On Living Out Loud
One of the many reasons that writers lead strange, out-of-step lives is that to do our work requires solitude, silence and contemplation, and to promote our work requires that we step out into the world, to whatever degree we are able. These two aspects — the doing and the promoting — are not easily reconcilable. In fact, they clash in so many ways that it can drive a writer crazy. (And I do mean crazy.) If you run into a writer in the midst of a book tour, you will encounter a shell-shocked creature, thin-skinned, nervous, anxious about how it’s going, lonely for home, unused to the sound of her own voice. This writer has stepped out from her dark cave — that shadowy, hallowed place where she created her work — and now she is squinting, shading her eyes from the sunlight. She’s happy to be out in the open air, but at the same time, her nerves are jangled. She wrote the book. She poured her whole self into it. Isn’t that enough?
It most decidedly is not enough. Writers today have relationships with our readers that go far beyond the pages of our books. To be able to connect with readers is an enormous privilege. But here’s where it gets complicated. Now, if we aren’t careful, we can bring that sense of being in public right into our very own writing rooms. We can sit at our desks and feel like we’re living out loud. Facebook! Instagram! Twitter! Amazon customer reviews! Goodreads! If we so desire — or even if we don’t desire, not at all, but cannot help ourselves — with a single click we can try and convict ourselves in the court of public opinion. A writer might be sitting at her desk, about to get to work, and with a swift self-Google, she can find someone, perhaps many someones, who just isn’t that into her. She can fling open the door to her inner sanctum and let all the noise and opinion of the world pour in.
I am one of those writers who has an online presence. I have not built it strategically, or even consciously. It has evolved over time, and I quite enjoy it. I’m on Facebook, and Twitter, and even recently joined Instagram. I have kept this blog. up for a long time now –– even though I don’t post very often. I usually wait until I have something to say. Since the publication of Still Writing I have done dozens of online interviews, even one in which I interviewed myself. I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago that stirred up some controversy, in which I openly addressed a reader who was nasty to me on Facebook. Before the piece was published, my husband made me promise that I wouldn’t read the online comments. There were a lot of them, and do you know what?
I didn’t. Not because I wasn’t interested. Not because I didn’t care. But because I knew that there would be bruising, painful comments and that reading them would be like falling down a rabbit hole. The toxic comments –– amidst all the others –– would stick to my bones, while the supportive comments would wash over me like water. Like most of us, I am all-too-ready to think the worst of myself. To censor myself. This soft underbelly is the place from which I write, and I must at all costs protect it.
I get to spend my days –– when I’m writing –– shaping chaos (the chaos of imagination, the chaos of memory, the chaos of history) into stories. I feel lucky to be able to do this, even when it’s agonizing, which it is, much of the time. As I sit here writing, snow is falling outside my window, my dogs are on the floor beneath my chaise, my third cappuccino of the day is by my side. I move pieces around on the page, or in my head, or both — to see how one might make music, might make a greater kind of sense, when juxtaposed with another. When I am able to do this, time falls away. I am at my most miserable only when I fail in the attempt– meaning, when I don’t get to the page at all, which is the only true failure.
The only way I can make this attempt, every day, is to be sure the voice I am most listening to is my own. Other voices are wise, some are cavalier, some are malicious, others are kind. But I cannot lick my finger, then stick it up to see which way the wind is blowing. My inner sanctum needs to be precisely that. So that when I emerge –– when I blink and squint in the light of day –– I know exactly who I am, honed and chiseled in the darkness.