Wednesday, May 5, 2010

For What It's Worth No. 18

I used to be brilliant—I think mononucleosis during my junior year at college changed that. It was probably the fact that I was rushed to the student health center with a temp of 106-degrees that melted too many brain cells. For years before that fateful night I was brilliant in my own world.
I had always been a voracious reader; I'd leave the local public library with six books and think nothing of reading a four-inch thick novel whether it was U.S.A. by John Dos Passos or Joyce's Ullysses. And it was a trek to the local public library; I'd be carrying this stack on the bus.
I must put in a plug for U.S.A. the trilogy that covers the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the twentieth century. I probably picked it up since it contains short bios of public figures like Woodrow Wilson and Henry Ford—biographies were always among the six books checked out from the library. In addition to the bios the trilogy employs an experimental technique, incorporating four different narrative modes: fictional narratives telling the life stories of twelve fictional characters; collages of newspaper clippings and song lyrics labeled Newsreel; and fragments of autobiographical stream of consciousness writing labeled Camera Eye. It was a fascinating read and much like when I'm painting I was so absorbed in reading that time went by so quickly that suddenly I look up and it's 2a.m. Here's an excerpt from Camera Eye: when you walk along the street you have to step carefully always on the cobbles so as not to step on the bright anxious grassblades easier if you hold Mother's hand and hang on it that way you can kick up your toes but walking fast you have to tread on too many grassblades the poor hurt green tongues shrink under feet maybe thats why those people are so angry and follow us shaking their fists they're throwing stones growup people throwing stones—there are no commas, apostrophes, no periods.
As a youngster I would listen to the radio—music, dramas, the Saturday evening comedy shows. I miss radio, with television everything is right there in front of you—radio is different. Words without video helped me paint my own pictures in my mind. The closest I get these days to those days is listening to NPR in the morning or Prairie Home Companion on the weekend—it makes me wish for a radio revival. As a kid I would put on plays, playing all the characters—I was an only child. I would staple together picture books with made-up characters. I would cloud watch and day-dream.
In high school I thought nothing of joining the Latin club or trying out for the debate team, I was brilliantly funny, a well-respected leader of men (boys), an expert sharp shooter and making A's and B's in everything but math—a straight C student. Probably the lackluster dating in high school and my early college years contributed to my bookishness but I thoroughly enjoyed where I was and what I was doing. If I wasn't brilliant I acted brilliant, that is until the kissing disease hit. When I finally came around after being packed in ice overnight everything had changed. I couldn't remember people's names, dates or much else before that night. It took weeks to recover.
And it's been a struggle ever since. I read less, though I have to say after moving to New York in '99 I do read more, but a four-inch thick, 1,300 page novel is not on my reading list, short articles in The New Yorker or Times are. I watch way too much television and get very little out of it.
Most of my time is spent putting out magazines and books which requires a variety of skills, writing being one of them. And I've worked hard at my writing and enjoyed some success in the 80s and 90s writing advertising copy so I may have become a bit too cocky, thinking my writing is brilliant. That all came to an end the other day. I was asked by Sue Apfelbaum at the AIGA to write an article about Edel Rodriguez for their new diversity campaign. I quickly pulled together all the material I could find about Edel, I arranged a face-to-face interview, I crafted my text, went through several drafts until I had it just perfect and sent it off to Sue. I was sure she would be thrilled by my careful selection of words and phrases, the storytelling, the unique diversity angle I'd incorporated where none of the others had done; I was sure it was a winner.
Then the text came back a day later filled with comments, suggested changes, additions and deletions—I was devastated which turned quickly into outrage: How dare she! But after venting I took another look; her changes made absolute sense. The additions she asked for made the article richer, the transitions she inserted helped smooth out the breaks in thoughts—she had made something I thought couldn't get any better, much better.
Of course I have always shown my work to others, most times they're close friends or associates where I might get a couple of suggestions for a comma here or a semi-colon there but for the most part the copy ends up as written. By having someone totally divorced from my everyday life look at my work and give their completely honest evaluation was an eye-opener—now I wish she would look at all my writing, including this piece. It might not make me brilliant but it would definitely make me look smarter.


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