I remember one day around this time of year in my senior spring at Wheaton, I wandered into my voice lesson most likely having just rolled out of bed prior to it and most definitely not having done my homework justice prior to the lesson. I was learning a (probably simple) piece in Italian perfectly suited for my baritone – “Amarilli, Mia Bella” – but it was not one of the pieces I was particularly excited for. I would have been perfectly content to continue perfecting “Evermore” from the just-released live-action Beauty and the Beast remake every single lesson, but Professor Lorimer had respectfully had enough after about two weeks working on it. So here we were, with a piece I wasn’t particularly fond of, knowing there was nowhere to hide as this was a one-on-one classroom setting.
Professor Lorimer greeted me with his usual friendly pleasantries and then asked, “So! Mr. Fenton, how often did you practice Amarilli this week? How’d she treat you?”
I didn’t lie to him. I said something of the effect of, “Well! She was a bit evasive. Um – I spent an amount of time with her,” and continued to trail on to tell a little story about my life between my voice lessons.
An incredulous look spread across Professor Lorimer’s face. “You know you just used a lot of words to tell me nothing, right?” he said through a grin.
“I guess so,” I laughed.
Professor Lorimer looked at the sheet music in front of him as I prepared to warm up. He said somewhat offhandedly, “Saying nothing with lots of words – it’s a truly wonderful thing you learn as a communication major.”
I think he’s right. Certainly not about all communication majors, but it’s certainly true about someone in the early stages of building a career as a writer. And I happened to study communication.
Without necessarily intending to, one thing that I have gotten pretty good at is using a lot of words to not necessarily say anything. I’m not completely sure if there is an official term for such a thing, but I like to call it the Ivanka Trump effect, inspired by John Oliver’s piece on Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner from April 2017. For the full piece, check it out here (Explicit language is used in this 22 minute piece and it's certainly not unbiased (John Oliver is no fan of the current administration) -- but it's worth a watch if you have time):
Whatever your positioning is on the spectrum of American politics, Ivanka Trump is a figure who, at first pass, you can feel all right about. She seems even-tempered and poised and seems to agree with whatever you believe she thinks. On the left, you may look at her and think “wonderful! She must be a good influence on her father”, but on the right, you may look at her and think “wonderful! She must be a good influence on her father” (yes, that is the exact same thought, written out twice).
So, then, how could two people with opposite ideological positions possibly come to the same basic conclusion of potentially warm, fuzzy feelings about a political figure in this controversial of an administration? It’s the Ivanka Trump effect at work – using a lot of words to say essentially nothing, bad or good, and the effect allows the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks of her belief system. This ends up driving nobody away, since she has not presented anything that could be controversial to the point of alienating an audience. No matter what you have to say about her father, “he never presents anything controversial to the point of alienating an audience” would certainly not be one of them.
Then what about this audience – you, a reader of the blog on byPeterFenton.com? Chances are, if you’re reading this in early 2019, you know me personally.
Let’s call my audience for what it is: outside of the strangers who read my plays over at Heuer Publishing and decided my work was worth publishing, everyone who is following my writing knows me on a personal level. And that’s fine – it’s where we’re starting from. It’s not necessarily my end goal to be famous (in fact, one of my goals is to make sure I have a pretty “normal life” or at least a pretty normal approach to life staying a normal part of my normal friends, family, and someday spouse’s lives), but part of the ugly truth is: in order to have a shot at making a living as a writer – you need people to know your work, and by extension, be a little famous. So I have to build an audience.
OK, that’s fine. We need to build an audience, and part of my choice in building an audience involves deliberately not alienating audience I’ve already got. I’ve been in a few different communities in my lifetime and I’ve picked up friends and followers in each: the fiscally conservative-socially liberal Christian family I was raised in, the conservative evangelical summer camp I counseled at and the equally conservative evangelical college I graduated from, the liberal theatre community in Philadelphia, the moderate-but-not-mild community of writers in downtown Lancaster, the list goes on to create the small but somewhat ideologically diverse community that is “people who may be reading this blog post”.
Over time, being affected by my experiences in each of these communities – I can see where my still-developing values have been shaped and where my opinions and convictions have begun to form. Sharing any of those thoughts on the internet, though, has been sort of a frustrating game of Jenga, trying to tactfully find a piece to share and move up to the top without making the base collapse – and if you’re familiar with the rules of Jenga, you remember that there are never pieces added to the tower. It’s always work done with the same pieces we’ve seen from the beginning. Maybe there’s part of the metaphor I haven’t unpacked yet.
The unfortunate thing is, in such a polarized climate, any strongly stated opinion is bound to push those outside of your echo chamber away (at least for me anyway, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in it. I’m terrible with conflict or any sort of confrontation, so when someone outside my echo chamber states something – in one ear it comes and out the other it goes). There are opinions and convictions that I have that if I shared them publicly in a blog post or on social media, would probably topple my fragile, ideologically diverse base. And I don’t intend to do that.
I wish I didn’t feel like I had to choose my topics as carefully – I’m not necessarily trying to hide anything. But as a writer of comedy and fantasy for kids, teens, and adults operating with an extremely small audience, I feel a little like I have to do what I can to avoid pushing any of you away – and to just make sure this damn tower doesn’t fall over!
See? Look at that. I used a lot of words to say effectively nothing. Professor Lorimer was right all along, I'm all right at it.