Kath here. Many of you might recognize today’s guest poster, WU community member LJ Cohen. LJ is a poet and an aspiring YA novelist. She’s been with WU since our early days, and we’re thrilled to have her with us today. Enjoy!
‘Progo,’ Meg asked. ‘You memorized the names of all the stars – how many are there?’
‘How many? Great heavens, earthling. I haven’t the faintest idea.’
‘But you said your last assignment was to memorize the names of all of them.’
‘I did. All the stars in all the galaxies. And that’s a great many.’
‘But how many?’
‘What difference does it make? I know their names. I don’t know how many there are. It’s their names that matter.’
–from “A Wind in the Door” by Madeline L’Engle
I know the conventional wisdom. If you’re a writer, you need platform. Once that used to mean connections in a specific subject area for writers of non-fiction. Now it means the whole array of social networking for fiction writers as well. Honestly, you can’t turn around on the ‘net without some post or tweet exhorting the Power of Platform and of Harnessing Your Social Network to Sell Books. I swear, it’s starting to look like all those emails for Viagra.
I’ll admit it. I drank the social networking cool-aide. I began to have panic attacks when I didn’t get any retweets or blog comments on a given day. I began to feel like a failure at this whole platform thing. But, here’s the kicker: I don’t have a book to market (yet) and even if I did, hawking my wares online is no more my style than grabbing a soapbox and shouting about myself in the middle of the Boston Commons.
It’s not me. It will never be me. I’m an intensely private person. Surprise, surprise–a writer who is an introvert. I like long stretches of quiet alone time, time to think without distractions or background noise. Yes, I was that girl in elementary school who got in trouble for staring out the window during class. But I’m also no hermit. Nor am I ignorant about the need to self-promote to succeed in today’s publishing world.
Here’s the paradox: I love blogging. I enjoy the discipline of public writing as well as the connections I’ve made and rediscovered on facebook. I think it’s great that so many interesting people link to so many fascinating things via twitter. I’ve even dipped my toes into tumblr and discovered, to my delight, an entire community of folks as crazy for Doctor Who as I am. Social networking isn’t evil. It just has an overrated sense of its own self-importance.
Just as the early days of the internet were all about sharing information and making connections, (who remembers the compuserve and AOL message boards?) social networking was initially about being, well, social. Now, so much of the ‘net is about selling that it’s easy to forget how powerful, how vital those fledgling networks organized around common interests were. For the first time, it was possible to create communities without the limitations of geography. It is easy to take this for granted today, but more than a decade ago, I was able to find and join a poetry workshop where I didn’t need a babysitter, didn’t have to drive an hour, could read in the wee hours of the night or during my lunch break, and write in the narrow margins of my life. I am still an active participant of that workshop.
If I am growing weary of tweets that only serve to shout ‘look at me, here I am’ either by selling something or repetitively linking to the person’s latest blogpost, I can’t imagine I’m the only one. So here’s the question. Can we get back to the social in social networking? Can we leave off the in-your-face sell to late night infomercials? One of the tenets of online behavior that I follow is not to blog/tweet/fb anything I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to someone’s face and in public. Our friends and relatives would tire of us in a very brief time if every interaction included the equivalent of the three year old shouting ‘ME!” If you wouldn’t force your book or your latest review under the nose of every person you meet in the grocery story, should all your online communications do so?
Communication is about mutuality. It’s about offering and receiving. In the push for platform, we need to recognize that there is a tremendous difference between having a conversation and shouting. My number one reason for deleting someone from my RSS feed or my follow lists is that their voice is the on-line equivalent of the late pitch-man, Billy Mays. The people I choose to follow in various social networks have something to offer me in return for the gift of my time. Sometimes what is offered is simply interesting or relevant information, other times entertainment, still others, conversation and connection. Over my years of participating in online communities, I have even made dear, close friends.
Do I have a platform? By a strict definition, no. I have an online voice. In most respects, it matches my voice in real life. And though I strive for honesty and emotional connection in my web based interactions, I do keep a distinction between private and public. (After all, who really cares when I have a latte at my neighborhood coffee shop. . . ) I maintain my online presence because the people I’ve met through social networking have profoundly moved me and enriched my life. I maintain my online presence because I hope to be able to do the same for others.
I hope that when I do have a novel published, both my online and in-real-life communities will be interested in my success on a personal level, because we already have a relationship. Perhaps some will be moved to buy that book, or tell others about it. Ultimately, that will be their decision. There are only a few areas in which I have complete control: writing the best story I can write, and conducting my relationships with integrity. For me, that means respecting my craft and my readers. My followers are individuals, not commodities.
Followers and readers. How many do I have? Well, “I don’t know how many there are. It’s their names that matter.”