The Reader, Reading It, Makes It Live: On Using My Name
I’ve only read two things by Ursula K. Le Guin: “The Rule of Names” and “A Left-Handed Commencement Address.”
One is a fantasy with real world sensibilities, one that creates a spanning world out of the very idea of “identity,” where people rely on handles and keep their names secret and protected, their lives shrouded by aliases like some kind of Youtube comments thread. To reveal a name is to reveal a true nature; a weakness, to some, unknown power to others.
The other is an impassioned plea to the women of Mills College in 1983: Don’t fall into the quagmire that men have created in society. Instead, rise above it. Don’t focus on achieving success. Focus on overcoming failure.
Here, just a little over a week after her death, both seem more timely than ever.
I’m writing this in secret, it seems. That’s how I do all of my writing these days: by hiding it deep inside of a text file until it’s gone bad; outdated, no longer relevant, forgotten except for those few times when the spark of an idea pops back up. When I think, “Oh yeah. I was going to write about that,” and then continue with the dishes.
I’ve started and stopped more things in the past year than I ever have, for reasons I can only attribute to self-denial. It’s hard to write, apparently. At least, it’s hard to write right now, as the world burns around us and human decency is rolled back. It’s hard to consider the relevancy of a blog post about content strategy, or about traveling, or about really anything that doesn’t directly address the shitshow we’re seeing on Twitter (and the shitshow that IS Twitter, to be honest).
An example: I just found a blog post about late-era Super Nintendo mini-bosses that I started back in March. It’s just 500 words in fragmented sentences, most of them trailing off into ellipses, followed by one simple sentence: “jesus who gives a fuck about snes bosses anymore”.
Man, I do. I still care about Super Nintendo mini-bosses. I still like things. Things that aren’t the impending cultural revolution.
I still want to write about things that don’t matter. And I want to make sure that I’m practiced enough so that I can write about things when they do matter. So I write in private.
That’s the problem, see. Because it’s always been private, in some way, and private writing isn’t really writing at all.
I wear a RoadID, because I ride my bike and, despite all of the advancements in bicycle awareness, it can still be a very dangerous place on the open road.
My RoadID has all of my important information. It has my name. My wife’s phone number. My city, my state, my country. Most importantly, because space was tight, it has a single web URL. A URL that links to important personal information: my blood type, my address, my doctors and my allergies and all of the things that might possibly keep me alive in the case of a bicycle-related emergency.
I’ve worn it for three years now. It’s never once been accurate. Because that URL? It wasn’t a thing.
For three years, I’ve been sitting on this idea of a single page that could contain enough personal information to save my life, open to the world but unsearchable. I’ve never done it, though, because I know what that means: it means moving out from behind my avatar and saying “this, literally, in every way, is the embodiment of my online presence. This is my name, and everything in here is me.”
Everything in here is me.
Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “A Left-Handed Commencement Address”
I am a man hiding behind a handle. I am “Black Marks on Wood Pulp,” or I am “Eating Elephant.” I am always keeping myself one step away from true expression. I’ve always been afraid to show myself as myself, because to do so exposes the fact that I’m not what I think I am.
I am a human being that has met failure. I have met disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. We all have, in some way, and so using that as an excuse to try to play things off as cool? Not so cool, really.
I have spent some point of my life with a toe dipped in both of these Le Guin writings, but neither of these are the one I most identify with. Instead, it’s a single quote, chosen by random before I even really knew who Le Guin was; chosen for its frankness, for reflecting how I was feeling about writing.
And despite the selfishness of appropriating these handful of connections for my own post, I do feel some connection to Le Guin’s writings. There is deep wonder in her words, and the reactions to her death from those I love — from those I respect, and from those who know that she could have created even more wonders fighting today’s garbage if she were still sharp and active and here — help me understand, just a little, what I missed.
“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places”
Timing is a funny thing.
I started a blog because I needed practice. I wanted to convince someone that I could write. Anyone, really. Egotistical as it might seem, I couldn’t imagine writing for no one. Writing isn’t private. It’s communication. It needs a reader.
I searched for a quote that could reflect that idea, and found it in Ursula K. Le Guin, an author I had never read, but who had dozens of profound quotes on writing — on its purpose, on its craft. And I used that quote as the title of my blog, and that blog became my identity. That’s the story of Black Marks on Wood Pulp: start a blog, write a lot, steal a quote, find solace in making something with which people can interact.
For the first decade, everything was public — every blemish and mistake, every hairbrained column concept. There’s some embarrassing stuff in the archives, and I’ve often thought about curating the good stuff into a more concise feed, but that feels disingenuous. It feels contrary to the entire concept of Black Marks on Wood Pulp in the first place: a sandbox for whatever I needed it to be, from finding my feet to finding a job.
Instead, I just stopped. Instead of worrying about my past mistakes, I worried about my future ones. I tried writing another “The Ocean” again. I tried writing a book. I tried a music blog. I tried everything, but only on my terms. I looked for success instead of accepting the dark places. I fought being weak because I thought I was still strong.
So, after 13 years of writing for Black Marks on Wood Pulp; after two years of fiddling with a website and looking for a place to put me; after an author I never knew well enough died, her legacy under the spotlight as the world mourns, her vision pulled up as One Of The Good Ones, I’m giving in.
It’s time to stop worrying about future mistakes. I’ll worry about them as they come. Until then, I’ll just write. In public. With my name.
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