Recently it was the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth and just about every report of the event included the phrase, “died in near obscurity.” This phrase, “near obscurity” has been bouncing around in my head. What is meant by “near” exactly? I understand obscurity. By far, the vast majority of authors die in obscurity, that is why, other than those whom I have personally known, I cannot name any of them. But what constitutes near obscurity for an author? Nietzsche, too, died in near obscurity. One might even say that Thoreau died in almost complete obscurity. Same with Zora Neale Hurston, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath. For each of these luminaries of literature, at the time of their deaths, either the light of their past glory had faded or, like Kafka, they never had any fame during their brief tenures above ground but, due to unforeseen assistance from the universe, their stars began to rise only after their mortal flames had expired.
Like you, I have frequently seen the bumper sticker advice of: Dance like no one is watching. Recently, though, I came across someone whose blog bio read: Write like no one is reading. (Unfortunately, that author’s name has escaped me, and so she must remain, to me at least, obscure.) That quip really stuck with me, just like the phrase “near obscurity.” These two adages knocked around in my brain like billiard balls.
Writing as if no one is reading is a liberating thought. It is permission. It is license. It is dangerous and risky. And so, perhaps, living, writing, and even dying “in near obscurity” isn’t so bad after all.
(It’s also important to recall that “obscurity” has a second meaning as well: unclear, difficult to understand, complex. Maybe that characterization doesn’t apply so much to this blog, but much of my writing would be aptly described as “almost totally obscure” in both senses of the word.)
When I look at our blog stats and I see that there are over one million views and over a thousand comments on the blog, not to mention all the other eyeballs watching Lola and me in our most intimate prose in other platforms around the blogosphere, and leaving out all the books we have sold over the years, I suddenly realize that there certainly are readers of what I’m writing. Yet, when you compare the numbers, it is easy to feel as if no one is reading. Various sources state that in there are approximately 500 million blogs in existence as I write this. That means that even if we round up all the various platforms upon which we appear to five million views, then that doesn’t even comprise 1% of just the writers out there, let alone the readers! Yes, multiple blogs may be owned by one person and writers are also readers, but you get my mathematical point, right? — Though people are reading the blog, it is “nearly obscure,” given the vastness of the virtual universe.
But the injunction to write like no one is reading is not saying that I shouldn’t have any audience at all. It’s saying to write as if the audience didn’t exist, just as I might dance as if all of you beautiful people on the dance floor with me weren’t judging my awkward movements. If the music so moves me and it gives me joy to dance, however I might express that joy, then, by all means, I dance as if no is watching. Same with writing.
Yet you million or so people out there, and especially you lovely likeminded literary leches out there who write to us — you do read us and thereby keep us from the cold uninhabited reaches of the blogosphere where we would be in complete obscurity. For that we thank you.