HOW DO I TWEET THIS? A Rumination on Writing in the Electronic Age by Dave Lowry
My literary agent, the estimable Ms. Megibow, is endlessly patient, formidably driven, unfailingly helpful.
But she was not there.
And so it is difficult for her to imagine what it was like. Difficult too, to try to explain it without sounding annoyingly self-centered.
It was in the headquarters of Missouri’s Greene County Public Library where I began a relationship with books, back in the Sixties. I would say it was where I fell in love with books. But I was fortunate to have had teachers who did not allow such sloppy usage. Which should give you some idea of just how long ago that was. Back before air conditioning was common anywhere in the Ozarks, even in public buildings. Like the library. And so the massive windows would have been pushed open against the torpid Midwestern summers and I would sit at a big oak table up on the second floor and read and read and a stray honeybee would drift in now and then, and circle in big lazy loops and find its way out again, its buzz being the loudest—the only—sound in an otherwise tomb-like room, and I was as happy as it is possible, I suspect, for a human to be. Certainly as happy as an eight-year-old kid could be.
I note this not to slosh around in a tub of soapy warm nostalgia. Oh well, perhaps I do that just a little bit. More so, though, because it helps to understand the distance between now and then. Books were on shelves. They had a heft. Texture. A smell, of binding glue and paper and, when they’d aged properly, a bouquet.
Now, well, it is different, isn’t it?
The notion, prevalent, is that “social media” must play a vital role in the presentation of a book today. In many instances now, the book is itself almost completely an extension of that media. There are books no more substantial—in terms of their physical presence but, come to think of it, in their gravitas as well—than the electronic glitter that animates your microwave. Reviews are no longer confined to the back of The New Yorker. They are online, just like the books. Discussions of those books no longer are conducted in the pages of periodicals: today a reader’s opinion can be read as quickly as it is rendered—read by thousands sitting and staring at screens held in their hands.
It was hot in that library, on those long summer afternoons in the Ozarks. And while the library was a big one, it did not have even a fraction of what can be downloaded on even the simplest of computerized devices we now enjoy. So this is not some longing for a golden past. It is more an apologia. To write a book was to produce the thing, to have the tangible product in one’s hand. To be a writer was to generate words on paper. I still feel odd when, at the end of the day, I do not have a pile of paper on my desk that represents the orts and leavings of my labour. That is why it is so odd for me to contemplate the era of publishing into which we have entered, one where one’s presence on all manner of social media is at least as important as what it is one writes. And why, no doubt, I test the patience of my agent.
There is something else in the world of books that has changed with the advent of those social media. And that is the notion that authors are accessed easily, that readers can contact them, know their thoughts on a range of subjects—that those who write the books are really just sort of like friends, whose personalities are revealed, whose opinions are readily available. One sees these in other arenas of our society. Remember when, aside from the avuncular and be-toqued Mr. Boyardee, you could not have named a single chef in America? Now we know them, see their programmes on TV, read their memoirs, listen to interviews. They ruminate on the nature of the culinary arts, proffer opinions on a host of topics.
I do not care much about what energizes chefs, politically or culturally. I care what their food tastes like. So it is with authors. I don’t really care much what Stephen King thinks of climate change. Or of J.K Rowling’s opinion on the geopolitics of the Middle East. If authors want to make social or political points, they can do it, I should think, in the plots of their stories, in the context of their writing. To pontificate, wax philosophic online, on one’s blog or through other electronic messaging, is, to me, time not spent writing. Did Milton sit around and scribble about the motivations of his work? Hemmingway could be an enormous bore but at least he confided his sentiments to his work. I think had an editor or agent insisted Hemmingway indulge in a regular bit of chit-chat about what inspired him to create, he’d have eaten that shotgun years earlier than he did.
I don’t wish to be dismissive. Or disdainful. The Scarlet Letter didn’t get written on a laptop, but if one had been available, Hawthorne would, I bet, have used it. And perhaps Melville would have posted a perfectly delightful blog about whale watching off New Bedford if the internet had been around. That eight-year-old sitting in a stifling library more than four decades ago was not, he is thankful, frozen in such a place forever. That said, change happens slowly for some. It should happen thoughtfully as well. So I hope my agent, as well as my readers, will continue to be patient.
Now: how do I post this on my blog?
Why I Tweet by Roni Loren
Social media presence. Branding. Platform. At last count, there were about seventeen ka-billion articles and books about those topics for writers. We’re supposed to be out there. We’re supposed to be branding ourselves (which sounds painful). We’re supposed to talk to the masses so that they LIKE us.
So, of course, that’s why I’ve spent years blogging and tweeting and poking my nose in social media, right? No. Not even a little bit. I’d like to seem super business savvy, but really, the truth is much more pedestrian.
I like it. I’m comfortable in an online world. Writing is solitary, and I need a watercooler.
I first got onto Twitter when I entered the blogosphere in 2009—before I wrote my debut novel and before I had an agent or publishing deal—because I wanted to chat with other writers and readers. I’m not surrounded by a lot of people who are interested in those things, so I went were I could find my fellow book geeks. And wow, they were everywhere. I was hooked. Look, people who get me! Yay! Let’s talk about Outlander and braid each other’s hair.
So perhaps when I did eventually get published, that’s why it was so natural for me to continue along with social media because there was really no pressure of platform-building and branding involved. I was already out there as myself. It was simply another part of my daily life.
Online feels natural to me. I met my husband in a chatroom back in the early days of AOL dial-up (talking about LSU Football, of all things—very romantic, right?) Our fourteenth wedding anniversary is next month. So the internet has long been a place where I’ve felt comfortable interacting with people in a genuine way. In fact, I think it’s much easier to get to know me online than it is in person because I’m pretty introverted face to face.
So why wouldn’t I want to connect with readers online? Well, some would argue that books should stand alone. Knowing too much about an author can taint the reading experience. I definitely understand that argument. And I won’t lie. There have been some authors who have said things online that have made me not want to read their books anymore. If someone is ugly or dismissive toward others or has some political opinion that makes my skin crawl, it’s going to make me not want to support them with my money or reading time.
But this is, by far, the minority. Much more often, I discover new authors because I enjoy who they are online, or I become a more fervent fan of someone I already liked because they’re funny or interesting on Twitter. And I still have fangirl moments when an author I admire interacts with me because part of me is still that kid who idolized writers.
When I was growing up, authors were my rockstars. Untouchable. Mysterious. I imagined them sitting in their mansions or eccentric mountain cabins, typing their brilliance on an old-fashioned typewriter. I had never met a real writer. The closest I could get to my favorites was by signing up for their fan club and getting a form letter in the mail.
That old way has some romanticism to it. If I had known a favorite author was really just a regular person living in the ‘burbs and making mac ‘n cheese for her kids in between writing scenes and paying bills, maybe it would’ve lost some of the magic. But at the same time, I can’t imagine how excited young me would’ve been to have the opportunity to directly interact with a favorite author in real time. I think I would’ve sacrificed some magic for that chance.
So I choose to be online because I don’t need that buffer of mystery between me and readers (or fellow industry people.) I want to know them. And I’m fine with them knowing me. Yes, I keep some things private—my kidlet’s name, family stuff—but otherwise, what you see online is who I am. Even my husband has joined in the fun on Twitter (@TheMrLoren). I’ve been absolutely enriched by the people I’ve met out there. And I have found friends online who I know will be lifelong.
Social media has added much more to my world (friends, connections, advice, support, reading recommendations, and oh yeah, a husband) than it’s taken away (time!). So should writers be on Twitter? Only if they want to be. Only if the author can be natural and genuine in that medium. And only if he or she knows how not to be an obnoxious, self-promoting blowhard. It’s not one size fits all. (Let’s not talk about my complete ineptitude with Facebook.) It’s a choice. A trip to the watercooler is never a requirement. But it certainly is fun. :-)