February 28, 2005

The Lure of the Site Meter

I signed up for a site meter the other day, giving in to external and internal pressures, and I’ve looked at it once. It didn’t hold any surprises—the numbers were about what I would have predicted—but I’m going to try not to consult it too often. As soon as I looked at it, a bug started working in me, spiraling through my brain—the bug of, “How can I increase my numbers?”

Almost simultaneously, I lost any inclination to write stories, the work I had started this blog to do.

I’ve observed that any time I write a fictional story, it gets less response—fewer comments, fewer links—than if I write a topical piece. That’s natural and I don’t mind it. Fewer people are interested in fiction than in the news, and probably rightly so. Left on my own, I can ignore that and keep doing my internal work. But that darn site meter magnifies the emotional impact. Got to get that graph higher! How can I raise my plateau?

When I write a story, it seems to come from a different place inside me than a topical piece. I feel as if I’m using a different part of my brain, almost a different personality, a personality that only shows up in states of deep contemplation and silence. To me, when I write a story that comes from within—especially in the conception stage rather than the stage or writing words down and polishing them up—it feels like my brain is putting out a lot of theta waves, the slow, serious waves of trance. When I’m writing something in response to an external source—a news story, a freelance commission—it feels like I’m putting out mostly beta waves, the cheerful, brisk waves of conscious work. (I have no idea whether any of this is physiologically true, of course—I’m putting these forward as metaphors.)

When the site meter rides into town on its cloud of dust, the internal artist scurries away into a back room.

To complicate things, I’m not convinced that my own approach to art, the inner–directed approach, is really best for me. I’ve practiced this approach over many years and I’m used to it, but perhaps it’s become too much of a comfortable retreat. Great work can be done from inner promptings, but looking at the history of art and literature I’d bet that as much great work has come from responses to the outside world. And I’m no Dostoevsky or Kafka or Blake, no Van Gogh who, going down into his own depths, brings up gifts to enrich the whole world. I’m more like a proficient Dutch genre painter or Persian miniaturist who can give you something skillful and smart and appealing at will. Maybe my method is ill–matched to my gifts. There’s treasure deep within oneself, but also out there in the world.

Best of all, of course, would be for one’s inner artist to be fully available at all times, primed to show itself gloriously in response to any outer call. Mozart was that. Shakespeare was that. Could their kind of receptive aptitude be cultivated on a lower level of talent?

Here’s where my big hope lies: this new medium in which I’ve been working for three months allows me to do whatever I want from day to day. If I want to write a topical piece tomorrow, I will. If a story happens to bubble up from within, that’s great. (Thankfully I haven’t made a vow to write a story every day like the brave Matt and Josh of Dancing on Fly Ash!) It’s the perfect medium for a waffler, an overanalyzer, a person who loves to find sixteen reasons for every phenomenon and needs to balance every impulse with an equal and opposite impulse.

As for the site meter, I’ll probably look at it once in a while, like a tightrope walker checking his feet. But not so often that I might fall.