Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Radio Caller

            [A] work of art made in personal desperation can change 
            not just the writer but a culture, how we see and treat 
            one another. Any true perception is activism.
            --Jane Hirshfield

Once I was a radio DJ.  Because I was new, my first show was in the predawn hours.  I rose in the dark, dressed for the cold, packed the pepper spray my boyfriend had bought me and a big silver thermos of coffee, unlocked the studio, and went on the air at 4. 

I played music by women.  I read the alerts.  I struggled with the needle of the turntable. I was alone in a soundproof booth.

And then the phone rang.

Sometimes I get emails.  I do readings, and sometimes people come.  But does this work matter?  Is anyone reading it, really?  Is anyone out there?  Is this thing on?

I’ve been publishing for years without knowing.    

Then, I took on an industry.

There was a man on the line.  He had insomnia.  He had been listening to my show for months.  All this time, he was out there in the dark.

I took on the gas and oil industry in a brief essay I was asked to write for the local newspaper, a paper with a relatively small circulation. I criticized an industry-funded study—which has come under a lot of criticism; I didn’t really say anything new about it, in all honesty. 

But I said it.  In my words, with my voice, in my way.  I said it.  I had to.

The day after I said it, my car parked in the city parking garage, I returned from lunch to find a flat tire.  When we examined the tire, we found a hole.  We dug out two sharp silver pieces.  

The broken edge of a razor blade?

Maybe it was a coincidence, my slashed tire. 

But then a letter appeared in the paper, a letter criticizing my piece, a letter from a pro-gas and drilling lobby, which called my work (twice) the “worst attempt of academic activism.”



I’ll be frank.  In the more than twenty years I’ve been publishing, the harshest public criticism my writing has received was that it was overly workshopped and didn’t use the specific names of trees. 

What had I done?

The radio caller was awake.  He was out there. He called nightly.  He wanted to know: Why women? Could I play Morrissey?  Who was Scrawl?

He was annoying, the radio caller, but he taught me—he helped remind me—that I was live.  That the words I spoke into a microphone, alone in a soundproof booth, the music I played, had reached someone, had moved them to reach out.

Now a representative from a consortium of gas and oil companies, including the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, was writing about me, criticizing me—let’s be frank again—attacking me in public. 

What had I done?

Just the truth.

I wrote the truth—and I wrote my heart into the truth.  I wrote with my lived perceptions as a scholar, writer, researcher, woman, and mother.

That got a corporation’s attention.  In the predawn hours, that woke them up, that shook them. 

“Energy In Depth”: you have taught me that this matters, maybe more than anything I’ve ever written.  By responding almost instantaneously to my work—and responding with vehemence and spin (and some grammatical errors)—you’ve shown me that my writing is working

By shouting at me, you’ve made me want to speak louder and longer, write harder and fiercer, publish more widely—and publish right now.  

You’ve proven to me the urgency of the message, and the efficiency of the messenger.

So, thank you.  Thank you for listening.  Thank you for calling.  Thank you for reminding me that I am live, that these words are reaching across wires and miles to disturb and disrupt you.  

Get used to it.

And for the record: the next time you attempt to discredit me? 

It’s Alison with one “l."