Writing in the Internet era: A conversation with Sarah McCarry (aka The Rejectionist)
The Internet can be a challenge for writers. We have to avoid its distractions while writing, only to be besieged with expectations that we will utilize it to promote our books. Writers are thrust into a semi-public life when we publish and have to contend with people saying all sorts of things about us and our books, which can be thrilling on the one hand and unnerving on the other.
How should writers navigate this world? I talked with Sarah McCarry, author of the brilliant novel All Our Pretty Songs, and blogging star at The Rejectionist.
Nathan: There are so many pressures on authors these days to be on the Internet, do all The Social Media, to promote your own books because you can’t necessarily count on your publisher, and oh by the way you have to write the books too, which is made all the more more difficult by all the distractions. Do you think writers are better off with social media and the Internet or are we all tweeting while Rome burns?
Sarah: Ha! You think because I am a Pessimist you can provoke me into a Franzenesque condemnation of the kids today and their platforms, but there you are mistaken, sirrah. I like to approach social media as a kind of mutual aid arrangement; I love promoting other people’s work and building connections with other writers and like-minded humans. But it’s definitely challenging to put on one’s little marketing hat and suddenly be all like ACTUALLY CAN EVERYONE PLEASE BUY MY BOOK, ALSO. I’m not very good at it, to tell you the truth. And I am somewhat suspicious of most of the more conventional social promotion activities that many publishers push, like blog tours and book trailers and goodreads giveaways and what have you–I mean, if you enjoy that stuff, absolutely do it, but I would be pretty surprised if many of those tactics had any real impact on book sales. I find my own energy is more usefully spent elsewhere.
Nathan: What I find interesting about your Internet presence is that you are someone who embraced social media very early and I originally met you because we were blog friends, and yet I know you to be very ambivalent at best about e-books, cell phones that do things other than tell time, and the multinational corporations that are speeding those things along. How do you differentiate between the types of technology to embrace and those to be wary of?
Sarah: Nathan, I am large and contain multitudes. (I do want to be clear that I am disinterested in ebooks and having the internet on my telephone for myself personally, but obviously those things are fine for other people and I do not in any way regard them as the harbingers of our pending doom–the same cannot be said for multinational corporations, which are never, ever, on the side of human beings.) I like social media that allows me to build what feel like genuine networks with other people, which is a very hippie thing to say but I have made a lot of real-life and very meaningful friendships and professional connections online–mostly through blogging, and to a lesser extent through twitter. It is always complicated, though, being a semi-public person on the internet, which I know you have struggled with as well. I don’t really distinguish between my online personality and my real-world personality, unlike other writers whose online persona might be more traditionally “professional” and less prone to cussing, but I have found that people don’t always realize that even though I write about my personal experience in a very public forum I am also very, very selective about what I choose to make public. What do you think about the boundaries between “personal” selves and “professional” selves online?
: To me that boundary (or lack thereof) between “personal” and “professional” personality online is a seriously tricky one. If you try to create a separate professional personality online that is different from your actual personality you come across as totally fake, and yet very few people I know are comfortable baring their entire lives and their deepest darkest thoughts. It can be very uncomfortable to really put yourself out there and navigate this tension authentically. I don’t know that anyone who follows me online would be surprised by my real-life personality, but still, what I show online is inevitably a slice. And yet circumstances can force you into revealing more about yourself than you might otherwise. Even with as little as I had revealed about my personal life online, I still eventually felt compelled to discuss my divorce publicly
. Do you worry about the steady erosion of a “private” life?
Sarah: I’m definitely someone who avoids mentioning specific details of my personal life as much as possible–it seems like many other writers find a different way to negotiate that balance, and are more open online, and I think that can work well for folks who are comfortable with it. Honestly, I think it can be really beneficial to build a more personal relationship with readers, but there are lots of ways to go about it. I’m not at all quiet about my politics, and I do sometimes wonder what will happen if all my freelance clients realize suddenly that their web copy is being penned by a raving socialist, but so far, no one has seemed to mind. To me it’s such an individual decision–how much to share, what aspects of your life, and with whom–and there’s no one right way that will work for everyone. I prioritize offline time as much as I am able, because I’m someone who has a difficult time getting any real work done if I’m online at all or even thinking about the internet. But it’s still really weird to know that there is a significant catalog of my various opinions and foibles over the last five years on the permanent record, for sure. And I do not ever, ever, ever, ever, ever google myself; I don’t read blog reviews of my book, I do my best not to look at anything else about it online. I’m grateful and delighted that people care enough about the book to engage with it publicly but that’s not a conversation in which I feel comfortable participating.
Nathan: I actually wonder about the effect of the Internet on the reading side too. I now find that I’m less patient when I’m reading long-form articles. I skim an issue of the New Yorker where before I might have read it cover-to-cover. I justify this to myself by saying I’m just more selective about what I spend time on because there’s so much incredible stuff out there to read, but I wonder if this is really true. I still carve out time to read difficult books, but not all of my friends are reading books at all. Do you find your attention span shortening in the Twitter era? What are we doing to our ability to read books?
Sarah: No! My dream is a shelf full of thousand-page books that are also gorgeous (I just read Donna Tartt’s 800-page The Goldfinch, and loved it so much I am reading it again, because I’m a weirdo). I’ll read long-form stuff, essays, you name it. I don’t have any friends who don’t read, though I’ve also made 90% of my friends in New York through writing about books. I’m pretty happy to live in a self-selected bubble of people who care very much about the same things I care about. Life is short. I tend to step away from Twitter rather than step away from reading or writing.
Nathan: What would your advice be to someone who feels like they are too busy or too distracted or can’t find the peace and quiet to write a novel?
Sarah: The best advice I can think of is advice you gave me–that the one thing everyone who finishes a book has in common is that they got it done. The circumstances of people’s lives are so different–I don’t think it’s useful to say “you must write for at least fifteen minutes every day” or “you must achieve a certain word count weekly” (well, unless you are on a deadline, in which case, COURAGE). Some people write a book in a year and some people take a decade, or their whole lives; some people write every day and some people don’t write at all for months. There’s no one right way to do it. I think the key is finding the story you want to tell, which no one else can do for you, and finding the best way to work with your own brain, which takes a lot of trial and error. And at some point, alas, you do actually have to sit down and write the book. I still get cranky about that part sometimes.