Although I’ve read my entire life, I remember the first time I got wowed by a story.
It was an article in Sports Illustrated, which I have previously credited for getting me into the writing world (although it turns out I had a gift for narrative before that — details to come…) titled “A Painter on a Planet of Blind People.” The subject was one Joe Durso, a middle-school Brooklyn teacher who was also the best one-wall handball player in history.
He so towered over his opposition that games were like Michael Jordan playing a game of HORSE against an infant. The gap between he and his opponents was pound-for-pound probably the biggest of any sports champion ever.
Durso was also an egomaniac who believed his own hype — and because of that, he was miserable.
He was a champion…in handball. No one outside of the sport knew who Durso was, and it bothered it him deeply.
And that’s when he offered Sports Illustrated one of the most foundational quotes of my life: “I’m a painter on a planet of blind people.”
It’s stuck with me all these decades later, because it’s simultaneously so pompous but so existential. Durso SO wanted to be acknowledged but knows he never will — but he’ll never stop doing what he does…and yet he’ll never enjoy it.
But I take a slightly different lesson from Durso’s plight:
No one cares about you, so care like hell about what you do, yes. But don’t worry about it. Embrace the oversight.
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As a writer — unless you’re Emily Dickinson, or J.D. Salinger after he turned weird — you write to be read.
The more you’re read, the more you get attention, the more you succeed, the more you can continue to write.
I’ve always rejected this thinking.
Yes, I want the entire world to read and see and hear what I do — but I also know it’s a futile effort.
Even if a million people read your story — a huge hit in my industry — that still means only .3 percent of Americans bothered with it (I can’t even do the math for the world’s total population so won’t bother haha).
So the vast majority of us remain a Joe Durso.
And readers are so fickle that a story you might’ve poured months into gets few readers, while something you fired off in less than an hour goes viral.
Shit, only about a third of my subscribers ever open my newsletter — you know, something they’re subscribed to.
You get mad and frustrated, yes. I constantly shame my followers for not, you know, following my work — but more because I don’t understand their thinking (why are you subscribed, then? I don’t subscribe to anything Wil Shortz does because, while I think he’s cool, I don’t think he’s THAT cool. I do subscribe to The Baffler, though, and read EVERYTHING they offer) than because I’m legitimately hurt.
Besides, at the end, I don’t care. I know what I need to do.
I’ve never written for anyone other than me, specifically because I know few are paying attention. That has liberated me from any expectations or goals or mandates other than those I set for myself.
The whole dance-like-no-one-is-watching thing.
And because of that thinking, I’ve been able to craft the career I have.
One where the other day, at a fundraiser to help out activists in Colombia being jailed by the government there, I was unwittingly introduced before a crowd of over 100.
No reaction. It was HILARIOUS.
Somewhere, Joe Durso is seething.
But I ain’t. Too many stories to work on, fam, to worry about who’s reading. Other than my homie jefe, whose edits I await…
GRÍTALE A GUTI
This is the column where I take your questions about ANYTHING. And away we go…
You got huevos, Carnal…Going to Long Beach State and face the conservatives… Looking at the glass half-full, why don’t you do a hard review on the Mexican President AMLO…future Mexican immigrants that will find a home in the USA are and will be hard-working, well-educated, and politically prepared to defend democracy thanks to the work of AMLO…Chicanos will take over the Southwest in the next 30 years…
None of these things are true. Native Americans never gave up what’s now the American Southwest. Mexican immigrants don’t need pinche Peje to succeed. And any courage I have doesn’t come from my genitalia — besides, EVERYONE knows ovaries are to testicles what steel is to a wafer.
Got a question for Guti? Email me here.
Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:
IMAGE OF THE WEEK: Me with our rescue senior pups Cosmo and Hook, which we adopted from Frosted Faces in Ramona, California over a year ago — you read that canto, right? Only a third of you did smh
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I’ve had a very entertaining experience, but as far as I am concerned, [Mexican-American students] are still dirty, stupid, and dumb.”
–A graduate student in education, after taking a seminar on teaching Mexican-American schoolchildren. As quoted in American Me, NOT the Edward James Olmos classic, but a 1948 book that was one of the first-ever sympathetic accounts of the Chicano experience.
LISTENING: “I’m Leaving You and Ft. Worth Too,” Russell Moore & Iiird Tyme Out. An almost-perfect bluegrass song: indefatigable banjo, lively mandolin, robust fiddle, great vocals, and that aural nod to trains at the end! A point off for having more of a country than ‘billy theme, but nevertheless an A+ song.
READING: “Typos, tricks and misprints”: Ever wonder why English spelling and pronunciation is so gloriously bizarre? This Aeon essay spells it out with humor, history, and philosophy — always love this publication.
SHOUTOUT TO: Anonymous, who kindly donated 50 tacos to sponsor a full month of MailChango! They wanted no plugs — fascinating….
Gustavo in the News
“The Transformative Power Of Farm Sanctuaries”: My columna from last week gets shouted out on Bay Area NPR show.
“At Futuro Media, Maria Hinojosa is building a home for authentic Latino storytelling”: My 2019 podcast “The Battle of 187” is mentioned.
Latest roster of episodes for “The Times: Daily news from the L.A. Times,” the podcast that I host. Listen to them, and SUBSCRIBE. Don’t let me become the Poochie of podcasts!
This week was a special one: Drought Week, devoted all to the historic water shortages across the American Southwest. So listen!
“Our Masters of Disasters break down the fierce drought”: Our monthly roundtable with the calamity crew at the L.A. Times.
“A drying lake in Oregon attracts the far right”: Up to Upper Klamath Lake we go.
“Drought threatens iconic plants. Lawns, watch out”: Goodbye, Joshua trees and saguaros?
“Our biggest reservoir will save us! Wait, no”: Lake Mead is looooow.
“Drought wants your carne asada and iPhone”: Headline says it all.
“Grítale a Guti, Ep. 59”: My latest Tuesday-night IG Live free-for-all, which now starts at 9:45 PT PST due to the tyranny of democracy.
“OC veterans hope $20 million boost will lead to a long-awaited military cemetery”: My latest KCRW “Orange County Line” talks about how Irvine rejected a veterans cemetery because Irvine.
“Vaccines, masks, carrots, sticks”: My latest KCRW “Left, Right & Center” appearance talks about The Brady Bunch measles episode, oral histories, and more!
Aaaand…I didn’t get an L.A. Times columna or story published in one form or another for the first time in a loooong time. I’m slacking folks — never again, insha’Allah. Because, even though most people don’t read me, I do.
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