Personality: Can Something Be Done About This?


It’s a common longing. You run across a WordPress blog that’s thanking its 10,000th subscriber and its millionth page hit. The blog’s been around almost three months. You look at your own, soldiering on for years now and sometimes getting a comment besides your father saying “it’s great, I wish I understood a word”. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’ll explain.

I know why some blogs, some performers, some experience providers catch on. It’s personality. We pretend “personality” is something everybody has, but we’re fibbing. What we mean by “personality” is “stuff somebody does that other people wouldn’t choose to do themselves in that position”. It’s easy to form one. Just pick something other people wouldn’t do themselves, and do that. Then keep at it.

For instance, I like my mathematics blog. It’s comfortable writing and sometimes I do something I’m proud of. But I know it’s got this pleasant air of something safely ignorable all over it. If I wanted to change that I could. I’d use squirt mustard to write every equation on bread, and post photographs of that. The end of each post would be me eating this. Suddenly I’d have a blog people found interesting, if only to see when I eat enough mustard bread to regret my life. It would be a quarter of the way into explaining the Fredholm Alternative. I’d leave my readers in suspense about whether the Fredholm Alternative is a real mathematics thing or if I’m writing a 1970s political technothriller about fascist clones with space computo-germs. It’s both. INCLUSIVE OR! IT’S AN INCLUSIVE OR!

I won’t do that. Mustard photographs lousy and it’d be too much work to fix. And that’s part of why having a personality sucks. It’s a lot of effort to keep up. Edwin Land said, “do not do anything that anyone else can do readily”. While he was talking about making consumer cameras he’s right about making personalities too.

Even achieving personality isn’t an unvarnished good. When we say of someone, “he’s got quite the personality” we’re using all our available politeness. We’re trying to not continue, “that he’s using to bring the conversation back to common yet mistaken beliefs about the manufacture of float glass, again”. It’s fascinating, sure, but watching people do stuff we would rather not always is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressing in a bright green outfit so eye-catching you can be seen through walls — “all part of my Chroma-Key cosplay, my dears”, you absolutely purr — or grabbing live porcupines and zerberting their bellies before they can file a stiff letter of protest. It’s thrilling to be part of such exotic goings-on, by which I mean being the part that watches without affecting it.

We like this sort of thing when we’ve got a safe distance from it and can flee without social penalty. It’s why personality does so well on stage and TV and online and in other places that have comforting, safe borders. When they venture outside those borders we’re dazzled and then disappointed, even if we’re smiling in the selfie they let us take. Too much personality’s a hard thing to take. If you have to deal with it all the time it gets to be kind of a prison.

But it’s a prison having a personality too. Once people know you’re going to react to something a particular way you have to keep doing it. A normal person can hear that chemists have discovered a new kind of industrial-grade blue dye and think anything they want about that. Someone with personality has to fit this news into what everyone expects. Suppose you’re the guy who knows a Yes song for every occasion, including karaoke night and the debut of new Tron movies. You know exactly what everyone you meet will talk to you about, forever. What if you somehow don’t have a Yes song relevant to industrial-grade color dye technologies? You’re doomed, or have to guess maybe They Might Be Giants have something on point. They don’t.

There’s some good news, anyway. If you show personality long enough it sustains itself, without your involvement. I know at least two people with such renowned interests in squirrels that they get every bit of squirrel-related toy, news item, or movie or TV show forwarded to them. Their friends do all the squirrel-appreciation for them. They don’t ever have to think about squirrels the rest of their lives.

So that’s why I’m not complaining about other blogs being way more popular, way faster, than mine. I didn’t even say I felt that. I just said it’s commonly felt. I don’t want to contract personality for that sort of thing. Should I have a personality at all? I don’t know; I’m doing well enough as it is. But then look back to Edwin Land’s advice, and consider the fate of Polaroid. It’s universally beloved and doesn’t really exist. How many of us will ever achieve that much?

To sum up: the concept of “personality” is a good idea, but it needs considerable work before it will be practical.

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Ian Shoales: Doonesbury


I discovered Ian Shoales at a moment potentially dangerous for my own comic voice: I was writing a lot for an unread leftist student newspaper with delusions of grandeur (the newspaper, and myself) and I had a lot of space to fill. For my final semester as an undergraduate I even had the editorship of the humor section to myself and almost nobody submitting articles, which is what we called content back then, when the Internet was barely started. I could try imitating his style.

I couldn’t do it for more than a paragraph at a time, which shows that he was a professional humorist who’d been honing the character for years while I was a 21-year-old who thought he had to vent society’s frustration with the student government. That’s all right; I had space to fill a lot of paragraphs, and could experiment.

My voice recovered, although I’ve noticed how much it’s been mutating now that I’m trying to do a couple hundred words a day and seven to eight hundred words a week. Still, I was inevitably thrilled when an essay like this suggested Ian Shoales was interested in the same kinds of things I was interested in.


Doonesbury

My big gripe with the world today is there’s too much information about the world, and not enough information about me. News is fine — don’t get me wrong — I want to know how much makeup President Reagan wore on Death Valley Days as much as the next American. I like to lie back of an evening and try to figure out just what word that rhymes with rich Mrs Bush meant. Paying attention to the news makes me feel like a citizen, all right, but it’s not going to make me any money. The only way to make money from the news is to be part of it.

I want to be quoted in the headlines. I want my picture on the front page. I want tobe photographed by contest winners as I walk briskly from my limo to my private jet. I want to be surrounded by stern-looking men with reflector shades and snub-nosed Israeli machine guns hidden under their three-piece suits. I want to pick out reporters with a firm jab of the finger and give hard answers to hard questions. I want to tie up traffic for a twenty-mile radius, for no good reason.

No, I don’t want to be President, or even a Presidential hopeful. I just want to be a media figure. I just want to talk to the press. And I’m ready.

Ian Shoales as news. It’s an exciting new concept, but it’s a bandwagon nobody seems willing to jump on. I’m used to being ignored, but the straw that broke the camel’s back, me being the camel, was the return of Doonesbury. Why the return of Doonesbury was news, I don’t now. I have to admit I didn’t feel even the vaguest sense of loss when Doonesbury left, and I can’t really say my life is fuller now that it’s back, but I can say I’m mighty disappointed that Garry Trudeau missed the boat. He could have included me in the Doonesbury pantheon of characters.

He did it with Hunter Thompson, why not doing it for me? I already look like everybody else in Doonesbury — painfully thin, dark circles under the eyes, slightly stoop-shouldered. I realize my acid tongue might make mincemeat of his other characters, but I think he could capture the essential me if he really tried — my great sorrows, my vast rages, my sage opinions, the laughter, the tears. Well, he wouldn’t have to worry about the tears. I haven’t cried since Old Yeller died.

Better act fast, Garry. I’ve got other fish on the line. I’ve already offered to be a hydrophobic dog for Garfield, a corrupt purchase officer for Beetle Bailey, a real Viking to show Hägär the Horrible how it’s done (you know, the kind of Viking who drinks mead from human skulls); I’ve offered to be Doonesbury for Bloom County, I’ve offered to marry Fritzi Ritz, or be Mr Goodbar for Cathy. Gimme a break, Garry, I wanna be newsworthy. If you don’t help me out, I might have to run for public office or even worse, go to work for a living. Call my agent soonest. My image is available, for sale or rent.

        — Reading the paper, 10/25/84