It is highly recommended these days, apparently, for a writer with a new novel coming out to have some kind of online “presence.” It took seven years to write A Good Hard Look, so when I finally emerged from my dark writer’s lair, this was news to me. Upon my first novel’s release, neither Twitter nor Facebook even existed. (Can you imagine?) So, I found myself facing a changed landscape, one I didn’t quite know how to navigate.
I wondered what I could blog or “tweet” about, other than to say: “Please buy my book, because you might like it.” I perused Twitter and determined that there were a few common themes to consider. (1) My food choices. People certainly like to keep you up to date with their dietary habits, whether they’ve just had the “greatest reuben club eva” or discovered kale for the first time. I’m partial to carrots wrapped in nori sheets and then dipped in spicy hummus; however, I’m not convinced the rest of the world needs to know this. (2) My friends and family. This makes perfect sense as material for a blog, and I happen to read and follow a number of intelligent, funny people whose entire stock-in-trade is their personal lives. But the idea of sharing my own private information made me squirm. I have a husband and two children, and while I’m sure they’re of spectacular interest to the world, none of them have a book coming out this year, so it just didn’t seem right to drag them onto the stage, so to speak. (3) My work. So, yes, I could write about my writing life, but again, I’m not sure that’s such a great idea. When buried deep in the process of creating something, the mind seems to shift away from an analytical state into a more intuitive one, and to have to analyze what I’m doing – while I’m doing it – might harm the process itself. As the artist Henry Moore said: “It is a mistake for a sculptor or a painter to speak or write very often about his job. It releases tension needed for his work.” I believe the same is true of writing fiction.
The above clearly sounds like an argument for me to shut up entirely, and leave everyone on the Internet in peace. The thing is, though, I do have things to say – I can venture thoughtful opinions on a number of topics. For one thing, the world is in appalling shape, and I don’t want to turn a blind eye to that fact; the question is, how can I best make a response? How can I best use my voice? It doesn’t seem right for me to weigh in on politics, when there are people far better qualified already doing so. Besides, I’m not looking for the kind of fight that type of commentary would bring on; my constitution is ill-suited to rabid confrontation. I wouldn’t be comfortable writing negative, polemical, calamitous screeds about how we’re all headed to hell in a handbasket. For one thing, I don’t quite believe it. I would prefer, if possible, to make a positive contribution. To point at some good things and offer a hopeful message about the future.
While following this train of thought, I realized that I continue to be fascinated by the central theme of A Good Hard Look: the idea of a “well-lived” life. I consider Flannery O’Connor (one of the characters in my novel) to have lived one. I thought about this and my reasons why -— Flannery’s hard work, her bravery, her refusal to take a beating -— and tried to come up with other examples of people who have lived equally well. Maybe, I thought, I could make a list of “well-lived” lives?
The idea was immediately appealing for several reasons. (1) Most lists of “great people” tend to glorify those who were able to amass large amounts of wealth or fame or power in the course of their lifetimes, or who triumphed in military conflicts of some kind. In my opinion, having wealth or fame or power neither qualifies nor disqualifies someone from being a “great person,” and I am not personally impressed when I hear that General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford successfully killed large numbers of Zulu warriors in South Africa. There seems to be a need to re-explore our conception of what it means to live a “successful” life, and I’m certainly willing to participate in that conversation. (2) I find it fascinating to learn about people from different eras and cultures. To do justice to this project, it can’t solely comprise twentieth century Americans and Europeans, which means I’ll need to uncover information about nineteenth century Fula chiefs from Sierra Leone and brilliant Arabic mathematicians from the Islamic Golden Age. I like to learn, and I think it’s important to continue one’s education, even after leaving school and diving into the sandbank of adulthood. (3) I appreciate that I’m excavating some worthwhile role models for my children, and frankly, for myself. It’s truly inspirational to see what these people were able to overcome and able to achieve. Our heroes are often handed to us on pedestals, but writing about these people in the context of their lives, I can see that they were once babies, and awkward teenagers. They were young people with potential that had not yet been fulfilled. Gandhi really was a skinny lawyer in a homespun toga; he wasn’t Superman. Harriet Tubman repeatedly risked her life to free hundreds of slaves despite being poor, illiterate and having sustained a head injury in childhood that would cause her to suffer from frequent seizures and black-outs. When I think about these people, it leads me to ask myself: “What’s my excuse for not doing better, or more?”
Twitter seemed easier to wrap my head around. There was an obvious need to be pithy in this medium, so I decided to choose a quote every day by someone who was born on that day. I select a quote that either inspires me, or makes me laugh. Words that ring true somehow, and that can perhaps help lead us through the day at hand.
I leapt into both of these projects with a feeling of satisfaction. These undertakings made sense, and they held value (for me at least, if no one else). I had figured out social media, and I was pleased with myself. As it turns out, though, I hadn’t out figured social media at all. I’d neglected to realize that it was not simply that there were more places to say what you wanted to say, but that people would respond. It is a conversation. A conversation that you can conduct alone, at home, wearing your pajamas, deer antlers and a long white beard. This was a revelation to me. Lonely writers, who used to be isolated from everyone by the very nature of their work, now have a way to connect; readers can approach writers; independent bookstores can foster conversations about the books they love; fans of the written word can connect with one another in a multitude of ways. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this, when I was laboring away over A Good Hard Look in my friendless room? I would have joined earlier.
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