This speech was delivered in April at the Webb School, a private secondary school in Knoxville, Tennessee.
I try not to put on airs about what I do for a living. I would never tell you that writing is dignified enough to be called a profession, like being a doctor or an architect. Writing is a trade, or to use a better word, a craft. It does, however, take a lot of work to become any good at it, and while I am not a good writer yet I am getting a little better with practice, and I take comfort in that.
One thing I have learned from making my living writing is that cliches are death. They don’t just ruin your prose style. They are rotten shortcuts people use instead of thinking, or to keep others from thinking, or sometimes to lie.
When somebody who is bright enough to speak clearly starts using big cliches, or talking in meaningless sentences, watch out. I will give you an example: When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I ended up party to suit against the university. It was a classic First Amendment case: certain parties at the university were trying to put our magazine out of business because they did not like the articles we printed. It is a long story I will not go into now, but my point is that the first lawyer we hired might as well have been speaking Hindustani to us. He always explained what he was doing in language that was absolutely incomprehensible.
All of us who had brought the suit were very young at the time, students or recent graduates; we were inexperienced, and we thought the problem was with us: we thought we could not understand our lawyer because the law was so complicated and we were so ignorant. But we eventually discovered—and we discovered it the hard way, in briefs and in court—that we could not understand the lawyer because he was not saying anything understandable. He was not competent.
These days one of the biggest cliches around, one of the great buzzwords of the past decade, and one which gets more popular by the minute, is “global”—the global economy, the global village, the global market, I am sure you hear it all the time. Maybe someone has told you that you need to learn computer programming or Chinese in order to prepare for a global career. I can think of perfectly good reasons for doing both of those things, but the globalization of yourself is not one of them.
Yet people are adamant about globalism. They say the world is getting smaller, nobody stays in one place anymore or even one country, the times are changing and we have to change with them. Certainly the way technology and telecommunications have affected our personal and working lives is astonishing. But people who say these things want us to believe that we have little or no power to shape our lives, that we must bow to fate in the form of international trade agreements and transatlantic telecommunications. And really, that is globaloney.
Yes, if a volcano erupts in Hawaii we will see changes in our weather. If Great Britain dumps nuclear waste in the North Sea, it will poison our fishing and our seas. But you do not live in Ukraine anymore than you live in Mexico, or even Washington state. You live in Knoxville. Your character is being shaped by this place and the people in it more than any other place or any other people, whether you like it or not. Your primary ties, and your primary responsibilities, are to the people and the land that you live among here. As Kentucky writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry observed about that beautiful photo of the Earth taken from outer space, and I am paraphrasing: “Look at it. And try to find your neighborhood.”
We do not live in the “world.” Mostly we live, eat, sleep, shop, go to school, go to church, hang out at the mall, all within a radius of a few square miles. There is no such thing as a global village; that is a phrase with no meaning. A village is a few hundred people living together, not a few billion. In a village you can know everybody. We could not take in all the names and faces and personalities and problems in the world even if we wanted to.
When I first moved to New York in the mid-80’s, I found myself making eye contact with most of the people I passed in the street, the way I had always done at home and at school. It seemed strange to me that at the end of my walks I felt emotionally drained. Only after a few months did I realize that I was making eye contact with too many people. It takes a puff of emotional energy to interact with another person even that little bit, and in passing hundreds of people a day I was exhausting myself.
We can loosen or lose old ties and responsibilities—it is not that hard to leave our families behind and move away to a city where nobody knows us. But only within very tight limits can we gain new ones. If I were to move to Paris tomorrow, never in my whole life could I become a Parisian. I would always be a foreigner living in Paris, and no driver’s license or new citizenship papers would change that. Even if I moved to Knoxville, at best in 20 or 30 years I could call myself a thoroughly rooted transplant Tennesseean. But still I would always be a Kentuckian. I would still root for UK.
We are local by fact and by necessity —and as far as I am concerned that is a good thing, for a lot of reasons. We do not have the emotional makeup or energy or time to care about and be able to take care of more than a few people. You know from your own experience that friendship is work, and that you cannot have 18 best friends. And that does not mean you are a limited person: that means you are a normal person.
There is also the problem of your identity. Being young adults you are fighting to figure out who you are—and it is a fight, a fight to respect the wishes and expectations of your parents and grandparents and friends and teachers, but still to know who you are in particular.
Part of what you are is a Knoxvillian, or at least a Tennesseean. I am serious. A kid who has grown up in ten different cities is not from Des Moines and Atlanta and Portland, Maine. He is from nowhere, and that is not healthy, any more than it is healthy to be an orphan, or to lose your house in a fire. Losing your family or your home will not kill you, but it is a real hurdle, and the same goes for being without a hometown.
And with that privilege of being a Tennesseean comes the responsibility to find out who you are. If you are lucky you have a good Tennessee history course here at Webb, and Tennessee writers are assigned in your English classes. Lacking that, you have the responsibility to find out on your own. Do you know who Donald Davidson and Andrew Lytle are? If you do not, you ought to—they are part of your tradition, and even if you have every intention of rebelling against all tradition, still you ought to know what you are rebelling against.
If I have learned anything from reporting it is that life is so much funnier and stranger and more interesting than anything I or most other people could make up. Those of us from a real place, from places as interesting as Kentucky and Tennessee with all the stories and strengths and oddities we can draw on to define ourselves, have it so much easier than those people who have the burden of needing to choose where they are “from.”
And the problem I have with globalism is that it encourages us to give up that advantage. It takes us away from the people who deserve our best energy and attention: our friends and family. None of us is an individual in the sense that we create ourselves out of nothing. We are created by our connections, and taking away those connections does not make us more international, it makes us less ourselves.
If you get out of school and go to work someday for a big corporation, you will find that multinational businesses—global businesses, that is, with plants or distribution centers in many countries—generally demand that their employees move around in order to be promoted.
There is a large multinational manufacturer based in Louisville which has several plants around the United States and abroad. The men and women who are successful here generally move every three years, and not just from Louisville to Connecticut, but from Louisville to Hong Kong. To rise in that organization, you must be willing to take a longterm—let us say two years—international assignment.
To you in high school this might sound great, but remember this is work and not a field trip, and for people with kids in school it is tough. One Louisville employee of this company, a woman whose husband worked and who had young children, was offered an assignment in China and given three days to make her decision, yes or no. That is what the global economy is about; mobile human resources.
It is about mass culture, too, and the end of any ability to amuse ourselves. There is something weird about watching a music video that is played from Sao Paulo to New York to Liverpool, or eating a certain brand of corn chips along with millions of other snackers, or turning on the World Cup on television rather than cheering for the local Triple A baseball club in person. It is so passive, being a cog in some great global marketing machine.
These days, given how widespread packaged entertainment is and how easy it is to give in passively to mass amusements, anybody who forms her own jazz band, puts on a public rant poetry performance, hangs out with a bunch of skateboarders, or even plays football instead of watching the pros on television is a radical. It is a radical act, to make your own fun instead of buying it—to do something yourself, instead of paying television network executives and advertisers to do it to you.
Packaged and global go together hand in glove, because you cannot make money transporting music or art or theater or sports unless you can persuade people all the way from Lima, Peru, to Peru, Illinois, to have the same taste and buy the same product. Uniqueness, localness, is expensive, inefficient, not cost-effective—it does not sell, and so we are supposed to abandon it.
The same goes for careers, as I have mentioned. Part of the global economy propaganda is an effort to persuade us that we must adapt ourselves to the needs of international business if we intend ever to earn a living. I hope that never becomes true; certainly it is not true yet. If it is important to you to live in a certain place, you can do it.
For me that meant making some changes in what I did for a living. When I lived in New York, I worked as a staff editor at Harper’s and Elle. Now I am a contributing editor to another magazine called Chronicles, long-distance. Moving home several years ago by choice, I was forced to switch from a job that was mostly editing to full-time freelance writing. As it happens, I have exchanged something good for something better, but I would have made the change in any case, so that I could work in the place I wanted to be.
Living in the provinces, as people on the East Coast view Kentucky, even has a certain practical advantage: not only do I have more to say about a part of the world that belongs to me and interests me more than New York City ever did, but while there are hundreds or thousands of freelance writers in New York, there aren’t 50 in Kentucky. I will admit, of course, that most magazine editors are a thousand times more interested in New York than Kentucky. But finding a niche is part of the challenge, and if your story is good and you can tell it moderately well, much of the time you can find a publisher.
Your hometown is like your language—you will never be as fluent in another place or another tongue. You will never own or owe another place as much. You will never feel as strong a tie to another state or, heaven knows, another country. Blood is thicker than water, and that is as true of motherlands as of mothers. If you have the good fortune to live in a state where your family has lived for several generations, then its history is your history. You may be nodding through American History class now, but if you knew you had an ancestor at the Civil War battles of Shiloh or Chattanooga, you would wake up, wouldn’t you?
Excellence or genius or whatever you want to call “high art” derives from an artist who has command of his medium —paint, words, music. To take a rock-and-roll example, the bands like Soundgarden or Nirvana that created Seattle-style alternative rock would not have been as interesting if, right as they formed, the band members had rented a van and moved to New York. They would not have done squat in New York; New York is such a heavily commercialized rock scene that its talent is producing a marketing phenomenon like Madonna, not original music.
The best music is almost never from New York or L.A. REM and the B52s grew out of Athens, Georgia. Delbert McClinton grew out of the Texas clubs. Leadbelly grew out of an earlier, black Texas and Louisiana tradition, just as zydeco grew out of New Orleans and bluegrass out of western and eastern Kentucky. These musicians developed their voice in the places they were from; and they could create an individual style and sound because they had a tradition and influences to draw on, a base that was human and personal. Only God can make something out of a void. That is why rootless people, weaned on the cultural equivalent of sugarwater, cannot make real music. Just pop.
I am twice as old as most of you. But old as I am I remember very well what I felt in high school. When I was a senior I could not wait to get out of Louisville, to start new somewhere else. In my case I went to Yale in New Haven, a very New England school; I did not want to go south, and I never dreamed of going to college in Kentucky. Since I felt that way I could hardly blame you for feeling the same. I am a localist to the extent of wishing that you would stay in your state or at least in the South, where there are plenty of excellent schools, but I cannot give advice that I myself would never have taken.
And I will say this for going to college and then working up north for several years: it made me appreciate what I had at home, and understand that outside of Kentucky in particular and the South in general, everywhere else is a foreign country. Four years in New Haven could not make me a Yankee any more than four years at Oxford would have made me a Brit. All travel can really do for you, besides entertain you, is to teach you what you are—and then sometimes, something that is just as important: what you are not.
Now please do not get the idea that I am against foreign travel, or foreign exchange students, or foreign languages. Quite the contrary. But I am very much against the notions that the real world is always somewhere else, anywhere but here; and that we should be passive consumers—I hate that word; it implies we are nothing but belly—rather than individuals, citizens, human beings.
Let me end with a few lines from a great Tennesseean—born in Pulaski, educated at Vanderbilt—named John Crowe Ransom. This is the opening paragraph in a book of essays you should be reading and arguing about in your combined American History/American Literature class, a great book, and a book that in parts will probably make you very angry; a book called I’ll Take My Stand:
It is out of fashion in these days to look backward rather than forward. About the only American given to it is some unreconstructed Southerner, who persists in his regard for a certain terrain, a certain history, and a certain inherited way of living. He is punished as his crime deserves. He feels himself in the American scene as an anachronism, and knows he is felt by his neighbors to be a reproach.
My friends, may you always be a reproach to your neighbors.
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