I read recently that Karen Russell, who wrote one of my favorite short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, won a MacArthur Genius Grant, which guarantees the recipient $625,000 over five years, interest and tax-free, to pursue whatever it is the author was doing that resulted in the Genius Grant award in the first place. That’s $125k a year.
By the time she died in 1886, Emily Dickinson had written over eighteen hundred poems. Only twelve were ever published in her lifetime, and they were published anonymously in the Springfield Republican, which, today, after significant infrastructure and population growth in the United States, has a circulation of 55,000.
So probably only 14,000 people received the newspaper that day when “The Sleeping” was published in 1862, and only a third of those, if that, ever read it. Five thousand people were only ever exposed to Emily Dickinson’s voice in her lifetime, and even that was anonymously and heavily edited to match publication style of that day.
When I was in seventh grade and memorizing tons of Emily Dickinson to make myself seem smarter to people older than me, I used to think this was incredibly unfair. How could someone so talented not want or need any exposure? How could she have died, unrecognized, unappreciated by anyone except her own family? She even asked her sister to burn all her manuscripts and correspondence, and it was only through a legal loophole that her legacy survived.
It used to be that there was nothing as unfair as a brilliant writer, toiling in obscurity. Now, it’s unfair that when we write, we face the universe.
That’s an exaggeration, but the recent explosion of viral content means that every time I write a blog post, I have to think about everyone that reads it: my family, my friends, my coworkers at the office, my coworkers at other offices, my dentist, people on Twitter, people on Facebook, people who repost my content in Japan or India or Korea with my blog name with my first and last name, out there in the internet.
This is obviously a choice. I chose to write, and I chose to write publicly, partly because of Penelope Trunk’s post . I could have hidden my last name, or even my first. When I first set up the blog, over five years ago, I toyed with the idea of blogging anonymously. I didn’t know much about security then, but I had a nagging feeling that, no matter how anonymous I was, I would always be found out.
What got me to thinking about how exposed we are in the modern world was this recent post experiment, where the author tries to start an anonymous blog. It outlines numerous steps he or she takes to be safe, up to parts that are extremely annoying to implement:
Most of the time I hide the stick in a secret location in the house. When I need to go somewhere and want to be able to update this blog, I’ll back it up to the hidden volume, and then securely erase the USB disk, so I can take it with me without fear. This is what I must do until the Tails adds its own function for ‘hidden volumes’.
But the author is already not anonymous in any way. They are clearly a native or near-native English speaker. They are tech-savvy, including knowing enough about both Tor and static-site generation using GitHub. And, they read XKCD comics. I’ve already created a pretty narrow profile of them in my head. They note that they counter identifying writing patterns by:
running all my posts through Google Translate. I translate into another language, then to English, and then correct the errors. It’s great for mixing up my vocabulary, but I wish it didn’t fuck up Markdown and HTML so much. Until this point, you might have assumed that English was my second language. But let me assure you, I will neither confirm nor deny it.
For the blog author, it’s an experiment. For most humans, it’s an impossible way to live. The danger of human nature is two-fold: the first is that we’re creatures of habit, which makes it easy to track our patterns, and second is that we are lazy. We’re not machines, and we’re not perfect.
The result is that now every time we post something, we’re posting it, non-anonymously, to a potential audience of over 20,000. 300 Facebook friends, each of which have 300 Facebook friends. Even when it’s only 100 that are possibly reading your posts, that’s a million people 2 degrees of separation away from you. Your private emails are no longer private. Assume someone’s reading over your shoulder, even your Angry Birds stats.
Once you are leading any kind of online life under what is even vaguely close to your real name, you have the potential to reach millions of people every day. And there’s no way to hide who you are, because that makes you even more visible. “The internet is no longer divided between a place between those who make, and those who consume,” writes Grace, and I agree with her, but for different reasons than she probably thinks. We are all creators now. We’re generating hundreds of millions of data points, sometimes unwittingly.
Every time I open up WordPress, I feel like I’m standing in a darkened club, front of an open mic in front of an enormous audience. There are a couple tables up front with friends and family, cheering (some are really loaded up on mojitos, so they’re being extra-loud). The rest of the audience is whispering among each other, not paying attention, flirting, filing their nails as I choose my words carefully. If I say the right thing, the people up front laugh and titter, and some people around them tap their shoulders, “Hey, who’s that up there. She seems interesting and funny,” and they tune in. Otherwise, they stop listening.
But if I say something that is absolutely true for me, that makes me feel vulnerable, or something funny that other people don’t think is funny, if there is even a breath of scandal, the entire audience snaps to attention and starts talking to directly to me or throwing tomatoes, and now there is a mob. Sometimes there’s a mob even when you don’t consciously evoke one.
I’ve deleted hundreds of drafts that I’ve started writing for exactly this reason. I’ve started drafts that are funny, sad, and angry, really, a number of drafts whose only commonality is that they are 100% what I believe or am going through, unfiltered by my fear of the snarling audience in the shadows.
Now they are, like Dickinson’s letters, gone.
If only we were fortunate to be able to delete other data before it makes its way through the crowd and the crowd buzzes in a murmur and rises to a roar, wanting to consume us.
It’s a really exhausting way to write, and, as Emily would probably say, a harder way to live.
Writers will do crazy things to get out of actually writing, because we like the idea of writing, but we hate actually sitting down on our ass and punching out the words.For example, Ernest Hemingway joined the American army in Italy in order not to write. Things are looking pretty bleak when you voluntarily go to Italy, get severely injured, and have to spend months in a hospital rather than write another goddamn word about Frederic Henry and/or rain.
Just like other great American authors, I have been very hard doing a little not-writing of my own since December. Mainly, I decided that I was writer blocked, and couldn’t write another word. First, I decided it was because I was procrastinating too much on the internet. Then, it was because I didn’t have a really good text editor on my computer. Then, I realized that the problem was very simple: Writing is terrible on a computer, which is a digital way of keeping Art and Literature and The Man down. I tried writing by hand.
Which meant I had to go to a fancy art store, get special art notebooks and Moleskines and precision pens, and I couldn’t write another word until I did that.
But even that wasn’t enough, because I am a fragile creator of masterpieces.
I decided I needed a typewriter.
So I started trolling Craigslist, and, on one fine evening late in December, I was headed to Fishtown to pick up my Royal (mine is not pink, because typewriters are for Real Men.)
“Will you come with me,” I pleaded with Mr. B. The owner of the typewriter was male, and he wanted me to come inside to check the machine, and, naturally, I was afraid of shanking. “You’re going to Fishtown?” Mr. B asked. “You’ll be fine.”
Fishtown is Philadelphia’s Brooklyn, and the only thing you could get shanked for there anymore for is stealing someone’s premium-roast coffee.
I got to Fishtown, and, sure enough, a man in his early 30s wearing a sweater vest from the 1970s, tight jeans, and a handlebar mustache showed me into his apartment. “I’ll take it,” I said, pressing a couple keys, imagining my literary future unfolding in front of me. I could finally break free from the bonds of that cruel Muse that wouldn’t let me use any writing utensils manufactured later than 1962.
“You getting that for a friend,” he asked casually, eyeing me up and down skeptically. I didn’t look homeless and I wasn’t wearing my Warby Parker glasses, so I didn’t pass the qualifications for someone who could plausibly own a typewriter.
“No, it’s for me,” I said haughtily. “I’m going to write my novel on it.”
The other hipster shrugged and held open the door for me and The Muse of Future Typing.
It was a hipster-off, and I passed the test. Check and mate, hipster-bitches.
If you’ve never carried a non-portable typewriter down the street and felt smug doing it, it’s definitely an experience. I put it in my trunk and dialed my dad.
“Dad, guess what,” I said.
“What,” he said, immediately suspecting the worst.
“I got a typewriter. Do you know how to make it work?” I asked.
It was even worse than he suspected. “Why did you get a typewriter? What did you pay for it? You probably overpaid. Why did you get one that doesn’t work?”
The immediate Russian reaction to buying anything vintage is, You got screwed because you were too stupid to buy new.
“I bought it because I wanted a typewriter with history,” I told him. ” I wanted to feel connected to other Writers before me.” I have never sounded so sanctimonious in my life.
“Ok, I gotta go,” my dad said. And hung up because he needed to research cleaning typewriters.
He called back two minutes later.
“You need special vacuum cleaners. You don’t have any. Only I have them at my shop. You need to come to our house and I’ll clean it for you.”
“No, I want to clean it here, by myself,” I said.
“Women will never be able to clean machinery,” my dad said, and hung up, to go back to YouTubes.
He called back two minutes later.
“You’d better clean that typewriter really well, and have Mr. B help you. Who knows, you could write a best-selling novel on it and then that machine could be worth millions of dollars.”
“I thought women couldn’t clean machinery,” I said.
“Gotta go, ” my dad said. “I need to get all my equipment together,” and he hung up, for the fifth time that day.
When I got home, I started watching typewriter cleaning videos. I started ordering typewriter cleaning supplies. And I started cleaning the thing. First, I cleaned it. Then, when I started to feel kinda faint from the fumes, I made Mr. B clean it. Then my dad came and cleaned it again, put a ribbon in it, and we used it to type.
But it turns out that there’s a reason that we don’t use 1950s-era typewriters to write anymore, and that’s because the keys are heavy as shit and it is impossible to type fast without the keys locking.
All of this is to say I have been doing absolutely dick except cleaning my typewriter and watching videos about how to clean a typewriter and looking for pictures of Ernest Hemingway with the same typewriter as me, and fielding my dad’s calls about my typewriter; everything except actually writing, so really, the typewriter is working exactly as intended.
- Stop reading Facebook so often. It will make you miserable. And overly concerned with what other people are doing. And tracked.
- Stop watching the same TV sitcoms everyone else is watching. Watch really good foreign films. Watch movies from the dollar bin at WalMart. Watch free documentaries. Watch movies as they are meant to be watched; in their original language.
- Don’t read airport books. Go to tiny bookstores and buy zines. Buy old National Geographics. Buy 70s textbooks. Buy stuff no one has rated on Amazon. Read random non-fiction books about birds from the library.
- Study weird things that have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of your life.
- Stop listening to pop radio. Listen to fado. Unless you are Portuguese. Then listen to this song about how some dude is really proud to be Bosnian.
- Go to strange places that are not meant to be for tourist consumption.
- Don’t retweet and reblog things that have already gone viral and ride the wave of popularity. Look for something tiny and beautiful that you alone are interested in. Share that link with one other person who understands how weird and creepy you are.
- Put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
- Be weird and creepy like a platypus.
- Don’t listen to other people who think they know you and make lists telling you what to do.
So I have to work on my novel THIS MONTH or I’ll never finish it, like, ever because I’m taking 7 credits-7 CREDITS-next semester and also still doing the whole job thing. I work on my novel every morning before work, like I get up at 5:45, 5:55 if I’m lazy then do the whole shower thing and then go downstairs to eat breakfast and by the time I’ve eaten it’s already 6:30 and I only have an hour to do my thing, but half of that hour is spent thinking about how I should be writing blog posts and the other half is spent thinking about how I should be learning Python and the third half is about something witty I should post on Twitter so by the time I get around to putting words down on a page, it’s already 7:15 and my train is at 7:40 and you cannot CANNOT start writing and get into the groove for 16 minutes until you have to leave and so my novel is a MESS. And when I get home I’m busy trying to accomplish all of my other summer goals.
So I’m not blogging in July. I think. I hope it’s ok with you. Because I’m feeling pretty nervous about it.
But, I’m pretty nervous about everything.