For nearly forty years, I’ve called this animal a buffalo. Somewhere along the way, I learned it’s also called a bison–American bison, to be exact. But that didn’t make it any less a buffalo, it just now had two names–interchangeable, like pig and hog.
At Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, the part near Cadiz, Kentucky, I’ve driven through the Elk & Bison Prairie numerous times, once even having to stop the car completely, because buffalo–er, bison–had surrounded us (I was with my dad). It was a transcendent moment, having these beasts on all sides, who could end us with one toss of the head, these icons of the American plains.
There are cities named after it; there are national brands with the word in their names; the animal is used in countless folk and Americana songs. But I learned, not too long ago, that to call this furry behemoth a buffalo, is to call it the wrong thing. After all these years, I decide to look it up, to see if there’s a difference between the two terms. What I discovered surprised me. It turns out the only true buffalo are in Asia and Africa (think water buffalo). What we have in America is actually only a bison. Though it’s no less majestic, it’s also no more a buffalo.
Imagine all the names of things that must be changed now, things integral to the very culture we inherit, and that we hope to pass on to our kids and grandkids! Doesn’t this revelation make you wonder if everything we assume to be true is really just made up? Or that we’re making it all up as we go?
Okay. I might be overreacting. But now, when I see Blue Buffalo dog food in the grocery store, with a little blue bison leaping on the logo, I think, “Your brand’s a lie!”
If no one ever died, Vincent van Gogh would be one-hundred sixty-five years-old today. That I just wrote about him yesterday is purely coincidental. I wasn’t aware it was his birthday eve. The fact is he looms large, year-round. His name arises nearly as frequently as Picasso’s. One thing I mentioned in my post yesterday is the obscurity van Gogh suffered–a strange reality given his enduring post-mortem fame and adulation. Will there be an opposite phenomenon in-place for certain artists who are famous in life right now, like Yayoi Kusama or Damien Hirst, where their names are lost at death while people we’ve never heard of make it into the Art History books? If I live to be a hundred-and-sixty-five, I guess I’ll know.
The art gods are fickle, conferring success on some and denying it to others, sometimes regardless of merit, and then often reversing those fates when artists die. It would seem cruel, if it weren’t that there was no one to blame. Those so-called art gods are really only projections of public taste, which is guided by markets and art criticism, among other factors. The whole business is quite subjective, i.e., subject to human whim, which can be negligent.
All of this makes for a slightly uninteresting blog post–kind of an “everybody knows this” type situation. But today being Vincent van Gogh’s birthday got me thinking about the unpredictability of fortune, how she shines on a few and ignores the vast millions. When I moved to Nashville in 2001, of course I knew that people came here with big dreams about the music business (I was one of them), but I was naive as to the extent of it. It wasn’t long, though, before I realized the city positively crawls with deserving musicians, and by deserving, I don’t simply mean there are lots of talented people here. What I mean is they’ve committed their lives to the pursuit of music–to the dream of making “it”–to the degree they deny themselves, sometimes their whole lives, the traditional avenues to fulfillment, like marriage or career or education or parenting. Their work ethics are unmatched, endlessly perfecting their craft, working crappy jobs in order to survive, developing every detail of performance and persona, for hours and hours, which soon become days, months, and years. Throw a rock into any joint in Nashville, and you’ll hit ten people who could feasibly pull off a full-time, professional music gig. Yes, they’re that densely concentrated here. But you’ll never know their names.
So goes the internal conversation for a writer who’s deep in his first novel. Though I’d like to write more often, I’m largely happy with my progress. About three-fourths of my original length goal has been committed to Word, and I have a routine in place that should get me to the end of my first typed draft before the year’s up, maybe. Hopefully.
An artist’s influences are never far from his work, perhaps, and there’s always the danger of derivation, or the temptation to outright mimic. A little thrill moves through me whenever I write something I think Virginia Woolf could’ve written, so I understand the temptation. But no one can out-Virginia Virginia. Therefore, then, the task becomes figuring out how to simply do Alan. This is the part demanding artistic grit–the part that only the artist can discover, and usually only after years of working. A writer’s voice can’t be gifted him from a well-meaning source, and it can’t be borrowed. Few are the Mozarts, who seem to have been born with their gift; many more are the van Goghs, who labor in obscurity. (Van Gogh would’ve been quite amused by the modern conception of him as a tortured genius; tortured he was, but only two or three thought him even talented, much less a genius.) The question I have for the universe is this: will I know when I find my voice?
I got down about six-or-seven-hundred words today. Through the large plate-glass window of my early-morning Starbucks, I could see the steady rain. The gray dawn looked wintry, but the actual outside air was more like room-temperature. Some of what I wrote, I liked, but just as much will improve with the second writing. In the meantime, I will work, and if I work enough, then maybe my writerly voice will come.