We were standing in a garden
And I had a machine that made silence
It just sucked up the whole opinionated din…
–Ani DiFranco, From “Garden Of Simple”
Dear Alec Baldwin,
I read your piece in New York Magazine announcing your retirement from Public Life with great interest. I can’t help having some opinions about you – about your work, your rage, your letter, your not-so-private life – but those opinions are irrelevant and certainly not the point here. The point, if I have one (and part of the point is that I probably don’t), is about the noise that surrounds us and the noise we make. That’s what I was thinking about, mostly, when I read your letter. All this noise.
A while back, my whole twitter feed exploded with contempt for Jonathan Franzen, who doesn’t think much of twitter. Jonathan Franzen thinks we all make too much noise. Jonathan Franzen likes to think deeply, because it helps him to write Serious Literary Fiction, and he does not like yakking and bragging. My twitter feed was of the opinion that Jonathan Franzen is a great big clueless snob, which might be true. There are worse things to be, but my twitter feed was not interested in those things. There were some very funny remarks made about Jonathan Franzen. The whole thing had a party-ish feel to it, this making fun of Jonathan Franzen. Being a Great Writer doesn’t get you off the hook on twitter, and neither does being a Great Actor. For the record, my twitter feed has had nothing to say about you at all, there being less to say, perhaps, about a famous man at the end of his rope using hateful language (again), but it still seemed relevant, the Jonathan Franzen thing.
He was (partly) wrong, after all, and it is terribly satisfying when somebody is wrong. There was this piece in the Huffington post recently, in which the author said that JK Rowling should stop publishing her books because she is crowding out less famous writers. She also mentioned that she found it a bit sad that adults were wasting their time reading children’s fiction. I follow a lot of children’s authors on twitter, and so there was a Big Response. I read the article – I couldn’t help it! And as I read it, I found myself, almost against my will, tearing it down in my head – effortlessly, like a reflex – because it was such a dumb and trollish article. The comment section was, as you can imagine, vitriolic. Twitter was annoyed and did a lot of snorting and eye-rolling. And surely, surely that was the point of the article, its entire raison d’être. It was just noise, meant to garner angry clicks, spark some outrage, feed the scorn-junkie in all of us so we could have a grand time yelling about it, making some more noise. And we did, Alec, we did. We had a grand old time. But I did think Jonathan Franzen would not have approved.
You might not know this about me, Alec, but I have been keeping a blog for over a year now. I was trying it out and I found I liked it. I’ve always enjoyed blathering on about whatever half-baked thoughts I’ve got drifting through my head at any given time. Just ask my friends! I am known to be a great bore, but I will laugh at all your jokes, which makes me not entirely disagreeable company. I find myself drifting occasionally into an oversaturated genre called mommy-blogging, and these posts are always by far the most popular. I have mixed feelings about it. I enjoy it and I keep on doing it, but every time I hit “post,” that line from the Ani Difranco song “Garden of Simple” floats through my head – the bit about “the whole opinionated din.”
I’ve been thinking about this because I don’t feel the same discomfort about having a book published. Jonathan Franzen would agree with you, Alec, that the world doesn’t need my books. Still, when I put one out there, I am proud of what I’ve done. I feel I have dropped my own carefully polished penny in a great vault of treasure. It may not be worth much, the book itself, but it still belongs in that vault, or that is what I feel. When I am writing a book, I feel productive, creative, I feel loving, strange as that sounds. I feel like, by making a book, I am giving something to the world that I made with love, no matter that the world doesn’t much care. The making and the giving are immensely satisfying.
I don’t feel that way about blogging. And I should be very clear here that I am talking only about my own books and my own blog, I’m not attributing value to books vs. blogs in general. When I blog, I am having fun, but I also feel noisy. But if nobody reads the blog, am I really being noisy? If a tree falls in the forest, etcetera etcetera. Isn’t it just a lonely silence I can’t fully erase, bobbing around out there like a message in a bottle? And if people do read it, and they enjoy it, and they write me messages about it, then is it just noise, or is it – la di da <tapdances> – entertainment? I mean, I’m not making you read this, Alec, sitting in your fancy NYC penthouse (is it a penthouse? surely it must be), bent over the glare of your laptop screen, wondering if you’ll ever have the life you wanted. I don’t know why I feel as I do. Maybe I am doing it wrong. Maybe, like you, I should Retire From Public Life. Maybe, instead of contributing to the “opinionated din,” the really valuable contribution would be making that silence machine.
Imagine turning that on, in New York City. Or in cyberspace.
The truth is that, outside of fiction, I have nothing to say – you may have noticed that by now, Alec – but I still enjoy the noise I make. I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. And I’m trying to figure out what to do with the buzz of indignation, the irresistible put-downs, the judgment, the lure of feeling snarkily superior that seems to leak into my internet use no matter how I try to avoid it. I love the internet for how it connects me to people I want to be connected to, and for how it gives me access to people who have seriously (or hilariously) got Something To Say. I want to hear them! But I’m struggling with how to carve out the positive and meaningful spaces I want, without all that other stuff flooding in. Maybe I am the problem. I read your letter, Alec, and I sort of felt like I am better than you, even though you are a Great Talent, because I’m not a huge narcissist with anger issues. It wasn’t how I wanted to feel. I worry sometimes that I don’t know how to really listen.
Here is the thing, Alec: I feel like I know you, and my gut tells me that you should not leave New York City. I think you would miss it terribly. I think it is the right city, the only city, for you, and I think that no matter where you go, everything will still piss you off. If I had a machine that made silence, I would offer it to you for a while. You could point it at the crowd – the one in your head or the one outside your apartment or the one on the internet. You’d flick a switch and everything would go quiet. You’d see their lips move, but no sound would come out, and eventually they’d give up, drift away, pointless now they are soundless. Maybe everything inside would go quiet as well, without all the noise on the outside. Maybe you’d be able to hear your own thoughts happening slowly, or maybe you wouldn’t have to think at all. You could walk down the silent street, where people nod hello but say nothing. The cars would hush by and the sky would smile down, empty and blue. You could get a cup of coffee and read the paper in peace.
Pointlessly, noisily yours,
…But in the garden of simple
Where all of us are nameless
You were never anything but beautiful to me
And, you know, they never really owned you
You just carried them around
And then one day you put ‘em down
And found your hands were free…