No courage to be silent

Note: I started this a few weeks ago, set it aside because I wasn’t sure about posting it, and returned to finish it tonight. I might yet regret it.

This is how I look when I talk.
This is how I look when I say ‘This is how I look when I talk’.”

–The character Alex Reiger in Taxi

Among the loosely held rules that govern my blogging, two are rather more prominent than others, and with this first sentence I have broken the second one.

Rule the First

The first one is that I don’t want my blog to become a journal — that is, a comprehensive daily or weekly (or any-intervally) report. We know the word blog is a shortening of weblog, literally a log on the web, and a log is a journal, but my blog is not my journal. I did journal every day for many years starting when I turned seventeen, and the writing of my life took over my life, until I resented the paper and pen. I wrote long into the night trying to keep up with it all, but I could not write as fast as I lived. The detailed forensic accounts of my daily activities and my thoughts and emotions around them took so long to describe in writing that I was eventually losing time — like Tristram Shandy — against my actual life. 

But there is another reason that I don’t treat my blog as a journal besides not wanting to return to the treadmill. For the most part my blog posts are deliberately shaped as stories, stories by which I mean to entertain or enrich or challenge or simply distract others who may read them. I craft them (people who know me in real life know I don’t talk the way I write) and I evaluate them when they’re done based on whether I feel I achieved my artistic purpose. In that sense they are a product (even though I collect no fees). Here’s what I’m getting to: there are things happening, wheels turning, seasons beginning and lives ending, that go unmentioned here because I don’t want to behave as though the world and its events are simply fodder for my self-centered little websqueak. I think that time really is a great arbiter of when things become appropriate to treat in that way, at least for me. To write about some of these things too early feels a little…I used to know the perfect word for this but it has flown me. Something akin to utilitarian, crass, disrespectful.

I’m struggling with that, frankly, because Death has ridden into my town leading an extra horse, and has tied both of them up in front of the saloon, where he is patiently waiting for a member of my family. We don’t know when, but we have begun using the word “soon”, and a couple months back we thought it would be a matter of days. It feels crazy not to be writing about that, but if I did that my blog would quickly change into something I don’t want it to be. Public wailing. I do a fair amount of self-revelation here, but my purpose is usually to present emotional episodes as complete, so that the reader can journey with me through a telling of it, not through real-time experience of it. My blog is the filter for the experience. The reader is not required to feel the discomfort of not knowing what to do or say. You don’t know me. It is not your place to weep with me. I have people for that. (Actually, some of you are those people.) This is a blog. I’m writing vignettes for you. You evaluate them based on whether or not they do anything for you, but you are not called upon to enter the content of the story.

Nor has it been long since Death last wandered through. I found out a few months ago that one of my old friends from college, in fact my first sort of girlfriend ever, died in a car accident four years ago. It was a shock to me and to several mutual friends whom I managed to track down who had also not heard of her death. We had all drifted apart from each other over the years so we represented outer satellites beyond the reach of the news that travels among friends. I felt like writing about it the day I found out, writing about how can you not know when someone you have loved so much has left this life, flown this earth? It seems impossible that I was making all these dumb little choices every day — turkey or ham for lunch — while totally unaware that a person once vital to the life I’m now living, the only life I have, is no longer in this life, and is gone forever. I felt there was a lot to explore there. But even now it feels too fresh for me to name my departed friend, to post some of the many beautiful photographs I have of her. For some reason, it doesn’t yet feel like that would be the right thing to do. 

Anyway, I seem to see Death’s face around a lot lately, both around my friends and family and in the world at large (the disasters in Japan, the “unrest” in the Arab world) but I don’t want to feel like I have to address these events for some compulsion of thoroughness, and even when I feel moved to address them I also feel I should not, at least not yet. A metaphor that comes to mind would be that writing about some events too soon would be like cutting down living trees for carving stock, when really my artistic purpose is best served by driftwood. I don’t know…on the other hand I may be simply fooling myself that a “confessional” style of writing is ever anything but narcissism no matter how much time passes — regardless whether its content is the empearled grain or the bleeding wound.

Rule the Second

The second rule, the one I am ravaging here today, is that generally speaking I do not blog about blogging, nor do I explain my posts or my methods or my motives (at least not in the post itself — I view my voice as commentor and my voice as storyteller as different entities) unless I believe some additional word will truly better the reader’s experience of the story.

There was an episode of the TV show Taxi in 1981 in which all the characters were temporarily laid off and had to take odd jobs. The character Alex Reiger, played by Judd Hirsch, took a job as a night security guard, and quickly went out of his mind with boredom. There is a scene where he is looking at a live video of himself on the monitor and says “This is how I look when I talk.” Then he says “This is how I look when I say ‘This is how I look when I talk’.”

Although I loved that show and that episode especially, to me those lines summarize Postmodernism, the infinite self-referential loop, the center of consciousness shifted laterally to gawk at itself gawking at itself.

Postmodernism summarized. This is not a clickable video, I don't have the tools for that. There's a link at the bottom.

Which is what I’m doing here. This is how my blog looks when I’m short on material, or rather when all the material feels off limits. The truth is, because of the way our circumstances are right now (joyous though those circumstances ultimately are), my wife and I are living quite a small, focused life, and my family of origin is similarly hunkered down trying not to think about something we are simultaneously planning around and bracing ourselves for. This post is like stepping out in front of the big curtain to apologize that there really is no show this evening because…well, we’re all sick with a cold and we’re not getting sleep and we have a toddler and Death is stalking us and we’re overwhelmed. But in so doing I interrupt the illusion of the artistic creation, de-suspend the disbelief of those who have managed to suspend it.

This wouldn’t be a problem for me if I espoused the Postmodern, which would allow me to chatter on about the posts I’m not writing, drawing attention to my voice as author (as opposed to my voice as narrator). But I feel that the peak of Postmodernism was bookended by Bugs Bunny at one end and John Barth at the other and that — for me, anyway — creativity lies in a different direction. Besides, Bugs and Barth were funnier and cleverer than I could ever hope to be, which is why I felt relief and hope when I found my hero, the author Joseph Mitchell (though he predates both of those entertainers).

Mitchell’s expansive and sometimes exhaustive writing style rejects the cynicism of Postmodernism, rejects the notion that “it’s all been done before so I don’t want you to think I’m really trying seriously here to hit a homer”. Mitchell takes his time and tells his stories as though his words are seeking out just the right reader who would want to hear them told exactly that way. He never interrupts or “winks at the camera”, nor does he attempt to prevent you from putting the book down, getting up and walking away. There’s an assurance and honesty in the work. There is no trick. All that’s going on in the writing is that there is a story being told.

Or there is no story being told. Some of you may know that after 1964, when he published Joe Gould’s Secret, Mitchell never published another word, even though he came to his office at The New Yorker every day for thirty years thereafter, and typed on his typewriter. It is one of the most enduring and final cases of writer’s block ever known.

But Mitchell didn’t come out with a story in the magazine describing his struggle, didn’t tell his readers to please stand by while he worked through the difficulty. There was just silence. When nothing he wrote seemed to be the right thing to publish, he published nothing. For decades.

I’m not that self-assured.


*Part II of the Taxi episode “On the Job” is here: ( The security-guard segment begins at about minute 9:50. The line aforementioned begins at minute 12:24.


16 Responses to “No courage to be silent”

  1. 1 Louis June 9, 2011 at 03:40

    Thinking about you and your family, Matt.

  2. 2 Kip June 9, 2011 at 06:00

    Yes, we are as well.

  3. 3 Janet June 9, 2011 at 06:29

    I don’t want to be a voyeur but I’m ready to share your pain.
    This blog entry is most appropriate for me as I was sailing along enjoying meeting up with old friends and suddenly, yesterday, wham, I had an email saying a friend of way back when had died. I am struggling with my emotions.

    • 4 Matt June 9, 2011 at 06:36

      You’ve kinda hit the nail on the head there, Janet. When does all this become showmanship and voyeurism, and is there anything wrong with that if people are truly making a connection. Isn’t that what art and literature have been about since the beginning. Not that this is such great art here, but still…I’m sorry to hear of the loss of your old friend. I hope your music and other activities help you process your emotions about it.

      @Louis, Kip. Thanks guys.

  4. 5 angelsofbabysleep June 9, 2011 at 19:31

    Wow! What an existential post! “I blog, therefore I am.” But seriously, you bring up some interesting considerations about what we do when we send off our writings to the great world wide web. And it got me wondering, as a complete stranger who has stumbled across your blog and enjoyed reading it very much, why am I reading such a very personal post. In fact, why am I commenting on it now? Well, I guess it hits a nerve and your writing and thoughts have made their way in the world, though virtually, and made a difference.

    • 6 Matt June 10, 2011 at 14:37

      Karla, yes I suppose there’s an element of Descartes’ maxim at work here. Not that it’s a bad thing. We know ourselves by being known, and it is in our nature to create community and relationship however and wherever we can. I’m glad my writing finds purchase with not only my friends and family but with also readers like you who “stumbled” in here. It’s up to me to determine what is appropriate to share, and that’s just a difficult call sometimes. Thanks for the kind words.

  5. 7 Mom June 10, 2011 at 13:49

    this caused me to wrinkle my brow but I do understand what you are saying…I think.I do hope that some day you will print out all of your blogs and give me a copy to keep.

    • 8 Matt June 10, 2011 at 14:41

      I think I’ve been causing you to wrinkle your brow for a long time, Ma. I haven’t had time, really, but I did test the waters of putting a subset of posts (the Ohio posts) into a book form. It works, just need to spend more time at it. You’ll get the first copy, I promise.

  6. 9 marni June 12, 2011 at 16:24

    Hugging you.

  7. 11 leatherhead109 June 12, 2011 at 20:21


    This was absolutely captivating. Like our mother, I had to consult the dictionary and Wikipedia a time or two because my eyebrow was hitched painfully in a canted direction. But what kept me reading is that you and I are fascinatingly similar and yet very, very different. That’s why I’ve always loved being the little brother, least part of my inner most being is capable of being explained. At least if you have a dictionary on hand. Alas, death is frequently underfoot. He and I have become perhaps a little too familiar and so I feel very alive in all this as we deal with it.

  8. 12 Matt June 12, 2011 at 21:40

    An interesting sentiment, Youngblood. I think it’s appropriate that the shadow of Death nudges us toward being more alive, toward living more intentionally and…well…alively. If I haven’t twisted your words too far, I think we share that response. Also, I’m not saying I don’t accept Death’s presence or his mission among us. My issue is with the idea of publicizing our family’s experience prematurely, or at all.

  9. 13 Librarian Girl June 13, 2011 at 11:44

    One of the things I like best about your blog is that in so many ways (all of the ways you have listed here, in fact) it is just about as opposite to my blog as can be, yet somehow, it’s also obvious that we’ve got some essential things in common as people. Funny how that is, and pretty awesome.

    I’m thinking about you and your family, blog friend.

    • 14 Matt June 13, 2011 at 12:28

      Thanks, LG, this made me smile. (makes me think ONE of us is really ill-adjusted to life on its own terms, and I suspect it is not you).

  10. 15 aplscruf June 13, 2011 at 19:04

    I read your post earlier, but wasn’t quite sure how to respond, if at all. Death is ever-present, yet not everyone wants to talk about it, especially in cyberspace when one doesn’t want to turn the craft of writing into a more personal blog.

    Death’s a tough subject. It’s tough to know what to say to those dealing with it in such a personal manner. But it’s important to speak about it, because we all go through it, watching family and friends pass, and we will all eventually meet our maker.

    My husband forwarded me an incredible blog from a little 15-year-old girl in England who is dying and wanted to post her bucket list. The response she got has been overwhelming, from thousands of people all over the world:

    Anyway, I guess my message is to make every day count. It’s ok to share sorrow, even though it means stepping out of character. Maybe it will release some of the burden. And…we’re all in this together (sez the great philosopher Red Green)!

    Thinking of you and your family,

    • 16 Matt June 13, 2011 at 21:04

      Hi aplscruf,
      Thanks for this thoughtful response. I haven’t looked at that link you sent because I know it will break my heart. The suffering of children makes me crazy. I’ll look at it later, I promise. Yes, yes and yes, let us live to make every day count. You get extra credit for citing Red Green.

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