As I have perhaps mentioned a good 600 times, there are drawbacks to a career as a writer. Namely, rejection, ego-bludgeoning, poverty and the realization you may be talking way too much to your cat.
Oh, and don’t let me forget lack of respect, since every other person on the planet seems to feel he has a great book inside him just bursting to get out (remember Alien?). This came to the fore in a recent conversation I had with a woman who introduced herself as a writer. As it turned out, she’d been writing for a whole week.
But more than anything, it’s the sheer isolation of writing that can wear on you. Sometimes — but not often enough — I get a little smarter and break out of my office and join the rest of the world.
That happened last week, when Austin’s South by Southwest opened from March 9-18. Since we already lived downtown, in the epicenter of the festival, my husband and I bought badges this year. We went whole hog, getting admission to the festival’s interactive, film and music sessions.
It’s wonderful to see your city as a stranger would. For the first few days, I wandered around, hunched under an umbrella as the skies opened and a cold wind blew. (I am from West Texas; I can barely open an umbrella.) Like most Austinites, I went around apologizing for the weather and explaining that — appearances to the contrary — we’re in the middle of a severe drought.
I went to talks on newspapers, journalism and the new media. At one, a new media devotee announced that, “I think we can all agree that newspapers are dead.” Everyone nodded portentously. Newspapers are history! We’ll see, I thought, sitting there with waterlogged copies of The New York Times and the Austin Statesman folded on my lap. (In the course of my long adulthood, I remember learning that both God and irony — in separate instances — were also rigor mortis. Look around, listen, read the polls in this country. Are you sure? Remember, just because it’s raining today doesn’t mean the drought is finito.)
I also saw an incredible local documentary, “Trash Dance”, which won a special jury award at the festival. It’s the story of a young choreographer who believes art is everywhere and can enhance all our lives. She spends months working with sanitation employees, rising at 2 in the morning to accompany them on their routes and to get to know them and their work. It ends in an outdoor performance of movement and music, complete with trucks and forklifts.
Other documentaries can take you into strange and exotic places you’ve never been. The genius of “Trash Dance,” I think, is that it makes you see a world around you you’ve never noticed before. Our cities wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for this almost-invisible army of people who clean up after all of us. “Trash Dance” reminds us of that, creating a lovely work that has heart and humor and humanity.
On the other hand, there was also the documentary, “The Sheik and I.” It’s ostensibly about a filmmaker seeking truth and art and subversive comedy in one of the United Arab Emirates, Sharjah.
How shall I say it? This documentary, with its bogus, ain’t-I-cute cultural naivete and preening ego of its creator, infuriated most of the audience at the premiere. During the apres-film controversy that bordered on fisticuffs, the director got to pipe up something along the lines that art is worth dying for. Maybe so. But this wasn’t art. And it wasn’t even worth stubbing your toe over, much less dying for.
To be fair, as usual, my husband began to point out that we were still arguing about this movie — and isn’t that really the point of art — to get people riled up? He had a point, I suppose, had we been talking about art, or even craft.
All of which leads to my own point. How wonderful to spend several days getting provoked, informed, uplifted, entertained, irritated, out of sorts, out of my office, and/or transported, without going farther than a few blocks. I even got to hear the fantastic Ray Wylie Hubbard. He was so good, he made me proud to be old.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)