The surreal dream of Mexico overpowers and threatens to snuff out the steadfast, disciplined productivity I’ve taken pains to establish back in the states. I feel my whole career slip-sliding into long afternoons of gleaming clouds and garlic-fried peanuts. So I do what I always do when my writing situation shifts and I am newly uncertain: I turn to the Internet.
I start a Tumblr with a few feeble descriptions of the men who come to the door selling baby Jesuses. It gets no notes. I take it down. I mess around with WordPress themes using my amateur coding skills, have flashbacks to my novice blogging days, and feel cheapened and childish, like I’ve just laminated one of my essays, tacked on a construction paper cover, and scribbled “BY SARAH MENKEDICK” on it in proud Sharpie. I tweet: wry little observations, strategic outtakes from big stories, the trademark 140-character outrage at this or that news item. I write quick, off-the-cuff experimental essays that I hope might find a rapidly expanding cult literary following online and launch me into financial solvency. I reread them, panic, loathe myself, contemplate a doctorate in history, and finally, go silent.
I sequester the electronic devices in one corner of the apartment, check out ten musty poetry books from the library, and read them with monkish devotion. I search out the most obscure German mystics and copy their quotes down by hand in what an ex-boyfriend called “your little I’m-an-intellectual notebook.” I retreat from the needy, incessant clamor of the Internet with the composure of a grand Spanish don, sipping tequila on the porch of his hacienda while the peons wrap up their frenzied labor. I have time, I reassure myself; I shall compose slowly, deliberately, I shall not succumb to the junk-food sugar-high matrix of pageviews and linkbait.
And then, days or weeks into this period of serene abstention, I cave. “To blog or not to blog?” I ask my husband, and he rolls his eyes. “Baby needs a diaper change,” he says.
I come crawling back onto Twitter with a meek RT of the latest New Yorker feature. I waste a few afternoons trying to figure out hashtags on Tumblr. I write an essay for an online magazine and promote it across platforms using multiple strategies, checking the tally of its likes and shares. I tilt like a marble down an inclined plane towards self-loathing, and then a piece goes viral and I tip up the other way towards redemption, ecstasy, relief.
With the huge pressure of the Fulbright threatening to smother me, I am especially vulnerable to these shifts in self-confidence. My writing time is extra-precious and pricey, heavy as it is with the weight of Not Mothering, and the fumbling two-steps-forward-one-step-back process of starting a book lends itself to a particular desperate queasiness. Somebody tell me that this paragraph is the start of something brilliant! Who will commend me on that connection I just made between mosquitos and police surveillance?
The daily struggles of working on a big project often seem pointless, and I end up glum over my evening beer, dubious about the day’s harvest. This work and its accompanying anxieties take place in what becomes, for the ego that has felt and loved that fickle online acclaim, an oppressively silent void. But a relatable blog post about finding Zen in toddler parenting? Oh, how I crave the immediate turn-around, the buoying force of the quick and enthusiastic response.
I have not yet found a sense of balance between an online presence that seems increasingly necessary for writers–and that is often fun, supportive, and interesting–and the daily contemplation, sustained concentration, hard work, and critical reading necessary for writers to produce work of lasting value. I vacillate dramatically between one and the other, guilty when I lose too much time online, flitting through minutiae and ephemera, dodging from one hastily read mini-essay to another, and anxious when I spend too much time disconnected, wondering how my work will find its footing and its audience, wondering what’s going on right now in the literary conversation.
This lack of balance stems in part from the fundamental uncertainty of writing, which, as far as I can discern, will never dissipate. It is a multilayered uncertainty, practical and existential and personal, and as such, is pretty much impossible to eradicate even with that enviable combo of money, alcohol, and time. Presuming you somehow manage to puzzle out how to ideally accommodate family, remunerative work, and writing in your everyday, there is still the question of what to write, and how, and why. And although these quandaries can be temporarily tackled with a book or story, a gaping silence looms just after the final rewrite. You start all over again, and what worked the last time might not be at all relevant this go-around, and you might struggle for days on end and get nowhere. Or, you might churn out some masterwork in a giddy frenzy for two months and then find yourself suddenly propelled into fame. You don’t simply show up each day, complete the requisite tasks–metaphor here, plot there, little flourish of characterization over here–and, as my dad would say with a proud Cincinnati twang, “Vuah-lah.”
One way of tackling this uncertainty is spending more time online. At the very least, there, you can own your own domain. You can have, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “complete and absolute ownership of land”; your own “sphere of knowledge, influence, or activity.” You can get insta-feedback on the value of your work, as opposed to toiling for days, weeks, months, years on what in the end will likely be a lonely Word doc held at bay by institutional gate keepers. The agonizing interval between the crafting of a piece and its publication is something like two hours. Gratification, if it comes, is instant, represented in the currency of tweets, shares, links. If it doesn’t come, the published piece dies the same death it would arguably die in a well-respected university literary journal with a circulation of 2,000 and a readership of publication-starved MFA students.
Online, you have the chance of writing without the rigidity of traditional print forms, especially lit mags, which can be claustrophobically institutional in their appeal and style. You also have the opportunity to find a much larger and more diverse audience. There is no wait of six months or a year for a piece to go through edits and more edits and copyedits and changes until it finally comes out and then either takes off online or dies a quiet polite little death on bedside tables across the country, eulogized in a nice line on your CV. You can take risks in both form and content, can call out dominant paradigms and established pedigrees and maybe even start a movement. You can, most excitingly, trace and feel your work pulsing through the world, resonating, striking its targets, getting passed along, dissected, held up, chanted. Writing in this context is visible as an offering to a community, as poet and philosopher John O’Donohue describes it in an interview with Krista Tippett: “I think you see that the gifts that are given to us as individuals are not for us alone, or for our own self-improvement, but they are actually for the community and to be offered.”
Of course, writing that is never published online can be an offering to the community, and perhaps a more lasting and profound one than that which gets 1,500 Facebook shares. And so here I’ll betray my bias, although I am constantly interrogating this bias, more so every year: I believe in slow writing. The most obvious interpretation here is writing for print, but I want to include under this umbrella writing for online publications that demand carefully structured, composed, and revised work, and put that work through vigorous editing. Perhaps we could label this writing for publications, or for institutions, with rigorous editorial standards in place and literary mandates that do not take into account clicks, shares, or views. This type of writing is more and more important when an increasing number of publications and giant media conglomerates are looking for cheap, quickly processed, easy content with a veneer of literariness or thoughtfulness. It’s especially important when it’s becoming harder for writers to find the editorial guidance and mentorship that can cocoon and transform them, pushing them through facile habits and ways of mind that can linger for years unchallenged. I go back occasionally to one of the many breathless travel-inspired blogs I wrote in my twenties and experience a physical pain in the gut like eating a bad taco. This is the result of distance, education, and, predominately, good editing.
These days, I also find that I get sick of myself on the page. I cringe at the sound of my voice when I first start writing. I write through this self-conscious antipathy until it evens out, like a boat eventually settling into calm seas after slap, slap, slapping against the waves, and then I go back over the work again until I have sustained that smoothness as much as I can. Then, I send it with a plea and an offer of beer or coffee to the (all-female!) team of readers and editors on whom I’ve become hopelessly dependent. I see all the work I’ve done in the last year not as my own but as the product of this editorial collaboration, without which I no longer trust myself.
I think this dependence is a necessary growth stage, a way of learning to see one’s tendencies and weaknesses through the sharp eyes of trusted comrades (“I think maybe the third reference to becoming a park ranger doesn’t work as well?”). Writing for a blog or a Tumblr or a website that spits out ten new pieces a day does not allow for this process. It allows for a different kind of growth, for “finding one’s voice,” and this is also highly important: I wrote horrible blogs for years before I finally realized I was ready to stop writing horrible blogs and write more difficult, sustained, vigorous essays, with careful attention paid to every word, connection, resonance. By the time I made that transition, though, I had written my way through so much crap without institutions shaping it or cleaning it up that I had developed my own style. Now, though, that style needs to be reined in, and I need those same institutions, those trained and unflinching professionals, to teach me how to recognize my weaknesses and develop my strengths.
For one of the biggest dangers of writing for the Internet is getting stuck in the rut of a distinct online voice. This is a particular risk for women who, because of well-documented institutionalized sexism perpetuating a significant byline gap, have a much harder time gaining a foothold in newsrooms and magazines. Smaller online publications and blogs offer a more democratic entry point for aspiring women writers, many of whom cultivate an Internet-friendly voice that is deadpan, casual, smart, sarcastic, cutting. It is perfectly pitched in particular for Tumblr, which privileges longer, more developed writing and more nuanced curation than Facebook or Twitter. It combines two characteristics: women’s tendency to be self-deprecating, and the Internet’s relentlessly self-conscious conversational tone. It derives its authority from its wit, the way it assails the big patriarchal media institutions from the sidelines with a dry laugh and an ironic superiority, and celebrates its heroes with a tongue-in-cheek gushiness. It is great fun to read; I envy it, and I cannot pull it off.
But it also might keep women in what Alana Hope Levinson called, in her recent piece for Matter, “the pink ghetto of social media.” Levinson highlights the fact that most social media jobs are held by women, while newsrooms and prestigious bylines remain overwhelmingly male. She wants to both give greater credibility to social media, which has become indispensable to many institutions and demands a finesse and skill set all its own, and also to suggest that work in this arena does not necessarily lead to career advancement in journalism or creative writing. The talent for manipulating Facebook shares, for garnering a loyal following on Twitter and Tumblr, nurtures neither the techniques nor the practices essential to writing, say, a novel, although it may be crucial to getting that novel read. Similarly, the voice the Internet demands–snarky, young, flippant, all-knowing–doesn’t lend itself to work more multi-dimensional in tone, reference, and theme, more considered and demanding in its thinking.
And yet inarguably the Internet has reinvigorated some of the stiff, stale, Ivory Tower intellectualism of creative nonfiction. God knows it gets dispiriting to read so many essays drawing sober, crafted-to-death resonances between native herbs and immigrant grandparents. Give us some voice, some liveliness! I’ve thought while reading hundreds of submissions at various journals over the years. There’s also a mesmerizing, warm power of camaraderie in much of what women in particular are writing on Tumblr, an intimacy akin to that found in collections of letters from famous writers. This writing has a heat that can be motivating; it works like a 5k for me, getting me all fired up so that I want to run more and longer in the everyday.
But ultimately when I start writing for a Tumblr or a blog, I feel as though I’m chickening out on the bigger goal of writing an essay or a book. I wonder if all the material I’m giving away for free in hot little anecdotes shouldn’t be shepherded into a more coherent work. I think if I deny myself the immediate gratification of hurrying it out there, knowing people are reading–they love me! I’m good! I’m not wasting my life on a worthless pursuit for which I earn no money!–then I can produce something that will resonate more deeply and remain true years from now. But when, as in this past month, I go days feeling utterly stuck, unsure where to even begin, hating writing, hating myself for not writing, feeling the tremendous pressure to begin a new work of Great Import, I wonder if I’m losing the opportunity to rediscover the joy of writing by just letting loose with, say, the unedited story of the Oaxacan Bassett Hound named Dick.
My default instinct is to skew towards the more challenging option, which demands greater discipline and less immediate reward, and so I continue to aim for the longform essay over the viral blog. But I’m no longer sure, in a media world of rapidly changing reading patterns and rules for success, whether this choice is ultimately more productive, virtuous, or personally meaningful. I do know the satisfaction I feel after I’ve worked on a piece for months, taken it through sustained edits, pushed myself to knead and knead it until it rises, is galactically different from the pleasure to a positive response to, say, a tweet or a blog post. But I also haven’t taken the time to really build an online platform that demands sustained regular writing of a particular nature: micro-essays or reviews or curation. Perhaps that would bring parallel and more predictable gratification; perhaps not being able to lean on trusted editors would force me to bring my own editorial skills more sharply to bear on my work, and would further enhance those skills.
I have the experience now to recognize when I am letting myself off too easily or relying too much on a particular strength, and professional editing has taught me to read my work line by line without hurry. I know when a piece is not quite done, when I have pushed it as far as I can, and when I am trying to get away with purty sentences crafted over a banal idea. Perhaps I am simply too scared to charge ahead with no safety net of advance readers, to return to a time when I wrote for the joy of writing without the self-awareness of my presence in any literary scene, without knowing how much my work could be improved by editing, without second-guessing every sentence for cliché or dullness or necessity. But there is no going back: it would be like un-learning Spanish. I’ve moved on. I know now that my tendency to overuse the word “grin” or, even worse, pair it with “soft,” is embarrassing and problematic and I can’t un-see it as embarrassing and problematic; I can’t send my work out into the world without a haircut and clean shoes. I have spent too much time reading and carefully watching others, watching myself be carefully read and seen.
I do know that I loathe the model, recently highlighted by Noah Davis in a viral post on The Awl entitled “If You Don’t Click on This Story, I Don’t Get Paid,” of writing for pageviews, and of writing “content” in general, always geared towards shareability above substance, and despite its sundry forms always essentially the same easily digestible morsel. The notion of pandering to this makes me very queasy and sad, and I absolutely with all my mind and gut disdain sponsored content. I refuse to see how this could possibly be a viable or ethical model for journalism or literature. The fact that the Internet is perpetually tugging the literary world in this direction, and gaining ground, makes me want to pick up my musty poetry anthology, write in my journal, and say fuck it to all those platforms and profiles until, hey guys, check out my latest book!
I wish I could be Jonathan Franzen, not only because of his dreamy royalty checks but also because of the clarity of his anachronistic stance on the Internet. But I started an online magazine. I’ve seen the potential of the Internet to democratize and revolutionize and it’s thrilling; it’s arguably given me the freedom I needed as a writer to discover what audiences will respond to and what my own interests are, and to write my way through a lot of purple Oaxacan sunsets. The Internet may be so democratizing and populist, however, that it offers no spur and challenge to growth, that it traps women in particular on one plane, in one voice, and seals off the more competitive sphere of print. I want to do well in both, and I’m not sure if this is a paradox or not. I am figuring it out day by day.
Now that I have settled into Oaxaca and it has once again become the norm to see men riding atop chicken-shaped piñatas in the beds of pickups, I am getting back into the groove. I put in my three hours, four hours, what the toddler and the husband and the vagaries of the day afford. On the margins of this time, or over a much-needed beer at twilight, I flirt with the Internet. I read, share, bookmark. Then, with a little too much firmness, I close my computer. I retreat to the couch with a book, glancing up every so often at that seductive machine, whose glow beckons even from between its clenched teeth.