Searching for an Objective (and the Raz Simone Essay That Wasn’t)
|November 5, 2015||Posted by admin under Musings||
People give great advice but we rarely listen to ourselves. For weeks, I’ve been obsessing over the concept of objective.
I can’t make something just to make something. It needs a purpose.
Got it. So what have I been doing for the last week? Trying to write a Raz Simone piece because I feel like I need to. After all, I haven’t published something in some time.
But what kind of reason is that?
Americans love to throw around words like “legendary” and “classic”. We talk about great lines and great phrases, but none of these things exist in a vacuum. Form without objective is empty. A focused objective, however, puts form in its place as a tool. Form may help, but it cannot be the piece.
That’s why a child’s writing can be so powerful. Sure, they may lack all the “advanced” technique we might have learned. But they’re also more likely to have innocence and untainted honesty, things that evaporate when you write for a paycheck. When they focus on an objective, they don’t have to worry about corporate censorship, so the result is often a dose of pure, undistilled truth telling.
A month or so ago, I received an unexpected standing ovation at a Lake Oswego church. My friend Walidah Imarisha was giving her Oregon Black History presentation for their Beyond Racism group. Towards the end, she singled me out for my past work as a reporter. Then Jane from Lake Oswego UCC chimed in, saying an article I wrote was what had inspired the Beyond Racism group in the first place. Next thing I know, everyone is standing and applauding a piece I’d thought of as merely decent.
But I was neither receiving applause for my savvy, nor my technique. I had simply made a statement that struck a cord at the right place and time. My commentary on racism in LO was honest and I believed I needed to say it.
And, really, that’s the trick of objective. Logically, we know one article or essay can’t change the world, but we have to write like we believe it can. Genuine passion and urgency are contagious. They can’t help but engage conversation. After all, who will believe us if we don’t believe ourselves?
Three years ago, I had ideas on what I wanted the LO piece to produce. None of them included a mostly white church group in LO exploring racism. Yet, by forming that group, these people made a commitment to doing something. They are having the conversations that we say white people should be having, they are able to significantly influence their neighborhood and school communities, and, quite frankly, they have money.* Racism education is something desperately needed in a lot of places in Oregon. Financially supporting educators like Walidah is essential to making sure we maintain valuable history and continue to have uncomfortable, but necessary conversations for pushing the state forward. Is it earth shattering? No, but it is making a real, measurable impact. I’m proud to say my writing helped inspire their work.
All of that says a lot for a piece I wrote in a few hours with no forethought whatsoever. Contrast that with this Raz Simone piece I’ve been brainstorming for months and writing for the last week. I let my girlfriend read it and it made her dizzy. On the bright side, it wasn’t poorly written and there were some good ideas. It was just all over the place.
I went back through and realized it was actually four essays mashed into one, with only one really being about Raz Simone. The others were fragments of essays written several times before and forgotten in other notebooks. They were stories I’ve been meaning to tell but could never settle on a format. I couldn’t make books around them because honestly, would enough people read them to be worth it? What about the form? Would it show how much I’ve evolved as a writer?
Excuses. Distractions. Bullshit. At a time when I was railing against vanity, I couldn’t be more vain. I was writing to be “great.” I wanted to make something memorable, a masterwork. Doing contract writing for so long, I was worried people had forgotten about me.
Ironically, it was contract writing that gave me a purpose two years ago: Making money. Up until recently, business was great and focus wasn’t a problem.
But I couldn’t shake the itch. I’d never stopped writing in my notebooks. Life changed dramatically over the course of the last two years. Yet, since no one got to read the stories, it feels like I never wrote them. Meanwhile, I’m seeing friends get magazine spreads and panel invites for their creations. Ta-Nehisi Coates was awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant in September and my ego hasn’t shut up since. That could be me. Shit, that should be me. I just need to start publishing again. Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t scare me.
So I try to follow all the formulas. I look for something timely, like an album release date. Then I outline all the arguments and counters. I even try to place it on someone else’s platform for maximum exposure.
Yet, the truth has a way of forcing itself out. In this case, it came in the form of four different essays crammed into a single Raz Simone piece. The message was clear. I have some things I’ve been needing to say. Until I get them out, my pen won’t cooperate.
A musician friend of mine likes to say artists have seasons and she doesn’t like out-of-season apples or artists. For a while, I was chalking up my lack of follow through on it not being the right season. Yet, in some cases, over a year has passed. I’ve had the messages to share. I’ve written them down with the intent of publishing. I keep telling myself the time will come where I figure out the right way to speak my message, a way that gets everyone to read and inspires people make real moves.
Then I think of the LO piece. It was the answer staring me in the face all along: Say what you have to say, say it how you want, and move on. Who cares how many people read it? Who cares how you might be able to monetize it? Who cares how it might affect your supposed legacy? Focus on the objective and the rest will work itself out.
*Many of us who grew up in places like LO wield considerable influence in our wallets; not buy-an-election influence but enough to break bread where it makes sense. Those of us in positions of privilege often ask, “What can we do?,” thinking of some dramatic action. Sometimes it’s as simple as showing financial support when you have the capacity to do so.