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The Prophet Motive

March 17, 2015

As you may know, three years ago I vowed not to cut my hair until I had “been published, won a contest, or otherwise significantly kick-started my writing career.”

In the time since I have written over a dozen short stories, a novella, myriad haikus and satirical poems, and drawn up treatments for two feature-lengths movies. I have not, however, been published or placed in a contest. My hair rests on my shoulders and my professional writing career lies somewhere in the future, if at all.

No, I’m not giving up. Neither am I redefining success to make it easier to achieve. A vow is a vow. But, as can happen when pursuing a goal with a single-minded purpose, I have been changed by the process. I have learned, and grown, and would be remiss not to point out the effects of such a transformation.

It started with a moment of doubt. After receiving another form rejection slip from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction I questioned whether I would ever get published. If I died without selling a story would the act of writing have been a big enough reward? The answer was an overwhelming no: I had something to say and it wasn’t enough to converse with myself. I realized it was more important to get the words out than it was to get paid for them.

So I started a blog and began giving my efforts away. Why not? It was good practice, I was growing an audience, and I had complete artistic control. No deadlines, no editors, no censors. I was as happy as a hooker with a dildo.

But sometimes even masturbation falls short. I found myself monitoring my blog stats for comments and likes. Every new follower came with a rush of fulfillment. I had in essence cut out the middle man and transferred my desire for acceptance directly onto my readers.

And then came the measles outbreak. You might wonder how a viral epidemic could be related to my writing quest, and I don’t blame you. It took several weeks of introspection (and a trip to Hawaii) to sort it out for myself.

Here’s the thing: if you’re like me, you have Facebook friends on both sides of the debate. It’s not unusual for a passionate pro-vaccine post to be directly followed by a passionate anti-vaccine post on my news feed. Faced with such a dichotomy I did what any skeptic would do: I asked questions and performed research. This is where the problem started.

Clearly we live in an age of misinformation. You can find ‘evidence’ to support any crackpot theory online nowadays. The tricky part is distinguishing the pseudo from the science, especially for laymen like myself without a specialized background. Still, it’s not impossible. After reading an article I would follow the citation links to determine if the writer was skewing someone’s results – and they often were. Such misrepresentation signaled a divergence from the scientific method. Through this process I was able to put the outbreak into terms I understood… but I wanted to be sure. So I posted a link into my news feed and asked my Facebook community for feedback.

What I received was a backlash of guilt and shame and condemnation from people I placed in very high regard. They were blatantly unable to hear my questions, unable to hear anything outside of their belief zone. They had no desire to engage in a dialogue or a debate, no desire to help in the process of education I was requesting.

I had, with one simple post, become a pariah.

I watched this cycle of shaming and cyber-bullying play out across the country; I watched individuals bare their hearts and get crucified for it; I watched as some of my oldest friends screamed at the top of their digital lungs; and I noticed two things:

  • Nobody considered anything other than what they already believed.
  • Everyone who spoke out was subjected to gross judgment and verbal abuse.

And I thought, is this what it is to be discovered? Is this the endgame of fame and fortune? If I succeed as a great writer will I be respected by people who already agree with my conclusions and vilified by everyone else?

I had no desire to be another voice screaming into the void. And if this was how America treated its own, success sounded like the worst possible thing that could happen to me.

I felt a surge of empathy for Emily Dickinson. The few poems she published while alive were heavily edited to fit the conventions of the time – a practice I’m guessing did not encourage her to publish more. She would have done well in the era of social media: she seldom left her house and carried out most of her correspondence through letters. Sound familiar? I wonder if she would have published a blog – and if the notoriety would have changed her.

I don’t know why Emily Dickinson wrote. But it had become extremely important to understand why I did, because I’d stopped. I felt like humanity didn’t deserve to hear what I had to say.

Eight billion voices

A cosmic cacophony

No one listening.

The problem was, I’d never been good at keeping my mouth shut. I was the kid in class muttering sarcasms just loud enough for the teacher to ignore, and social media is nothing if not an extension of that habit. I cannot exist in this society without commenting on the irony and hypocrisy that is the bedrock of our illusions. Writing lets me do that in a – hopefully – non-aggressive manner, but what is my motivation if it isn’t fortune and it isn’t fame?

The answer came to me on a beach in Hawaii, and it was typically obvious. Something needed to remain sacred. It’s specifically because writing isn’t done out of a profit motive that it can be that thing for me. No other facet of my life depends on it. If writing ever becomes a grind – which most jobs eventually do – I can lay my pen down willingly and pick it up when I’m ready. I have no deadlines or conventions. In fact writing into a void is exactly what I should be doing.

You know how radios break down in Hollywood movies and only transmit or receive? I wonder if there’s such thing as a one-way internet connection. I’d like to block out all the news and advertisements and distractions and only use the connection to transmit my philosophic musings and stories. A post-modern cabin in the woods.

The prophet motive: make of it what you will, world. I’m not listening either!

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