My favorite scene in the movie about the life of country music legend Johnny Cash, I Walk the Line, is the scene when he first auditions for a record deal. The young artist sings an overplayed gospel song for the record manager. I loved the manager’s response.
“If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying... and you had time to sing one song, huh, one song... people would remember before you're dirt... one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth... one song that would sum you up... you telling me that's the song you'd sing?”
When I was growing up, hauling hay was dirty, dusty work. Unlike the modern hay-harvesting machines of today that automate the entire process for one person to do, hauling hay in my day involved driving a truck or wagon into the hay field, picking the bales up off the ground, stacking them on the wagon or truck, and tossing them into the barn. My older brother and I used to run a crew of our own and hired out to local farmers every summer. One summer we kept track, and we hauled over eighty thousand bales that summer. I can promise you that I lifted every one of those bales at least twice. (I have the bad back to prove it.)
Most of the time we hauled alfalfa, or Bermuda grass. Occasionally we hauled clover or fescue. During wheat harvest time we sometimes got a job hauling straw. We loved hauling straw because it was light compared to the hay. You could grab a bale in each hand and toss it around like they were made of air. The only problem with hauling straw is that it tended to be dustier. Unlike the hay, straw was just the stalk of the wheat, or barley, plant after the grain had been harvested. That meant that when you hauled straw, you had a lot of chaff in the air. It was easy on the back, but hard on the lungs.
In addition to being lighter and dustier, straw has little nutritional value. The nutrient-rich grain has been stripped from the stalk leaving only the chaff. Livestock can’t live off of chaff. They need the nutrients of the grain, or the hay. Farmers use straw as bedding for livestock in the barn. It’s great for soaking up bull excrement.
I was recently reading a book about developing a marketing platform. The book encouraged you to get involved in all the various social media outlets. It said that you should post or tweet as much as you can. It encouraged you to find a niche topic that you could post, tweet, or talk about on social media every day. Of course that left me baffled since I might have enough knowledge to post or tweet daily for about a month before I reach the limit of my expertise, particularly if I am limited to my own original thought. (That might get me through a week, but I doubt it.)
So I added a twitter account to my social media bag of tricks. It was pretty cool to get a tweet from some celebrities, or a tip of the day from an expert. But I noticed that just like most social media, it offered me little of substance and was abundant with chaff. Most of what I read consisted of retweeted or reposted news articles, most were interesting, but certainly not original. I read promotions for new books, movies, or products – helpful, but not life-changing knowledge. Then of course I found myself wading through endless selfies, pictures of food, or comments about how people felt on any given day. Each of these is important in their own perspective. They are each a piece of the personal mosaic painted by the producer and gave me a window into the personal life of the person who put it out there on social media. They connected me, in a small way, to someone else’s life. However, I certainly wouldn’t classify selfies and pictures of food as platform-worthy. What difference does it make if you can reach out and touch a million followers and all you have to offer them is a picture of the burrito you just ate - #myfavoriteburrito?
Don’t get me wrong. I love social media. It keeps me connected to friends and family across the miles. I enjoy learning of important family events and seeing pictures of family and friends during good times, and bad. I’m thankful that people post news about newborn babies, birthdays, graduations, and deaths in the family. However, like the levity of straw, social media consists mostly of chaff, and often lacks any nutritional value. It offers little value, except perhaps entertainment, but works well as filler. (And soaking up excrement.)
Chaff is cheap.
A writer’s job is to sift through the chaff and find the grains of truth for the reader. The really good writers not only sift out the chaff, but they mill the grain and bake it into something palatable for the reader, even when the truth is distasteful. That isn’t something you can often do in 140 characters.
Here’s what the radio manager told Johnny Cash.
“Or would you sing something different? Something real, something you felt? Because I'm telling you right now... that's the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain't got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believing in yourself.”
The scene ends with Johnny Cash singing “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the rest is history.
Chaff is cheap, but when we can find a way to connect to others; when we can share something real we have learned during this human existence; when we can offer a grain of truth to the world ground up and baked into something palatable, then we should shout it out on the rooftops of social media. The grain of truth might be heavy to carry, but it will fill the soul.