One of my answers to the popular question of dead writers I would love to meet is Emily Dickonson—right after C S Lewis and Flannery O’ Connor. While alive, she achieved the kind of solitude I’ve long desired. Reading about her hermitic life often makes me feel like I share temperaments with at least one important person in the history of the world. But alas, I don’t have the kind of family estate that would enable me retire to a house in the village and write without sharing with the world. If I never have to worry about success in the parameters by which they are defined today, I would be content living in an obscure place, watching nature every morning, writing in the evenings, taking long walks and being one with the quiet.
Quietness is often equated to boredom, but Emily is far from boring. Few of her poems have lines that I imagine her laughing as she wrote, content and excited with herself and the joke. I am Nobody has some of those lines.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!
My struggle with self-promotion is long (and not worthy of being rehashed here). There’s a weird anxiety I feel when something I write is about to be published. I wonder if I should be showing my work to people at all, and often sabotage the process. But this year has seen me try to write more for pay, which implies a need to ‘put myself out there.’
It is good to work on craft and skill to near-perfection, because the reality is that, unless you’re a genius whose work is irresistible, all of that can be useless if you don’t actively cultivate social relationships both online and offline with people you’d rather avoid. Nell Zink, writing in The Atlantic, while considering the sentence “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” said:
“You hear all these fairy tales, when you’re a kid, about the ugly duckling, and Cinderella, and the littlest snowman: People who are overlooked and then have to be discovered. And that’s how this line is often interpreted, though in that reading both the originality and insight are gone, along with the suggestion of power. I think the message Jesus conveyed was different, at least subtly different. The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone, but it doesn’t say the stone changed. The stone didn’t grow up to become a swan. It was the same rock, and later, the builders said, “Oh, yeah—that thing is useful.” I guess that was my dream.”
I, somehow, also have friends who refuse to toot their own horn even when they’re brilliant. There are many hidden blogs with great content that their owners have refused to share with the world, leaving them to be stumbled upon by the lone internet traveler, by the kind of person who will say to them “Then there’s a pair of us.”
I don’t know if my aversion to excess publicity has been shaped by my christian upbringing like Nell Zink claims her’s have been in the essay, but she nails how I feel about promoting myself on the internet.
“When you’re raised in a family that’s religious—not like we were fundamentalist freaks or something, but I was taught religion—you learn you’re supposed to please one person. Your audience is God. And if you do what God wants, it totally does not matter what anybody else thinks. I think there’s a link between that and the anarchic individualism that’s so normal for Americans: the anti-social willingness to defy the group. The Protestant ideal, of course, is that ethics are between you and the higher power. This idea was omnipresent in my childhood, and I know it was important to me. When you’re an unpopular kid getting beaten up in school, the idea that your behavior is somehow pleasing to someone … I think I found it comforting for that reason.”
“I think this part of why, for many years, I didn’t seek out readers: my career was laying low. I wasn’t Jesus—I was the early Christians hiding in caves. I was like, okay, I’m not going to get out there and try to tell people what I’m about, because they will crucify me. That’s what Heidrich Heine said about images of Christ on the cross, which are all over the place in Catholic countries: “He’s put up as an example and a warning.” This is what will happen to you if you act that way.””
But see, I’m changing. I’m trying to put myself out there more so I can write more and have people read them and hopefully avoid becoming perpetually broke. So, when I read this poem, it was at first a joke at my recent efforts and also at people I’ve watched over the years toot their own horn to widespread recognition even in things they’re completely ignorant about.
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!
This poem achieved peak hilarity for me when she compared the attempt to be somebody, to advertise oneself to recognition, to being a Frog. I don’t even get mad at people who take every opportunity to promote themselves on social media like I used to, especially on Facebook. I’m learning, gradually, to accept that narcissism has now become something to be valued, even faked if it isn’t one’s default. The world belongs now to the self-centered noise-makers who can convince the world theirs is a voice to be listened to—even when what they’re saying is nothing but the croaking of a frog. And there’s no moral superiority to be claimed here: even those who think they have something valuable to say must learn to croak.
In the spirit of genuine frog behaviour, below is a short list of some of the things I’ve written over the past two months in different platforms while I was away from the blog.
- Nigerian Reality as seen through Obaranda Webcomics
- The (Wo)man at the End of the Village
- Ake Festival and Nigeria’s Creative Industry
- An Oblique Commentary on Masculinity
- The Search for a New Fela Continues
Featured image via Flickr by Chris Luczkow