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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.

13 comments

1 DublinGal { 01.20.15 at 8:35 am }

Wow, that’s so sad. Can’t imagine what he must have been going through to drive him to that. Like you, I’m also not sure about how I feel about the story. It’s sad that he couldn’t find enough joy in other areas of his life in order to keep living.

2 Working mom of two { 01.20.15 at 9:58 am }

Wow really sad. I’m not a fine arts type person nor on social media except LinkedIn. But wow this kind of opened my eyes to the whole issue of people using sm to be heard.

3 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.20.15 at 10:10 am }

Very thought-provoking.

I often ask myself what I’m willing to trade to get noticed. Am I willing to trade pix of my dog? Yes. Pix of my kids? No. Am I willing to trade amusing stories of family life? Yes. Intimate details of our relationships? No. Am I willing to trade vast expanses of time writing? Yes. Am I willing to trade my life itself to get noticed? No.

According to his values, this man thought that last trade was worth it. Not sure how I feel about him writing to strangers/journalists. But I suppose if he was planning to become the news, it does make sense.

4 Mel { 01.20.15 at 10:11 am }

Lori, that is a brilliant way of thinking about it.

5 Laurel Regan { 01.20.15 at 11:36 am }

What a sad and moving story. Such loneliness.

6 earthandink { 01.20.15 at 11:52 am }

So many things in this. So. First, I think that sometimes worthy work won’t get noticed, unworthy work will, and it’s not about being noticed. It’s about doing the work. Our present day makes fame and wealth what is important. But it shouldn’t be. By this man’s definition, Emily Dickenson should have killed herself. And then we would not have the body of work that we have of hers.

What should be important is becoming people and writers with depth, developing our craft, leaving a body of work to find it’s way, whether that is to the trash bins or to the literature classrooms of the world’s universities or a friend’s filing cabinet or the best sellers list.

The only way to get attention via social media is to pay attention to others and be engaged. And even then, it won’t usually be a huge crowd. (Although I wouldn’t give up my blog friends for anything, it is a very good group of people.) My guess is he didn’t find his tribe, didn’t go out and talk with others about their work. To me, his death was a misunderstanding of how social media tends to work, unless you already have the public’s attention for some other reason.

Finally, people who have become reporters are signed up to deal with the difficulties in life. Like nurses and cops, there are things they are going to face and be exposed to that the average person won’t. This was a difficult and terrible thing to have to witness, someone making a huge mistake, in my opinion, as I think suicide is always, always a huge mistake, and I think it was probably a mistake to write about it. I would not have, had it been me as the reporter. But was the exposure to this terrible thing outside the scope of their job ? No. It wasn’t.

His death is a sad one, an ill-considered one. He should have sought out help to help him stay here. And then he should have sought out people who are self-publishing, read Konrath’s blog, found blogs that resonated with others going through the same and commented on them, started a writing group, taught writing, read poetry in convalescent homes, applied to tell stories at The Moth, and on and on. There are many, many ways to make an impact and leave a legacy.

7 earthandink { 01.20.15 at 12:00 pm }

Dickinson. With an “i”.

8 andy { 01.20.15 at 12:35 pm }

Wow – that is very intense. I know that I often write things that don’t receive comments, and I’m okay with that. Often my writing is just for me. I fall in the category of not know what I would do if I was in that situation. Just sad all around.

9 jjiraffe { 01.20.15 at 12:37 pm }

Wow. Just, wow.

I think writers (and artists) think about the legacy of their work – and to this man, the legacy of his work was worth, as Lori said, the ultimate trade. But his legacy will always be associated with the “trade” he made, which makes me think his work will never really be appreciated in the way he wanted either.

Somewhat related: I always wondered if “Rent” would have packed the same punch without Jonathan Larsen’s untimely demise.

10 Catwoman73 { 01.20.15 at 1:51 pm }

A tragic story, for sure, but tragic in that this man didn’t seem to understand that there is so much more to life than being recognized for any one thing. We have all had our share of disappointments- some really big ones, too- yet somehow, we continue to put one foot in front of the other and find other ways to be content. People with healthy minds don’t take their lives in the face of disappointment, no matter how great. This man must have had mental health issues that went unrecognized (probably even by him!) and untreated, and THAT is the real tragedy.

11 loribeth { 01.20.15 at 2:28 pm }

Such a sad story. I can’t help but feel it’s reflective of the culture we live in. Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame… but I think you made a good point: if everyone wants to be onstage, who’s going to be left in the audience? Is the only life worth living one where you’re famous & praised? I mean, we all like to be recognized and praised and feel that our lives and our work matter, to someone — but it seems like more and more people expect it — and on a much grander scale than just family, friends and maybe, if you’re lucky, your bosses & coworkers.

There are no doubt thousands and thousands (millions!) of people out there doing amazing, creative, thoughtful work that doesn’t get noticed or appreciated or commented on. And then there are people like the Kardashians who are famous for… (could someone please explain to me again why these people are famous?? :p ). It does seem unfair, but it’s life.

I think you have to do what you do because you want to do it and enjoy doing it, on some level, especially with something creative like writing or painting or acting. Not because you want or expect to get rich and/or famous or have thousands of people in your audience. It’s great to have an audience, it’s great to have people read & comment on my blog. But I write because I enjoy writing, I feel better when I write, I feel like I have something I want/need to say. I have written in some shape or form since I could barely hold a pencil, long before social media was ever invented. If someone else gets something out of my blog, great. If nobody ever commented, sure, I probably wouldn’t get as much out of the experience as I do now. But would I stop writing? Doubtful.

12 Mali { 01.20.15 at 10:34 pm }

This is very sad. The question about whether he was cruel or not is I think irrelevant. From my understanding and observation, if someone gets to the stage of wanting to end their life (for whatever reason), they’re not thinking about how it will affect others. Not selfishly, because at that stage they don’t think that ending their life will affect someone else negatively – they think that their life is worthless, that they have nothing more to offer. He thought he had nothing more to say, which I think is terribly sad. I can’t imagine ever thinking that I have nothing more to say.

13 Justine { 01.20.15 at 11:44 pm }

Two related thoughts here. One student at my institution really, really craves attention. Is dealing with issues of identity. A writer. And I wonder sometimes if part of the need for attention is to help the student understand who he/she is. I think we do define ourselves in relationship with others, and if no one is relating, do we disappear? Why is the students’ need to relate so much more draining on fellow students than others?

Another student, also a writer, found dead in her room last week. No note. Nothing. No evidence of foul play. Everyone thought she was a well-connected well-adjusted involved and loved person. Not like the first student in the least. But she died in silence. Which, if it *was* a suicide, is actually pretty strange. Most suicides DO include notes, don’t they? And if it’s not about your writing being noticed, it’s about YOU being noticed. But what if you can’t extract yourself from your writing? Is that what happened in the case you describe? And why, if a writer did commit suicide, would she NOT leave a note?

Not sure what I’m trying to say, but this has me thinking …

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