When I was a kid, I really envied my older sister’s music collection. It was mostly LPs and 8-tracks, plus several cherished cassettes (tape was still a fairly new format). I was especially fond of three of the cassettes: the Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits, which I now have on CD and still love; Meet the Brady Bunch, which contained what I now recognize as the worst version of “American Pie” ever recorded, but also featured a very fine “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”; and Dennis Coffey’s Goin’ for Myself. I can’t remember any of the songs on that last one. I only remember the cover.
Yes, it’s pretty hilarious now. But for some reason, it really fascinated me at the time. Maybe it was the pink shirt or the audacity of those pants (what is that fabric?!), or the carefully cultivated facial hair or the groovy aviators. Those are all pretty stunning. But I think what really grabbed me was the setting: there he is, in the middle of nowhere, with just his sheet music and his guitar. There’s nobody around for miles. He might even be stranded — he could starve to death out there. But does Dennis Coffey give a fuck? No. Because he’s goin’ for himself now. He looks totally serene and relaxed, almost as if he knows a secret we should all hope to find out someday.
It’s a picture of freedom.
That cassette popped into my mind last week. I had a “rejection letter” of sorts, for a small post I had written about the short film The Sea Is All I Know (I ended up posting it here on my own blog instead). I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the post myself, but I was happy enough with it, and it did what I wanted it to do: it captured the mood of the film and gave it a little publicity. I wasn’t blown away by the film, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of time and energy talking it up — but I didn’t want to pick it apart, either, because I respect what it’s trying to do (and it’s a pretty good debut effort for the writer-producer-director). I also didn’t want to give too much away, because it’s a 28-minute film that relies on visual imagery and strong emotions; there’s not much of a plot, nor any character development to speak of, and those things are pretty much beside the point anyway.
But I’m not sure why I’m explaining all that now — I guess because I don’t want to seem bitter or cranky. I do want to get this across: I did not explain myself when I got the rejection email (which scolded me for not covering “themes” and “motifs” and for not providing a “synopsis” — college flashbacks, anyone?). Instead, my gut reaction was “take it or leave it,” and that’s what I told the editor to do. I felt, with a clarity and force that I don’t often feel about my writing, that the post was fine just the way it was — mine just the way it was — and that “publication” was not worth the revision and formalization and snootification that was requested.
“Worth” is a tricky term when you’re writing for the internet. It’s sometimes hard to feel that your writing is worth anything at all, because a lot of writers don’t get one penny for their online words. My friend Dorothy Snarker will be the first to tell you that we can’t continue to let this happen — that if we write for free, we shouldn’t expect to be respected — and she’s right about that. So when I do write for free (which is almost never these days), I expect to at least get the payment of leaving my words intact. If you’re not going to give me a check, you should give my voice free rein, even when it goes down the “wrong” road. (This is why I’m not mad at the Huffington Post, for the most part — it gives writers a vast platform for no pay but also with few restrictions and often no editing, for better or for worse). When your words aren’t worth money, your time and effort become even more valuable, and your instincts become sacred.
So when I told the editor that no, I wouldn’t be discussing themes or motifs and wouldn’t be putting one more second into a handful of paragraphs that simultaneously mean not very much and a whole lot to me, Dennis Coffey’s visage floated into my mind’s eye. I realized I was goin’ for myself.
I hope I’ll do that some more in 2012. It’s the sort of resolution that resists definition, because it’s about wearing your garish pink shirt while you play your guitar in a goddamn pasture, if that’s what you want to do. It’s about the kind of serenity and confidence that come from listening only to your own voice, whether you’re singing sweetly or croaking and clanging. It’s the only thing Dennis Coffey and I can really claim as our own.
P.S. Just to be clear, I am not talking about AfterEllen.com. Both Karman Kregloe and Sarah Warn were always more than happy to let my words speak for themselves, and they defended me from overzealous editors more than once. (And they even paid me!)
P.P.S. I don’t mean to imply that editing is always bad. There’s nothing better than a good editor. I wish I’d had one handy to remind me to make this particular point.