June 1, 2021 § 23 Comments
I’ve always had a simple test to show if someone is my “real” friend: Would I drive across state lines in the middle of the night to bail them out of jail?
Now that I live in an absolute monarchy where I’m not even sure if bail is a thing, the equation is a little more complicated. I’ve also spent the past ten years actively making more virtual friends—reviewing books, sharing publishing information, commenting on posts, boosting tweets. That’s a lot more bond money at stake.
But Allison, you say, wary of the reduction of the sacred bond of friendship to an automated heart, How can you be “friends” with people you’ve never met? Social media isn’t real friendship. Acquaintances, maybe. But friends? I mean, would you really even recognize half your Instagram following if you saw them on the street?
Nope. But I’d recognize the people I follow back. Or the hundred or so who turn up at biweekly Writer’s Bridge events, or the twenty or so who come to weekly co-writing events, or the fifteen in my most active comment pod.
O philoi, oudeis philos, exclaimed Artistotle, often translated as, “O my friends, there is no friend”; at once a recognition and a denial. If we have many friends, have we any? Those we deem intimate, we grant power. Here is my secret—destroy me if you will, or as Derrida writes in The Politics of Friendship, “No friend without the possibility of wound.” How many people can we trust to hold the knife?
In the late 1940s, psychologist Leon Festinger led a study investigating the role of physical space in friendship formation. The scientists’ theory: “Friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home, or walking about the neighborhood.” It wasn’t attitude or commonalities that made friends, they found, but proximity. Their study of MIT student housing showed that the most popular residents weren’t the most likeable—they were the people who lived at the bottom of the staircase everyone used to get in and out of the building. Proximity made them more likely to meet more people, giving them a larger chance of connecting. In the 1990s, Steve Jobs redesigned the Pixar offices to put engineers, animators and executives all in one building to create Pixar’s famously collaborative space. Google puts every worker no more than “150 feet from food” so everyone will “casually collide” for “unplanned collaborations.”
These casual collisions are why most of us make our last serious friendships in college: we have proximity to our classmates, with whom we frequently collide, as well as being assigned to work with people we might not have chosen. We’re more codependent: we need a ride to the store, or quarters for the laundry, and there’s no shame in asking, or in saying, “Sorry dude, can’t today.” Common areas abound, places specifically designed to read or talk or think or lie in the sun with a book until someone walks up to say, “Whatcha reading?”
Social media and virtual events recreate the college experience. Paradoxically, living thousands of miles from most of my friends while unable to travel for over a year has built more connections than ever. I spend more time on Twitter and in Facebook groups. I co-invented a biweekly gathering where writers discuss a common topic, have small-group breakouts (Surprise! You’re gonna talk to someone new!), and the chat is alive with personal side-conversations. I’m a member of Instagram comment pods where I’m required to engage…while I grow to like people for who they are.
I don’t have to schedule time for most of these interactions—I don’t even have to agree in advance. Interaction happens when I choose to be in the virtual space. Acquaintanceship grows into intimacy through repetition. Welcome to the Writer’s Bridge, love your haircut! I saw your fabulous essay on Facebook! Your new baby is beautiful on Instagram! I have an answer to that publishing question you Tweeted!
Frequent. Spontaneous. Contact.
Am I in a bad mood? Fine, not commenting on your post right now. Am I in a great mood? Let me drop into a few Facebook groups and share information. Not every person will love me…but as we all survive publishing together, the opportunities are there to develop real friendship.
Early one morning, Wittman Ah, the artist protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, acknowledges “the winners of the party”—not a chosen social group, but the last stragglers of an all-night acid trip, emerging to share the dawn. Strangers thrown together by happenstance and a deeply emotional journey through a common experience. “It’s very good sitting here among friends, coffee cup warm in hands, cigarette,” he thinks. “Good show, gods.”
It might not be practical for me to post my Twitter mutuals’ bail, but I can sure help them promote their book, celebrate success, lick the wounds of failure, brainstorm solutions, provide resources for their current problem, or just plain enjoy their company.
You know, like friends.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to spontaneously connect? She’s leading a webinar for Creative Nonfiction Magazine June 16—come be a new friend! Register here: Writing Powerful Sentences: Going Beyond Grammar.
November 11, 2020 § 13 Comments
What I heard: I don’t want to share my real self or genuinely connect, but I want people to sign up for my commercials.
Because yes, we share our blog links and promote our friends’ books, too, but these are all commercial activities. Read me. Buy me. Buy this other thing.
Nobody wants to be your customer. They want to be your friend.
Facebook already knows this. That’s why Facebook feeds you a steady stream of news from family and acquaintances, posts from interest groups you’re part of, and a very occasional post from that author page you liked a long time ago because your friend asked you to.
Even when you like and follow a business or author page, Facebook rarely delivers their posts. You have to specifically visit the page. For that author, only 10-15% of the people who clicked “follow”—who signed up on purpose!—will see their posts. Mathematical algorithms weigh a page’s popularity and interest to the public, because what Facebook wants is for people to spend more time on Facebook. If a page has thousands of followers, Facebook shows the posts more widely and more often. Famous people get more famous. Viral content goes viral-er.
Social media algorithms aren’t looking for “quality” or “this author deserves a boost!” so if you want anyone to see posts from your author page, you’ll have to pay for advertising. Do you have a product to sell? Your beautiful book, or maybe a course you’re teaching? Run $20 worth of well-targeted ads. No product yet? Don’t bother.
Because Facebook Author Pages don’t attract their own traffic, they don’t usefully separate professional from personal. You will always get far more engagement on your personal page. (Try posting the same link or post or picture to your author page and your profile and see who shows up where.)
No-one wants to be your customer. They want to be your friend.
Even if they see your post in both places, commenting on a friend’s post feels “real” and “connected” in a way that commenting on their low-traffic author page doesn’t.
For a useful compromise, join some interest groups on Facebook. There are plenty of writing groups in all genres, and whether you write about boating or genealogy or special-needs parenting or hot-air ballooning, your topic almost certainly has groups, too. Lurk for a while until you understand how the group functions. Comment when you can help, or congratulate, or encourage. Almost zero groups allow direct “buy my product” advertising. But if you gain a reputation for being helpful and kind, people will ask you about your book.
Administrating an author page is a little more difficult than updating a personal profile. They don’t get traffic, they feel fake even to your friends, and you’ll feel weird constantly advertising yourself.
Make a Facebook Author Page anyway.
Here’s why: One day, you’re going to publish that book, or that second book, or offer a workshop or a course, and you’re going to want to spread the word. You can only buy Facebook advertising for posts on a page, not your personal or group posts.
Here’s why else: if you’re writing a book that will benefit from a social media platform (that’s not all memoirs!) agents and publishers will care how many followers you have on Facebook personally, and on your page. They’ll also care about how many members your groups have, and how active you are in the groups. Pumping up those numbers from scratch at the last minute doesn’t create genuine connections. A long, slow process builds bridges between your writing and reading communities.
- Set up an automatic feed to post to your author page whenever you write something new on Instagram/Twitter/your blog (I use IFTTT, it’s free).
- Share non-private posts from your personal profile to your page, so your fans see some of the personal you.
- Once or twice a week, find a helpful or well-written blog or article you didn’t write. Say why you liked it or found it thought-provoking, and quote something intriguing or counter-intuitive. Post that to your author page (and Twitter, if you have it). Tag the original author. Sharing their work connects you to them a little more, and their fans may discover your work, too.
Sharing your work on your personal profile, among the genuine moments of your life, will always be more rewarding and gain more readers. “We had a picnic!” “So excited about my publishing deal!” and “Wow, these fall leaves!” are far more engaging than “Buy my book,” “Review my book,” “Tell your friends about my book.” Instead of asking friends to watch a commercial, your work sits amidst the many things you mutually find interesting. But a Facebook Author Page has advertising and platform benefits you’re going to need one day—so start gently building your following now.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story December 16th (replay will be available). Click here to find out more and grab your spot!
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!
February 5, 2019 § 8 Comments
Yes, yes, we know. Build a platform big enough and the agents will beat a path to our door. What we really want to do—what we should actually do more than anything else—is write. Yet as memoirists, agents and publishers want to know: How many people can you reach with the news your book is out? How many of them are in the demographic likely to buy your book? How many will leave a glowing review, either because your book is great or because they love you and you write about what’s important to them?
Platform-building is a long haul, and it’s hard to know how to spend our time and focus day to day. What the heck are we supposed to put on social media anyway?
- A new book you think is great.
- Something you overheard that makes interesting dialogue.
- An article you wrote or were involved in publishing: link the article and quote a couple of sentences that seem mildly inflammatory or counter-intuitive.
NEW: “To them, I must look like the girls climbing poles in the background of The Sopranos and in so many rap videos. It’s safe to say they wouldn’t have guessed I’m a professor at UCLA with a background in social work.” https://t.co/JPtHhwZrLO
— Narratively (@Narratively) February 4, 2019
- An article you liked about writing: link plus a quote and/or your opinion or contribution to the advice.
— Elane Johnson (@ElaneJohnson) February 5, 2019
- A writing meme
- Encouragement to someone else
- A fun poll
Important Super Bowl Poll:
What was more boring?
— Mike Redding (@ReddingWriting) February 4, 2019
- A serious poll
Sunday #TWIG poll –
— TWIG (Traveling Writers International Guild) (@TWIGwriters) January 27, 2019
- A retweet of someone else’s opinion with a comment agreeing or disagreeing or adding to the conversation.
- A cartoon or quote that inspires you.
Most of us won’t ever get big enough that platform alone gets us published, but plenty of us have stories compelling enough that a nudge from platform might tip us over the edge from unpublished to published. Take a few moments, and build a little of yours today.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
January 22, 2019 § 8 Comments
The first day of a new circus workshop, there’s always one. Leading warmup, my fellow coach announces to a room full of high school students, already groaning in a leg stretch, “We’re gonna go for gold! Slide that front leg toward the splits!”
Near the side of the room, a kid bails out onto his butt, muttering, “No way, I can’t do that.”
Our coaching ears perk up. I call across the mats, “There’s one word we don’t want to hear in rehearsals. That’s ‘can’t.’ Because can’t means won’t—”
The students who’ve worked with us before chorus along. “—And won’t means push-ups!”
I explain. “When you say ‘I can’t,’ you’re telling your own body, ‘I quit.’ We can’t help with ‘I quit.’ Instead, try to identify the problem—I’m losing my balance! My knee hurts! My partner keeps dropping me!—and we can help you figure that out.”
My coaching partner adds, “If we hear you say ‘can’t,’ you owe us five push-ups. And then you’ll be stronger!”
Splits are hard, and for every high school dancer who wants me to lift her front leg to increase the stretch, there’s another ten students grimacing with their legs at a 90-degree angle. Not every circus move needs the splits, but lengthening their hamstrings helps these students achieve more in rehearsal, and the long-term benefits of enduring unpleasantness to achieve greatness will serve them far beyond next weekend’s show.
The ‘can’t’ whine I most often hear from writers is about platform. I hear it as misery:
I don’t understand Twitter. I’m too old.
I hear it as snobbery:
For one thing, I don’t do social media, and don’t intend to…until I retire: Whatever rewards may come from being an author, it’s not worth my privacy or putting my current (quite nice) paycheck at risk.
I hear it as despair.
Nobody pays attention to me online anyway.
Can’t means won’t. Won’t means working much harder to sell not only your book, but your query, concept, and voice to agents, publishers, and readers.
This ‘can’t’ includes two fundamental misunderstandings:
- Platform=Twitter, Facebook and blogging
- Engaging in building platform means revealing everything about your personal life online.
Platform is the number of people you can reach who might buy your book. Twitter and Facebook aren’t actually that effective, but they’re good for constant low-level engagement with your readers and other writers who will champion your work.
The best platforms are public speaking, mass media, and newsletters. Can you speak about the topic of your memoir to people with the same problem or challenge? Can you publish an essay about it, or send press releases to line up interviews? Can you build a list, one email at a time, of people who’d like to be updated once or twice a month on your work, and share something cool, funny or useful?
Privacy is relative. Creative nonfiction writers are often very self-revelatory about one particular story. But spilling your alcoholism or distance hike on the page doesn’t mean having to reveal your current marriage issues. Social media works for you: you do not work for social media. You are under no obligation to be more or less private about any particular issue. You can engage in politics publicly or not. You can post pictures of your face or not. What matters to your readers is whether you have something interesting to say, and that they’d like to pay (eventually) to hear more.
Sure, you can sell a book without any platform at all. If what you have to say is incredible enough, you can sell it written in crayon on a burlap bag.
Most of us are not that good.
Most of us depend on a mix of excellent-but-not-earthshaking writing, intriguing story, reasonable platform, and literary citizenship. More of one compensates for less of another: someone with millions of Instagram followers and a fascinating story don’t have to write as well as a writer’s-conference veteran telling their unique spin on the recovery memoir. Incredible writers can have a smaller platform. Literary citizens known for sharing others’ work will find promotion opportunities for themselves come more easily.
Don’t say you ‘can’t’ do social media, because that’s not helping you. Instead, identify the problem:
I’m shy. Promote your subject expertise rather than your own life.
My family is super nosy and easily offended/I work for the government. Establish your online/promotional presence under a pen name. By the time you publish, that persona will fully exist.
I despise social media. Build that public-speaking career—local clubs like Lions and Kiwanis are a great low-stakes audience. Get everyone’s email and start your newsletter.
Embrace platform-building as a challenge. What you have to say is meaningful, so why not start sharing it now? Why not reach toward the people who need your words even before your book is out?
Later in the circus workshop, I heard ‘can’t’ again, from the bar of the triple trapeze. I called out, “McKay, you owe me two!”
McKay smiled. “Only two? I thought it was five.”
“It’s been a long day and you’re working hard,” I said.
McKay popped out two tight, sharp push-ups, hands under his shoulders, his body perfectly aligned, then got back in line for his next turn on the trapeze—a tiny bit stronger than before.
When she’s not blogging here, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams teaches Starfish Circus, a school residency & camp program in which 50-150 students grades K-12 put up a full circus show in two weeks. It’s pretty cool.
September 7, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
This past November I took the plunge and jumped headlong into social media. Of course I already had a personal Facebook account for friends and family, but professionally I was way behind the curve. I didn’t have a blog, nor did I tweet. Whenever I had something published, I posted a link on Facebook, but that was kind of like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. My friends and my mom could “like” my link, but it was highly unlikely that an agent or editor would stumble upon anything I posted.
Part of the reason I was reluctant at first to start a blog or Twitter account, was that – like many writers – I am not so good at “tooting my own horn.” Even though I have published hundreds of essays and short stories, most copies of these languish as clippings in three-ring binders I store in my office closet.
One day though, after fretting and grousing about how out of the literary loop I was, I decided I would jump in, and I hired a young woman to help me set up a WordPress blog and Twitter account. It only took a few hours, and I was on my way. And, to my surprise, I discovered that I loved the whole enterprise! Here are some of the reasons why:
— I am very opinionated, and I am always right. (Just ask my family.)
— I’m old, in social media terms (or any terms, for that matter), but my online persona enables me to inhabit a new, witty personality, that – oddly – suits me very well.
— I can share and link to interesting essays, stories, books, and articles about the writing world with my “followers.” My family is happy that I now have an audience – other than them – for this compulsion to share. My mom has this same compulsion, which manifests itself as mailed newspaper clippings.
— I love making new “friends.” Even theoretical friends who I will never meet. And I can ignore nudists, religious zealots, gun lovers, and people who can’t spell.
— I can sit at home in my pajamas and act like I’m doing something in the literary world. I’m involved, even if peripherally and at third remove, with all these new people I follow: authors, editors, agents, publishers, and literary journals.
— Who doesn’t like being “liked” and “followed”? I’m all about immediate gratification.
— I can harbor delusional, but harmless thoughts that an agent/producer/editor will read my brilliant thoughts/tweets and “discover” me.
— I have something quiet and productive to do every day, when I wake up at 5:00 a.m. and everyone else is still asleep.
— Posting tweets and blog entries forces me to do something in the realm of reading and writing almost every day, or at least think seriously about doing something.
— It turns out that I’m really good at thinking up short, pithy random thoughts totally unrelated to anything else. Or, as I prefer to call them: aphorisms. Don’t laugh – Sarah Manguso recently published a book of aphorisms, 300 Arguments: Essays, with Graywolf Press, described on Amazon as, “A brilliant and exhilarating sequence of aphorisms from one of our greatest essayists.”
— Even though I know very few of my readers or new “friends” personally, I feel that I have found a group of people who are silently cheering me on. And that may be the be best part of all.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Red Rock Review, Chicago Tribune, Clapboard House, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Tishman Review, the Brevity blog, and many other publications. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College, lives just north of Chicago, blogs here, and can be found on twitter at @k_stevenson01.
August 11, 2017 § 28 Comments
I heard it yesterday, and I’ve heard it before. At conferences. In workshops. In podcast interviews. Always from a reasonably famous, multiply published writer. The workshop leader. The big visiting cheese.
“Don’t even think about platform.”
“Don’t worry about platform.”
I know they genuinely want what’s best for their students. They want us to focus on words, not clicks. Want us to make great work before thinking about the market, not let what’s selling this week influence the book of our heart.
They are wrong.
They are näive, out-of-touch, factually incorrect and a little bit condescending. Darling little writers–first make a book! Don’t put the cart before the horse!
Of course we want to write a good book. That’s why we paid to take your class. But you know why else we paid to be here? Because we’re hoping (mostly in vain) that you will slam down your pencil, announce “this is the greatest work I’ve ever seen!” then end class immediately and lead us by the hand directly into your agent’s office, shouting “Marlene! You gotta rep this one!”
That’s not going to happen.
You know what else isn’t going to happen? My memoir won’t be magically plucked from slush by an agent who says, “Nobody knows who you are, but you’re so brilliant, don’t even worry about it! Sure, the memoir market is glutted right now, but you–you’re totally different than every other author and the glistening diamonds of your words will bring the world to your door!”
What I see on #MSWL–that’s Manuscript Wish List for those who scorn hashtags–and on websites and in interviews is agent after agent after agent looking for “Memoir/self-help with strong platform.” Sometimes they switch it up: “Memoir/self-help with existing platform.” Novelists have it a bit easier–it’s more about the words, but platform doesn’t hurt. Platform can be why the agent requests the full manuscript instead of saying no to the query, because they know you on Twitter and you’ve been cool. Platform doesn’t get you the book deal (famous-person books are a different category), but it can get you in the door.
The social-media slammers genuinely don’t understand social media. Now, I’ve got a horse in this race–I am, as you probably know, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. I give talks on using social media to practice writing craft. I am invested. But as a person who cares about effective and genuine social media, I also know this:
Platform is not clicks, or follower numbers, or multiple posts a day, or going viral.
Platform is the ability to directly connect with potential book buyers. And my wonderful, brilliant, famous teachers, there’s a reason you don’t think much about platform:
You’re already standing on it.
Platform = fame+genuine, personal connection. That notable book award? The reviews you got in the New York Times? Your Oscar nomination? The conference I just paid $900 to hear you speak at? Your adoring, book-purchasing, word-of-mouth-generating students across the country? That’s platform.
Platform is getting your name out there, yes, but it’s also about genuinely connecting with other people. Social media helps build supportive writing communities. There’s YA Twitter and #5AMWritersClub Twitter and Black Twitter. Places we can hear our idols speak for free, even ask them questions about their work. Places we can meet future readers, people who enjoy interacting with us and will later evangelize for our books. Places we can share our ideas and be challenged, and find out who else is interested in what we have to say.
Social media can waste our writing time, sure. But we can also use it to practice and improve. Write image-inspired micro-essays on Instagram. Editorials on Facebook–Anne Lamott’s doing pretty well there. Rock Tumblr like Roxane Gay. Use Twitter to make every word count, pack endless meaning into a single sentence, and take that craft back to our essays and stories and poems.
My brilliant and beloved platform-hating teachers already have books out in the world, published before Twitter existed. Before agents counted followers before offering representation. My teachers’ publishers are already invested in them, so it’s easy to tell a room of baby writers, “Publicity is the publisher’s job! Not the writer’s!”
Not any more.
I’m in a memoirists’ group on Facebook. More than 100 of the members have traditionally published books in the last five years. They’re doing just as much self-promotion, book-tour-arranging, press-release-writing and word-of-mouth-creating as the self-publishers. They have to, so their sales will justify book #2.
Would I like to be purely writing, unsullied by social media? Sure. It would save a bunch of time. I genuinely enjoy Instagram and blogging here, but yeah, there’s a sense of duty in some of my “platform-building.” But the chances of my being taken on by an agent who is blinded by the beauty of my creative nonfiction and cares not at all for the clickbait of this world is somewhere between being struck by lightning and winning a scratch-off for more than $50.
So please, dear famous teachers: Stop bashing platform. The way we build it is different than the way you did. Not easier, not harder–just different. And we are expected to do it in order to begin to approach the success you’ve already earned, the success that means you don’t have to be on Twitter.
If you want to walk me into your agent’s office, I’m up for it. I’m writing the best book I can write and practicing my craft and protecting my time and I am ready when you are. But until then, pass the hammer, because I’ve got platform to build.
June 22, 2017 § 22 Comments
The first screens that bothered me were in minivans. Back around 1998 when an in-car VCR first was a thing I asked my mother, “But when will the kids be bored?” I remembered long family car rides from Florida to Canada and back every summer, staring out the window, making up games in my head about the dividing line, learning to read the map, playing Alphabet or Punchbuggy, counting cows. I remembered the year I decided–decided!–I would no longer get carsick from reading.
I’m sure big chunks of those rides were boring. And don’t get me started on my Dad smoking with the window cracked. But they were also where I developed some of the life of the mind. The ability to think and dream and plan and guess for hours at a time, unbounded by schedules or plans or classes or teams or “having something to do.”
As an adult, it’s my phone that gets me. Before I carried a computer in my pocket, I was a lot more in tune with the world around me. No matter how virtuous my New York Times digital subscription feels, it’s still not the same as leafing through the physical paper, reading articles I didn’t pick but caught my eye. I don’t think clickbait counts.
On my way home to Dubai yesterday, I had a six-hour layover at Amsterdam Schipol–enough time to go into town and walk around. I’d racked up huge data charges on the last layover here, so I kept my phone in airplane mode and I kept it in my purse. It occured to me I hadn’t done that for a while, so I started a list in my notebook of all the things we used to do before we all had smartphones:
Bummed change for payphones.
Begged and pleaded with the convenience store clerk to please give us change.
Resentfully bought a single jawbreaker or Fireball to get change.
Were on time to appointments, instead of texting running bhind b thr in 10.
Tried restaurants we didn’t know anything about because they looked cute outside.
Looked out the window.
Saw words we didn’t know and wrote them down to look up later.
Couldn’t take a photo unless we’d remembered our camera; couldn’t see what the photo looked like until it came back from the photo lab in the corner of the grocery store.
Read ads and billboards and posters.
Figured out train and bus timetables.
Asked strangers for directions.
Looked around a new neighborhood to find out what kind of stores were around.
Whistled or waved for taxis.
In Amsterdam I did in fact get lost, figuring if worse came to worse I’d get a taxi back to the station, or even ask someone for directions. The Dutch have terrific English, but I’m sure I could have squeezed out some charades for “train” if it were, say, rural China. I knew from the pink-lined windows I was in roughly the Red Light District, and went on a quest for something I can get in Amsterdam but not in Dubai (not that thing, the other thing.) Finding what I wanted by chance felt triumphant. I tried to figure out “Moeder’s Keuze”–I guessed “mother’s kiss” but later found out it’s “mother’s choice” and if anyone Dutch knows why that’s heading a sandwich menu, let me know. On the train back to the airport, the man across from me mouthed into his cellphone, “I’ve sort of glossed over where I’m staying, I think she thinks I’m going to be in Amsterdam tonight,” and I wrote that down for future dialogue.
Don’t get me wrong–I still value the ability to get accurate travel info, settle arguments, and take a picture every time I want. But my phone sometimes cuts me off from adventure and hazard and spontaneity. It’s certainly not doing anything for my mood when I check Twitter upon waking. I already turn the phone face down when I’m writing, and it’s time to stop whipping it out every time I have a free five minutes. I don’t need to zap gems or solve puzzles or learn a French verb or even read something edifying to get ideas/think through a writing block.
I need to be bored.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She still plays Alphabet by herself on long drives.
June 20, 2017 § 14 Comments
I did another self-funded mini-Amtrak residency last week. One of the best parts of the train is inconsistent/slow wifi and poor cell reception. I spend a lot of time looking out the window and thinking thinky thoughts. Another best part is shared tables–Amtrak seats strangers together until a dining car table is full. And usually, that’s pretty awesome.
Last week, the man beside me began dinner conversation by passing out scraps of paper with his name and “bn.com” so we’d know where to download his books. Give the man credit–he was of an age that paper media was probably a more comfortable way to connect than whipping out a smartphone and asking for our Twitter handles. Unfortunately, he also brought up a strong political position over the salad course, at which the lady across the table joined me in a chorus of, “Oh, we never talk politics with strangers!”
Maybe because the day before I’d heard a strong political position from my beloved hairdresser that made me rethink whether the terrific face-framing layers were worth it, or because that morning I’d gotten into a tussle with a stranger on Facebook, it hit me pretty hard to hear another diatribe in a place I thought was safe.
As writers, we’re “supposed” to “build platform.” Get to know people in our field, online and off. We tend to accept most friend requests, join most groups that seem vaguely simpatico, check what’s happening online like it’s a duty instead of a way to duck writing a tricky sentence (guilty!). Until November 2016, this all-access plan was mostly good. Since then, I’ve found a lot of my social media time feels like running through a paintball game.
Click–Pow! Horrible event I care about! Where’s my senator’s number?
Click–Zap! Surprise bigot in the comments!
Maybe you’re feeling some of this, too. And as the Social Media Editor around here, I want to give you permission (nay, encouragement!) for a good summer clean-out. Look through your Facebook friends–anyone you truly don’t remember? You don’t have to unfriend them, just unfollow. (For a more gradual process, check the birthday notifications. Anyone you don’t care enough to wish a happy day to can probably be unfollowed.) If nastiness pops up on a friend’s feed, block the source and you won’t see them any more. Every time you see something awful on Twitter (that isn’t a citizen’s duty to be aware of) mute that account.
What kind of social connections do you want to be making? What idea exchanges do you want to have? Instead of waiting for the sore spots to get poked, take ownership. Pick one day a week or one time a day to participate. Decide what topics you care enough to engage on and let everything else go–even if you have the BEST FACT EVER to refute with. Start a newsletter (Tiny Letter is pretty easy) so that it’s you reaching out when you choose, and people who email you back are likely into what you have to say. Remember social media as a place to have fun, and share silly memes, make jokes, and express your personal voice about your garden, your dog, or your writing process.
When I got into the train dining car the next morning, I saw the male author headed my way, and I whispered into the hostess’ ear that I’d rather not sit with him, please. She put me at a table with a couple. I asked them where they were from. “Seattle!” chirped the woman. We talked about Broadway musicals and mime and their children and my husband, and I didn’t once bring up my book.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Shhhhhhhh…
November 7, 2016 § 5 Comments
We’re back on the air! This month’s Brevity Podcast is now available right here and on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher. If your fancy technical skills involve RSS feed wrangling, here’s our feed. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches.
Episode #2 features an interview with Andre Dubus III on his memoir Townie, and the burning question of whether one must have an eventful life in order to write memoir. Suzanne Roberts talks about her retreat program Wordy Girls, and how she figured out that writing was not in fact her first priority.
Who else would you love to hear? Let us know in the comments.
Show Notes: Episode #2 People, Books and Places
Suzanne Roberts’ books include the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award-winning Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, and the poetry collections Plotting Temporality, Three Hours to Burn a Body: Poems on Travel, Nothing to You, and Shameless. Her work has been published in many literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, ZYZZYVA, Fourth River and Gulf Stream, and widely anthologized. Suzanne was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic Traveler Magazine. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-res MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham College.
Suzanne’s essay for Brevity, “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin”
Andre Dubus III is the author of six books, including the New York Times’ bestsellers House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days, and his memoir, Townie. His most recent book, Dirty Love, published in the fall of 2013, was a New York Times “Notable Book” selection, a New York Times “Editors’ Choice”, a 2013 “Notable Fiction” choice from The Washington Post, and a Kirkus “Starred Best Book of 2013.”
Andre has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, and is a 2012 recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. His books are published in over twenty-five languages, and he teaches full-time at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Fontaine, a modern dancer, and their three children.
Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College
Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story
Allison K Williams hosts and produces the Brevity Podcast, and is the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.