Look Away, Stay True

Recently a fellow writer, Chelsea Biondolillo, posted on Facebook: “I’m wearying of the push to turn ourselves into clickbait so our writing can go viral and we can get paid.” A number of other writers chimed in along these same lines.

I found myself responding: “Look away, stay true.”

I mutter these words with some frequency when bombarded by news of viral success and the concurrent prescriptions about what writers must do to have greater impact. I feel the grip of a toxic reaction when reading about awards or publications or the holy grail of going viral. Sometimes I have to take myself in hand.

Given the nature of social media, with the retweets and shares, the news of a single success comes over and over again, like the same obituary posted many times. At the first sounding, I may be genuinely pleased for the writer, but after multiple notices during the day, and—with longer-lived pulses in the media ether—the day after that, my pleasure wears thin, and the cuffs start to show wear.

There’s the inevitable turn to self-scrutiny, to what is called, in the technical terminology of emotional health, beating myself up. You assess your own career, wherein nothing is happening for you. No editors or agents are banging on your door after reading that thing you published, because it didn’t go viral. It’s hardly been read, you suspect, except by loyal friends and family.

Many will recognize this way of measuring against others in this socially mediated crapshoot we call writing in the age of the Internet.

Happily, I can also report that, after slushing around in the pits of despair, a more appealing version of myself usually pops back up and sincerely congratulates the Viral One.

It feels odd now to publish an essay in a journal that doesn’t have much of an Internet presence, where the content is hard copy only, a throwback to days when we woke up and looked first at the sun, not our Device. In that era, unless someone wrote me about the experience of reading, I didn’t know how many people read my work. I suspect very few. There was a kind of freedom in that, the freedom of not knowing.

Recently I’ve published two essays, and the differences between the attendant emotional jaunts have been instructive. “Float” appeared in the Normal School, a journal I admire greatly, available only in hard copy. “Float” is the first published taste of the memoir I am working on called Haze, and naturally I wondered if it would garner some attention and response. It did not, as far as I can tell. It came and went, a wing in the dark.

Two weeks ago “Bring It” went live on The Rumpus, an online journal I also admire. The response was modest but satisfying. Some writers I respect commented upon it, and a few shared it. Despite my resolution to remain even-keeled, I felt my pulse, an excitement and anticipation. I did track the responses, and participated by acknowledging comments and sometimes commenting back. There was a small but steady stream of readers the first day. Then the responses dwindled and, before long, my pulse returned to resting state.

During this same period, I posted a video of my dog Omar swimming out into Puget Sound to catch a ball. By the end of the first day it had been viewed by more than four hundred people, a far greater number than read my essay. My husband jested that I could get a bigger audience if I attached one of my essays as a voice-over to visuals of Omar.

The two efforts of mine that received the largest response online were “Weight,” published on the Roxane Gay–edited Toast/Butter, and a blog post, “Waiting.” The first probably got a response because of the following Gay has developed, and perhaps because of its timeless subject matter. The second small hit benefited from being picked up by the WordPress Reader.

I wouldn’t be able to duplicate these two small successes even if I tried, though I wouldn’t want to try because I am resistant to formulas. There is something mysterious and miraculous about writing well, a stance contrary to the advice articles, the packaged wisdom, penned by editors, agents, and writers who tell others, yearning for success, what to do.

I have to remember who I was when I started writing, why I wrote and what I expected my efforts to produce. I want to reclaim the writer I used to be, who never thought about networks or sales, who believed (naively) that if her writing was “good enough,” something would come of it. She didn’t have fantasies about money or recognition. She thought it a miracle that she could create something good. Where did it come from? she asked. Who wrote that? Her writing was a gift, and more than she had ever dreamed.

I never want to forget how much being a writer is—how it has anchored me and given me purpose and outlets that couldn’t have been mine otherwise. I want to remember to write what is mine to write and to write it as well as I can, to look away from what others are doing and stay true to whatever small gift I have.

A prescription you might put like this: go viral inside.