Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To Be (authentic online) Or Not To Be (authentic online): That Is The Question

Writers are supposed to be passionate, communicative, and have some strong opinions. Like all artists, it's their job to speak truth to power when others will not or cannot. In other words, they're supposed to have something to say, and they're supposed to say it, and they're not supposed to give a damn what anybody thinks. It is in this that the purity of their art is grounded.

Authors are supposed to establish an online presence that's open, welcoming, inclusive, and entirely inoffensive. Like all marketers, it's their job to appeal to the widest demographic possible. In other words, they're not supposed to have anything negative or controversial to say, and if they do, they're not supposed to post it, and they're supposed to care a great deal about what everyone thinks of anything they do post. It is in this that their online reputations are kept untarnished.

Do you see the disconnect here, the fundamental opposition of these two sets of requirements?

[palm-forehead] What were we thinking?!

For years now, I've been proferring the same author platform advice: carefully cultivate and maintain your image, always be nice, don't say or do anything that could be construed as negative or controversial, and strive to avoid turning off your readers (and potential readers) at all times and at all costs. I'm beginning to think this advice is wrong.

How can one possibly spend half or more of the time wearing his Author hat and being a totally benign milquetoast, and the rest of it wearing his Writer hat and churning out impassioned, moving prose? Assuming it's possible to make a habit of pretending not to care too much, or be bothered too much, by anything, is it a good idea for any artist to do so?

I've noticed that after about five years of doing the benign milquetoast thing, the seams on my carefully cultivated, totally benign, online effigy are starting to show sometimes. And rip open in a few places. However hard I try, when I come up against something or someone with which/whom I disagree very strongly, there are only so many times I can avert my eyes, either say nothing or just mumble something vague, and keep moving. Increasingly, I can't seem to help going off on the things and people that bother me lately.

Maybe it's just because election years always bring out the ignorant yahoos and smug twits in droves, and I've had just about enough of their nonsense. Maybe it's that the collapsing economies all around the world have us all on edge. Maybe it's because I haven't felt I've had a well-developed enough concept to channel all that writerly angst and passion into a new novel. Maybe it's because I've been (figuratively) beaten down and bloodied by a few simultaneous life crises over the past two years.

Maybe I'm just a cranky bitch.

Or maybe, just maybe...it's because behind my carefully tended online persona, I'm a human being who's alive, with an active mind, who has thoughts and experiences and feelings, who is imperfect, and sometimes gets angry at the wrong people or for the wrong reasons, who feels guilty or insecure every now and then, and every so often runs out of patience at precisely the wrong time.

As a writer, I'm supposed to believe---no, I NEED to believe---that all the mistakes I make, all the wrongs I either inflict or endure, inform my work. As an artist, if my art is to have any impact at all, I am supposed to wring meaning and insight from these experiences and channel it into my work.

Remember when part of the charm of celebrated authors was their other-ness? They were legendarily prickly, snarky, bohemian, drunks, or brawlers who seemed to spend their days in bed (often with multiple partners), and their nights about equally divided between scandalizing the bourgeoisie and pouring out Important Literature. Above all, they didn't give a toss what the general public thought about them. How could they? In much the same way an actor must be totally un-self-conscious in order to really disappear into a role and be true to the material he's been given, a writer must be totally un-self-conscious in order to disappear into the world of his stories and characters and be true to the material he's creating.

When you've developed the habit of turning off your authentic self to the point that it feels effortless, how can you be sure you're really capable of turning it back on again? If you spend so much of your time worrying about how you're being publicly perceived, how can you prevent that insecurity from creeping into your work? If you care so much about being perceived negatively online that you've made it a practice to avoid posting anything that could possibly cause you to be perceived negatively, how can you be sure you're not sanding off all the rough edges of your ideas, plots and characters as well?

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying writers should all immediately pick up some self-destructive habits and start purposely offending everyone within virtual earshot. No, no, no. But I am saying that maybe it's not so bad to take a stand every now and then, and maybe it's not the end of your career if it's a poorly informed and badly executed stand. Maybe it's not such a bad thing to expose your human-ness and your passions once in a while.

Being a good little Author Platformer means putting the Ego in charge: the reasoning, detached part of the self that suppresses baser urges and animal instincts. The Id is where all base urges and instincts originate, but it's also where insight and creativity live; chaining the Id to a post in the basement of one's day to day life may be the worst mistake any artist can make. My Id has been locked up for too long, and it's acting out. I'm beginning to wonder if I should've been letting it come out to play, and make its mistakes and messes, a little more often than I have these past five years.

Case in point: a post of mine was picked up by The Passive Voice blog, and there were a number of comments. One commenter zeroed in on one specific line in the post, and took up a real battleflag against it. And this irked me, a great deal. Straw man arguments are a pet peeve for me, but not without good reason...

I have read and personally experienced far too many cherry-picking arguments when the indie author movement was just getting off the ground, where some naysayer or other would attempt to discredit the entire notion of indie authorship by attacking or attempting to disprove one specific statement in an essay or blog post---an essay or blog post with which they could find no other particular fault. Time and again, the trolls would come forward to hold up this or that one, specific example of a failed or poor-quality indie book, and use it as the foundation for their thesis that, "therefore, all indie books are bad and virtually no one buys indie books." So I'm pretty touchy about cherry-picking arguments.

I do not believe this commenter is a troll, nor do I think he necessarily deserved the chilly and irritated responses he got from me. I'm sure many people have seen the exchange, and some of them thought worse of me for it. Three years ago, I would've been frantically working damage control and obsessing about the potential fallout. Two years ago, I wouldn't have responded to the commenter at all. One year ago, I would've responded with some bland bit of mild disagreement, sure to include at least one qualifier that would welcome anyone reading my response to dismiss it completely.

Now, I'm doing nothing. I overreacted because this commenter unintentionally hit a raw nerve, but while I did go so far as to wonder "aloud" what his motivations might be for so tenaciously clinging to this one line of argument, I don't believe I stepped over the line into being rude or hurtful. A display of poor judgment on my part? Absolutely. Obnoxious? Fine, I'll give you that. A total meltdown? No, I think that's going too far.

Above all else, what it was, was proof positive that I'm not just a bland...um, I mean brand. It was a demonstration that I can and do get bothered and passionate about things sometimes, even if this Author Platform lifestyle of stuffing those tendencies down for the past five years is now resulting in me getting a little too bothered and being a little too passionate about relatively unimportant things.

I'm not advocating for authors to start shooting their mouths off about anything they want to in any setting. There are such things as decorum, respect, and 'reading the room', after all. I'm just saying that maybe it's not such a bad idea to be your authentic, opinionated, imperfect self now and then, at least when the stakes are low, even in the context of author platform. Some will respond well, others won't. But those who don't like your authentic self probably never would've liked your work anyway. And if constantly stifling your authentic self may also result in stifling the authenticity of your work, it's a price that's too high to pay.

Maybe letting your Id peek through the veil every once in a while serves to vent bile that would otherwise build up until you do have a public meltdown when some minor irritation tips the scale. I can't say for certain. All I can say is that whatever I've been doing up until now ain't working anymore.

Also see:
Thank You For Unsubscribing, by C.J. West

On the Subject of Being Offensive, by Chuck Wendig


Anonymous said...

Loved this post, April.

This reminds me of a similar dilemma I faced in my career as a professor--trying to find the right balance between revealing enough about myself as a person so that students felt enough of a connection to care about what I was lecturing, but not too much so that they thought I was "their best friend" because the truth is best friends don't then give you a C on your essays.

Mary Louisa

However, I confess coming to my writing career late has helped a good deal with letting go of fear about what other people think. As has self-publishing. I don't have to worry that my blog posts (taking on issues or just revealing details about my sales, or even my more personal posts on being a grandmother etc) are going to end up denying me a contract because I "made my editor mad". I might lose sales, but not my career, and frankly, I know that as a reader I like to feel a sense of connection with the authors I read, so I can only assume that people who read me feel the same.

So go on and let the real April out to play!!

Bridget McKenna said...

It's not always an easy transition going from being almost totally anonymous except for a name on a book cover to being expected to have a personality (!), but heaven forbid you have much of one. Most of us are still finding our footing, and occasionally finding it in our mouths.

I suspect the people you're hoping not to be like aren't losing a moment's peace about being them. The fact that you are tells me the "real" April probably has nothing to worry about.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Joseph, Mary L & Bridget.

It has recently occurred to me that when it comes to other types of artists (actors, musicians, fine artists, etc.), and sports figures, they're not only allowed, but *expected* to be at least a little colorful and controversial with their online hijinks. Every so often one will step over the line by saying or doing something that truly is offensive (e.g., grossly sexist, racist, etc.), but even then the brouhaha seems to blow over pretty quickly.

Being new to the web presence thing, maybe we authors have been approaching this all wrong...

Julia Barrett said...

Thank you for saying publicly what I try hard not to say. I am so tired of being nicey nice nice all the damn time.
Sometimes I just want to be real and the real me can be cranky, opinionated, bitchy, stubborn, pig-headed, kind, compassionate, sweet, tender-hearted, loving, passionate, generous...
I have real feelings and I have to rein them in all the time when it comes to my public persona.

I've decided the best thing is to detach, write my books, and keep some distance from the public. Like authors did once upon a time.

We do not all have to be good buds because that sets an author up for - you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.

Penelope said...
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Life Defined said...

April, you've made some brilliant points here, and I am simply delighted that someone has finally had the inspiration to put this into words. I think the concept of a proper 'Authorly image' has driven many to become stale, flat people - when the Muse should produce a certain vivacity and life. It all boils down to personality. We all have one! Why not express it? (Tastefully, mind)

Thank you for sharing this post and for stating your opinion loud and clear.

'Milquetoast' is an awesome word, by the way. Anyone who uses it correctly should be well respected.


Anonymous said...

Say it loud, say it proud, woman! There's a place for respect and decorum, and sometimes we can just be reactive and reactionary.

Bravo for allowing your "human" some breathing room.

nikki broadwell said...

Bravo! Yes! I think honesty is really important--and we can be honest without chopping others up. I'm just at the beginning of creating an online presence and I'm working hard to stay true to myself--Being an older writer helps...but we all do care what others think of us, no matter what we say...it's impossible not to care, really. We just need to realize when the line has crossed from caring to going along with...

Bonnie Rice said...

Thanks for writing this. I do think that if readers want to know the authors, they want to know us as people, not as brands. It's much easier to be consistent with your brand if the brand is the real you. We should be at least as well rounded and real as our characters.

I write nonfiction and was worried that people would think me less an "expert" when they saw that I still struggle with the stuff I write about. Readers know that nobody has it "all together" in real life, so the authenticity of my struggles actually helps. I'm not writing from an ivory tower, I'm writing from the real world where they live too. I'm real.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Love this post! I miss the days of quirky writers who were given the freedom to hole up and write, who cares what people think of them. Today, new authors are counseled not to rub anyone the wrong way, to be pleasant/appealing @ writer's conferences (what if you're a total introvert?), etc. etc. One way I've finally gotten around some of the fakeness is by making it clear what my blog is about and what market I'm shooting for--the Christian market. Therefore, when people come to my blog, they know what they're getting. Might not have as many followers, but I have LOYAL followers, and those are the ones who'll buy my books someday! GREAT POST!

Anonymous said...

Excellent point. Personally, I've grown bored with many of the writer blogs I used to enjoy because once the person gets published, they stop saying anything interesting at all. If we can't share our real personalities, opinions, and challenges--some of which are not always going to be "nice"--then what's the point in bothering to write online?

And, from a reader's point of view, why should they bother to read something that amounts to little more than bland advertising copy?

Anonymous said...
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April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, all. =')

This era of 'author platform' is new, and it's looking to me as if, much like every other aspect of being an author (indie or otherwise), there is no one-size-fits-all, surefire road to success.

I'm not sure who said this, but it's so true: "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken."