Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why Writers Need Social Media

Guest Post by Jane Ward for Talking Writing

Writers write.  Straightforward, yes?  Not exactly. 

Some writers hold down part-or full-time jobs, have active roles in their communities, raise children.  Weekly loads of laundry are a given.  These days we also blog, Tweet, gather fans on Facebook, and insert key search words into our smartly designed websites, thus building marketing platforms.

For the most part—especially when it comes to marketing—the above depicts me, my life, and I admit to having days when I wonder: Well, how did I get here?

Actually, this question has been on my mind this week because both an aspiring writer and a local journalist contacted me to talk about my experiences with Twitter.  Me?  Talk about Twitter?  Eight months ago I was Twitter ignorant and content that way.  A little over a year ago I had no blog and no website. I had one Facebook friend (my hair stylist) who tried and tried in the face of my resistance to explain what wonderful connections Facebook could help me make.  I had little interest, I told him, and my Facebook account languished.  I couldn’t even be bothered to put up a profile picture.

My problem?  A very real fear of diving into the intertwined worlds of social media and self-promotion.  I found the idea of shouting my name loudly from so many public bullhorns frightening. 

Truly.  I’m not being coy here.  I know a few fiction writers, and nine-tenths of us want to let the writing speak for us because we are sort of shy.  We all burn with things to say but prefer to say those things from the mouths of our characters and not our own mouths.  The one writer I do know who has for years seemed entirely at ease with pitching herself makes me shake my head in amazement.  “I’m not that comfortable, I may never be that comfortable promoting myself,” I recall saying to another writer friend more than once. 

Now, it seems, I am that writer.  Or a version of her.  I blog.  I’m on Twitter where I have about 235 followers.  I have 76 Facebook friends.  I post links to my blog on both social media sites, bombarding these patient people with my work.  I no longer write with the sole purpose of finishing a work of fiction; rather, I work concurrently at the fiction and at building the platform so that I may have a shot at selling the latest finished work.  Why the change?

Everything has changed around me and my fellow writers.  I had to change.

The publishing world, certainly, has changed, become more revenue-driven since the days when the legendary Max Perkins fostered equally the careers of the well-known (Hemingway) and the lesser-known (Archie Binns, Pacific Northwest historical fiction writer).  While it has never been easy for a writer to be published, editors like Perkins once brought along their novice talents with patience, waiting for an author’s readership to grow with each successive book.

Editors still seek out talent, but it gets harder for them to justify waiting while a writer’s career gets a foothold.  Often if a first book doesn’t sell phenomenally well, an editor can’t persuade the publisher to gamble on book two, a book that may or may not do better in sales.  And in a dull economy the sales from a blockbuster entity may just carry a company through some dark times.  There are breaks to be had, but lesser-knowns and as-yet-unknowns usually need to market themselves assertively to make their big break into the well-known sphere.

The marketing effort itself has a different look, too.  Connecting directly with readers still matters, but it’s no longer done primarily through your novel.  With so many technological advances it has become both easier to connect—through emails, notices, e-zines, blogs, tweets, personal appearances—and more time-consuming to do so—it takes a lot of time to participate in each and every one of these arenas with dedication.

Time one could actually spend writing, oh, a novel, for example.

My journalist friend who was gathering information for his recent article on Twitter sent me the following questions: “I was wondering how Twitter has been helping you as an author.  Do you find it helpful?  Is it a distraction from actually writing?”

It can be, I have to answer.  See above.

But I have become a more organized and focused writer as a result, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Neither is the connection.  I have met other wonderful writers and food journalists who have offered me new venues for my work.  Here’s how I summed it up for my friend’s cousin, the aspiring romance novelist who was considering dipping her toe in the Twitter pool:
“Get on Twitter right away…search literary agent lists, romance and other writers lists…start following people…then look over the lists of their followers and follow some of them.  Soon you’ve got a good bunch you can keep an eye on and help.  With luck and effort, they'll start following back.

“Don’t be afraid of starting up conversations with anyone you have good instincts about.  I've found everyone is very, very friendly and genuinely interested in promoting, not only themselves, but you too, through their alliances with others.

“We all help each other become stronger and more widely read writers.”
We writers may work harder at selling ourselves than ever before, but each of us participating in this mix has found our modern-day Max Perkins.

Better, we have found our readers.  On our blogs, on Twitter, on the e-zines we are honored to contribute to.  Writers write, and we’re writing more every day as the world gets more technologically and economically complex.  We’re read in ways the writers before us couldn’t have imagined and in the end, that’s all that matters. 

Writers write.  But we need readers if we want to continue.  We’ve always had to find those readers one way or another.  It’s the same as it ever was.

This post originally appeared appeared as "Same As It Ever Was" on Jane's blog Food and Fiction.

The author of Hunger (Forge 2001) and The Mosaic Artist (to be released), Jane Ward is at work on her third novel, a weekly food and fiction blog, and a cookbook/memoir entitled Tattooed with Food.  She is also a contributing writer to the online food magazine Local In Season.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Erasing Family Stories—and Reclaiming Them

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

I learned to erase stories at a young age.

This profoundly inhibited my writing, so much so that I didn't realize it until well past college and into adulthood. Then, in the late 1980s, I took a workshop with Bobbie Louise Hawkins, the indie fiction writer and poet, in which she urged us to write down a family story.

Every family has stories, she said in her tell-tale drawl, stories they tell for comfort, for fun, for explanation—even if it's the wrong explanation. Family stories are powerful, she said.

I nodded along. But I felt my arms locking around my body. A stone seemed to lodge in my throat. I could visualize the stone—egg-shaped, smooth, glittering, obsidian—but no story.

At the time, her collection Almost Everything, which includes "Back to Texas" about Bobbie Louise's childhood, seemed like an unsentimental gem to me. In "When I was little...," she writes:
"The bottom fell out of melons that year and made them not worth the picking. We would walk along the rows busting ripe melons and eating only the heart. It was a luxury that took some heroism; the sand was hot as a frying pan and we were bare-footed."
I remember Bobbie Louise exhorting us to delete all adverbs and adjectives. That wasn't hard for me to do. But stripping out the sloppy language left me with nothing like a melon's heart.

I had no tall tales to draw on, I realized, no stories about larger-than-life aunts or uncles or "favorite cousins." I didn't come from a Southern storytelling tradition. But worse, I came from a family with little motivation to remember.

Growing up with a mentally ill parent encouraged helpless watching. Our family creed was constant erasure of pain, of blame. For the budding writer I was, it undercut my ability to convey what I saw.

My mother used to tell me to lie about her affliction, especially on medical forms, because of the prejudice against the mentally ill. This became a received truth for me, an uncontested way of being. Meanwhile, she often abandoned her own advice, explaining her diagnosis to work acquaintances, hair-cutters, postal carriers, grocery-store checkers.

Now I see too well the problem with erasing the consequences of breakdowns and raging fits, of shifting the blame in euphemisms such as "your mother was sick." For a good story, you need protagonists, not helpless watchers. You need someone to admit what's wrong.

When children grow up with adults erasing and reworking the truth, those kids can rebel. They also freeze up.

I've done both, and I still imagine every line I write disappearing as soon as the pencil moves on, every word I type vanishing on the screen. I see a little girl hunkering at the bottom of a deep hole, only a circle of blue sky above.

I see teenage me scribbling in lined yellow notepads, drawing cartoons, some of sexy women with ballooning breasts, some of angels and fairies—and every one of these forbidden images erased as soon as I mark it down.

Bad things would happen in our family—even good things—but nobody ever talked about them. I grew up with no sense of shared narrative, no comforting beginnings, middles, and ends. For a girl who loved The Lord of the Rings and Sherlock Holmes and Mary Renault novels and the Greek myths, it was like being blindfolded. 
    Then, I think, that's not true. We did talk about the time my mother trudged all the way up Mt. Lassen, as if she'd conquered Everest. We talked about our adventures driving across the Mojave desert late at night, eating pinion nuts at dawn in our over-heating Dodge. I think we must have.

    Yet the tenuousness of my own memories disturbs me. I do remember, but few events of my childhood were converted into cherished stories we told over and over. Without that cherishing, memories become endangered, too.

    For the longest time, pulling together stories or articles eluded me as a professional writer, no matter how much I knew about expository writing. I wrote poetry, but my impulse faltered there, too. Even in the most non-linear of forms, truth eventually needs to shine through.

    It's not an accident that I toiled as an editor of other people's stories for years. For at least a decade, my husband and close friends knew I was doing the equivalent of yanking my own hair out—I need time to write! When will I ever have time to write?—trapped by my own tangle of frustrations.

    Bobbie Louise Hawkins is not immune from erasing and reworking the truth of her life. She was once unhappily married to the poet Robert Creeley, and I remember her talking about her insomnia, her own depression. Perhaps reshaping stories is what all writers do. Yet mining our own lives does seem like the right place to start. You can't get to the poetic compression of Bobbie Louise's work, for example, without acknowledging what came before.

    Here's how she autographed my copy of Almost Everything: "For Martha, with pleasure—keep it up—see you again! Bobbie Louise Hawkins, August 6, 1988." I haven't seen her since, but even the hint that I had something to share or "keep up" has propelled me forward. That workshop became a turning point.

    Now I write down every passing idea in my writing notebooks, and they pile up year after year. Sometimes I read through a notebook cover to cover, especially when I'm on a long airplane ride by myself, when I have time to stare at the clouds, to allow that smooth obsidian egg its due.

    My notebooks are rich in ideas, stories, anecdotes, mental life, but often I come across entries that I've completely forgotten. It's not just that I'm getting older; I was well schooled in how to forget. But I don't want to forget. Not ever again. I'm obsessed with the notion of writing it all down, of the words remaining solid and present.

    Sometimes I worry I'll lose the notebooks, they'll burn in a house fire, they'll be stolen.

    It still comes hard in my own family, telling stories with my young son. But I make sure that we talk about "the time you had to swallow that malaria pill and you kept spitting it out" or "the time you sprayed insect repellent in your eyes, and you screamed so loud we had to call Poison Control. We had to hold you close until you calmed down."

    I know this pool of stories is the underground life of my family. For an adoptee like my son, having family stories to draw on, to claim, seems crucial for his evolving sense of self. We build identity through stories, through being allowed to speak—not by keeping our mouths shut.

    In a 2004 monologue, which she performed at the Naropa Summer Writing Program in Boulder, Colorado, Bobbie Louise Hawkins talks about a "happy ending" ironically, poignantly, wisely:
    "It's time to adore the mundane. The daily is your heart's desire. The mundane world must be our joy. The daily, be our darling. The commonplace, be our morning song. The usual, be our heaven. The common place, our morning star. The usual. Sit on the veranda, drink tea, watch ducks navigate the pond. It is summer. And you are living a very long, unfinished, Russian novel...."
    Yes. Every family has their own version of War and Peace. Mine hovers somewhere between The Idiot and Nabokov's Pale Fire.

    But I've learned to live with my guilt and shell-shock. I've learned "to adore the mundane," because I'm writing my own Russian novel.