Michael Silverblatt has Been the Most Influential Creative Voice in my Life

Doubling down on the Project, tryna watch more movies and to write and post more essays than usual, I’m hyperaware of public figures who seem to’ve also attempted some hugely ambitious creative feat, I’ve been collecting their names and faces for a kind of gallery of role models, people who champion an obsessive and all-exposing/consuming creative lifestyle: Rod Serling, for example, worked twelve-hour days as executive producer on The Twilight Zone, writing and acting and piecing shit together, fighting with censors and sponsors — focused on doing his best possible work and addressing the topics he thought were pressing; I mention Orson Welles pretty often here too cuz of his versatility and ambition and genius, the risk taking, the way he courted ruin with crazy projects; Jean Cocteau, as I recently learned while doing a bit of research for Beauty and the Beast, is another guy who seems to’ve been unconscionably prolific — poems and plays and novels and criticism and filmmaking; same goes for Kevin Smith (about whom I’ve written at absurd length over here) and Henry Miller and William T. Vollmann.

These are the kindsa people after whose work ethic I’d like to model my own and, as I’m looking back now toward the role models I had as a teen and kid, I’m thinking mostly about a radio personality named Michael Silverblatt, who — without my realizing it until now — was probably the most formative voice in my creative upbringing.

At the moment, I’m listening constantly to Gary Vaynerchuk’s daily podcast and, given that he’s talking almost exclusively about marketing, entrepreneurship, the business side of social media (stuff that’s kinda foreign to me) it’s easier to quantify what I’ve learned. I’ll have some uncharacteristically business-minded thought about something pertaining to the Project and I’ll think, Oh hey, that’s Gary, under my skin. 

Silverblatt’s had a way subtler effect. Cuz even though I listen to Vaynerchuk for probably a half hour each day, and have been doing so for months, that relative saturation doesn’t come close to the hours I spent, in high school and college, playing video games in my bedroom/dorm, the TV muted, listening — offa my laptop — to the fifteen- or twenty-year archive of Michael Silverblatt’s radio show, Bookworm, on KCRW, where for thirty minutes (occasionally an hour) he talks with some of the world’s most influential writers. Mostly novelists.

What’s always lifted Silverblatt’s show above others of the sort is the energy he brings to it. Apart from working off of a self-imposed rule whereby he’s gotta read an author’s entire body of work before the interview, he gushes with enthusiasm about the book in question and the books around it, about the ideas, about the author herself. He cries when something moves him. He allows for long pauses while the guest considers their answer. He’s as much a celebrant of the art of letters as he is of conversation and it’s his enthusiasm, his unrepentant braininess and emotional availability, that opens the writer/guest up so that they don’t seem to address him with the sort of PR soundbiting and self-censorship you get in three-minute TV appearances and twelve-minute NPR segments. Even at public events.

Silverblatt has always brought out the best in his guest, triggering their language and their interests and vulnerabilities and insights, making them sound less like stoic ministers of a grave tradition (as authors often do on talk radio) and more like thoughtful interesting people who’ve just finished an art project that they’d like to share — and this is the sort of rapport that made me willing and eager (as an otherwise easily intimidated teenager) to check those authors out.

It was through Silverblatt that I discovered Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and Don DeLillo and a bunch of other authors who, whatever I feel about them today, turned me on toward others in their own right, and that next wave of authors introduced me to a third, and so on, helping me to unspool and figure myself out over the years, constantly bouncing back to Silverblatt for a frame of reference, a deeper understanding, a companion.

But, for all of the charm and influence of those authors who dragged a long professional tail into the recording booth with them, no voice was more present, no voice triggered deeper thinking or stoked the fires of my own passion for books, like Silverblatt’s own. And so as an adult now of whom certain standards of decorum and mannered restraint are expected, by colleagues and bosses and others in the world who would all prefer we just greet one another and banter in a crisp, quick, bland and friendly way, I’m realizing how much courage it takes to be, like Silverblatt, so open about your passion, so verbose and playful and encouraging with others. It’s like being emotionally flayed. Like having a casual conversation while bleeding freely from the chest.

In the monthlong wake of what feels now like the finally-scabbing wound of a breakup that launched, apart from a long spell of choking sadness, a series of diary-like blog posts, I’m settling comfortable into what feels like a new level of candor in everything I write. I’ve been on the fence about whether this sort of candor is really beneficial or not, like if it’s obnoxiously oversharing or not. But I think I’m mostly of a mind, at this point, to think that this new move toward candor is a kind of defensive move against the sorta skittishness and guardedness that’s kept me bummed and insecure for so long. Similar to the crippling youthful shyness that Silverblatt often looks back on and smiles about.

If you’re constantly, abrasively honest, you don’t have to worry about being found out. 

The candor’s a way of saying that shame is off the table, and of being totally upfront — for all who’d care to know — about the things I want and value and chase and fear and love. And I guess my hopes, concerning what’ll ultimately come out of this diary-like blogging, is I’ll achieve a sort of transparency that might simplify my relationships. Maybe just life altogether. Because I imagine there’s a whole new level of self-assuredness and resolve to be had by repeating to myself (and to an audience of shadows beyond the stagelights) my goals and values and so on, day after day.

It’s not very radical, nor is it necessarily all that interesting, but it’s a practice that takes a good measure of comfort in your own skin, in the trappings of your own needs and neuroses, and I think Silverblatt showcases this comfort beautifully. Cuz he’s definitely taking a risk by being so open, talking as much about his feelings as his ideas, often lapsing into an account of how desperately saddened he was by a certain passage in the book, or a world event. He’s candid about grieving his mom. I think Silverblatt might actually be the perfect model for what a person stands to gain from this sort of candor and vulnerability.

Cuz as I’m detailing the things he divulges so readily to his guests, his audiences, I’m thinking suddenly of stand-up comedians, who often use their own shortcomings and failures and embarrassments for material; their bodies, their hangups and relationships — it’s all fair game. They appear to be making themselves pretty vulnerable.

So how is that different?

Well I think the difference is that a comedian is using those details to win you over. More often than not, those confessions are self-deprecating. The comedian wants you to take them seriously by merit of the cleverness with which they discredit themselves.

Silverblatt, on the other hand (and the same can probably be said of Henry Miller and Kevin Smith or any other great personal essayist), is divulging these personal details so that you can understand him. He’s trying to make himself as transparent as possible so’s to work as a better conduit for the conversation — which, if he succeeds, and the person you’re hearing is making it very clear that he’s being his 100% true self, puts him in a position where ridicule will be twice as painful as it’d be if he allowed himself the recourse of saying that his radio personality is a character.

But he’s also, as a radio personality, something of a performer. He knows that he needs to keep conversation alive, keep the ideas flowing and evolving — he’s gotta keep the listener entertained. So there’s a tense balancing act of total naked sincerity and, without knocking that sincerity, theater. He has to formulate thoughts about something, needs to have faith in those thoughts (that they’re interesting, accurate, helpful, etc), and then, so’s to be as comprehensive as possible, he’s gonna tell you a thing or two about himself. Give you some personal context.

Often as not, that personal context has something to do with pain.

And I guess what always eluded me as a teen and early twentysomething, given how softspoken and tender the guy can be, is how insanely courageous a person has to be in order to do that every week for thirty years, to an invisible audience, with all the pressures of a radio show on your shoulders.

Of all the figures whose influence I’ve outgrown, whether it’s cuz I’ve come to renounce their work or just can’t muster the same old feelings, I think Silverblatt’s voice will remain, forever, the same song of insight and welcome and inspiration it’s been for the past fourteen years.


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