March 26, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Grace Mattern
Good news! My screen time is down to an average of 23 hours and 10 minutes per day, @NasimiShabnam, writer and activist, tweeted the other day, one of the first I see when I sneak over to Twitter from the essay I sat down to edit. Comedian @DoctorDoug replies, Good news guys, my screen time is down 8% to 27 hours a day.
In our new world ruled by the novel coronavirus pandemic, I have no social life, my volunteer and personal commitments are cancelled, and consulting gigs are on hold. Unexpectedly, the open time I crave as an over-committed writer is here.
But right behind the word document on my screen is my Google browser. What’s happened since the last time I checked the The New York Times (five minutes ago)? Is there an update on the number of cases and deaths on the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard (checked six minutes ago)? But first, Twitter.
I don’t have a program that blocks internet access for a set period of time. Time to write. Time to focus. Usually I’m able to ignore the addictive suck of the internet for an hour or two, closing my ears to the attention whining that seeps out of my computer. My guess is that even writers who have internet-blocking programs aren’t using them right now. Or if they are they’re setting them for 15 minute intervals.
Pandemic life has created an unprecedented level of distraction. The established structure of our lives unraveled so rapidly I wouldn’t have believed it a week ago. Extreme social distancing, isolation, lockdowns, restaurant closures and empty schools — I would have tossed that all off as a particularly paranoid version of an imagined future.
Yet, here we are. Here I am, looking at my screen, then looking out the windows of my study. There is the same physical world out there, the farmyard minus the farm house and milking barns that burned down in a blaze so fierce I felt the heat standing at the end of my driveway, a hundred yards away. Only the concrete silo still stands, topped with a silver metal dome backed by a line of tall spruce. This rural landscape is lovely but right now it can’t compete with the invisible virus, a blaze I can’t see.
Back to Twitter for distraction. Thankfully I also find validation.
Writer @susanorlean tweets, I’m amazed by everyone who says they will get tons of work done during this lockdown. I can’t begin to focus! Am just obsessively reading the news, listening to the news, watching the news, spreading the news. No work.
With such compelling news why wouldn’t we be obsessive? We’ve been fed distracting online content for years, our brains trained to go back and go back and go back to whatever our screens feed us. And we’ve never needed the latest feed more than now.
Orlean replies to a tweet by musician Rosanne Cash who reminds us all that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during his plague quarantine – I, on the other hand, will be playing Words with Friends. Researcher of extremist groups @egavactip isn’t even planning to play games: 500 years from now, students of history will be saying, “Just a reminder that when Mark Pitcavage was quarantined because of the plague, he made like a billion mediocre tweets.”
Poet @chenchenwrites posts, honestly i can neither read nor write poetry right now. which i’ve been feeling down about. but like, that’s ok! poetry doesn’t have to be the answer all the time! poetry doesn’t have to save us or even sustain us every crisis.
To which queer romance author @FozzyGlamKitty replies, that’s why i been annoyed how in the beginning with the Shakespeare/King Lear posts, like dammit us writers/creatives are people too. Creating/writing can wait, we’re allowed to be distracted, worried, and tired.
@HomoSherlock (neurodivergent jew-ish gayzn) had perhaps the best answer: nope sometimes what sustains us is stale pantry popcorn & ten hours of Love is Blind
Back to my windows. It helps to see that the sun is still traveling north, lengthening and warming the days. The red buds of the old maple in the yard are beginning to bulge and this morning there was a rush of bird song as dawn spread around the rim of sky. Here I am. Here we are, part of a web of life that grows and diminishes in endless cycles.
The novel coronavirus isn’t evil. It’s not a “foreign disease” that arose through intent. It’s how the world works. Viruses change their cellular structure over and over to find new ways to bind to animal cells and reproduce. We’re all here to reproduce and right now the coronavirus is having tremendous success.
Given the intelligence and creativity of humans the virus won’t always have the upper hand. But for now it has fundamentally altered how we all live and work and focus. It’s okay to give ourselves a break if we can’t create.
As artist and author @adamjk says, sorry i can’t write “king lear” right now
Grace Mattern is a writer, artist and activist. She has published two books of poetry and her work has appeared in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Calyx, Appalachia and other publications. Her writing and visual art can be found at www.gracemattern.com
November 11, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Paul Haney
Ned Stuckey-French was an essayist and a scholar of the essay, a book-review editor and an anthologist. He was an author, an English professor at Florida State University, a generous reader, a connection-maker, an advocate for anyone attempting what he termed “this queer little hybrid thing,” the essay. A tallish, lanky fellow with thick glasses and a runner’s build, Ned was political, and he was personable. He was a wise-ass, he was a warm soul. He was Ned, and he was on Facebook.
“I’m on Facebook every day,” Ned confessed at AWP in 2011. The name of his talk: “My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict.” To Ned, Facebook was a meeting place abuzz with opinions and gossip and news of the day. It was a tool of democracy, a forum for hashing out political disagreements and plying rivals with logic and facts and more reasonable truths. It was a digital dynamo of discourse, a sprawling harbor of humanity, a portal for engaging the world.
Ned poured words, millions of words, onto that medium. Even when classes were in session, or when he was traveling, he posted articles supporting unions, and universal healthcare, protections for the marginalized and dispossessed. In sharing these pieces and welcoming discussion, Ned fashioned himself a champion of the left. He never backed down from his “fundamentalist, right-wing brother-in-law,” as he called him, who swooped in to decry liberal idiocy and hypocrisy. He didn’t back down from that brother-in-law’s friends, either, tagged and recruited to the debate. Back and forth, paragraph after paragraph. “I enjoy butting heads with them,” Ned said. “It’s a way to be in touch with a group of people I might not otherwise be in touch with.” Hard-line conservatives, that is. Staunch Republicans.
On-lookers didn’t know who these people were–Ned himself hardly knew. They were Facebook addicts as well. Some brave progressives jumped into the fray and Ned engaged them, too, pleading for humanity while sizing up their logic and dishing out sources, good ones. A daunting task–to take so many stances, to mount so many arguments. To return day after day and articulate an evolving set of positions. Ned qualified his allies and refuted his opponents, always trying to figure out exactly where he stood. He was developing a platform, a worldview. He was forging a unified theory of Ned.
The threads were epic, endless, always growing, an expanding universe of discourse. The replies grew by the dozens, sometimes reaching triple digits. Trump’s political ponzi scheme. The virtues of Black Lives Matter. When did Ned teach? When did he sleep? The posts and comments, likes and shares kept coming. Politics, sure–no one was a bigger fan of Jimmy Carter, as evidenced by the family photo he’d taken with the former president and himself, his wife, and his two daughters, all beaming in the Georgia sun. But every new track & field record, the latest amazing golf shot, scores of great new essays. His voice was eager as he cheered on his students and colleagues writing their own lives. “Onward!” he cried, and “Go get ‘em!”
“We are in the age of Facebook,” Ned said in 2011. “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Even then, Ned admitted the platform was a timesuck that played on our pettiest instincts. But he also marveled at the site’s ability to memorialize those who pass away. What would he say about the outpouring on his own wall since he passed? A thousand things, no doubt. Just as he did each year on his birthday, he would’ve left a thoughtful, personal, wise-cracky comment on each post. He would’ve engaged.
Over the years Ned learned alongside everyone else Facebook’s deeper dangers, the misinformation, the polarization, the true customers: the advertisers. Yet Ned was on there all the same. He was on there for the people, for the conversations. He was on there precisely because Facebook is democratic, in the worst and best senses of the word, and Ned believed in public discourse. Ned never took a break, never needed a cleanse. Ned was on there, posting and sharing and liking and loving and thinking and rebutting and becoming. Till the very end, Ned was on Facebook.
Paul Haney was a student of Ned Stuckey-French’s, a friend, and a golf partner. His work has appeared a few times in Ned’s book review section of Fourth Genre, as well as Slate, Boston Globe Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Sweet, and elsewhere. He serves as Managing Editor of Dylan Review. Follow him @paulhaney.
August 21, 2019 § 49 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
I wait for the “likes” on Facebook. Hopefully some shares, too. Then there are the comments: “loved this” or “shed a few tears” or “can’t wait to read your memoir.”
My response—typically a return “like” and a heartfelt “Thank you!”—almost always feels inadequate.
When friends on social media respond to my essays with a click of appreciation or a few words of praise, I doubt they know the depths of my gratitude. As a freelance writer sitting alone in my home office without a regular paycheck or any “good job” pats on the back, those blue Facebook thumbs-up and red Twitter hearts are often my only validation in the course of a workday. They are the virtual back pats that power me through long, lonely stretches of writing.
When I first started submitting work in 1989, I was living in a tiny apartment in Tokyo and teaching at a Japanese university. My laptop keys were crowded with both English letters and cryptic Japanese characters that were as hard to navigate as the teeming streets of that conundrum of a capital city. With money from an extra job, I bought a printer that took up half of my kitchen table. I was 7000 miles from home and determined to become a writer.
After typing out my stories on that funky Japanese laptop, I’d sail them across the Atlantic in crisp vellum envelopes, hoping an editor would fall in like with my words. On the rare occasion when one did, I might receive a letter back, maybe a contract. Often it took months, if anyone responded at all. One time there was no other correspondence between my submission and publication. I just received two copies of a bridal magazine with my article in it and a check for 50 bucks.
When my stories appeared in those random publications that I discovered in the go-to reference book–A Writer’s Market–I’d make photo copies at the 7-Eleven and mail them off to my mother and a few friends in the States. Eventually I’d get an aerogram back saying they “loved it” or “really liked it.” And that was all I ever knew of anyone’s reaction. For decades I wrote in a vacuum. Back then most of us did, and the work, not the network, was our sole focus.
I’m not saying that those were the good old days of being a writer because I still felt lonely much of the time. But it was different.
It’s a changed world now, and while social media can be an enemy to the solitary writer who is both in need of focus and desperate for distractions, I am still grateful for every single “like” on my essays. Those “likes” tell me to keep at it; they tell me someone heard me, or cares about what I said, or supports my writing, or me.
Because here’s the truth for many of us who write and share personal work: We may look brave, but we actually feel awkward asking for your approval—over and over—on intimate stories that emerge from our lives. We memoir writers may be a little self-obsessed—or at least hyper-curious about ourselves because that’s what it takes to write like this—but we typically aren’t narcissists. We all just play one on social media.
Such is the nature of today’s publishing game in which followers can equal book deals and editors want to see the size of our online networks before accepting a piece. For this mid-aged woman who still struggles with posting an Instagram story, your likes are my salvation, a sign that I’m doing okay in this digital world.
So this is really an overdue thank you note to my readers who got me to this place and—because I’m Catholic and feel bad about bothering you—an apology for all the posting I’ll be doing when my memoir comes out in September. You can’t possibly know how your responses to my essays buoy my spirits, or how prayer-hand emojis can never convey my true appreciation.
Sandra A. Miller‘s memoir Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure is available for preorder from Brown Paper Press and Amazon. You can find out more or follow Sandra’s online treasure hunt at SandraAMiller.com.
Author Photo by Holloway McCandless
June 6, 2019 § 38 Comments
Social media is a distraction from our writing. Social media can be a support system for our writing—creating community, building readership, and allowing us to practice our craft. Writer Twitter is definitely a Thing, with terrific advice in #askagent, and editors tweeting calls for submissions and pitches. Writer Facebook includes genre- and demographic-based groups that foster literary citizenship and build real-life connections as online acquaintances meet at conferences and readings.
But Instagram? The one that’s all about the pictures? Sure, there’s #bookstagram, where book bloggers share their reading piles and recommendations and authors reveal new covers. But what’s the benefit for writers on a primarily visual platform, and why should they bother?
Instagram is (so far) the calmest, sanest, and most relaxing social platform, with three big benefits for writers:
1) Make genuine connections with people who want to read your work.
Writers don’t need 20,000 followers on Instagram. Writers need engaged followers. “Engaged” means people who like or comment on your posts, and a good engagement rate is about 1%. That’s right: If you have 100 followers, and one person comments, you’re doing well.
This is not how most people think about Instagram. We see “influencers” with 200K followers and ask why we should even bother. But look closer:
Influencer AllThatIsShe – 529K followers, engagement about 0.7%
Memoirist Dani Shapiro – 19.3K followers, engagement about 1%
Memoirist Esmé Weijun Wang – 9.4K followers, engagement about 0.8%
All three of these people are proportionally influential. The influencer makes fun and funny visual jokes. The writers share writing news, book tours, personal stories behind their work, and moments of joy and poetic wonder from their lives. AllThatIsShe’s comments include lots of casual interaction like sharing summer plans and laughter at her clever photographs. Dani and Esmé’s readers give their own responses to prompts, wish the writers well, share corresponding moments from their own lives. They actively engage in meaningful dialogue with the writer and her work. That 1% are people who will show up to a reading and pre-order your book.
Instagram is economical. You don’t have to fly across the country to a conference that might take 50 waking hours. Spend that same time in 15-minute Instagram sessions interacting with writers you’d like to know, and that’s 200 days of cost-free relationship building. You don’t even have to wear pants.
2) Write better.
The Instagram caption is perfect for encapsulating a moment. In 50-100 words, writers can practice craft at the sentence level. We get to write in short, manageable chunks on busy days.
When writing captions, tell a moment that is a whole moment. Stay in the scene, or in a single thought. The medium is the message: there is no “and then I realized…” because the venue says that for you. Being a caption establishes, “I thought this was important to crystallize and share with my readers.”
Writing in this constrained form is the ultimate flash. How fast can you bring a reader into your mood? How much emotional impact can you create in under a minute? Can you draft a killer first sentence that makes readers click to read the whole thing? That’s a skill all writers need for work in every medium.
3) Get Inspiration and encouragement.
When I’m posting regularly, I see more stories in the world. I’m more likely to ask questions of the people around me, and truly listen. This spills over into my longform writing, making me more curious about my characters and more conscious of the circumstances that make people who they are.
Posting a micro-essay is like a low-stakes “submission” to the world. There’s no “dislike” button, so I get the encouragement without the rejection. The level of engagement tells me what people enjoy reading, and comments suggest future blogging topics for Brevity and writing questions to address in my next book. Every little heart makes me feel like someone is interested in what I have to say and reminds me to write again tomorrow.
If you’re just getting started on Instagram, or you want a more enjoyable experience that benefits your writing, a couple of quick tips:
- Line breaks. One of the great mysteries of Instagram! To get an empty line between paragraphs, make sure there is NO SPACE at the end of the paragraph. Hit return. Type a period or emoji, NO SPACE, hit return and start your next paragraph. There are apps that allow you to type a caption and copy-paste with empty lines, but it’s an extra step. Keep your Insta commitment small.
- Don’t worry about the follow/unfollow thing. Many “large” accounts are using follow-bots to artificially build their numbers. When you click through to see a profile with thousands of followers and very low followings, they are going to unfollow you. Only follow back if you’re truly interested in their content.
- To build your own followers, find people you like from other social media or real life. When you follow, comment on their most recent post with what you like about it and say where else you know them from. Make sure your profile says what you do and your name is identifiable. Show your face in your profile picture. Participate in following threads on Facebook and Twitter.
- An engaged Instagram presence doesn’t have to be time away from your writing. Unlike influencers who need current daily content, writers can do just fine with 1-5 posts/week. Don’t bother to post on the weekends unless you love it.
- Don’t get sucked in. Stay limited and specific: take 20 minutes and post one picture, write one solid caption. In your down time (subway, waiting room, on the potty) take 15 minutes and comment on 10 people’s most recent post. Like 10 more posts you actually like. Follow 3 new people and comment on 1 post each. Then close the app and look around for a story to tell.
Wanna know more about writing on Instagram? Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams will be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!
April 11, 2019 § 6 Comments
After our attempt to create viral cat videos ended in editorial lacerations…after trying to make “fetch” happen…after our unfortunate experience with twerking (Dinty’s back will heal soon!), Brevity has finally become cool.
Brevity posts writing moments and thought-provoking images. We’ll also be seeking writers for short term Insta-takeovers of image series with accompanying text. (If you’re interested, slide into our DMs!)
Why Instagram? As Twitter becomes politically challenging and Facebook brings out the family racists, Instagram has remained relatively sane and relaxing. Creators are sharing meaningful images and carefully crafted words in a supportive community. Captions are becoming flash nonfiction. Writers are connecting with a lively community of readers and fellow wordsmiths. Celebrity book clubs share novels and memoirs with vast audiences who want to be part of a literary community. Instagram readers are becoming daily more sophisticated, more visually-attuned, and more willing to spend a moment with beautiful words.
We want to reach our readers where they are. Thank you for visiting the magazine and blog online, welcoming us into your inboxes, engaging with our tweets and participating in the Facebook group. Thank you for saying hi at writing conferences and reviewing Brevity authors’ books on Amazon and Goodreads.
Instagram is one more place to share a small part of your literary journey.
Won’t you join us?
PS – for Insta-takeover requests, please contact us on Instagram, that way we don’t lose your message!
February 12, 2019 § 11 Comments
Does Twitter help sell books? Nobody knows. Barnes & Noble customers rarely announce “I came in because of this tweet!” But being visible in the online writing community can be a source of support and inspiration, and enough agents and publishers look at follower numbers to make it worth growing your presence on Twitter.
Twitter basics are just like showing up at an enormous pool party already in progress: Watch conversations before interacting, interact kindly and pleasantly and avoid “fighting words” unless you’re doing it on purpose. Just like that party, you get to swim when you like and stay dry when you want: Twitter rewards occasional involvement throughout the day or week rather than constant checking.
We talked last week about “what the heck to post on Twitter.” But the early days often feel like speaking timidly into the void (647 following! 12 followers! Augh!). How can you organically grow an online community who share your interests and want to hear what you have to say?
The best way to get followers is to follow people, but not randomly. Who will you enjoy reading and who will follow you back?
- Use Twitter follow-frenzies. Search your Facebook writing group for a post asking members to comment with their Twitter handles. Follow them all, and post yours as a clickable link. If you can’t find a follow-thread within the last six months, post one: “Hey, let’s follow each other on Twitter” plus your link will do just fine. It is polite to follow back everyone who follows you unless you actively dislike their bio/feed.
- Go to users’ actual profiles. Hit “follow” and wait for a moment—Twitter will suggest more people you might like. Follow them, too.
- Visit your favorite literary magazine or author’s profile. Add their followers. Use the “followers” list, because the “following” list is likely more famous and less motivated to follow back.
- Follow other writers with low follower counts. Someone with 367 followers is more likely to follow back than someone who already has 70K.
- Follow people who liked a tweet you also liked, or whose response you liked.
- Search hashtags like #amwriting #writingcommunity #writerscommunity #amediting and #cnf (those are clickable links to those searches). Follow people who use those hashtags in tweets and/or their bios.
- Use Lists. To keep track of the people you want to read in that blur of new tweets, assign people you follow to lists. For example, I made a list of “Agents” so I can read only tweets from literary agents I follow. You can also look at someone else’s list: Click on a profile, click Lists, and click on a list. For example, here’s all the AWP presenters for this year’s conference. If you’re attending—or want the conference buzz—subscribe to see those tweets. Then click List Members and follow everyone who seems interesting.
- Unfollow people who don’t follow back after a few weeks unless you are specifically interested in what they have to say. (Michelle Obama is probably not going to follow me back.) Most of my non-mutual followers are news, politics, public figures, literary agents and publishing houses. You can use a tool like Tweepi (start with the free plan to see if it’s for you) to sort your list and easily unfollow non-followers, or just scroll down your Following list on Twitter—it’s in chronological order.
- Don’t bother to follow back travel bloggers and business coaches with huge follower and low following numbers unless you’re really interested. They are using bots that will unfollow you after you follow them (this also happens on Instagram). Dudes with two first names (like ‘Robert Walter,’ ‘James Joseph’), very all-American profiles, and jobs that are military or military-connected in Africa or the Middle East are bots or scammers.
“But Allison,” you ask, “How can I engage meaningfully with the thousands of followers I’d like to have?”
You don’t have to. You’re not on Twitter to talk to anyone, you’re on Twitter to talk to everyone. It’s not like letting your best friend sit next to you at lunch—be part of a great conversation this minute, then move on. Support the people you know well or in person. Retweet writers and cool things to read. Post things you find funny, interesting or cool. Step back and engage meaningfully with the community as a whole, rather than focusing on individuals. Let Twitter wash over you like a wave—and get out of the pool when you need a break.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. See you at AWP!
January 23, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Jared Bilski
- Tweeting funny comments, often involving coffee, along with the #amwriting hashtag – 8%
- Posting photos on your Instagram of a coffee cup and a leather-bound journal; a coffee cup and a laptop; or a coffee cup, a leather-bound journal and a laptop along with the #amwriting hashtag – 6%
- Obsessively checking your #amwriting tweets and Instagram posts for engagement and responding when necessary – 11%
- Posting long, meticulously proofed posts to a variety of Facebook writing groups, posts which are ostensibly about a ridiculous technical concern you have about your incomplete (novel/memoir/screenplay) but are really ways to remind others you are, in fact, a writer even if you feel like you are a fraud with a dogshit idea for a (novel/memoir/screenplay) – 17%
- Pensively smoking hand-rolled cigarettes – 7%
- Crying – 11%
- Crying while reading David Foster Wallace while pensively smoking hand-rolled cigarettes – 9%
- Letting people know you’re a writer during completely unrelated conversations – 10%
- Research (i.e., stalking the social media accounts of famous authors for whom you harbor great resentment and jealousy toward because if you had even a third of their connections and trust money you would be the one talking to Terry Gross about your latest novel instead of writing these goddamn #amwriting posts) – 3%
- Finding creative ways to convince your parents big things are happening with your writing while also casually asking them for money – 16%
Jared Bilski is a writer and comedian who lives on a creek in Collegeville, Pa. He’s written for The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Fatherly and a bunch of websites that no longer exist. The brand/third-degree burn on his left shoulder is a permanent reminder of the stupidity of his youth. Find him on Twitter at @JaredBilski.