An Introvert Writer in Cyberspace
March 25, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Lynette Benton
As a writer, I’m required to rise above the hubbub, metaphorically position myself high on a stage, and blare out news of my existence on social media. Agents and publishers have abandoned the role of market maker, so I’m forced to develop my own markets, audiences, and followers.
My social media platform of choice is Twitter, mostly because it’s easy to use and limits you to messages of no more than 280 characters. So I must say what I want to say succinctly, a good exercise for anyone, especially a writer. Twitter has often been good to me, sending warm writerly contacts and enthusiastic editing clients my way. Through others I’ve met on Twitter I’ve been invited to submit essays and articles for publication, which helps, theoretically at least, develop an audience for my book-length projects, should I try to publish them.
However, as a medium, Twitter can feel as full of cliques as a junior high school—populated with impenetrable inner circles that make it hard to even identify the individual in-groups with any certainty. It’s like trying to penetrate some snippy gang’s turf. For some time, I circled around the periphery of what might be bad online neighborhoods the same way I’d avoid a reunion of beer swilling bikers. And I wondered if in any case I should try to fit in, whatever “fit in” means in that parallel universe known as Cyberspace. Shouldn’t writers occupy the role of outsiders, observers—at least to some extent?
When I began using social media in around 2008, it seemed as if the way writers did business in Cyberspace had a whiff of seediness about it, like making clandestine contact with strangers in a fog-laced alley after dark. The fact that those strangers were largely compatriots in my line of work only made the contacts seem more suspect somehow. Why did it feel so foreign, so dicey, even demeaning? Maybe because as a group, writers often prefer to hang out with those we cherish and who appear to cherish us in return.
Sometimes I was bored by the whole notion of Twitter and the interactions I saw taking place on it; other times I was downright afraid of it. Since in Cyberspace, everything’s recorded, one way and another, I had a sense of eternally being watched by silent onlookers who were judging and perhaps mocking my stumbling early efforts. Was I trespassing? Overstepping murky boundaries? Flouting rules? There was no way to gauge the appropriateness of my overtures or anticipate others’ reactions. I’d seen what I considered innocent efforts by some on Twitter rebuffed. My own wrist was slapped by a group manager on a professional networking site; he thought I was shilling when I posted an announcement of an upcoming class offered by a large writing organization. I emailed him privately and explained that I had no connection of any kind with that organization. Then I turned around and slapped a different group manager’s wrist for his acerbic tweet (worthy of Simon Cowell, formerly of the TV show, American Idol) about why others weren’t succeeding, as he had, in their attempts to get their writing seen by New York publishing houses. But I hope I did my slapping gently. I suggested (privately) that people would find his message more palatable if he proffered suggestions, rather than accusations.
As a writer, I want to communicate, and the Internet is supposed to be a mechanism for that, but many times I don’t know exactly how or even quite why I’m speaking to strangers in Cyberspace. It might be to buy editing or proofreading services from one another, but back in 2008, when had I ever bought services from people I didn’t know and nobody I knew knew?
Some who write about writing ask you to, “follow” them on Twitter. When you go to their Twitter page you find they have say, 6,000 followers, while they themselves follow less than a tenth that many. (This is particularly true of literary agents.) So I can read their tweets, but they don’t want to read mine. I decline those invitations. I’m interested in two-way discussions, not lectures. Weren’t these new media supposed to be interactive? Weren’t they meant to foster conversation? My efforts in Cyberspace sometimes felt as old school as magazine or newspaper writing. With those media, writers didn’t expect a response or reverberation. We just shot our words out into the paper fray and went back to our work. Now, in this interactive era, words again often seem to fly past people, seldom landing for any length of time on their laptops or the devices in their pockets.
Even with well over seven thousand followers on Twitter and the seven thousand I follow, it can be lonely out there. It feels as if I should bundle myself up in something soft and soothing for these forays into the icy alternate universe. I’m tempted to do what a friend of mine, disgusted with the Internet back when it was regularly called the information highway, threatened: pull over into the breakdown lane with a quiet cup of coffee. Though I’ve made some friends on Twitter, even met a couple of them in person, not one of my close friends, writers or not, is active on that site. I sorely miss their presence there.
Despite the time I’ve spent applying the guidelines laid down by Internet sages, whose Twitter and blog followers number in the hundreds of thousands, the outcomes I aim at—being in touch with people interested in memoir and personal essays or in the writing advice on my blog—appear to hang in dubious suspension, just out of reach. Do those who succeed possess a formula they’re not sharing with the rest of us, like people who copy out a recipe you requested but “accidentally” leave out a crucial step or ingredient in the cooking process?
Whenever writers friend me in an online community, I usually accept—unless they write fantasy, horror, romance or some combination of those wildly popular genres I’ve never been moved by, even in my youth. After I accept an invitation to connect, I’m tentative, uncertain how to proceed. Whose turn is it to send a message? If it’s mine, what should I say? What is expected of me? And remind me, why are we connecting in the first place?
But I know the answer to that last question. I’m exposing myself in this alien dimension to locate and nurture a potentially paying public, as required by agents and publishers. But wouldn’t it be a happier circumstance for all of us if we were connecting for the same reason we sally forth in our real lives: to find ourselves welcomed by a small band of sympathetic souls?
Lynette Benton is a published writer and writing instructor. She guides others in writing about their lives or families. Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how she wrote her memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. Her essay, “Chasing Dragons,” is included in the 2018 anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told. Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as the Brevity blog; Women Writers, Women’s Books; and local newspapers. An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit her web site, Tools and Tactics for Writers or connect with her on Twitter @LynetteBenton