It’s Reality Writing, Baby
When I first heard about Medium, I was a little doubtful. An online self-publishing platform for long-form writing from the creators of Twitter? What the hell are you talking about?
The thing is, I’m a Luddite. I’ve dragged my heels into the digital age mostly because I’m just not sure that doing anything online actually improves the quality of my life or, for that matter, my writing.
I still like to read the New York Times on paper and think that books are best enjoyed when dog-eared and smeared with bits of butter from toast eaten late at night (or chocolate on a really late night); I squeal with delight when I find an old copy of Tin House or Granta I haven’t read, or when a new copy of Orion magazine comes in the mail; I like actual letters (I’ve saved pretty much every letter ever written to me—one, from John Updike, sits in a frame on my desk) and I’m always a little dissatisfied by email.
Also, frankly, as a mother, family cook, and housekeeper, I only have so much energy. Sending out tweets and posting little bits of information that are either “all about me” or awkward attempts at sharing seem, to me, a bizarre, if not totally pointless, exercise akin to a desperate sixth-grade popularity contest (and I don’t remember faring so well in those contests back in 1986, when I was wearing striped turquoise-and-black leg warmers and had a crush on Billy Cadoo).
Of course, I’ve been told that social media is super-important to my success as a writer: Months before my 2011 memoir was published, I was coached by the publicity department on marketing myself to Twitter and Facebook. I should reach into every recess of my memory from every period of my life and find anyone who had anything to do with me and befriend them on Facebook, they said. Twitter, I was told, with its over 500 million users, was a gold mine for the right author at the right time. You should be funny, they said (there’s nothing that makes a person less funny, it occurs to me, than telling them to “be funny!”). You should be novel and insightful. Just go make friends, I was told sunnily, as if I were a shy child on a playground who needs a good shove off the bench so that her mother can read her O magazine in peace. They said I would join the tide of endless information and my name and book’s name would become, if I did it right (I didn’t), white frothy peaks on an otherwise blue ocean.
I have to admit that during this phone call I somehow managed to drift off — I was still in writer-land. I was still writing sentences and thinking in pictures and feelings, not tweets or Facebook posts. I found myself wondering, How often does someone actually click on a link and really read what’s there? And even if they do read it — the whole thing, from beginning to end — what will their experience be like? How different is it to come upon my words — or anyone’s, for that matter — through a link that happens to have been passed your way by “the cloud”? A link that you’ve (perhaps foolishly) reached up and grabbed? When I imagined someone on the other end of the digital line — maybe someone like me who was trying to write a few raw or funny sentences in some hole-in-the-wall coffee shop — I thought, “Gosh, I hope this will be worth their Friday afternoon!”
The more I considered Medium, however, now two years (and a book for which I did the bare minimum of social media) later, the more it seemed like the perfect place for me to focus on my aversions. Here, I realized, I could both explicitly and implicitly comment on social media — as well as many other things that stress out writers, parents, people — while participating in it more directly. And this time, one of the most interesting parts of the experience was that I would, essentially, be self-publishing. There’s a power in that which I hadn’t really considered in my plodding remembrance-of-things-past journey through our modern world. It occurred to me, that by writing for Medium I might find my raison d’être on social media.
The real challenge would be explaining my change of heart to others. My first try was with my neighbor, Becky, who came over one morning in February for a cup of tea. As I explained my new venture to her, I found myself getting excited about some of the features of writing for Medium.
I told her about the little thrill that goes through me each time I hit “publish.” It’s just semantics really, but when I get to be the person who has made the final decision to publish a piece of mine, I feel oddly empowered. I babbled on (this was more than she had bargained for — I’m sure she was wishing her mug had a stem and contained something rather stronger than English Breakfast) about how people were commenting on my pieces in real time and how they’re able to write notes and comments within the pieces — to give actual line edits — in response to sentences and paragraphs of mine. I find that amazing: It gives me a window into my readers’ brains, which makes my writing feel collaborative, despite the fact that writing is an inherently lonely job.
Becky took a sip of her tea. “You mean it’s like reality writing?” she asked.
“That’s it exactly,” I said, immediately jealous that she’d thought of the term before I had. Because in a way, that’s the brave new world we’re entering as writers: Even if our pieces or books get published on actual paper, readers and writers are immediately linked up. Comments can be written upon the moment of publication; the digital world does not wait for you to walk across the street to your corner market or local bookstore to buy an actual physical copy. My first experience with this disharmony was when I published a piece about Duran Duran in the New York Times. I couldn’t wait to wake up on the morning of publication and go get the paper. But the night before, I saw that people were already posting it on Facebook and tweeting about it…and I hadn’t even seen it yet. I was mollified (read: thrilled) when Duran Duran actually tweeted my piece — and in fact, that was kind of an “aha” moment on the power of social media.
One of my gifts as a writer is that I’m highly sensitive to the world around me. One of my flaws in our digitized age is that I’m highly sensitive to the world around me. So one of my life goals, given my strength-flaw is, this: toughening up my skin so that neither negative commentary nor praise (or even the flat-out silence of being ignored) has the power to rock me any which way. And Medium has become the perfect place for me to practice, because I’ve had to open the door to let my readers in, come hell or high water.
Before, when I saw publishing my pieces on paper as one thing and self-promotion on social media as another, I was only interested in the writing part of the job — the self promotion was for the birds (tweet tweet!). But these days, after the work of putting down actual sentences, I send my writing with a tweet and a prayer out onto the surf of the Internet; I let my sentences get dissected and parsed in as many languages as need be (“Whatever he said,” I find myself chuckling when someone comments in a language I’ve never seen before), and I stand by. “Here it is,” I say to the dueling gods of Twitter and Facebook, “Comment. Write all over it. Tweet it and trash it. It’s yours now. It’s reality writing, baby.”