Mothers can be difficult to impress, even among the literati. In an April, 1959 letter written to author Cecil Dawkins, Flannery O’Connor wryly remarks the wonderful news that Cecil has been paid $1,000 for a story. Noting her own top payment of $425, Flannery goes on to say,
Your sale to the Post ought to impress your mother greatly. It sure has impressed my mother, who brought the post card home. The other day she asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked instead of the kind of thing I do write. Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, A LOT of people like? This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.
I’m no Flannery O’Connor, but I’ve been rendered equally speechless by my own mother. When she found my first computer happily ensconced on its desk, Mom nosed around it like a wary dog circling a snake. ”What are you going to do with it?” she asked. I didn’t know, and said so. ”Well, how much did it cost?” I did know that, and despite reservations born of experience I told her. The disapproving silence thickened until she could stand it no longer. “You spent all that money for something and don’t even know how you’re going to use it?” Her perspective on the situation was clear. My computer was the latest version of hula-hoops or Mr. Potato Head and I was her idiot child, consumed with a child’s breathless longing to possess the same toys as her friends.
As the months passed, my mysterious toy began to demand ever more time as I moved from email to eBay to blogs. Email was practical and eBay profitable, but blogs? They confounded Mama. “Why are you still on that machine?”, she’d prod, peeking over the top of her knitting. “Who reads those things, anyway? Why do you keep re-writing? Why not do something productive?” As the hours spent reading, researching and writing added up, I thought perhaps the blog postings themselves would best answer her questions. I printed out an entry which had made me particularly proud. She read it, twice, before looking up and asking The Question that would have made Flannery O’Connor’s mother proud: ” When is somebody going to pay you for all this? ”
That’s when my blood pressure began to rise, just as it did when I read this bit of advice in a newsletter from a local writers’ group.
“Never give your writing away. If you don’t receive payment, your writing is worthless.”
Even though I support the right of all artists to seek and receive compensation for their work, I’ve always believed that equating dollars with quality is wrong. For months I fussed over the issue, unable to refute either the logic or the assumptions of those who kept asking “When are you going to start doing some real writing?” The question of worth was everywhere, in a multitude of forms. For weeks I pondered the dilemma raised by Becca at her Write on Wednesday site:
I find it all too easy to sink into pessimism about my own writing. What’s the point? I sometimes find myself thinking. Who cares what I have to say? Why bother struggling to find just the right word, to come up with the perfect idea, to create an evocative image? What difference can it possibly make to the world?
Bloglily recently voiced the same concern in a slightly different way:
Back in the olden days, when this blog was new, I would, without any hesitation, write an entire blog post about why this morning at 10:43 a.m. (which is the time as I write this) I found myself so incredibly happy. But something happened, maybe a year or so ago, and I began to be afraid of my blog, afraid that what I was writing was ridiculous, or not worth anyone’s time, and who was I to give nothing of value to the people who come over here other than a few words about my own personal happiness?
Reading their words, I knew their effort was justified, as was mine. I also knew beyond any doubt my writing was worth the hours stolen from sleep, the decisions to forego evenings out, the end of television and Starbucks socializing. I simply didn’t know why.
Eventually, I found the beginning of an answer in an off-handed remark made by a woman with years of experience in the classroom. “Teaching,” she said, “is like throwing out words in a bottle . Sometimes you’re lucky, and the bottle reaches shore.“
Her words are a perfect metaphor for blogging. Like a message in a bottle, each post is tossed into the currents of the great cyber-sea to bob and tumble and drift about until plucked off the shore by a curious hand or broken and destroyed on the rocks. For a blog-bottle thrower, letting go is everything. Whatever the content of the bottle’s note, its words will have no opportunity to touch people, to clear their vision, to bring comfort, to elicit a wry smile or a sigh of satisfaction until the bottle is set free.
It takes time, of course, for bottles to bob their way to the beaches of the world. It takes even more time for someone to find them, and sometimes it requires pure luck for the message to be plucked out and read. Today, looking back over my first hundred posts, I’m amazed how many have been pulled from the surf and preserved in one way or another.
A woman who’d put her own writing on hold felt an implicit challenge in one essay, and began again. A business woman found a lesson for the workplace in Godette’s choice of inspiration over competition. Roger Stolle at Cat Head in Clarksdale, Mississippi reprinted Blues Traveling in the e-newsletter he sends to customers. A reader in The Netherlands sought assistance for the man who introduced Leonard Cohen to Suzanne Verdal in Montreal. An astronomer who understands his discipline as both art and science added Comet Lulin and Solstice Silence to his links.
Each of these connections is wonderful, but nothing sums up the amazements of blog-bottle tossing as well as my experience with Search Pattern, a poem written in response to the death of Roger Stone and posted here last June, only two months after I began blogging. Safety Officer aboard the sailing vessel Cynthia Woods during last year’s Regata de Amigos race from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico, Roger lost his life while saving five crewmates from death after the capsize of their boat. He was well known in the local sailing community, and while I’d never met him, I was deeply affected by his death. There was little I could do, of course, and so I wrote my poem, shed a tear, and moved on.
Imagine, then, my amazement when this comment was added to my poem nine months later.
I am Roger Stone’s widow. I ran across this poem just now, and I want to thank you so much for it. The introduction was so touching, too. If I would have seen this before his service, I would have loved for you to have read it.
I miss Roger every day, and seeing this at this time touched my soul. Thank you again.
I was completely astonished: that she had found the poem at all, that she had been kind enough to comment, and that the one person in the world I wished could read the poem, had in fact done so. In the brief correspondence that followed, I gave Linda permission to use the poem in any way she saw fit. She mentioned she did intend to enlarge and frame it, and then to hang it in Roger’s office in their new home – the office he never got to use.
Last Monday, on the Mitchell Campus of Texas A&M University at Galveston, Linda Stone once again described events of that tragic day as she accepted the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal on behalf of her husband. The medal, established by Congress in 1874, is awarded by the Commandant of the Coast Guard to any person who rescues or endeavors to rescue any other person from drowning, shipwreck, or other peril of the sea.
Watching Linda receive the award on behalf of her dead husband, envisioning my poem gracing the wall of the office Roger never used and stunned again by her improbable discovery of my blog months after the loss of the Cynthia Woods, all I can think is, ”Some worth can’t be calculated.” Not every cause has an immediate effect, and not every hour invested brings immediate return. Only a willingness to take the longer, less calculating view of things allows any writer to keep tossing bottles into the sea ~ bottles filled with a treasure of words that one day, some day, will wash onto a shore.