Dani Shapiro on the Hard Art of Balancing Writing and Social Media
When Introverts Need to Be Extroverts
The email hadn’t been meant for me. It arrived in my inbox just moments after I’d sent a newsletter to my mailing list, letting people know that I had created a show on Facebook. Show on Facebook. A phrase that, a few years ago, would have made no sense. Actually, the words newsletter and mailing list wouldn’t have been part of my vocabulary either. None were particularly appealing to me, a quiet writer who really just wants to write books and have people read them.
Is she for fucking real? The email read. Attached was my newsletter, with its chirpy announcement of my show, Office Hours, a weekly video in which I answer questions from writers about craft and the creative process.
Its sender was an acquaintance, a Hollywood producer I hardly knew. My husband and I had dinner with him and his wife, an actress, once in LA, years ago. We had some friends in common. I hadn’t even been aware that he was on my mailing list.
I stared at his words, at first with confusion, then felt vaguely sick when I realized that this person— someone I would have crossed a crowded party to say hello to, and for whom I felt nothing but respect— apparently was irritated enough by my act of self-promotion to attempt to forward it to a friend within moments of receiving it. A friend who, he felt confident, would feel much the same way.
The past decade, in which social media has become front and center in many fields, has been particularly tricky for writers. The work we do requires solitude. Not only actual room-of-one’s-own solitude, but vast fields of mental space. The moment a writer thinks of her audience, she inevitably falls into a pit of self-consciousness. What will readers think? This is stupid. Even as I write these words, I’m thinking why bother? Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that that “any creation which has any wholeness and harmoniousness… was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind.” Social media takes that audience of one and blows it up into hundreds or thousands of hearts and likes and comments that rain down like confetti. A writer, if she so wishes, can take her literary temperature dozens of times each day.
And yet, very few of us stand down—or if we do, we do so at our own peril. Publishers now require that social media be a part of what a writer brings to the table. A writer who has a significant following—particularly a first-time writer attempting to sell a book—will pique a publisher’s interest more than a writer who does not. The question I, and many of my writer friends, have been asking in recent years is not whether to be active on social media, but how to do so without damaging the soft, fragile, interior place from which the work itself emerges.
I boarded the social media train fairly early on, mostly because my husband was a very early adopter of the technology. A journalist, he put up his first website in 1993. I had been begrudgingly on Facebook for a few years, then joined Twitter in 2010, where I lurked in the corners, frozen, blocked, afraid to post anything unless it was a perfect haiku. I had a book coming out, so my publisher urged me to start a blog—about what, it apparently did not much matter as long as people saw it—and when I finally did, I decided to write about the creative process. It seemed a way to avoid the trap of solipsism. Why share whatever popped into my head online in weekly or monthly increments? Why, when the work of the writer is to shape the chaos of her inner world into literature?
Now, of course, the blog seems quaint. As unseemly as it felt at the time, blogs are at least comprised of words and sentences, even paragraphs. So when Facebook approached me earlier this year and asked if I was interested in creating a show, I seriously considered declining. But it was also an opportunity to reach more potential readers than anything I had ever done, and walking away from that seemed like something I might one day regret. But it’s not literary, I said to my husband as we drove home from dinner one night. I still envisioned myself as part of a grand tradition of genteel writers who pretend, at least in public, not to care about sales. Really, can we imagine Virginia Woolf with her own Facebook show?
Is she for fucking real? The words of my acquaintance stung, because they touched a nerve. Insults never sting unless there’s a grain of truth in them. I was putting myself out there, it was true. On video. Speaking—not writing. In order to do my weekly show, I would style my hair, take off my pajamas, put on a nice blouse, and apply lipstick. I would curl up in a big leather chair in my house, my laptop perched fetchingly on my lap, as if this was the way I wrote each day. I sort of hated myself for it.
I couldn’t get the movie producer’s scornful words out of my head. I had heard a version of that whispering voice before, though never as loudly as now. When I posted updates on Facebook, or wrote a blog post, or shared an opinion on Twitter, or a photograph on Instagram, a version of am I for fucking real? would run through me in a toxic stream.
Writers, it’s safe to say, wish to be read. They wish to be heard. But they don’t necessarily wish to be seen. This decade has moved us on an ever speedier conveyor belt from the quaintness of blogging and simple Facebook updates to the more public and frankly manic live video posts on Facebook and Instagram, not to mention literary high-wire performances like The Moth and Literary Death Match. The question is, what does it mean for literature, and where is it going?
We’re reading differently, and we’re writing differently, in large part because our attention spans are being re-wired. Many of us read books on our smart phones other mobile devices that tell us how many other readers liked a particular paragraph or idea. Longreads lets you know precisely how long a read it is: 28 minutes, 43 minutes. The news cycle beckons, dismays, and distracts. Increasingly, our focus is pulled to whatever grabs it, rather than where we place it. And so, within this cacophony, a writer has to sort out the quiet from the noise, art from entertainment, solitude from clamor.
Recently I rented a little office in a nearby town. I’ve found that the more I push myself out into the world, the more I crave uninterruptible silence. My office is in an otherwise empty building with a For Sale sign out front. The Internet is disconnected. I drive there in my pajamas sometimes, or the yoga clothes I slept in. In that cocoon of stillness, my papers, index cards, research spread all around me, I travel to the deep interior. It’s all about the work. Whatever we do in support of the work is well and good, and necessary, and sometimes even fun, but unless we live most of our lives in the wordless, invisible place from which language finally springs, we’re just adding our voices to a dissonant chorus of meaningless chatter.
Is she for fucking real? I would respond that I’m trying to be. Like many of us, I’m learning as I go, as the mad, mad world spins ever faster, and books themselves are in danger of becoming artifacts. So, once in a while, I emerge from my little office, blinking, in my pajamas. I run a brush through my hair, and rummage through my closets for a pretty blouse. I have a camera set up on a tripod in my library, and I’ve learned to look into that camera as if my favorite writing student is standing right behind it—my audience of one. I post a few photos on Instagram, maybe even a video story. I scroll through the endless stream of my Twitter feed. I consider the possibility that one doesn’t have to negate the other. And then I scrub off my makeup and get back to work.