It’s undoubtedly true that the digital revolution has made us more sociable as people. But its subtle and ironic effect on us as writers, it seems, has been to make us more lonely.
I’ve been thinking about this off and on since last February, when I read a surprisingly (to me, at least) self-deprecating blog post by Mitch Joel. In it, he confessed to humiliation as an author:
I’ve spent many evenings tapping away at the keyboard, as the ideas flowed in a fast and furious pace. I’ve hit the “publish” button thinking to myself, “this could well be my best Blog post to date,” only to find out a short while later that nobody cared. The post wasn’t picked up, tweeted about on Twitter, shared, liked on Facebook and only generated a few (if any) comments.
In the analog era, says Joel, writers didn’t have this problem. In fact, they didn’t really need readers at all to feel rewarded. Validation came not from readers as much as from “publishers, editors and fellow content creators . . . agreeing to publish our work in the first place.”
The Naked Blogger
Not so in the blogging era. Gone is the protective framework of traditional publications, the assumption of vetting and approval that published writers once received by virtue of being published. Even for writers who work for well-staffed brands, the likelihood is that their work now gets published with little oversight or feedback from other staff. It’s all down to the readers to respond.
And all too often, they don’t.
Joel’s take on this is that “content creation can be a humiliating process.” But what strikes me in his description is not the humiliation, but the loneliness. In the social media era, isn’t writing supposed to be more collaborative, more interactive, more, well, sociable?
In many ways, it is—especially when readers respond. But now, as a self-published writer, you are often on the stage alone. It’s just you up there, no other actors, no props, no curtains to hide behind. And what’s more, the theater is dark. Though you can’t see them, you are face-to-face with your audience. The readers are there, but unless they laugh or applaud, you don’t know what they think. Even in the intimate environs of social media, writing remains a sometimes thrilling, sometimes frightening, and essentially lonely activity.
So in the absence of publishers and the frequent silence of readers, the quest for validation is now less assured, and more brutal: “In a world where the half-life of a Blog post can be less than twelve hours,” writes Joel, “you can tell if your work resonates … or if it’s digital tumbleweeds.”
Joel advises us to accept the fact that some content just won’t resonate. Don’t seek validation from the response to individual posts, he suggests, but from the collective responses to the entire body of your work.
I don’t disagree. But I also think it’s a mistake to leave the validation of your work entirely up to readers who happen to stop by your blog in search of something you have no intention of offering. As some of the commenters on Joel’s post suggest, there are a number of alternative ways of finding validation for your online efforts. Here’s another that might work for you.
Combatting the Loneliness
First of all, measure your work in the context of your own goals. If your aim with your content is to generate a certain number of page views or comments, your degree of success will be easy to gauge. But if you are creating your content for some other reason—to clarify your thoughts, to play with language, or to improve your skills—you don’t need your readers to validate it. You hope for reader reaction as well, of course (why else publish it?) but you don’t need it.
However: be your own best reader. If you don’t like what you wrote, it didn’t succeed. But don’t leap to this conclusion too quickly. Give yourself time and distance before judging your own work. When in the throes of writing, we’re terrible readers, prone to all kinds of rash and erroneous reactions. Take another look at your creation a day, a week, or a month later. It may be much better than you initially believed.
If in your best, dispassionate judgment, your content works for you, then you should make an effort to expose it to other readers like yourself. When your post is greeted with silence, don’t assume it didn’t work. Perhaps it just didn’t reach the readers it was meant for. It’s astonishing to me how often the people you think will see a post in fact miss it. Don’t just tweet about it once and give up. Promote it several times in each of your networks. Send any people you mentioned a link to the story. Your voice can’t be heard in a vacuum. Give it the air it needs to resonate.
Finally, keep in mind what validation means here. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your views are correct or your writing is brilliant. Rather, it means knowing that you had something worth saying, and that, as importantly, someone else thinks so too.
It’s not a cure for loneliness. But it helps.
This seems to be one of those topics that comes up again and again and again for writers. The specifics vary, but the core of the issue never changes: writing is a lonely and solitary task.
As you and I both know, one of the stranger (and more wonderful) things that can happen to a writer is when we are asked to speak in public. Suddenly our words generate “instant” feedback. It can be applause, or it can be groans — but it’s happening right then!
After you’ve done enough public speaking, it gets harder to write again in solitude. I’ve found myself writing a catchy phrase and then feeling strangely disappointed that no one is around to smile or laugh or nod approvingly. Vonnegut wrote about this phenomenon several times.
There seems to be no answer to the problem. You cannot be a public writer anymore than you can be a dancer who performs only for the mirror.
We writers must learn to take our risks in the silence of empty rooms, just as dancers must learn to take theirs in the glare of spotlights.
You’re right, of course, that writing has always been a lonely endeavor. Ironically, as Mitch Joel pointed out, it has in some ways gotten lonelier in the social media era. Publishing may be better off without gatekeepers, but their role as validators will be missed.