133: Mammals and Dandelions (Neil Gaiman)

“I’ve got so much inside  /  If only you would listen–”
                -a child singing in The School of Rock; and yeah, last weekend, that musical made me cry.

“Mammals, [Cory Doctorow] said, and I paraphrase here and do not put it as well as Cory did, invest a great deal of time and energy in their young, in the pregnancy, in raising them. Dandelions just let their seeds go to the wind, and do not mourn the seeds that do not make it. Until recently, creating intellectual content for payment has been a mammalian idea. Now it’s time for creators to accept that we are becoming dandelions.”
                -Neil Gaiman, in considering how the internet will affect writers and writing

                I read about the dandelions, and started worrying about Ragnarok and the End of Art. If we follow Doctorow, won’t we fall faster and faster into a world defined by the easy, accessible, gravitational cuteness of cat videos? Won’t we doom ourselves to shallow art reaffirming simple assumptions, to echo chambers where others repeat what we already wanted to believe? To the kind of poem that looks great in front of a picture of a sunset, and fits nicely on my phone’s screen? Doesn’t that mean THE END?
                No. No, it doesn’t. For Gaiman looked, and beheld a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Relax, and folks doing art followed after. I think we’ll be okay.
                (Quick tangent: touching, but not central. Doctorow’s mammal/dandelion idea is pulled from something my Amherst prof called r/K selection theory. Some species–dandelions, flies–have big, short-lived population booms when there’s a feast, and some species–whales, elephants, us–have smaller, more stable populations of bodies developed to live through famine. It’s a question of priority: should I spend my energy making a body that can walk across the deserts and survive, or should I hurry up, have a thousand kids already, and let this dandelion body, as it were, go to seed. All of which is super cool, and a great foundation for metaphors. So thanks, Doctorow).
                Tomorrow, in class, we’re reading a few pages that a student wrote. I doubt the pages would get her into Harvard. I doubt they’ll ever be published, and I know she could have spent more time polishing her phrases. All the same, what she wrote is going to help. She took an issue close to her heart, she struggled, she thought, she laughed, she learned, and she gave us something I think we can learn from. Because she’s one of them, her words will have an impact that ‘professional’ writing might struggle to match. I love the texts that have been passed down, the treasures handed through generations. But I also love what this sixteen year old can do with a young life’s experience, a heart’s hurt, a heart’s hope, and a few hours’ work.
                And it’s not just her. Lots of my students–all of them, I think–could write something that, while it might not last forever, could help their community think, heal, laugh, and grow. What else is writing for?
                So hurrah for the elephants, elegant and old, and hurrah for all the dandelions’ seeds.

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