Every time I read about the “creative class” I feel uncomfortable. I thought that we (speaking as a former American, and now as a Norwegian) have been deliberately seeking to dismantle the social classes of previous centuries.

Isn’t the “creative class” is just another division of privilege? These people who set themselves above working class (who get their hands dirty), and the blue-collar workers (who are, apparently, creativity-devoid drones); who position themselves as more sensitive, more attuned, and somehow entitled.

Only the privileged can leave the grid, trespass in the wild, and exploit what is left of the wild to find their individual authenticity. Not that it usually ends well for those who do manage it. Even if we all had good field guides to edible plants, it’s hardly a sustainable prospect for our species. Someone has to hold down the fort: work in the hiking boots factories, print and bind the field guides, while the chosen ones instagram the view for us.

I am torn about projects like kickstarter and patreon. One the one hand, it is an inspiring, class-defying solution for arts patronage. On the other hand, they seem contribute to the climate of reward-for-potential. A world of virtually realized ideas.

Obviously, I am not even on the forward edge of the wave of the desire for real craftsmanship. But are we so seduced by the desire for belonging and association that the actual quality of the product no longer matters? It is the experience of proximity to whatever is popular? Not coffee, but the experience. Not the experience, but the image of the experience?

It’s all about branding. Bluff, pose and con. It’s still the cult of personality. Our current obsession with  “living in the now” that also manages to keep us continually entertained: Nothing really needs to be taken seriously. We are all post-truth anyway.

How was the earnest Occupy Wall Street swept out of the way for the bread and circus of this election cycle?

The history of our cultural self-destruction might well be written in sarcasm font.

Not that it’s a new concept. History repeats itself. For example, the Catholic church sold indulgences, and today quasi-secular meditation gurus will sell you a mantra.

Surely even before Oscar Wilde, artists liked to be recognized for their personalities as much as (or more than) their physical labor. And with the rise of conceptual art, artists only had to point to a bit of clever interpretation of the obvious. It’s all in the packaging of the commentary, the marketing, and the branding of the mouthpiece. No investment necessary in anything other than one’s self.

I think it is a little ironic that in a culture that seems to be increasingly disinterested in history, people seem to be increasingly concerned about their “image”. Their place in the world, rather than their relationships with the world. Even “documentaries” have become little more than infomercials for people-as-brands. Singers. Murderers. Gurus.

Today I saw a video with celebrities encouraging people to vote.

So we can see a celebrity’s naked penis. Wink, wink.

Bread and Circus.

I’ve always had little crushes on the bad boy celebrities, so I’m not saying I am above it all. I’m not saying that I don’t secretly want to be in the club, want a spot of my own on Olympus with all the other flawed demigods who can rise above their little foibles (ranging from illegal drug use to the eternal torment of some inconsequential mortal). Of course I do. And the Internet (which now has an identity all its own: as in, “this latest leaked sex video broke the Internet”; and which also demands capitalization from my spellcheck) makes us think it’s possible. The demigods may just reach down, once your twitter followers hit so many K, and pull you up onto the mount. For a while.

Even the presocratic philosophers believed that good reputation was a factor in happiness: a kind of fame, I suppose.

But what matters? The fact that Gandhi is promoted as an icon for good, doesn’t change the fact that he was a sick son-of-a-bitch who slept naked with his grandniece. People forget that he was disavowed by many of his followers before his death.

Ben Jonson was a much beloved playwright who overshadowed the “upstart […]plagiarist” Shakespeare during their lifetimes.

Michelangelo relied on the church (so did Dali – much to his fellow Surrealists’ dismay) to fund his projects. He bowed, and bent, and served in order to paint.

Ah, the complex details of history; the complicated lives.

Not that I’m a historian.

Last year, when I was studying in Lillehammer, I kept passing a poster in the hallway at the university. There were three photos of the same young woman: one with her holding a baby, one in which she wears glasses and holds a book, and one with her holding a bottle of beer. The tagline was something like “What do you want to project to the world?”

Really?

While at the same time we are touting the importance of – and claiming our commitment to—authenticity?

That young woman should be allowed to be all three of those images. Whittling ourselves down for the sake of branding means loss, in terms of the complexity of our humanity for the sake of a image, an income, or (the hope of) a legacy.

Writers who have never published a best seller, sell courses on writing a best seller. (Writers whose specialty is writing about writing, or writing “content” are probably the only people who get paid to write.) Writing gurus crawl out of the nether by the hundreds of thousands, telling you how to make a fortune branding yourself. It is not an uncommon question: Do I write the book first, or develop my brand?

They tell us: Quit your job. Believe in yourself. Invest in yourself. Write your own narrative; create your own brand: now. Promote your “acclaimed” novel, your “Pulitzer-nominated” book (for the record, you can nominate your own book if you are an American citizen – some people have already noticed this little marketing gem).

Gertrude Stein was independently wealthy, and a master at branding herself. I will always admire her for both her writing and her audacity. But Wallace Stephens was an insurance lawyer until he died, and he is a good enough role model for me. I will leave the new creative class to their branding. I am too old for that club, anyway. I’ll continue to work a day job that puts me squarely (safely housed and fed) in the lower middle class, and I will write.

I’m no entrepreneur. I’m a poet.

823545_471015519620816_2013814071_oThe bulk of my books will continue to be remaindered after a few years in my publisher’s warehouse, but every now and then someone will write to let me know a poem meant something to them on a particular day. Then they will forget my name.

But at least, when it’s over, it will have been an authentic run, in real time.

They say look to the source of your envy to find out what you desire. Yeah, I’ve been doing that.

Now it’s time to figure out how to move on.

I am hereby giving up any and all self-conscious attempts to brand myself. To sell myself as an image. It has been like trying on clothes for paper dolls.

This is going to have to be good enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most generous openings in conversation is, “Where are you from?” It follows all the rules of good decorum*. It invites the person to talk about herself.

“Where are you from?” is a question I get invariably about two minutes after I have said something in the presence of people who don’t know me. It’s the accent, of course. I moved to Norway at the age of 26, too late (according to experts) to hear the new sounds well enough to mimic them. There is also the fact that, even after private (expensive) tutelage and serious attempts to master it, I still suck at the Norwegian grammar. But the fact is that I have lived here nearly half my life here—more than half my conscious life. I gave birth to two boys here, reared them here, and have worked in the public school system for more than 15 years. My books are in the public libraries. In the school libraries. I was a Norwegian national representative for a human rights organization for several years. There are days when I feel that I kind of belong here–if I belong anywhere.

If I try to brush off the question, and answer that I’m from the US, they say, “I know, but where?”

“I moved around a lot.”

Usually, this is followed by the person telling me where in the US they have ties: aunts here, nephews there. More often than not, they have a much closer connection to a particular part of the country, to particular people over there than I do.

I wonder if my lack of connection leads others to the unconscious understanding that I must be some kind of pariah.

I have been trying to remember which philosopher talked about loneliness as a contagion. It’s human instinct to feel unease around the edges of the community. There is a danger in the association with outsiders. We rush back to the center when we have the opportunity.

Loneliness is a familiar feeling. There is a cold comfort in that, at least. The role of the outsider is at least definable. And now, as a Norwegian citizen, inevitable.

For years I tried to explain to my (ex-) husband about this sense of loneliness. He listened. He said that he could imagine the kind of homesickness I must feel. But it has never been homesickness. At least not in the sense that it is most often used.

Standing on the edge of any conversation and then trying to casually take part—a sudden, disconcerting, change of topic: I experience the question “Where are you from?” as roadblock. A reminder. An unintended declaration of, “We know you don’t belong here.”

More than that, the question makes me feel diminished: whittled to myself at 26. A fraction of my life, and the least interesting part at that. (Or if not the least interesting, the part that is best left presented on a therapist’s couch, not at a buffet table.)

This is my problem.

I know full-well that no one is trying to make me feel small, or excluded. Quite the contrary. But answering the question of where I came from, tells you either far too much for polite conversation… or nothing at all.

I need a good, prepared answer.

I’m thinking Narnia might do?

Or wherever it was that Edna St. Vincent Millay saw her drenched and dripping apple trees.

Those are true answers, if not befuddling.

14152257_336035106734084_582292459_o
I will forever be the awkward one at parties.

But I can aspire to be like the Ada in The Piano,

“I am quite the town freak, which satisfies!”

 

I could be the Horse on the motorway.

Anything but the stereotype of where I come from.


*At least most of the time. But since I am easily identified as American-born, the question is sometimes nothing more than a guise and a segway for the person to wax unpoetically on their views of American politics, or the American character – usually gleaned from their exposure to television shows like Dr. Phil. But that is a digression… and a pet peeve.