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Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He does not say "I think," "I am," but quotes some saint or sage.

—Emerson, "Self-Reliance"


[In which the Author establishes The Project and sticks up for his Self.]

"I am not an American; I am the American." —Mark Twain


• I spent the Fourth of July, 2001, on the Space Coast in Florida, feeling lucky to have friends who lived in a place that goes by such an otherworldly name.


• This is my contribution to the world at large.



Okay. I must first address directly the nagging question that even my own still-small voice has posed from time to time throughout the utter chaos of composing whatever it is I have composed here. That is:

The Nagging Question:

• Who am I to use this insignificant lived life of mine to try to express something universal, especially when the very idea of universality seems to have given way to an endless warren of self-absorbed networks and niches?

Cris Mazza, a writer and teacher of writing, published an essay in (fittingly enough) The Writer's Chronicle called "Too Much of Moi?" Hers is a valid critique of the fashion in contemporary fiction of writers using—Mazza would say overusing—first person narration in an effort, conscious or not, to approximate the tone and attitude of memoir, a genre that has enjoyed a burst of popularity in recent years. Fiction is becoming more like memoir because, the argument goes, memoir is what sells. "It is probably not a coincidence," writes Mazza,

that the rise of the memoir coincided with both a rise in general prurient curiosity about other people's private lives and a rise in willingness to expose one's own private life, manifested not only in radio and television talk shows and "reality shows" (the "reality" notwithstanding), but in cable news that has so much more time to fill that gossip about celebrities and "human interest" stories about noncelebrities became useful fodder, thus also a source of publicity for those who seek it.

Mazza also bemoans another cultural force that she believes has helped us turn our messy innards outwards: the internet, with its (her words) "self-published manifestos, [its] all-about-me websites, discussion boards and blogs."

She then quotes Brian Williams, he of NBC Nightly News fame, who penned an essay called "Enough About You," in Time magazine:

The larger dynamic at work is the celebration of self. . . The implied message is that if it has to do with you, or your life, it's important enough to tell someone. Publish it, record it. . . but for goodness sake share it. . . The assumption is that an audience of strangers will be somehow interested.

I take Mazza's and Williams's larger collective point (though I do see at least a couple layers of irony in a network talking head telling the rest of us to get over ourselves).

There's a whole lot of self-absorption to absorb out there.

And most of it isn't particularly insightful. It's just noise. Big, loud, raucous. But I went ahead and wrote a book about myself anyway, adding my thin tremolo to this cacophonous music of the spheres.

There are a few reasons I could do that with a clear conscience—some having to do with fundamental reservations I have about the Mazza/Williams argument: are we really that much more curious, prurient, and self-absorbed than our forebears?

And isn't the more interesting question one about the relationship between audience and "author," how it seems to be growing more hand-to-hand and interactive—more like a string of ants sending and receiving pheromone signals, one transaction at a time, up-close and in rapid succession—and less filtered by a few accepted authorities (e.g., network news anchors and college professors)"

It's a mess, yes, but that is the course of human history.

We make a mess of things and then we clean it up. Or not.

Mazza and Williams are pointing at the chaos of Too Much Information, rightly identifying it as such (too much, chaotic), but they seem to be advocating a return to the order that we have most recently known. Alas, that's never (not ever) how it works.

Some new order is going to emerge out of this seeming chaos, and we have not just human history to back us up on that. There's 4.5 billion years of cosmological evidence—complete with deep-space photographs—to prove it. As always, our only real option is to dive into the chaos at hand and discover—maybe even shape—the order that is to come.

But fittingly enough my main reason for forging ahead with all this self-exploration isn't so much about any of that, really.

In the end, it does, in fact, have everything to do with me.

In Solitude: A Return to the Self, psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes—in 1988, by the way, so clearly this issue has been around a while—about the utility of turning inward to find some measure of psychic order in life.

In the chapter titled "On the Significance of the Individual," Storr writes:

The literary genre of autobiography is now so popular that men and women of little interest and no distinction feel impelled to record their life-stories. It may be the case that, the less a person feels himself to be embedded in a family and social nexus, the more he feels that he has to make his mark in individual fashion. Originality implies being bold enough to go beyond accepted norms. Sometimes it involves being misunderstood or rejected by one’s peers. Those who are not too dependent upon, or too closely involved with, others, find it easier to ignore convention.

And then in the chapter called "Solitude and Temperament," there's this:

It has sometimes been remarked that writers are disappointing to meet. This is often because their true personalities only emerge in their writings, and are concealed during the ordinary interchanges of social life.

Check and check. As much as it pains me to say it:

I am way more fun on "paper" than I am in person.

By a factor of at least five. Likewise, I am a person of "little interest and no distinction" and, as this whole project clearly attests, I do indeed "feel impelled to record [my] life-[story]."

All of that would seem to suggest that Mazza and Williams are right:

I am a narcissistic bore/boor who:

(A) needs help and. . .

(B) is ruining everyone's lives and eating all their steak.*

* That's a Napoleon Dynamite reference, for the uninitiated. And this, of course, is a footnote to what used to be a footnote. You have been forewarned. FYI/FWIW.

But Storr again comes to my defense, harkening back to none other than Augustine and his Confessions for a deeper consideration of the evolution of autobiographical writing, how it morphed from salve for the soul to salve for the psyche. "In other words," writes Storr, "the autobiographer became a writer who was attempting to make a coherent narrative out of his life, and, in the process of doing so, hoping perhaps to discover its meaning."

I mean. So, yeah! What he said.

I would only add that "salve for the soul" and "salve for the psyche" are two sides of the same coin. I might also replace coherent with authentic or accurate. For me, coherence has never been a prerequisite for discovering meaning. Quite often, it's been the opposite. The more it "makes sense," the less it means to me. Everything is collage, etc.


Adam Gopnik, self-described "comic[sentimental essayist" for The New Yorker, wrote this in his memoir-type-thing, Paris to the Moon:

It is, I think, the journalist's vice to believe that all history can instantly be reduced to experience ('Pierre, an out-of-work pipe fitter in the suburb of Boulougne, is typical of the new class of chomeurs. . .') just as it is the scholar's vice to believe that all experience can be reduced to history ('The new world capitalist order produced a new class of chomeurs, of whom Pierre, a pipe fitter, was a typical case. . .').

What then, the journalist and scholar ask tetchily, what then is exactly the vice of the comic-sentimental essayist? It is of course to believe that all experience and history can be reduced to him, or his near relations, and the only apology I can make is that for him in this case experience and history and life were not so much reduced as all mixed up, and, scrambled together, they at least become a subject. The essayist dreams of being a prism, through which other light passes, and fears ending up merely as a mirror, showing the same old face. He has only his Self to show and only himself to blame if it doesn't show up well.

And here I've gone and done all of the above. Uh. Whoops.

A Misfit's Guide to
Life, Liberty and the
Pursuit of Happiness

by TJ Beitelman
140 pages
$9.99 ebook only ISBN 9781937402147

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