I have to wonder how it happened. In early 2009, I wrote on my newly-minted blog:
It’s a pretty weird time on the planet — the economics of everything, the tools of mass communication, the rise (rise? emergence? triumph? hard to say…) of self-publishing and DIY arts production and distribution. Everything’s spinning and turning — exhilaratingly for some, nauseatingly for others.
I was leaning toward nausea at the time. In all things, I was analog. I worked slowly, and I liked material, concrete things. Like books, pens, paper. My first novel was a year from release, and I’d been told, by everyone I knew in the literary world, that I should start a blog. Reluctantly, awkwardly, I did.
In 2010, in an essay for the anthology The Late American Novel, I wrote:
Realistically: the printed book, in hard cover at the least, may well go by the wayside. By all accounts, digital technologies and the market are pushing print, as we know it, to the margins [...] All this may well be the reality of the moment [...] My hope, on the other hand is that the above trajectory is not a foregone conclusion; or if it is, not a permanent one.
I also wrote that I hoped the pendulum swing toward digital would swing back, to a future time where “Those of us who write will write better books. We’ll pare back on blog-blabbing, will be freer from self-consciousness, quieter in our heads, slower and less distracted, more imaginatively limber and inventive.”
It is now the dusk of 2012, and I am going on my fourth year writing regularly for a major online literary site — the one you are reading right now. And in a few weeks, I will be involved in launching yet another digital literary venture… but more on that in a moment.
How did it happen? Mine is an unlikely Web byline, and yet, more often than I ever would have imagined, I have been “recognized,” at a party, or in an email exchange, even at an artists’ colony, for my essays and reviews at The Millions. You’re the one who wrote that piece about…
Seriously? I think. You read that? Part of me is still in 2009, dizzy and disoriented from all the spinning and turning.
Back then, along with being told to start a blog, I was told to read blogs. At the time, I still had a paper subscription to the NY Times, and an iBook that had maxed out on hard-drive space (and thus loaded Web pages very slowly). I can’t remember exactly how I started: there was maybe one literary blog I knew about, so I poked around there. That blog led to another blog, and that to another. About a week into my explorations, I landed at The Millions. This was back when the format was still a single post daily, in vertical scroll. I found myself revisiting the site: something about it clicked (so to speak), it seemed to me both erudite and unpretentious, a place where I could hang out for a while. The content was interesting but not overwhelming, the pace of it rigorous but unhurried. It was the first blog on which I ever commented.
I kept coming back. I didn’t bother reading other blogs; I thought, okay, I’ll just stick with this one, it’s what I can do. About a month into my new and exciting blog life, I posted something on my own blog about former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum’s Twitter-essay, wherein he had described (in Tweets) being fired by David Remnick. I didn’t really know what Twitter was (I still don’t have an account), but I’d read the essay (via The Millions?) and was intrigued. It took me about a month, however, to get some thoughts together; which was, and still is, typical of me, i.e., I may have joined the digital commentariat, but no form of technology was going to make me a faster thinker. I was no breaking-news journalist.
Nonetheless, within an hour of posting, a comment appeared — from Dan Baum. I stared at it. Really? This was my first experience with actual social networking. He wrote: Sonya, a lot of words have been spilled about my New Yorker twitterpost, but this one was the best. Thank you. I remember the rush, that thrill of being winked at from across a crowded (cyber) room. In that moment, I got it — what all this fuss about social networking was about. Give the tools a try, just be yourself; write what you care about. Weird things will start to happen, some of them might be good.
Even weirder: Baum tweeted my post, and instantly, my little blog of 50 daily visitors was flooded with close to 1,000 visitors. I felt like a crowd had just burst into my home, where I hadn’t vacuumed or done the dishes, and I was wearing an ugly bathrobe.
But the light bulbs started to go on. I wrote first to Dan Baum, to thank him for his comment (and confirm it was in fact him); he was gracious and friendly. Then, I wrote to the editor of The Millions:
I’m a novelist/blogger/fiction teacher and frequent reader of The Millions.
I recently posted on my blog a response to Dan Baum’s much-read Twitterpost about the New Yorker, and then received this comment from Dan Baum himself.
I copied and pasted the comment, then suggested that the readers of The Millions might be interested in the post as “a curiosity.” To which Max replied:
Very cool! I’ll throw a link into our next roundup
Emboldened, I wrote back, asked Max if by chance I might write for The Millions sometime. He replied that I should submit a draft of something, which I did. He worked with me on editing it, then published it, then a few others. After a couple of months of guest posting, I became a staff writer.
Two years ago, at a panel on publishing that I coordinated for the creative writing students at Columbia University, someone asked how important did the panelists think blogging and social networking were for one’s literary career. A couple of the panelists said that they thought it was very important, that these days authors were more responsible than ever for their own publicity, not to mention connecting with editors and agents, and that social networking was the way to do that. One of the panelists, a well-published fiction writer, offered an opposing view: “That stuff can be very distracting,” she said. “If you’d rather focus your energy and time on your novel or stories, you should do that.” Afterwards, I thanked the panelist for her words. “The students need to hear that,” I said to her. “That no matter what, their creative work is most important.”
At the same panel the following year, which I also moderated, a published writer in attendance asked if the panelists had any thoughts for someone who didn’t write short-form. “It seems like a lot of publishing connections get made through blog-writing, but what if you’re really a long-form writer, and you’re working on a book, and that’s really all you’re doing?” I found myself interjecting thus: “I’m that kind of writer, as well. In an ideal world, I would be living in the woods, writing novels and long stories and nothing else. But at some point, I realized that I didn’t have that luxury; that it was a good idea to take advantage of all these outlets for short-form publishing.”
My reactions to these two authors are not in direct opposition, but the nuances have shifted. I still believe that long-form creative writers must determine and do what works best for them; to learn what is distracting versus what is nourishing; to make choices that get them to finish and publish their books. Over the past few years, there have been moments when I’ve considered ceasing to write for The Millions, so that, in addition to teaching (where I earn my living) I can focus exclusively on fiction. But I’ve come to realize that, for me, engaging in both long-form and short-form, analog and digital, work well together.
Strictly speaking, yes, the time I spend writing for online publication is time not spent writing my second novel; and yet it is still, for me, time spent nourishing my writing life. There is, it would seem — needs to be for most of us in this publishing environment — more to the writing life than manuscript word counts and book deals. One must be mindful of the stamina, and the supportive community, required for the long haul of long-form literary writing; which is, even in the case of relative “success,” increasingly divorced from a viable livelihood and voluminous readership. Being able to write and publish short-form work, on a somewhat regular basis, has energized me to keep showing up at my fiction desk (mornings, no internet), which is, more accurately — and perhaps appropriately in light of this notion of complementary activities — not really a desk at all, but a spiral-bound notebook in which I write long-hand.
I should say, too, that I spend relatively little time on either Facebook or Twitter. If a Tweet is 140 characters, and this essay is 11,000 characters, then you could say that this is what I do every month, alongside novel writing, in lieu of 80 Tweets.
Writing short essays and reviews are also a way for me to think. This past summer, I worked for two solid months on a long piece about psychic homelessness, i.e., geographic mobility, an unstable sense of place. The piece ranged and roamed, encompassing the essays of Emerson, the novels of Wendell Berry, the memoirs of Kathleen Norris, Jimmy Carter, and Donald Hall, the “anxiety of influence,” reflections on my marriage and divorce, meditations on the legacy of immigration, questions of social class… it was a mess, and I trashed it, heavy with a sense of failure. This fall, I’ve had a chance to resurrect the piece — fragments of it, that is — in short form, in an online column at The Common, called “Annals of Mobility.” I can think out the issues one at a time and, perhaps a year from now, look at them in the aggregate and understand what it is I feel and have wanted to say. In this way, ironically, Web writing has slowed me down and allowed me to take my time with a complex idea.
Which brings me to Bloom.
In September 2011, The Millions graciously allowed me a platform for highlighting a group of authors, and, perhaps more significantly, a varied way of looking at and engaging in the writing life — that of zig-zag paths, a slower pace, living multiple lives; and ultimately “succeeding,” one way or another, in one’s own good time. I am referring to the “Post-40 Bloomers” series, which I’ve been honored to write and edit over the past year.
In a few weeks, you’ll be hearing about Bloom — a new site, originating from “Post-40 Bloomers,” carrying on and expanding the series, with support from The Millions. Instead of monthly, you’ll read about a “Bloomer” weekly, along with other great features related to later-life blooming. So far, Bloom is scheduled to feature Donald Ray Pollock, Peter Ferry, Deborah Eisenberg, Bram Stoker, W.M. Spackman, Kate Chopin, Shannon Cain, Karl Marlantes, George Eliot, Samuel Richardson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joseph Kanon, Pauline Chen… this exciting list goes on and on.
The irony of it all delights and humbles me. Bloom is about taking one’s time, sometimes off the beaten path. We’re claiming the technology of fast-and-instant and using it to talk about the many different ways of living, working, creating — fast, slow, direct, indirect, prolific, sparse. I won’t be moderating that publishing panel again this year, but if I were, I would say to the anxious student who asks about blogging and digital publishing — who is worried about money and family, his messy creative process, and his prospects for literary “success” — I would say to him: Just be yourself. You will bloom in good time.
Image via aussiegall/Flickr