We keep an emergency flashlight in the cabinet above the freezer in the kitchen. It’s one of those hand-crank jobs that we’ll bring out during Armageddon or the Zombie Apocalypse, after we’ve burned through all our batteries. As long as we keep cranking, we can generate enough light to see what we’re doing while opening our last can of pork ’n’ beans, but once we stop turning that handle, boy, the light fades quickly.
After 33 years in the newspaper business, I learned a thing or two about doing it daily. I also learned to not get attached to a great page layout or a crisp headline I’d written because, like as not, I’d soon see it in the bottom of the bird cage, and there’s nothing like seeing your labor of love covered in parakeet shit for killing any sense of self-importance.
But even after a career spent watching journalists and journalistic institutions die, I still wasn’t prepared for the harsh reality of blogging. Looking at my WordPress statistics, the thing that gets me is the incredibly short shelf life of the written word. Like my emergency flashlight, as long as I keep turning that crank I can generate light, but once I stop cranking like a fool, how quickly the light fades.
It’s not even about quality. I know I’ve written some bad posts, but I also know I’ve churned out some good ones, too. It really doesn’t seem to matter. Fact: Unless you’ve written a timeless classic, your writing will get dropped faster than a used prophylactic. We’re all just as good as the next new thing.
Bloggers take heart; it’s not just us.
More talented writers have much the same experience, but on a grander scale. Many excellent books enjoy their moment in the sun before falling into relative obscurity. Oh sure, you can still find them if you dig, but they’re buried by an ever-deepening strata of fresher, newer, brighter material. Consumers of words have little motivation to thrust in their shovels and turn over the soil because, well, they don’t have to.
I look at the books on my shelves and remember how much I enjoyed them, but at the same time I wonder how many are unknown to a younger audience because nobody is turning the hand-crank on these books anymore.
I’m guilty, too. I wonder how many classics I’ve missed because I waste too much time reading tripe from Buzzfeed, Huffpost, or some other purveyor of click-bait crap that keeps cranking and cranking and cranking, powered by battalions of unpaid interns who never get tired.
One thing should be clear, I’m not in the right frame of mind to write today, yet I write again anyway, railing against the inevitability of failure. I’m tired. Tired of watching good writing fail, and tired of watching good journalists die. Oh, and now Rupert’s fucking National Geographic, and another former colleague passed last week. And yes, in case you’re morbidly curious, he was out of work at the time.
For even the best writers and editors, it’s a loser’s game.
So I’ll just post this now, turn the crank a few times and watch its wan light flicker to life. It will be dark again by this time tomorrow, guaranteed.
All of us just crank it for ourselves, don’t we? We only stop when we awake from the dream and realize that it no longer feels good.