced me to a new writer, Elena Ferrante, and her process,. Thanks for sharing.