Doggone Snowblindnessby Brandon Edmonds / 20.01.2012
This is a story about empathy. I saw a headline “Gardener ‘raped’ employer’s dog” and my spider sense tingled. Unusual, gonzo, attention-grabbing. There’s race in there, animal sex, class and the suburbs. Things I can write about. Right up my alley. “A 54-year old Pretoria gardener has been denied bail after he allegedly raped his employer’s Dachshund bitch.” He did the dog in a Wendy House. It writes itself.
There are any number of angles: the indignity of the working class, the role of pets in our lives, the raced nature of menial work in our country, the hypocrisy of keeping pets while eating animals. Pathology in Pretoria. Isn’t the Centennial-ANC the gardener and we, the people, it’s bitch?
But empathy insists we see the gardener as a real person. He isn’t a punchline. He’s been denied bail. That means he’s still in jail. A man pushing sixty who mows other people’s lawns. And possibly fucks dogs. I imagined him in a crowded cell holding onto this secret. This lapse in reason and propriety. The victim of his own weird desire. And the distance fell away. I put myself in his shoes and realised it is something I am less and less able to do.
See I don’t use the news like you use the news. I sift through it all for useable nuggets. News is the catch. The raw material. The content. It’s the stuff that occupies me each working day. It’s what I do. News washes down my many newsfeeds and I mine it for stories. It takes hours and can feel like drudgery. Much like the coal miners in Zola’s novel “Germinal” and the black stuff that smears their cheeks, sits under their fingernails and (barely) puts food on the table, hewing the news into readable shapes is my lot.
It’s competitive too. News feels like a race, a sprint. You imagine gangs of other, better writers with their filthy paws all over the good stuff, the best news. Who’ll get to it first and transform it into something brilliant, something original and saleable? You imagine them, enviously, bedding soft-throated undergrads and lit beautifully for long-form interview shoots. Everyone else is better than you. They all seem to be advancing, improving, nailing opportunities you dream about. So you drink and hatch resentments. You wish the worst on them. Playing nice but inside you want the spotlight on you. Writers must be egotists since we’re our always own closest readers and we need extreme self-belief to carry on. Without it, we kill ourselves. Hemingway, Primo Levi, John Kennedy Toole.
This is the sad, lonely world of the jobbing scribbler. It always has been. Even Karl Marx was a freelance journalist in London, bitching, I bet, about the edit on a story he did on a church fete in Walthamstow for a little local paper. Except there’s more base material, more news now than ever, which means there are more media feeders, more writers, more jackals at the dump. We’re all circling that hunk of prime rib, that wedge of discarded cheesecake. We’re all hungry for success. It’s a weird profession. Both the work and your competitors are in your head.
We’re trying to catch the big one. The yarn that goes viral. The tale that captures the public. And please God let it break internationally. Let someone important read it and yell, Bring them to me. If so we’ll make a good living doing what we were put on earth to do. Sleeping with beauties drawn to our turn of phrase besides. These are the sordid careerist fantasies, they look like the baby-creature in Lynch’s “Eraserhead”, every writer will nurse in their secret basement of Sweet Dreams. Sweet dreams are made of this.
And you can’t pre-determine the optimal mix of things that’ll make a story good. That’s the wonder of it. There’s no way to manufacture a good story. It’s out of your hands. Just as there’s no way to manufacture hit movies (The Green Lantern, anyone?) or regularly pick sure things at the race track. They just happen.
It has to be smart, suggestive, interesting and well-written. These are the basics. It has to be more than that. It has to be relevant, of the moment. Good stories lead readers down paths they may not have anticipated. Paths other writers have left untended. It has to stand out. Good stories make readers feel partisan. They want to defend it. They want to pass it along. They want to meet the writer and shake their hand. Getting all of this right is challenging, absorbing and fun. It beats mining coal in Northern France in the wintertime. It beats answering customer complaints or shepherding the product launch of casual wear or smart phone apps.
But it takes it’s toll. Scanning so much information for so long, hours a day, all week, each month, for years, flattens you out. It becomes a kind of snow blindness. Staring into the glare of the human story. You go blind. The daily feed. It gets depleting. Mostly you run out of empathy.
Empathy takes stamina. It draws on the soul. To write well about others, to do them justice, requires empathy. You have to put yourself in their shoes. That leap takes it out of you. I believe empathy is finite. It needs to be left to grow again like a fallow field in crop-rotation. You can’t keep drawing on your store.
Once the empathy goes, writing becomes mechanical. Mere technique. You’re essentially just taking your vocabulary out for a spin. That’s when it’s time to stop. Stop writing and even reading the news. Turn off the feed. Say it’s not OK, computer. Remove yourself from the scrum of communication. Do something else. Seriously. Drop the blog. Go to India. Get into restoration of old cars or open a bed & breakfast because your writing and scanning, your news consumption, isn’t doing anybody, especially you, any good. There is a limit to our attention spans. Respect it.