The expectation of attention

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you expect to be listened to?

I’ve been writing for a living since 1978, when I was still an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and started writing for national magazines and Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail.

I spent my teens attending summer camp, where every month we’d put on a musical, some fab creation from the 1950s like Flower Drum Song or Hello Dolly. I almost always won the lead.

Flower Drum Song
Flower Drum Song (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every Sunday evening, we’d put on a Talent Show and I’d get up with my guitar and a song I’d written that day to sing it to 300 people.

It only struck me — reading Sue Healy’s brilliant blog about writing, (and she’s a former journalist) — that, as a default position, I expect to be able to hold and keep people’s attention.

Before you all un-follow, with snorts of dismay and derision, let me explain why this is a huge advantage, especially for ambitious writers and bloggers.

Newer writers seem to fear rejection, or fear that whatever it is you hope to convey just isn’t all that interesting.

Pshaw!

You have to assume someone does want to hear/read you, that you have the talent and guile and charm and story to woo and win them for 20 or 30 or 100 minutes.

OK, maybe five, on the Internet!

Journalism offers phenomenal preparation for other attention-seeking work, whether dance, music or more writing. You have to produce something every day, sometimes every hour. (I once had to write a television news story in the two minutes of a commercial break.)

You have to crank out a ton of stuff, certainly if you work for a daily paper or, worse, a wire service or web site.

Some of it is really shitty. Some of it is amazing, stuff you read decades later with pride. You will also see other writers (grrrrr) win front page and fellowships and awards and make the best-seller list.

You, oh misery, do not.

But you must wake up the next day and re-assume the same confident stance, that your work and your ideas are worth the attention of others. What’s the alternative? Lying in bed weeping in the fetal position?

Not you!

I was lucky, in some ways, to be an only child, never competing for my parents’ attention with a crowd of siblings. I had a sort of brassy self-confidence I’ve never really understood, although I’m damn grateful for it. I rarely worry about putting my stuff out there (even if I should!)

The standard American cliche is “stepping up to the plate” — i.e. home plate, where you stand in order to hit a baseball or softball. As someone who still plays softball (and can hit to the outfield), I know how nervous it can make you.

Everyone’s watching! What if you miss? What if you can’t even make it to first base? What if you hit a fly and someone catches it?

NOTICEME
NOTICEME (Photo credit: Beadzoid)

But what happens when you hit a single/double/triple — or home run? Huzzah!

If you’re still feeling nervous about blogging, or sending your creations into the world for approval/sale/attention, just do it.

(But do not, I beg you, be all foot-shuffling and hand-wringing and ‘I don’t know what to blog about.’ Don’t be boring. Take a risk!)

Yes, some of your work will be ignored and rejected. My third book proposal goes out this week, (shriek), and has already been rejected by the people who published “Malled.” I asked my editor why and received a short, polite and helpful reply.

In the old days, I would never have asked.

My first two books, when their proposals were sent to major publishers, each received 25 rejections before the 26th. said yes. Both have won terrific reviews and been bought by libraries world-wide.

So I anticipate, (albeit pre-cringing at how nasty some of the rejections can be), more of the same. I hope not. But it happens. Rejection is the cost of doing this business.

This essay, about my divorce, won the Canadian National Magazine Award for humor — after being laughingly dismissed by an editor at one of the U.S.’s biggest women’s magazines.

Focused attention has become one of the world’s most precious resources.

But, oh, the joy when you’ve won it!

And again.

And again…

Where Ideas Come From

Gauguin
Image by tore_urnes via Flickr

I spoke today to a  class of 20 freshman journalism students at New Mexico State University about writing for a living. Their world is very different from mine, and will be throughout their careers, in one significant respect — unquestioned, socially approved, if not demanded, access to, if not addiction to, the Internet and its enormous pool of images, ideas, data and opinions.

But.

It’s also the graywater of received wisdom, inflated ego, unfounded or salacious rumor. Can anything fresh, clean, valuable emerge as your life’s work if this remains your primary or exclusive source of intellectual or emotional fuel?

As I said then — Picasso and Gauguin didn’t zip on over to cubism.com or exploretahiti.org to envision and paint the images many still consider extraordinary in their vision, beauty and creativity. They created them.

I told this group of fresh-faced kids, one even a high-schooler visiting for the day, to do the unthinkable. Turn off the damn computer. For a day. For entire days.

I just spent five days in a desert home on 26,000 acres, nurtured and recharged by a silence punctuated only by the yowls of a mountain lion, the squeaks of skittering quail, the wind in the trees. We had no Internet or television and listened, briefly, to NPR on the radio before turning it off in favor of…silence.

Without withdrawal, reflection, isolation, creativity is, I believe impossible.