Signal to Noise

Noise of a TGA measurement (device in an inada...
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I was invited not long ago to speak to a high school creative writing class about blogging, writing and publishing. Here was a group of young people, by self-selection, interested in becoming strong, mature writers: nobody held a gun to their head to make them sign up for an advanced english class.

At some point in my description of my history as a writer, I had some thing really important for them to know, a resource I wanted them to be sure and explore. But it’s importance seemed not to have registered, because they did not respond.

So I made it more emphatic. “Write this down” I pointedly encouraged them, and gave them the info slowly and clearly. “You’ll find this an extremely useful resource.”

And not a single student picked up a pen to write it down. I was stunned. Beyond that point, I knew that no matter how potentially life-affirming, informative, stimulating or helpful it might be, nothing I said was going to make any difference to these people.

Being the soundless tree falling in the forest left me discouraged, and I decided I’m not going to go there again. Somewhere, for some audience, what I told those students would have been received with great enthusiasm and gratitude. But here, I was irrelevant, marginal, and what I had to say was inconsequential.

I concluded that I just have to do a better job of connecting with listeners who are receptive to my frequency and resonate with the same energies that make me more alive as those stories and ideas and hopes are shared.

The general themes of finding resonance and sharpening my focus are running on several concurrent channels here at Chez Fragments, and will likely eventually be revisited as they relate to other writing like the blog.

I guess we all want to find groups of friends or other listeners who hear us and care about what we care about or at least give us an ear, and we should give up at some point on those who don’t and won’t. And I can’t seem to see my way clear to how to do this and be an effective writer and voice of reason. Maybe it is just not possible at this point in my personal and our collective history.

If that is true, what then to do with my time, energy, talents, concerns and ambitions as a teacher, naturalist, citizen and pilgrim? The signal to noise ratio on this trends heavily towards the latter just now.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Ouch! I hope you know that some of us are listening even when we don’t respond. Like the artist that just has to put an image down, perhaps your writing will satisfy something in you and it will be found and appreciated at some future time by others.

  2. There are many ways to understand and approach circumstances like the one you described…frustration and abandonment is just one of them. You have within you the ability find a more satisfying solution.

  3. And I am and will be looking for the more satisfying solution, as I cannot simply stop the conversation I have with myself any more than I can quite taking pictures with my camera. The pictures are empty unless shared, and likewise, the words. We are profoundly social animals, are we not!?

  4. If you have even occasional breakthroughs with others (and you most definitely do), you’ll be happier if you keep the conversation going. If you don’t, your hunger (& pangs) will eventually fade. What an awful prognosis! This Thanksgiving consider: is there a poison worse than tryptophan?

  5. Trying to share things with young people, whether self-selected students or your own family [kids, grandkids] is venturing into a different planet. Giving up is probably not the answer but it is what I’d do. They aren’t ready to hear your wisdom. I am teaching self-selected senior citizens, some are listening and learning to express themselves more freely and fluently than previously, others seem to be stuck and don’t hear. Upon reaching a certain age we have much to share and want badly to help others experience the satisfaction of self-expression but the dead wood is not going to respond. However there are dormant minds that blossom. For our own sakes we have to try to share because it’s in us; but only some will hear. Don’t give up and don’t be discouraged.

  6. I suppose I simply need to lower my expectations and limit the circumference of my expected sphere of influence–hard to accept while both hopes and necessity would have me extending my personal reach to more and exerting a greater impact on those who fall inside the scope of my small-pond voice. It’s a hard time (both our society’s time and my own personal later-in-life time) to be–in a sense–mute and helpless.

  7. Mostly we are heard when we are “preaching to the choir.” The “choir” slowly expands through various influences, and then your sphere of influence can expand, too. I think your writing is mainly for keeping your own passion alive so you can do other productive activities in line with your ideas. I heard once that we need to be on an inward and an outward journey. Your writing is your inward journey; your organzing and participating is your outward journey. Keep ’em both up.

  8. We should be more appreciative of the re-call ability of children. In spite of our impression of inattention, some can repeat almost verbatim a phrase or concept weeks or months later. You were hopefully relating a life story, not a web address…

    We tune into life stories, as examples which may relate to a past or future event; the relevance can not be anticipated, and kids (read teens) do not believe everything they hear. Some teens (indeed most adults) are so mentally multi-tasked that, though looking at you, they don’t hear your words. But, you may have made your impression without having the satisfaction of these kids showing the expected response.

    Furthermore, to engage kids on their own terms, is a rare and fleeting experience; you might be drawn to speak to these audiences for selfish reasons, as well as the altruistic.

    Considering how long you have been in the classroom, you ought to recognize that you have unseen influences, but only on a subset of the population.

  9. Jeff, actually it was a web link–or at least a name they could search for and find on the web, but probably not remember. Yes, I’ve not been around very young people so much lately, and if they have body language that represents receptivity and approval, it is invisible to me–at least from my few, brief and not particularly gratifying encounters where I’ve left wondering “Did they have their cerebral speakers on mute?”

  10. I actually prepared a handout–that apparently wasn’t handed out (not the students’ fault) because none of them seemed to know what I was talking about, while I was thinking I was only reviewing this–way more than I’d have time to cover in the class. (Disappointment #1)

    So I think what I hoped they’d at least write down was the name of a piece of writer’s software that many (including me) have discovered as a far better tool than a word processor for creating more complex documents. (I use it for blogging and press research as well).

    Scrivener by Literature and Latte, recently upgraded to version 2 for Mac and beta of the Windows program’s first incarnation.

    Here’s the (ignored) handout I bothered to produce.

  11. So let’s apply the handy dandy lens of crass commercialism to analyze this one. Let’s put this signal on the lab table. Hmmm… the signal, or should I say, message, is a product. Now, is it designed to be a mainstream product, or is it a niche product? And regardless of what it’s designed to be, what does the marketplace tell us it is, i.e, what is the feedback from the market? Is there a difference in feedback between the general market and feedback from niche markets? If the message resonates well with a group, then we have a market identified. If not, then we have “noise”, er, “no” market that “i” can “se”e.

    You have a great product and a niche market. I’d rather have FFF post or FF book than a Washington Post editorial or a NYTimes paperback, and I’d rather have a glass of Villa Appalachia than a Coke. But not everyone would.

    So where are those receptive markets where the signal will be eagerly heard over the noise? Well, who caters successfully and regularly to those markets now, providing an established channel to their free (i.e., not captive) market constituents’ eyes and ears….? Maybe we put the signal on some of those channels… and see what signals we get back.