Never correspond with your readers, unless invited

I have been asked whether I ever correspond with my readers. Well, naturally we writers do, especially when we are so embroiled in social media these days. Writers automatically seek an audience, that’s why we write, so when someone writes back to us and refers to our writing, our interest is aroused, our vanity is stoked, and our bubble of loneliness is punctured.

But what happens when a writer takes a reader unawares and initiates the conversation? I am guilty of this act of commission, and after three lessons, I decided to discontinue this practice. The first incident occurred when a reader gave one of my books a score 1 on a scale 1(poor) to 5(excellent). This particular book had been enjoying an average reader score of 4 on Goodreads, so I was curious as to why this reader had found the book so weak. As she hadn’t written comments to support her rating, I was itching to find out more. So I wrote to her asking why she had scored my book so poorly, and could she provide some constructive feedback. I never received a reply. The second time, I encountered an independent reviewer who said that another one of my books needed stronger editing. As I had self-published that particular book, I wrote to this reviewer to ask for pointers on where I could improve. I never heard back. On the third and final occasion, I stumbled upon a social media group that had been discussing my books in a positive way. I wrote to thank the lead member of the group, and asked for her view on a controversial point in one of my books; I thought an enthusiastic and engaged reader would be able to provide me a new perspective on this point. Silence was the reply.

To say that my self-confidence was shaken was an understatement. But after the air returned to my deflated ego, I tried to figure out why I had been treated so shabbily. Then a few things became clear to me. I am a fiction writer. I create worlds in which the writer is absent, only his characters exist. Fiction writers are not intrusive, and their voices emerge through the mouths of their creations; readers draw their own inferences from what is laid down on the page, sometimes, obviously, sometimes opaquely. Therefore, my sudden presence “in the flesh” must have been alarming – like a dead man come to life, and one who had been snooping on the conversations others had been having about him! I had betrayed the trust of the storyteller, where the story is more important than the teller.

In the age of social media, self-publishing, and shameless self-promotion, writers are pushed towards breaking the wall that exists between them and readers, and towards making contact with the “other side.” Some say it’s the “new way,” that readers buy the writer and not the story. That may be so for commercial survival, and even then, commercial writers work with their publicists to create a persona and all communication with readers is carefully scripted and routed via one’s literary agent or publisher – an even greater wall of separation.   Yet, readers seem to be more comfortable with this “fictitious” form of correspondence than with a message from the heart.

After my experiences, I have returned to my cocoon of silence and only speak through my stories. Yes, I still remain active on social media and other online channels to announce upcoming projects (the shameless self-promotion stuff), but a serious discussion of my work will not be on the cards, unless specifically invited. This has been a hard lesson to learn, and one I thought worthy of sharing with others on the same journey.

The Selfie is another form of Narcissism

I got into an argument the other day when I made the bold statement that “selfie takers are modern•day narcissists.” I couldn’t understand why a person would take so many pictures of themselves, sometimes in the most unglamorous of states, and put them up on social media for all to see.

The barrage of protests that I got had a common thread. The protestors could not understand why it was so bad to indulge in this practice. Some did not know the meaning of the word “narcissism.” “Everybody is doing it, so why not I?” was a common protest; my counter, “And if everyone is jumping off a cliff, why not you?”

On deeper reflection, I realized that they were probably right. Everyone wants to be noticed, so why not they? And in this info•crazed universe where the proverbial “15 seconds  of fame” has shrivelled to the “nanosecond of screen time,” the selfie is a great way to attract attention, and the more bizarre and dishevelled you are in the picture, the better.

The media mentioned recently that our Toronto mayor (whose name need not be mentioned for his worldwide fame has been guaranteed by the talk shows), was indulging in one continuous selfie with his antics in public and private life. I have to hand it to him; he has name recognition over the dozen or so other unknown candidates in the upcoming election. He might even get re•elected, purely by those like me who draw a blank at the polling booth and recognize his name on the ballot over 12 other nobodies – “better the known devil than the unknown one.”

Let’s face it, we let this happen. The moment we opened up personal social media pages, personal websites, blogs, or decided to sell our product on line, we had to leave a photograph as a calling card. That was Selfie Generation 1.

Then the technology made it easier to take pictures on the fly and upload them to the cloud of gawkers out there. And it became a necessity (I’m not sure how or why) to let the whole world know what we were eating, wearing, or doing at any given moment. We did not know why we had to do it, but we just felt compelled to.  Enter Selfie Generation 2, the present one.

I am wondering what would happen if some clever technician is able to take our selfies off their public perches and manipulate them to give us donkey ears or monkey tails, or embed us into compromising positions that we may never want to be in, and then replace us on those very perches for the world to see? Would we all be beating a hasty path to retrieve our selfies and delete them as they keep going viral and proliferating around us? Or would we give up the battle and, like Narcissus, drown in the pool? Enter Selfie Generation 3 – I hope it never comes!

The Famine of Time

We live in an abundance of printed matter but we are facing a famine of time.

Every time I write an article, a short story, or even commence writing a novel, I feel like a thief. With this act, I am suggesting that another soul sets aside her time to read my work and assimilate it, for better or worse. Her time that could have been otherwise spent doing necessary housework, doing paid work, caring for loved ones, reading a better book, or simply communing with our rapidly disappearing nature. With my article, I am robbing my reader of her time.

We live in an abundance of printed matter, available today in various media, but we are facing a famine of time. There are more things we have to do today in order to be counted, or so we believe: we need to hunt for work (the old 9•5 with a pension at the end of the rainbow has vanished); we also need to do the work of five due to the new mantra of “doing more with less”; we need to care for children and elders, both who are living longer in those states; we need to check•in with our myriad followers on social media and keep them advised of every move we make, every meal we eat (replete with pictures); we need to paraphrase, cut & paste or re•tweet news content from prominent people and disseminate it to our followers and thereby promulgate those prominent writers’ fame while proving to our followers that we are still alive, kicking and reading; we need to keep current with consumer trends in case we wear the wrong accoutrements for the wrong occasion; we need to read the latest book on the best seller list to stay relevant on the cocktail circuit, we need…we need…we need to separate “need” from “want” for the two have become inseparable. Unfortunately, the day has only 24 hours, and all these activities have to fit into it. And on top of all that I go and write another article with the implied insinuation: “Read It!”

I wonder whether we can take an example from the corporate world and try to re•engineer our lives to free up some time. Corporate re•structuring happens when fat builds up over time, especially during periods of growth. When the corporate famine occurs – it’s called recession or economic downturn – the re•engineers arrive. Anything and everything that is not “core” to the company’s business is slashed. Out go training programs, investment projects, workplace health, senior employees nearing retirement, consultants, and travel & entertainment. Could this approach be used to re•structure our lives now that we are in a famine of time?

Let’s see, what would I cut or re•structure? I would cut out those peripheral activities that bring little benefit to me. Out will go shopping, the cocktail circuit, the bestseller list (it’s the NY Times’ list – not mine), the re•tweets, the personal GPS (“Shane just checked in at LaGuardia” – I’m not suffering from dementia yet, and no one else gives a rat’s ass about where I am anyway); social media will become optional – I never had it 10 years ago and lived comfortably then. Next comes my reading list; any book that does not get to the point in its first three chapters, is out — sorry, fellow writer, we are living in a famine of time! And most importantly, every time I think of writing something, I will reflect on whether it helps me or another person. If it doesn’t, it gets cut too. Of late, I have been rather silent on Facebook for that reason.

As you may be asking, yes, I did think long and hard before writing this article. I hope it gets you thinking of what you will cut out, otherwise I would have wasted your precious time.

A Writer’s Repeating Themes

I have been writing a blog for over five years, so I took the time to pause and review what I had written. I have written over 180 articles, averaging three a month, on a variety of subjects, all of which I thought were quite original and topical at the time. But when I re•read them, some key themes kept appearing and re•appearing. My articles seemed to fall into the following broad categories:

1)      The Writing Life, its rewards and travails

2)      Politics & Society, especially an exploration of the parts that do not work

3)      Business Life, its necessity and its incompleteness

4)      Travel

5)      Social Media, its opportunities and pitfalls

6)      Life Stages

So, that’s it really. One hundred and eighty articles circling around six themes. I could have written six large essays, one on each of the topics, and have had my say, packed my pen, and gone fishing. Instead, I circled around pet peeves, unearthing new material and coming at them from different angles each time, a veritable dog with a bone, or six of them.

Is this what most writers do? Exorcise their ghosts by repeatedly confronting them, or do they stand on a platform and make their point until people turn a blind eye and a deaf ear? Dickens returned to the nemesis of his childhood, the workhouse, time and time again; Twain sailed the Mississippi back and forth; Hemingway confronted death not only in the afternoon but everywhere and all the time until the last instant of his life; Lawrence was trapped in the sex act; and Joyce walked the streets of Dublin even when he no longer lived there.

This question went through my mind as I pored over my 180 articles, thinking of the time and effort that had gone into writing them. I know that thousands of readers have read them, if I can trust the tracking meters on all the sites I had them posted on. But did anyone change their life as a result of these articles? Did anyone even say, “Ah, ha!” That, I will never know. All I know is that my life stayed in balance for having written them, perhaps it even changed for the better, when I realized that I could not change the world but could change myself and accept the unchangeable.

So that’s it, I concluded: I was not writing for an audience, I was writing for my own therapy and survival. These themes were important to me and still are; that’s why I keep returning to them time and time again. And in rereading them, I have come to appreciate them even more. The issues I have been absorbed with are unsolvable and need to be confronted in their many guises. The more aggressive minded may join political organizations, non•profit organizations and/or service clubs to deal with matters that are important to them, matters that will prevail long after the activists have shuffled off this mortal coil. But like them, the writer too shows his activism by continuing to write about those unsolvable issues that matter most to him. The act of confronting them is the sign of never giving up. To give up is to die.

Okay, back to the grind. What shall I write about next? Should it be on the writing life, or politics and society, or business life….?

 

Lessons on Social Media From Two Guys on the Subway

I overheard these two guys, Jim and Sam, talking on the subway.
Jim: You’ve been on this social media kick for some time now. Is it working for you?
Sam: Sure is, man. I’d be resenting talking to you right now if my iPad was getting a signal in this tunnel.
Jim: I know, “Google it,” has killed asking a question and starting a conversation. The woman I last dated couldn’t keep her hands off her Blackberry. I finally got up and left midway during dinner and she didn’t even look up from her Facebook chat.
Sam: That FB thing is a bit overrated, especially if you are trying to sell something. It’s like preaching to the choir – “The Mutual Admiration Society” I call it. Everyone is shouting “Like me, like me.” I get on only to post snarky comments about us little guys getting screwed by the big guys. Saves me from going to a shrink. It’s also a great place for tree huggers and plagiarists.
Jim: Why do you say that?
Sam: Well, the tree huggers are always talking spiritual things, about love and kindness and God and stuff when we know that there is very little of that around. They are hoping against hope, and I find that re•assuring. It tells me that at least someone hasn’t given up. And the plagiarists are cutting news clips from other sources and commenting on them as if they were their own material – who are they kidding?
Jim: What do you post?
Sam: Well, I started with posting diatribes of all that was not going well in the world: the rise of the right wing, the greed of the One Percent, unjust wars and stuff, and I found that no one was reading. No one had time. And no one really gave a damn. Here are my findings: the 140 byte tweet can get around to thousands, if it’s catchy, and if you take the 2% response rule from the direct mail world, you may get 200 to 300 people who will actually read your tweet. A 150•word article (diatribe, in my case) will get about 100 close followers reading you. After that, and the longer the word count gets, readers tail off dramatically. Never publish your novel on there – everyone will download it, but none will read it. Now, my focus is on creating pseudo accounts for myself and writing glowing reviews of my books.
Jim: Is the material you publish online, safe?
Sam: Heck, no! And don’t bother asserting your copyright with bold announcements – it looks good but it doesn’t work. A website will use your material the way it sees fit. The good news is that on “member sites” like FB, Twitter and such, your post gets swallowed up in the news feed within minutes. Chances are, you will never be noticed, unless you post an obscene photo and go viral. If you want to be immortal in cyberspace, post your stuff on open websites and make sure your material is optimized for the search engines, and be controversial. Controversial sells. I find stuff I posted in the public domain years ago are still showing up when I Google myself. I can’t even find my FB feeds from last month.
Jim: So why are you still at it?
Sam: Because, social media is the best damned water cooler chat line given to us workers who have been steadily relegated to solitary, insignificant cube•dom. I would die if I am unable to take a regular time•out at work and join my fraternity of online pals looking desperately for a “like” or an acknowledgement to say that what they had just written or plagiarised made sense. It’s a form of online hugging.

It was at this point that Jim and Sam got off at the next station. Or did I get off at that station? I can’t remember, the conversation was so engrossing! Come to think of it, did those two guys really exist, or was I dreaming the whole thing up? Oh well, I’ll be on the subway tomorrow too and if those fellas show up having a similar conversation, I will know!

Seeking fame and protecting privacy online – a tough balancing act

The social media enthusiast lives in a parallel universe: on the one hand he is isolated from human contact by being totally focussed on his PC, tablet or mobile device, thumbing away to an equally anonymous community of friends, on the other his life is now a public one where every photo, joke, threat, bias, peeve and airport check•in is on display to the whole world.

Social media seems to be a panacea to our continuing spiral inward from community towards individuality and the resulting need to be noticed from among the crowd. For it really is about the “I” isn’t it? At the extreme end of this desire lie examples like the recent flesh•eating high profile murder case in Toronto where the “I” went rabid, or the lone guy who shoots up a public place for fame. Now, to be clear, we are all not a bunch of looney tunes, but after boxing ourselves into jobs in isolated office cubicles or home offices, middle•of•the road soc•meds emerge as street•corner politicians on soapboxes that they wish would go viral one day, establishing their legacy globally and liberating them from their President•for•Life role in their Republic•of•One. Our very isolation creates this craving for human contact and validation.

But the craving comes with a caveat these days, we don’t want the touchy feely bit—we want no body contact any more. Contact is limited to a neutral screen, which could be switched off if we do not like what we see or hear, an interface that could be put on mute while we multi•task on other activities in an attention•deprived state. At work, how often have we succumbed to the temptation of choosing to attend a traditional face•to•face meeting virtually, via conference call and laptop, so that we can multi•task in private and not have to sit in a room with a bunch of fellow humans, trapped into paying attention to a single topic, and be nice?

As for privacy, I guess there is none of that anymore, much as we desire it. Privacy began to slip when people started having cell phone conversations in public places. It was like practicing for a naked parade down the information catwalk. After that, it was just steps away to uploading personal profile information on a myriad of social networks, including the names of the spouse, the kids, the dog and photos of the family vacation. Not forgetting, ingesting all those bots and cookies that tracked our every online movement in perpetuity. Today, when asked a question about someone unknown, replying, “I don’t know her” is not acceptable anymore. One is supposed to Google, Facebook, Twitter and Link•In before replying. And we are likely to find “too much information” on that person. Going into a sales meeting with a prospective new client has a different set of dynamics now: you are expected to launch right in with the qualified ice•breaker: “So, how’s your 5 handicap in golf these days?” or “I read your recent book” (the free Google executive version, most likely). Even companies are beginning to allow their employees to text and tweet because if an employee is going to hang himself (and the company), then the employer may as well provide the rope, and yank it in before much damage is done on the public sidewalk.

Yes, the more we want to be noticed, the more we want to be left alone, untouched in a world that refuses to afford us privacy. Social media appears to be a viable solution offering this happy medium. But is it isolating us even more, creating an even sharper divide between the conflicting forces of fame•craving and privacy•seeking that assail us? I wonder….

The Age of Opinion

In previous blog posts, I had categorized our present age variously as the age of fear, the age of personality, the age of the artist and now I am going to add a fourth: the age of opinion.

We have always had opinions but many of us have not been able to express them in past eras. This was for many reasons: some of our predecessors could not articulate opinions due to a lack of education and a lack of access to channels or communication tools; some of us were censured for our opinions with punishments as harsh as jail or death; some of us preferred to keep our opinions to ourselves as it was culturally more acceptable.

Then social media dawned and made it all possible, and in some instances, mandatory; we had to have a public persona. Everyone had to know everything about us. “Just Google him!” became a standard. It was professional suicide if a person who actively pursued a profession that dealt with the public—like a writer, for instance—was told that he could not be found on the Internet. And this led to people wanting to know what you stood for: “Take a stand, man. Show us your beliefs, principles, ideas, life stories and family pictures. We want to know that you are a living, breathing thing out there.” And on the employment field, “If you want a job with us, we wanna know all about you before you even step in for an interview. Oh, and if we don’t like what you’ve posted in cyberspace, don’t be surprised if we suddenly cancel that interview on you. Forget resumes and references, just your online persona will give us clues on whether you will be a fit with us.” It was as if job ads had a subliminal qualifier: “Strong silent types need not apply.” Thus, after all this information was uploaded, there was only one step left: gravitate towards being a full•fledged Online Opinionator. Why not?

And so we have opinions on everything: what we eat, where we vacation, what we read, what we buy, who we date. And we love to offer opinions. People do not make a purchase based solely on advertizing any more—no, we need everyone’s thoughts on it as well. Oh, you poor ad companies, you that fuelled and funded those start•up social media sites, did you think that matters would come to this pass?

One thing that all this opining helps with is in choosing your friends more easily. If everyone is wearing their hearts on their sleeves these days, or, more aptly, flashing their opinions on their Facebook pages, it’s easy to know where you stand relative to the other. Perhaps the entry point to person•to•person friendships in future will be a virtual one at first. Perhaps Facebook will invent new signs to follow their ubiquitous “like” and “comment,” buttons, like “Let’s Meet for Coffee” followed by “You passed, now you can phone me” or “You failed, bozo.”

Not sure where this will end. Maybe we will drown in our opinions and start regurgitating them (there are only a finite number of opinions one can have, surely. I am fast running out of my supply). Friends will tune out, and it will become harder for corporations to find employees who fit squarely into their boxes. I see more buttons for Facebook: “no opinions, please” and “opinionated out.” “Gimme the facts, man” will be back in style. Perhaps those job ads will change their qualifying line to, “Only strong silent types without a Facebook page need apply.”

And so the world will go around and another age will surely dawn upon us.