I remember, more than a decade ago now, my friend the brilliant poet Stacy Kidd joined Facebook. She was a later adopter — by then it was already a thing. She was assessing the platform skeptically as she poked around, and I remember her saying, “I can see why writers like this” — the word “writers” throwing me into a question — “the response, the instant gratification.”
I’m still in that question, or rather, the question has grown into a sea, and I’m decades adrift and three years without a boat, swimming for the sunset on the theory that eventually I just have to reach land.
We’re talking about a platform that became viciously addictive to millions of people, most of whom aren’t “writers.” Yet, I wonder… Are writers more susceptible to social media addiction? Is “being a writer” something like a gene that predisposes one to alcoholism, except in this case it’s more like a whole set of identity-defining-memes that make us less able to moderate social media use?
What distinguishes a writer from anyone else? Most of the things writers do, any literate person does. Writers just maybe do it more, or more intentionally, or in hopes of a larger audience?
But this last part, the part where one hopes for a larger audience, that’s hardly unique to writers — and, may I point out, writers provide some of the worst examples of spotlight-seeking. Gayl Jones, JD Salinger, Harper Lee, the Author-Recluse is not uncommon, and writing often requires seclusion. Here’s Franz Kafka:
One can never be alone enough when one writes, why even night is not night enough. ... I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp. Food would be brought and always put down far away from my room, outside the cellar's outermost door. The walk to my food, in my dressing gown, through the vaulted cellars, would be my only exercise. I would then return to my table, eat slowly and with deliberation, then start writing again at once. And how I would write! From what depths I would drag it up! ("Letters to Felice," 1913)
There are many people in the world who want attention, who are even desperate for attention, and they are not likely to become writers. Reality show contestants, stand-up comics, Instagram influencers, Tik Tok preachers… maybe they’ll coat themselves in metallic paint and stand very still in a heavily-trafficked city square — all of these are better options, if attention is what you seek.
A writer’s primary motivation can never really be attention, unless that writer is not very bright, or is perhaps delusional.
So what is at the core of the self that wants to make art of language and share it, and yes, writers universally want to be read. (Writers who don’t want to be read are diarists who burn their papers before their deaths.) Writers want to think, discover, clarify, elucidate, and, yes, communicate — “attention” isn’t the goal, but an audience is a necessary part of the process.
This distinction is more important now, under the weight of the “attention economy”: the difference between wanting connection and wanting attention has always been important, but social media purposefully scrambles connection and attention — and disentangling them is necessary to our humanity, perhaps our sanity.
If you can’t disentangle attention from connection, you may confuse performance for honesty, sharing for listening, amplification for care. The mutual using of fellow users stands in for love; relationships are mere means to ends, and people might become to you the bricks or buttresses of a reputational fortress; fandoms and superficial features become identity, identity eclipses individuality, and a difference of opinion becomes unforgivable.
Now you’re a brand, and so you do not possess yourself — your value is now in “the market,” the network and its attention-rankings, its hive-mind meaning-makings. You can go viral and you can be canceled, and while some of this is influenced by your behavior, none of it has much to do with you.
Do I assert a division between behavior and self? Yes. In defiance of contemporary psychological orthodoxy? Yes. We are not our behavior. We have an inner self.
Our behavior may be nudged and wedged. Our behavior may disappoint us. Our behavior can sell us out for scraps.
The inner self is the self that can’t be sold. It’s the self that feels left behind, even when our behavior has gone viral and gotten 14k likes. The self watches behavior strive for attention and the self feels lonely and craves connection.
This I think is the distinction between the writer and the attention-seeker: the writer, being a human being, might be seeking attention, but it’s not the writer-self in charge at that moment, it’s some other human frailty. The writer-self desires and works towards something else altogether.
The writer-self wants to be the hands and mouth of the inner self. Not only that, the writer-self wants to make sense of senselessness. Order from chaos — or from chaotic-seeming patterns from which imagination and intelligence might derive meaning.
This requires an audience, preferably an audience who responds to our writing frankly and honestly, because our entire sense of reality depends on interaction with fellow human beings. This passage from “The Living Death of Solitary Confinement” by Lisa Guenther has stuck with me for almost a decade now:
Think about it: Every time I hear a sound and see another person look toward the origin of that sound, I receive an implicit confirmation that what I heard was something real, that it was not just my imagination playing tricks on me. Every time someone walks around the table rather than through it, I receive an unspoken, usually unremarkable, confirmation that the table exists, and that my own way of relating to tables is shared by others. When I don’t receive these implicit confirmations, I can usually ask someone — but for the most part, we don’t need to ask because our experience is already interwoven with the experience of many other living, thinking, perceiving beings who relate to the same world from their own unique perspective. This multiplicity of perspectives is like an invisible net that supports the coherence of my own experience, even (or especially) when others challenge my interpretation of “the facts.” These facts are up for discussion in the first place because we inhabit a shared world with others who agree, at the very least, that there is something to disagree about.
This basic construction of a “shared world” is what writers are doing, just in an arguably more complex form. When I write a poem I wonder if its images resonate in the heart of readers the way they resonate in mine. It’s like asserting the presence of a metaphorical table, to see if others see it too. When I write a story I want to know if the way I understand human behaviors and interactions makes sense to other humans who behave and interact. Whether I hear from readers or not, they are still part of the process, because to write, I must imagine my future readers in an almost impossible act of imaginative empathy: I picture the response of a reader who may never exist. And so I write with a question never expecting an answer. Maybe someone will read it after I’m dead, and for them it will mean something, and I’ll never know what they thought. I’m still motivated to write it!, because I’ve read Virginia Woolf and Voltaire and Willa Cather and Shakespeare, and they’re all very dead (and had plenty of human failings when alive), yet the things they wrote changed my life.
Writers want our writing to reach someone and have an effect on them, in the way that others’ writing has had an effect on us: we want to pay it forward. Some of us — maybe most of us? — would prefer this occur with as little fanfare as possible, dear god we do not want to draw a crowd. We want to “only connect!” because connection is everything, but we might not want gobs of attention because it undermines the very thing we’re seeking.
So this, too, is part of the JOMO, the Joy Of Missing Out — if you happen to be a writer. You can better disentangle attention from connection. You can enter a Kafka-like cellar of writerly solitude, to “drag it up” and “from what depths”! In this way, “missing out” on the latest memes and random happenings means not missing out on the experience of self-examination, imagination, critical thought, and the discovery of an inner self capable of connecting with fellow humans alive and dead, foreign and domestic, ancient and recent, not because we want attention or want to use these people towards some performative end, but because we love ideas and language and humanity and thought, we love the life of the mind, and we’re willing to do impossible things just to figure out what’s real.