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betterment 2
Paula Modersohn-Becker:
Portrait of a Peasant Woman (1898/99)

"I've written plenty, but that only matters if I'm still writing."

I began writing these stories to prove something to myself. I intended them to serve as a dedication test, proof that I was, as I believed myself to be, a writer because writers don't just declare their profession; they write. If they pursue commercial success, writers must also publish; indeed, those might well budget more time for promotion than production. Most writers were never published, for they created for purposes other than publication. We believe that the system set up to identify and distribute the best writing succeeds in achieving that end. Still, we have no way to verify that this is or ever was the case, for the stuff the system failed to identify was never included in the assessment and couldn't have been. In Dicken's time, for instance, it seems entirely possible that a few dozen scribblers produced novels immeasurably better than anything he ever imagined. However, for one reason or another, they never found a publisher or any means of distribution. Their neighbors might have seen those authors as eccentrics, perhaps even hermits; they maybe even became the butt of ungenerous stories about how they only thought of themselves as writers. Only the writers themselves ever knew the truth. If they wrote, they were writers.

I long ago proved the point of my experiment.
I wondered if I might discover something adequately interesting to create a story every morning for a calendar quarter. That achieved, I extended the test for an additional quarter. That extension proven, I added another quarter, and so it's expanded until I'm finishing my twenty-fifth extension this week. I confirmed that I could create a story every morning, but now that goal has almost become an obsession. While I initially innocently wanted to see if I was a writer, now I more studiedly pursue something of a different order. That first objective came with an easily correlated metric. Now, I pursue Betterment. Assessing this seems almost entirely subjective.

Expecting to write a slightly better story each morning would be absurd. Improvement does not progress in such tidy increments. I expect myself to stay in the game now, to continue engaging and writing, if only because that's what any real writer does. I proved to myself that I was a writer that first quarter, but no past accomplishment could ever prove that my role as a writer continues unless I continue writing. Now I hold a necessary habit, as necessary, as Ira Gershwin insisted, as any fish's, which just "gotta swim." Writers gotta write, too, and yesterday's pieces amount to yesterday's news. The pointy end amounts to the only end that matters on this particular stick. The finished pile was done for the moment I completed it. It served its fleeting purpose by proving that I was a writer but never that I am one. My current identity remains eternally slippery.

I engage for the Betterment of self, a focus I once naively believed everyone pursued. I imagined the butcher, baker, doctor, lawyer, and cop engaged in extended self-improvement exercises, Honing their developing skill through continual practice; this was what a profession naturally entailed. But I know from experience that a person can get distracted and lose focus. They can get off track and repeat fruitless motions, unaware they're heading nowhere, lost. The purpose of getting lost lies in the leverage it provides for getting found, so everyone who ever gets lost retains the genuine possibility of getting found again. Not even the most dedicated MAGA Repuglican remains unredeemable, though, at some point, they will have to want to recover from their wallowing descent. Betterment remains possible, even for those in vehement denial. Denial always was the first stage of acceptance, anyway.

I am no evangelical. I believe evangelism amounts to an original sin, for it intends to reel in innocents against their comprehension. It tends to focus on a few elements of a complicated belief system to encourage a poorly-informed commitment. One tends to join for salvation without understanding the obligations involved. These are revealed over time and presented as dedication tests which might provide evidence of worthiness. What's agreed to in passion often becomes one's most significant burden. I would rather live as an example, maybe even a cautionary tale, of what one might do if committed to a notion. Such commitment is a choice requiring no sales pitch. It's an infinitesimal influence amplified by personal challenge, a put-up or shut-up moment. I just wanted to see if I could stumble into an original story every morning. I never once intended for it to become my legacy. I've written plenty, but that only matters if I'm still writing.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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