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.


The Things We Carry

Class assignment: Take an inventory of your bag, pick three telling items, and let them tell.

1. Pencil

In the back pocket, a green Michigan State University pencil, sharpened at a steep angle, with a fresh eraser the color of a garden pot. It came in a pack of fifty, bound with a thick rubber band, purchased at the campus surplus store, and given to me by a student named Harold. It was our last day together, and pencils were needed for course evaluations on mark-sense forms.

Harold was a Vietnam vet with a slim build who wore wire-rim glasses and held a job on campus. He often brought me small items of the sort needed by those of us who work on paper—erasers, pens, paper clips.

I wasn’t the only recipient of his gifts. He gave little things to his fellow students, too. He baked cookies with macadamia nuts and brought them to class in a special tin. He was always thinking of ways to encourage the others.

One afternoon the class was discussing the writer’s voice. A compelling voice, I said, isn’t always pretty. Behind a strong voice is the character and power of a lived life. It’s a sound you want to listen to, but it doesn’t have to purr. “Like Bob Dylan,” I said.

The students, decades younger than I, groaned. En masse they agreed that Dylan’s voice stank. Once they got up a head of steam, they couldn’t say enough about just how awful it was.

Harold spoke up: “If you think Dylan can’t sing, listen to Nashville Skyline.” The next day he arrived with Nashville Skyline burned on a CD.

Harold’s own voice expressed a self-deprecating humor with the softness of a dove.

“You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand,” sang Dylan in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Years later, Harold’s pencils still roll when I pull open the top drawer of my desk.

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2. Chalk

The assignment was to write a poem in imitation of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I wanted students to write their imitations on the blackboard, have them cram together at the front of the room, fitting their lines between others. How stuck we are in our seats! Wedged into little desks hour after hour, looking at screens, while all our energy drains down to our feet. I wanted to get back to basics, to chalk and words, to the slant and length of the letters, the indentations of lines, to scraping the letters onto the blackboard, like a wet, black bough.

I wanted to read the poems out loud again and again, until the students became poets, accustomed to hearing poets’ voices in a classroom, speaking their poems—to fill the boards with the electric colored words, and to leave them there for those who came next.

My plan required colored chalk, so I went to Office Max. I found the stubby kind for sidewalks, but not the thinner sticks that are easier to manipulate. After searching in vain, I located a clerk and asked where I might find chalk.

“Chalk,” he said, as if dimly trying to recall his days in second grade. He led me to an aisle I had already searched, and examined the shelves, filled with the accoutrements of digital techno-wizardry. He soon gave up, pulled his phone from its holster, and called back to the stockroom. Another clerk came out to help.

“This lady is looking for chalk. Do we have any?”

“We don’t carry much chalk anymore. People aren’t using it because, you know, PowerPoints and whiteboards,” the second clerk said. He walked me back to another aisle I had already scoured and pointed to a small, solitary box hanging from a display hook. The box was empty. Someone had stolen the chalk.

“I’ll check the storeroom,” he said.

I looked at Pilot V5 fine-point pens for a long time. At last the clerk reemerged, carrying the jewel in the Office Max firmament—a tiny box of chalk.

“It’s the last,” he said, “the very last.”

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 3. Book

Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s story of saving herself from addiction and despair by hiking a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. In preparation she stuffs her backpack, which she calls Monster, with thirteen books, including four of my own favorites: The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor, and Dubliners by James Joyce. After finishing a book she burns it, shrinking the Monster on her back.

But the Dream she carries all the way to the end, reading the poem “Power” at night like a prayer (“her wounds,” says Rich of Marie Curie, “came from the same source as her power”).

Cheryl carries the Dream all the way because she cannot reach the end of her venture empty-handed. Her bag must not be exhausted. There must be something to find at the conclusion, something to discover, the journey’s revelation and truth, the truth of her story of rescue, the conversion of wound to power: a book.

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