Monday, May 30, 2011

THE WRITING LIFE: PART I





When I started Shirt of Flame last August, probably like many people who start a blog, I had some vague hope that it would parlay itself into a paying gig. Typically, I didn't think too hard about how this might come about, or what it might look like if it did.

Then, a few months in, I got an offer to write a weekly column for a larger blog called Patheos. Of course they couldn't pay me, but also probably like most people who start a blog, I welcomed the prospective exposure. I called my column "A Book of Sparks." I proposed to make the theme, loosely, arts and culture.

Elizabeth Scalia, who has been blogging with wild success for years as The Anchoress, first for herself, then for First Things, now as Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos, could not possibly have been more helpful, supportive, and encouraging. 

And yet, after several weeks, I started realizing something didn't feel right. My Wednesday column was due Monday, which meant a good part of the weekend was taken up writing it (I will gladly spend 50 hours a week composing fuzzy photos of jacarandas or reflecting upon the Filipino dessert known as halo-halo but some perverse thing in me, I'd almost forgotten, balks at outside deadlines). For another, though I had not way of knowing, I sensed that not only was I not getting more readers for Shirt of Flame, but that Patheos was siphoning readers (which isn't saying much) (who now had to click twice Wednesdays as I could only run a teaser on my own page) off.

But the real deal is I started to realize my work was appearing on the same page with advertisers. Not benefactors, or donors, or friends, which are different, but advertisers. I started to realize someone was making money off my writing (even if it was about two dollars a week) and it certainly wasn't me. I started to realize I like my page to look a certain way: to arrange my posts, photos, and images with a certain sensibility that I can't articulate, but that's mine.

But most to the point, I started to realize that as soon as advertisers enter in, you start to tailor, you start to censor, you start to try to be relevant, find a foothold, establish a brand, try to get more page views than the next person.   You start writing "think" pieces about "the royal wedding" and Charlie Sheen’s addiction. You start having an "opinion" on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s philandering because “Charlie Sheen” and “Arnold Schwarzenegger” are buzz words and in the blogging world, buzz words are what get page views.

There are many rooms in my Father's mansion and thank God for that. We need people who keep their ear to the political ground, people who can tell us what's going on in the Vatican, people who reflect on popular culture vis-a-vis Catholicism, but the fact is I am simply not a person who is ever going to be interested in, never mind be moved to write about, any royal wedding. I have no opinion on Charlie Sheen other than There but for the grace of God go I and I hope the poor guy makes it. I have no opinion on Arnold S. other than Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and how sad for his wife, family, mistress, illegitimate child, and for that matter, him.

And beyond that, I know myself all too well. Someone as desperate for success as me starts getting advertisers and next thing you know I'm putting up a photo of a Hollywood star with a crown of thorns on his head and promoting a kind of Disney Christ. Someone with my craving for attention gets advertisers and next thing I know I'm giving make-up tips and having bakeoffs and writing about Justin Bieber. Next thing you know I become willing to pander to the lowest common denominator and emasculate, homogenize and sanitize Christ, not because I love him but because I want to make money off him.

A few weeks ago I ran a piece about the late comic and satirist Bill Hicks. I included a video clip called “Play from Your Fucking Heart.” An anonymous commenter observed: “The language posted in the video? Catholicism that is not Catholic.” [sic]

I’m no fan of gratuitous profanity. I'm pretty sure it was only the second time in nine months that the word "fuck" appeared on my blog, both times when I was quoting someone else (which is not to say I'm not often a terrible swearer myself).

But when Hicks asked “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children?” I believe he was making an integral, essential point. I believe he was making a point upon which the continuation of our civilization, if not all of humanity, depends.

Christ is the über defense against all that is mediocre and banal and sanitized and hygienic and inert and false and shallow and hypocritical and wolf-in-sheep's-clothing and dead, and the über fount of all that is beautiful, true, good, astonishing, paradoxical, vital, life-giving, weird, open-your-veins, and funny. We all need to make a living, especially we writers, but being nailed to a cross is never going to catch the eye of a PR firm. Joy born of excruciating suffering is never going to be the raw material for workshops, tapes, a T-shirt line, or a product giveaway. To be paid for writing that is born from the heart is one thing, but to play from the heart is not itself for sale.

Or as I told Elizabeth (who, just as I was thinking of leaving, offered, with the prospect at least some kind of small payment if I doubled my readership, to host my whole blog): "I am just a hopeless non-team player (when it comes to writing, anyway), and a stubborn, often self-righteous, romantic, and a terrible introvert and control freak, and to be fair, my own particular way of articulating and presenting the fruit of my reflections, and all kinds of other things that I now see probably militate, as I said, against ever being 'hosted' by ANYONE." I would way rather have 400 readers a day and be free to write what and how I want and get the occasional donation, speaking gig, mentoring job, book sale, and/or email from someone who tells me I have helped shore them up or made them laugh or deepened their love for Christ than to have my work appear on the same page as any kind of promotion and get 4000 readers an hour.

In fact, that I have 400 readers a day is such a miracle and the whole subject of the writing life so sets me on fire that I'm planning a series of posts on this very issue.

So the blog stays with me. And with deep gratitude to Elizabeth, and hopes to occasionally continue to appear in their pages, as of last week I bowed out of Patheos.

With all due reverence, respect, adoration, worship, and praise, if Christ--my Lord and King--did not play from his fucking heart, I don’t know who did. So I beg to differ. To play from your fucking heart is about as Catholic as you can get. And as long as I can afford to, and have the energy, I mean to keep trying to do it myself.

30 comments:

  1. I'm grateful that you're sticking with this blog! I love your writing, even if I'm not an F-word fan. I can handle it occasionally. What I also love is your integrity.

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  2. You rock, my friend. You rock. That's all I can say.

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  3. Yipee! I'm not worried about where you go, but I am so pleased to see you affirm your worth against these forces which seek your complicity :)

    You are worth more than many sparrows!

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  4. " To Thine Own Self Be True."

    Very glad you are sticking with your blog,
    your way and your words.

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  5. Maybe you are uncoachable-which is how a coach I know described one of his players. but thank God for that and to each his own. be free to follow your muse with love

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  6. "The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything."
    --G.K. Chesterton

    Even if it's an F-Bomb he's throwing.

    You seem attuned to catch the whispers of your heart. May you listen closely and some day hear another whispering back.

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  7. Follow your heart! I love your blog.
    ~Mike

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  8. Heather,

    Please don't throw the f-bomb. You are a rare talent and you don't need to play blue. Keep playing from the heart.

    As for Patheos, it makes Catholicism look like just another offering in the pantheon of world religions. It makes the Catholic Faith look ... mediocre. It's good that you left.

    I love your blog and look forward to your series on the writing life. God bless!

    David

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  9. By the way, I'm not asking you to edit your post. Let the f-bomb stand. Just food for thought going forward. God bless you!

    David

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  10. You do indeed rock. Thanks for the reminder.

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  11. Heather

    It's ok to give up your Patheos gig but never ever give up your blog. If you do it will break my heart and you'll never get to heaven if you break my heart.

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  12. Heather- I can't imagine life without ya. Thanks for being here and please never go away..
    Rose

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  13. People HAVE made money because of your blog, they just don't know it. Just speaking for myself I bought the Hi Qi Chin print of Martha & Mary; your own book "Redeemed", at least one CD of a vocal artist you mentioned, bought "Everything is Grace", rented "Au hasard, Balthazar", and there might be other things I have forgotten. I will buy your new book without a doubt. Keep on, please, as my sense is that you are on to something, with possibly a special gift for speaking to converts (I am one myself, 2009). I'm pulling for you Heather, as are many others.

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  14. I understand that as a writer you have a strong desire to have your work read by as many as possible. However, like most of the other comments I'm reading here, I think there is no problem in changing your mind, especially when you feel the quality of your work may be compromised. As the old adage testifies, less can indeed be more. You owe it to yourself and those faithful readers that you have to be true to yourself. I'm interested in your take on "truth". I know the readership of Shirt of Flame will increase as long as you keep educating them on Church History, great art, and the wonderful cast of great, but frequently unknown characters that have had a profound effect on us all, whether we know it or not. The Peace Pilgrim comes to mind. Self-Sacrifice and true Love kept her walking. Oh that I could be such a Christian Soldier. Keep telling us about the places you visit too. All very good.

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  15. A dear friend recently described a relative who had died of alcoholism: she had a 'heart that broken by the things which break the heart of God.' Oh, to have such a heart no matter what I write or say! I laugh because TATOOS ON THE HEART is one of the most powerful Catholic memoirs available; dealing as it does with Jesuit Fr Greg Boyle's life with LA gangs, the f word is ubiquitous.

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  16. Sometimes you just have to say the f-word. Your writing is beautiful and real. Thank you so much for sharing your gift with us.

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  17. I'm with David-- I'm no fan of the "F"-word and find that it, or the eyebrow-lift it generates, just interrupts otherwise beautiful prose.

    Having said that, I do appreciate your work. God bless you-- I'll keep reading!

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  18. This is a good decision. No conflict of interest. God bless you!

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  19. Sometimes you just have to say the f-word.

    Uh, no. I've said it, but I have never had to say it. We never have to do what is wrong. I have a potty mouth of my own, so I cast no stones, and I always confess my profanities. For those who are Catholic and wish to justify profanity, I ask: Would you throw the F-bomb in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Yet our Blessed Mother is always present to us, along with a whole "cloud of witnesses" in heaven. Needless to say, it is infinitely worse to throw the F-bomb in the presence of Jesus Himself.

    Catholics should also consider that the very act so crudely denoted by the F-word is the physical consummation of one of the Seven Sacraments instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ.

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  20. Awesome. Bravo Zulu, and all that this implies.

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  21. Oh I think under certain circumstances I would definitely swear in front of Mary, and Jesus, who were actual people, who like us, toiled, bled, sweat, hungered, thirsted, ate, drank, lived in contradiction, got frustrated, irritated, knew anguish and joy, laughed. I think if Christ is strong enough to withstand the derision, scorn, and rejection he has known in his own time and throughout the centuries, and more to the point, his emasculation, watering-down, homogenization and sanitization—which is worse; he himself noted better to be violently against than tepid, anything but tepid—he can withstand an occasional swear word, especially as in this case when it was for a limited, calculated reason and most to the point, out of love, toward love, at least trying to love.

    Nonetheless, all other things being equal, I am all for treasuring language and exercising restraint of tongue and pen and I debated, agonized you even might say, for days over this piece. I was afraid I was wrong. I was afraid of violating the deep affection and deep responsibility I feel toward my readers. But most of all, of course, I was afraid of offending Christ. So I thought long and hard, I prayed, I appealed to Bill Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 and who, though not Catholic as far as I know, in his own way dared to speak the truth with more authenticity and heart than many of us who claim to be fervent followers of Christ.

    And in the end, I thought, No, this is anything but gratuitous. This is anything but shock value for shock value. The really shocking thing is that we have gutted the radical, radical call of Christ to come fully awake and made him into a kind of mascot for everything that is not of Christ: war, vengeance, hatred, cruel and unusual punishment, apathy, Phariseeism, everything that is tepid and lukewarm, everything that puts our human passion and heat at the disposal of hatred, not love, at the disposal of security, comfort and safety instead of the truth.

    But you don’t have to swear to come fully awake, and what I really love is the way you all continually instruct, guide, correct, enlighten and buoy me up. I couldn’t bring myself to even read your comments till early evening, and when I did, I thought, I am the luckiest person on earth. How good these people are, how…unerring in a way, the collective wisdom and support. Just like Christ: loving but firm. Supportive and also gently, always, toward the truth.

    So thank you from the bottom of my heart. As has been my policy from the beginning, swear words will continue to be far and few between, if any. So et's continue to stumble toward the light together!

    And one last thing: this is the kind of gal Elizabeth Scalia is. Yesterday, after reading my post, she sent me a very generous donation.

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  22. :) Glad that you'll still be blogging, Heather! I look forward to reading your work, profanity and all.

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  23. Heather, that was a wonderful response, thank you.

    I'm limiting the blogs that I visit these days, avoiding in particular the self-righteous Trad Catholic sites that I used to frequent. This blog is exactly what I need during my "recovering Pharisee" phase. God bless!

    In Jesu XPI Passio,
    David

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  24. Thank you for your honesty. I really enjoy reading your blog.

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  25. Jesus, Heather, what a misfit!

    (I love misfits)

    Bill

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  26. Heather, I had written this nice profound thing to you when I clicked back a page for a moment and lost what I'd written. No time for a re-do. Mostly about that I knew about Hicks from his amazing posthumous appearance on Letterman and the even more amazing thing that Letterman humbled himself to apologize and make amends to Hick's family. If that wasn't a moment of humiliation and begging forgiveness, I don't know what is.

    Anyway, so glad you decided to make all of us your priority. And from your thoughtful and loving consideration in your response to my last visit to your combox, you know you have me for a faithful reader.
    Keep surprising us with grit, with beauty, with the truth. God be with you.

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  27. My new favorite song has the F bomb in it and it works so well. Mumford & Sons "Little Lion Man".
    Rock on Heather, F bomb or not, I'll still read you.

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  28. I just bought Sigh No More myself!...learned of Mumford & Sons from Kim Luisi's blog, which I love, faithfictionandflannery.com...

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  29. Mary Beth, I hate that when you write out a whole deep thing and accidentally delete it! I, too, watched the segment where Hicks's mother came on and Letterman apologized...also, just so you know, I've been having a whole further discussion about p.c.-ness vis-a-vis THE R WORD with someone who has been disabled herself since birth, deeply Catholic, and has her own take on the issue. So I may end up running a post about it as I think it's important...
    Keep the faith, blessings to you!..

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  30. This sentence just breathed new life into my soul:

    "Christ is the über defense against all that is mediocre and banal and sanitized and hygienic and inert and false and shallow and hypocritical and wolf-in-sheep's-clothing and dead, and the über fount of all that is beautiful, true, good, astonishing, paradoxical, vital, life-giving, weird, open-your-veins, and funny."

    By the way a UPS truck just dropped off "Parched" and "Redeemed". I can't wait to dig into them!

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