The Willy Loman Generation
Trigger warning: this post contains a story about suicide. Please tread carefully or don’t read this post if this topic is a sensitive one for you.
The Washington Post ran a story this past weekend. I read it because a friend linked to it on Facebook. And then I couldn’t stop talking about it. I guess I still need to unpack it.
A writer, living in Japan, sent out a suicide note to a handful of mostly American journalists; strangers that he had never met. He told them that by the time they read his message, he would be dead, and that he was killing himself because after many decades of trying to get people to read his words (blog posts, books, etc), he was done trying. If writing was the work that he was meant to do while alive, and no one was paying attention to his writing, he didn’t see the point in continuing to live.
From the note:
I am taking my life not out of despair but simply because I’ve said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished. Since no one at present (nor in the past half-century) is interested, I have no platform upon which to stand and talk about my work. In this regard, I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind but from my heart, and there are just no takers.
This happened in 2013 — the note being sent — and the author of the WashPo article (Cynthia McCabe, one of the people who received the note) tracked down other people who received the note and wrote about their experience. She also followed a trail of this man’s writing: from the blog posts with empty comment sections to Facebook status updates without discussion to his self-published books.
I read the comment section on the article. (Why did I read the comment section? I never read the comment section. Melissa, never ever read the comment section!) The group seemed to be processing the article in several different ways:
- There were the people who agreed with the phrase the WashPo author (McCabe) borrowed from Dara Horn — “emotional mugging” (“As I sat there in bed following this digital trail, I grew angry. The selfishness of someone to dump this psychic mess into the lap of a complete stranger was too much. And for what? Because his writing, his ideas, hadn’t gotten the attention he felt they deserved.”)
- There were the people who admonished the WashPo author for not immediately acting, trying to do more to save his life, and called her cruel.
- There were the people who wondered if by writing this story and giving him this attention that it would attract others to end their life in the same way.
- There were the people who admitted they didn’t know what they would do if they were in the same situation, but the story was incredibly sad.
I was one of those people who felt the residue from this story on her skin for many hours… days… afterward. I looked up his blog, it was easy to find, and it was clear that he was planning his death for some time before he took his life. All of his posts were printed on the same day in March, about 8 months before he sent the email to the reporters. A thought that moves through many of the posts:
And one begins to scheme about ways—writing a blog for example—to try to keep the work from being forgotten. So that if my tomorrow doesn’t come, hopefully the writing’s will.
There was a quote by Ron Charles in the WashPo article that I kept tossing about in my mind:
“There are more people writing than ever who are desperate for attention, and we just don’t have that much attention to give,” Charles said. “No matter how rich or educated we become, we only have the 24 hours for each of us. And with everybody promoting themselves on every possible social network, all of us so desperate for eyeballs, myself included, with all of us living and dying by our click history, it is kind of an extreme and terrible example of everybody’s feeling of ‘Why aren’t you looking at me?’ ’’
Early in the article, McCabe stated this idea, too:
He was Willy Loman with WiFi, demanding that attention must be paid. Nobody really did.
It’s a familiar refrain even if the vast majority of people who talk about the frustration of not having the audience they want would never take their life.
Social media is frustrating — an extension of the ever-frustrating fine arts. We have more people who want to express themselves than we have people to witness that expression, especially when it comes to books which take a long time to consume in comparison to a song or movie.
We’ve always had the frustration of gatekeepers — of agents and editors and casting directors and music executives — that keep people from the acknowledgment of their talent that they seek. Because while I don’t think every artist wants to be famous, I do think that all want their talent (the way they see the world, the way they express the way they see the world, the way they make you feel) recognized.
And now we add social media into the mix. We don’t have the gatekeeper, so everyone can put their writing or music or acting out there. But it doesn’t mean that it will be acknowledged. And in some ways, that is more frustrating than not having your work out there at all. It’s one thing to not have people read your writing if you can’t get it out there. It’s another to get it out there and have no one read it.
Of course, this is a moot point if you’re not using social media to get your words into the world. If you’re using it for personal reasons, such as to record a journey so you can reflect upon it yourself in the future and it’s simply more convenient to post it than to keep it in a private diary. Or if you use Twitter just to talk to friends; a conversation conducted in public vs. privately. But for people who want to get their words into the world, it can be a difficult medium to navigate.
Especially since social media, with its constant focus on metrics (how many followers do you have, how many views, how many likes), drives [what you perceive to be] a lack of readership* point home. Even worse, you don’t have to guess on how other people are faring. You can clearly see a chunk of their metrics. We keep getting new rulers to measure ourselves with.
Which makes me wonder if social media is going to create the Willy Loman generation. If we’re creating more frustration, depression, isolation with this tool that can equally bring frustrated, depressed, isolated people together with community?
When everyone is attempting to reach the audience, who is the audience? If everyone is on stage, who is sitting in the theater seats?
McCabe wonders if the reason why the suicide note was sent to journalists was that the writer didn’t want to be stopped but instead wanted to set his legacy.
It is possible that what he really wanted — what mattered more to him than life itself — was to have his writing finally talked about.
After all, why choose a bunch of journalists that you’ve never met, people who would be asleep while you were attempting to end your life and would not receive the message until it was too late? Because they were fellow writers and therefore may understand and sympathize in a way that people in his daily life couldn’t relate? Because he wanted them to take his writing and carry it forward? I mean, that is what happened. I would have never heard of this writer otherwise; but his death made us reflect on his writing.
His ex-wife (quoted in the article) was correct: the taking of his life meant that his words finally reached his fellow writers, people who understood what he was trying to say for 66 years.
I don’t know why this article affected me so much, or how I feel about what he did. Is it cruel that he shoved his way into these journalists’ lives, especially in a way that dumps a heaping portion of guilt? He didn’t know their triggers, nor did he seem to care while he was demanding care.
Or was he merely reaching out to fellow writers in the same way that we all grasp at like-minded community? I really don’t know.
Maybe that is why I ultimately read the comments: because I was trying to figure out how I felt about it.
* I put that in brackets because everyone’s perception of what constitutes a lack of readership is different. For some having any readers is great. And for some, having anything under 10,000 readers is feeling invisible.