The Problem

23 02 2011

Face vs. vase for writers

In my last post, I was considering the joke templates of one of innumerable Internet memes mushrooming up. I began to realize what an ambiguous Rorschach blot the particular one I posted was. Or more precisely, a linguistic optical illusion like the classic face vs. vase.

Consider phrase: “It’s comforting to know you aren’t alone – except that’s the problem.” One might first interpret that to mean that the speaker actually is alone (or at least feels that way), and is reacting with bitterness to the reassurance that he is in good company (which penguins, by the way, almost always are, to the extreme).

But what if the speaker’s problem is precisely the fact that he is not alone? What if the irony lies in the fact that not being alone is the problem? For the “Socially Awkward Penguin” it frequently is. Far from being a comfort, having to deal with other people is a dreaded stress.

Writing is traditionally looked upon as a lonely profession, long hours spent in isolation, just the writer and the blank page (or screen) they must fill. But my experience of actual writers has been a bit different. If they are not professional, which the vast majority are not in the sense that they don’t support themselves by writing, then they have a day job and likely deal with others. Most have families. I know a lot of woman writers whose days are filled with the mommy thing, which usually includes other children and other mommies. Finding the time to be alone with that page/screen is the problem.

Even professional writers whose schedule is not packed with little league, play practice, birthday parties, play dates and field trip chaperoning (or the adult equivalents) seem constantly engaged with other people. Attending or conducting workshops, conventions, book signings, sitting on committees, critiquing, answering email, Tweeting and posting on Facebook; there are writer’s groups, organizations, social networks, websites and blogs; a constant busy hum of lively interaction. One sometimes wonders when they have time to enjoy the isolated intimacy of their lonely craft.

But let us return to our penguin, and his problem of being alone or not alone. Let’s say he’s a writer. He was attracted to writing because of its very solitude. Unlike his fellows who love the company of others, who greet each other and stop to chat, make plans to have lunch, invite each other over for visits and suggest opportunities for parties, our writer penguin prefers being alone. He doesn’t make spontaneous conversation easily, although he can compose scintillating dialogue on the page. He can’t read other people as he can read books; their behavior is often baffling because it doesn’t come with narrative explaining the back story and hidden motives. He is never sure if they are being sincere or just being polite, so he constantly worries about how his own behavior is being assessed.

In the written word he has control. He knows what his characters are thinking and doing. Stories, whether he is reading them or writing them, don’t make the demands of social situations because he is the only one involved. There is comfort in being alone.

In that wonderful, stress-free isolation, our penguin revels in creative bliss. He builds a world, peoples it with vivid characters, spends hours refining their interactions, adding depth and excitement. He pores over books and fishes the Internet searching for information to add richness and authenticity to the world he has created. It grows and blooms and it is good. He reads it over and chortles with delight.

Our penguin is proud of his accomplishment. Surely this is the solution to all his problems. He can share this creation with the world, and everyone will be impressed. They will want to talk to him about it, and this is a subject he can discuss easily and without confusion. They will be so impressed with his work that they will give him money for it, and then he can go back into his safe and comfortable isolation and do what he enjoys doing most. He has found his mission and place in life.

Except that when he goes to share his brilliant creation with the world, he discovers to his awkward horror that no one is impressed, because he is just one of several hundred thousand other penguins all squawking and jostling to get their brilliant creations recognized.

He is not alone. And it is not a comfort. It is the problem.

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2 responses

23 02 2011
Zoe

That is an excellent description of the appeal of writing (and reading) to socially-awkward types like myself. Thank you.

Oh, and when you first posted the penguin picture I assumed the problem was that the penguin was not alone – he was comforted to know that he was not alone, but the reason he needed comforting in the first place was that he was not alone. I didn’t even see the other interpretation until you pointed it out.

23 02 2011
justinegraykin

Very interesting! Our individual psychology affects how we interpret the ambiguous.

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