Were we ever taught to open presents, or did we all just do it our own way from the beginning?
I've always felt strangely ambivalent about the idea of getting published. Because, I suppose, I've always been skeptical of my own reasons for wanting to get published. When I thought about what I might get out of it, the thoughts would come from a part of myself that I didn't feel proud of, and the reasons never felt like the right reasons: To prove something, to myself or to others. As validation for my ego (to assuage my self-doubt). To get ahead or reach a milestone in an imaginary competition with all other authors. As a simple badge of career status. As an attempt to feel loved. As an attempt to not be forgotten.
I figured there may be good reasons I haven't come up with yet, but as long as I was hungry for the above and as long as those would be the main motivations that I was aware of, I didn't want to indulge that part of me. I didn't want to do it until I knew my reasons and felt good about them. So I waited. I published very little, only whenever someone I knew would ask me for a piece. I mostly sat on my work, very occasionally sharing something with a friend or two.
Some of the same questions and doubts apply not only in the context of formal publication, but that of sharing my work at all, even with just a friend or two. Ever since I first started to share some of my writing with others, I have been wrestling with the question of what kind of response I expect and most wish for from the reader of my work.
This question turned out to be much less obvious to answer than expected, because what seemed to be the obvious answer—that what I most want is praise, is for them to love it and say so—didn't turn out to be the case at all.
When I share my work, it happens often enough that the reader responds with praise, e.g. "This is really good," or "This is beautiful." Some positive evaluation of it. It always brightens my day and I'm grateful to receive it; and yet I had to admit to myself that getting that response isn't fully satisfying, in that it somehow isn't enough on its own to make me feel that the work has accomplished its true purpose. (But what is that purpose?)
For a while I thought maybe the problem was that praise wasn't "honest" enough, that I needed a more critical response, geared toward making the work better. When I ask for it, people offer constructive criticism. That is helpful at times, yet that wasn't the missing piece, either.
Another form of praise is for the reader to tell me, "I enjoyed your piece," "I loved your piece." Slightly different from an evaluation of the piece itself, it's the reader reporting their own positive experience of reading it. The effect it had on them, which was: pleasure, enjoyment. It gave the reader joy. Can't that be enough? It was closer. It was on the right track to... something.
Was it a matter of quantity rather than quality? Was the response not fully satisfying to me because I needed each reader to be more effusive with their praise, or because I needed praise from more readers? That didn't seem to be it—on the contrary, whatever it was that was missing when someone praised my work, I suspected that gap would only grow if the amount of praise grew. I could spend my life trying to fill that gap with more and more praise, and only ever get further from what I was looking for.
Did I wish they would say something else entirely, then? Or: was it even possible for any reader to say (or do) something that would make me feel content with the work, or was I looking to the wrong source entirely? What would it take? In other words: why share my work at all?
An answer finally started to come, on a walk I took several years ago with Ralph Angel, who died a year ago as of the week I'm writing this letter. One summer afternoon in Vermont we wandered up and down the neighborhood for hours, talking about everything, stopping to point out the trees, people's houses and what they had in their front yards. Toward sundown as we came back to the big grassy field where we would part ways for the day, I confessed that I wasn't sure yet why I would want to make a book (a collection of my work—Ralph had made several books of his own), and that I would only want to publish for the right reasons.
He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "Well—it's a gift. You know?" And as soon as he said it, I understood instantly, in fact I realized I had known it already—in that way that there are times when someone says something to you, and it's just as if they were simply delivering a message from yourself to yourself, a message that had failed to get across before and had finally resorted to taking the long way round, through a messenger outside of you. (The best friends do this for us—don't they? They are willing conduits for the truths we have been trying to tell ourselves.)
As a gift: that was the only way for me to think about publishing, or making a book, or sharing my work in any capacity at all even if just with a single friend—the only way to think about it that made any sense to me, the only one that didn't eventually wind up motivated by that part of me that's petty and starving for validation. It was the only reason that worked for me, but it was a wholly sufficient reason in itself—it was the only reason I needed.
That made it so clear to me what I needed to do in my work, and why. When you're writing something that's meant to be a gift (which, for most people in the world, mostly happens when writing letters or cards), its literary merit (as judged by some third party) is irrelevant. I don't need to write something "good" in the abstract sense, or "new" or "original" or even "creative"; what I need is to write something worthy of being given as a gift. Which is to say it only needs to be true, and to show a little caring. Something human. Something that comes from me. That word "only" is not to imply that it's necessarily easy to do; it's labor. It's labor. But at least it's straightforward. Meaning, I know when I've done it and when I haven't. And what goes into the labor is entirely within the control of the giver.
(And to offer a gift is not to say that we never charge money for these things—but that even when charging a finite number of dollars, we try to put a little infinity into the work, a piece of our own soul, a piece of that-which-cannot-be-bought-as-commodity. Something just for the recipient. Something no middlemen can take a cut of. That's how I feel about my favorite books: that they have given me infinitely more than what I paid for them.)
To own a book by Ralph was and is to be in possession of a piece of his gift to the world. In a medium in which he labored to be true and to show a little caring; and in which he speaks to me through a channel distinct from the one where we spoke face to face. Speaks to me still, in the present tense, just like how it was for those letter-writers in my last letter who lived with the presence of their correspondents even when they were far away. To read Ralph's poems is even more so a gift now that his person is gone.
A year before that walk we took, I had been in Ralph's poetry workshop, a loosely structured affair where he mostly read aloud to us from the writings of Agnes Martin, and talked off the cuff. I really wasn't much of a note-taker at all back then, and of course I wish I had written down every word. Recently I was idly going through some of my notes and fragments collected from all manner of different sources, and I stumbled on this one, something Ralph said that I had written down:
"Were we ever taught to open presents, or did we all just do it our own way from the beginning?"
I have no memory of the context of him saying this; only that the date (July 5, 2014) means it must have been during the workshop. A full year before our conversation about the book as gift, he had already been talking about gifts and I had already been writing it down. That's what I meant about how I'd already known the answer to my own question. As if I had been preparing myself to hear it.
I'm pretty sure Ralph is referring there to literal wrapped presents, like for the holidays or your birthday. I don't know why that topic came up, but that's just the kind of everyday question that nobody else would ever think to ask, but that he did. I love the question so much that I almost wanted to simply end my letter on that question, and say no more for today. In fact, I wish that question could have been the entire text of today's letter. But—as a gift—I will say a little more.
Some people enjoy tearing into the wrapping paper and tossing it away. I like to open a gift slowly by undoing the fastenings. Not to save the wrapping paper (I don't save it), but because my way of enjoying the care that the giver took in wrapping it is by experiencing the wrapping process in reverse when I undo it.
To my knowledge, most of us aren't taught how to open gifts, or that there are proper and improper ways, or that it's something that needs to be taught. It seems to be understood that you're free to gleefully destroy the wrapping, or to be careful with it, or anything in between, and that it would be sort of meaningless to judge someone for opening a gift in the wrong way. Wrapping a gift, on the other hand, is something that (we tend to think) can be done properly or poorly, is a skill that can be taught and that you can improve at. So is deciding what the gift should be.
What I love about Ralph's question is that to me it's asking: Are there some things that are so basic to being human (and to each person's expression of being human) that those things don't need to be taught, and shouldn't be taught (i.e. something about them is lost when they are taught)? Is receiving a kindness one of those things? Is responding to art one of those things?
A writer seeks above all a form for his world. Naturally it's an interior world, hence private, not yet public or only partly public. In that sense "publishing a book" means deciding to offer to others, in the form that seems to us most fitting, what intimately belongs to us.*
Yes, to share my world, to offer someone else a little tour of it—that's a reason that works for me. And I can see what the printed, bound book can provide, as opposed to a purely digital form, in the context of the book as gift. Quite simply, a book is easier to give, and to receive. It is a more ready corollary to a body, or some food, or an offering. A book can be held in the hand, cradled, passed from one person's hand to another's; can be wrapped and unwrapped, slipped under a pillow, forgotten on a train.
In thinking about the gift, I started to understand what kind of response I had been waiting for from my reader. But I'll save that for my next letter.
This is the first in a short series of letters about the work as a gift.
Were we ever taught to open presents, or did we all just do it our own way from the beginning?
"A writer seeks above all a form for his world" Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia.