An Open Letter To A Fellow Writer About Twitter

Dear Jamie,

I read your post on Ploughshares blog yesterday. Your post was about whether or not you should use Twitter. The title is “Why I’m Not On Twitter Yet” and you actually write that you can be persuaded to join. But it feels like what you’re really writing about isn’t Twitter but addictive and dangerous behavior, about knowing yourself, about balancing what’s healthy for you and what’s healthy for your career. Know where I discovered your post? On Twitter.

Usually, when I read a blog post that I feel compelled to comment on, I end up saying something a bit lame: great post, thank you for this, etc. What I really want to do is ask a bunch of questions, to talk more to the writer, pick his or her brain on a wide-range of topics that only tangentially are relevant to the post. I’d like to buy that person a drink. But since I live in Columbia and the blogger almost certainly doesn’t, this will likely never happen. So, power of the interwebs and all that …

What I liked about your post, Jamie, is that the anxiety that you describe is all about the book promotion. You’re terrified that if you don’t do this, don’t hop on Twitter and use it (to do what, exactly?) then you’re dooming your collection to the dustbins of forgotten contemporary writers not named Franzen. And what I so admired was that you said so publicly! “I want my book to sell and I do not want to doom my career.”

I feel this way all the time. My first book, a story collection like yours, comes out in October. Am I worried that the world will shrug? That by going with a small press, my agent can’t sell my novel? That whatever miserable decision(s) I’ve made about my entire writing life, from beginning to the here and now, can somehow be salvaged if the next move is the smart move?

Yeah, all the time.

So, with that. Do not use Twitter. Never.

I say this as a monster fan of Twitter. I keep a tab open all day, in large part because I’m in front of a computer for my job. I love Twitter. I don’t recall how long I’ve had the account. I have a personal website, a Facebook account, and a Gmail account. Smartphone. Etc. People can get a hold of me however they want.

Facebook bores me: it’s an echo chamber where the same dozen “friends” post noise all day long. Facebook is visual. Seems like an obvious point, right? Pictures and videos and stuff, and all that makes me feel is that I should be doing something else, with real live people in real life who I really love being around. Which I can do at 5 pm when I log off my computer.

Twitter is textual. Seems like an obvious, yeah? But Twitter is about those pithy 140 characters and links to good articles. There are some people out there who put up some terrific stuff – Nick Moran, Roxane Gay, Nathan Bransford, Jane Friedman, Rebecca Schinsky, Ezra Klein, Maud Newton, David Gutowski, Cory Doctorow, Liz Heron, and many others. And the only one of those people I’ve ever met in person is Roxane.

There are my friends, too. Zinging each other with wit, sarcasm, even serious stuff. Real life people who I love and do, in fact, get to see in real life outside of the office.

A major factor for me is that Twitter is information. I read a ton of articles about publishing, writing, editing, and business that I simply don’t see on Facebook. The people I follow might be friends, they also might be complete strangers. But it doesn’t matter. Sure, I’d love to have lots of followers, but if something interests me, and I’m having a good time, I keep it up (digression: I probably lost a dozen followers just the other night by sending about 200 Boston Celtics tweets in three hours). I’m learning from Twitter. I believe I’m better at my job because of Twitter.

Twitter isn’t effortless. But it isn’t really work either. Have you ever read those “Why I Write” essays by famous writers? They always amaze me, how much someone can articulate, without being too pompous (I mean, some of them are, you know, but just think about the ones you actually like), the impetus to write stories or novels or poems or essays. More than once, I’ve tried writing a manifesto like that. But they never come out right. I keep it simple. I write because I want to. I like it. That’s it. Same with Twitter. I like it. I dig Twitter the same way Roxane does. It’s fun. End of story.

Jamie, I’ve thought quite a bit about book promotion, and like most writers, I get deeply anxious and nervous.  I hope Grove/Atlantic is doing something awesome for you. My press—Queen’s Ferry Press—is small. The publisher, Erin McKnight, has been a dream to work with. How can an author not love working with an editor who believes, deeply and sincerely, that your work demands to be read? But despite our shared enthusiasm for my book, the fact remains that Erin and I have a pretty limited amount of marketing cards to play. There is so much noise out there. We’ll do all we can to get the good word out, but there are 300,000 new books published each year. 300,000! I mean, if I could bank on all my Facebook friends (800) and Twitter followers (500) combined, then subtracting out the duplicates (let’s make it easy and call it a 1000), buying my book, I’d be thrilled.

But it won’t. Social media doesn’t work that way.

Here’s the thing: once you try to sell people, they won’t buy. The soft sell isn’t even the thing now; it’s more like the non-sell. Some kind of Buddist, zen, voodoo, something other. It makes no sense. I’m sure that you have gone to plenty of readings over the years. I know I have. You know what is the biggest factor in people buying books? Whether or not they like the author. Which, when you really think about it, is kinda silly.

When I got the offer from Queen’s Ferry Press, I had to think about it. Really think about. I called my writer friends and asked for their opinions. I called my agent. I stewed and marinated on it for a long time. The advice I got came down to this: no Big Six house is going to expect the moon and the stars from a short-story collection. Those people in publishing are pretty smart. So is your agent; so are your friends; so are you. Guessing here, but if you published a story collection on a major press, unless your name is Daniel Orozco, you promised a novel. Unless it’s finished (and even if it is), you have work to do.

Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. We’ve never met. Maybe this entire open letter thing is an awfully presumptuous thing to write. But let me say something else. You’re married, and from what I can gleam from your post, happily. You have four children, and are a conscientious mother. You wrote stories, probably ten or eleven of them, that were published by terrific journals. You have a book. It will be in the world no matter what. The view from my seat? You’ve already won. You’ve done it. You’ve climbed the mountain and slammed the flag into the ground and sounded your barbaric yawp.

Because, Jamie, none of us are going to be famous. Selling a few extra copies won’t impress the big shots in New York. As for us writers, well, none of us really care about that. In the end, when you sit down and look at your work, the person that has to live with it is you. No one else will know what went into writing each story, each paragraph, each chapter. Not really. Only the writer knows that. No one else will appreciate that good, true, honest, devastating story.

That’s why we write, I think. For the work, not for the recognition. A couple hundred people on Twitter that you don’t know won’t change that.

You spoke honestly about obsession and addiction, and while I’m not Dear Sugar and I have already exhausted my armchair psychology for the day, it sounds like you know you don’t belong on Twitter. Frankly, Twitter shouldn’t even be a thought. Stay away. Book promotion isn’t worth going crazy, neglecting your children and your husband, isn’t worth the possibility of being sleepless because you’re missing a link or two. Publishing a book should be (is this silly?) fun. We should enjoy it, celebrate it. If trying to snag a couple extra readers gives you ulcers, threatens your writing time, your reading experience, and your family, then don’t bother. It isn’t worth it.

And that you decided to address this publicly is why I’m responding the same way: Airing the honest anxiety writers feel, an anxiety and worry that I instantly felt in my stomach as I was reading your words. There are probably many other writers who feel the exact same way and I hope by answering you publicly, we help them out too.

Anyway. That was the fastest 1600 word letter I’ve ever cranked out. I hope it helps. And, the last thing: I’ll buy a copy of your book. You just gotta promise you’ll sign a copy for me … and not tweet about it.

A Fellow Writer & Total Stranger,


Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

On The End of Summer Reading

Last month, after four days in Boston and an unremarkable flight from Logan International down to North Carolina before hopping a flight to St. Louis, I ended up delayed at Raleigh-Durham International. First, the airplane was late arriving from Cincinnati. Then, one of the tires on the plane was damaged. I actually had the “Wait, changing a tire is really easy!” thought, as if 747s and my Civic require the same amount of time and effort. Next, the plane needed to be cleaned. Then, the airline was waiting on paperwork. Et cetera.

On most trips, I take at least two books: one to get me out there, and one to get me back. On the way to Boston, I read Inman Majors novel “Wonderdog.” The other book was “Candide.” Really. And after thirty pages of that, I decided I couldn’t read any more Voltaire, and headed off to the newsstand. I announced I was going to “buy trash.”

For me, trash translates into sports magazine or men’s magazine. Either one would be fine. Despite numerous pages of advertisements, GQ usually does have a couple of really good articles. Sports is sports, and I could read about the MLB trade deadline and a human interest story or three about an athlete from the 60’s who has fallen into obscurity, or drugs, or obscurity and drugs. No problem!

Instead, I bought Harper’s.

It was a long rectangular store, and the back wall was crowded from floor to ceiling with magazines. There were rows and rows of loud covers: half-dressed men and women, blurry photos of celebrities, ominous photographs of poverty or shadowy images of cities and highways, surrounded by bright packages of chocolate candy bars, bags of candy and pretzels and nuts and chips, coolers loaded with soda and fruit juice and water, a steady hum from the omnipresent televisions hovering in the corners.

My stomach growled and my back ached, and the thought of eating any of this food or reading any of these magazines frustrated me. Why did I have to consume – yup, consume, both my reading and my food – such garbage? There didn’t seem to be anyone else around me. And finally after ten minutes of dithering, I gave up trying to convince myself that there was nothing wrong with reading Sports Illustrated, shrugged and grabbed Harper’s, then reached the counter, and in the next second was back at my gate.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge I was tired and crabby: everyone is a little worn down by the end of a vacation, particularly a “vacation” that was a long weekend based on a wedding. Those aren’t relaxing. But I tend to have the same response when I hear the phrase “summer reading”: just sort of puts me on edge, for two reasons. One, it’s the idea of consumption (notice that the “summer reading” books all have basically the same three or four very similar cover images and layouts). Second, there is the feeling that the book industry believes that when it’s hot outside, no one can read anything other than The Help. Most summer reading isn’t as diverse and interesting and challenging as this guy’s vacation reads.

I’m in the middle of reading The Help right now (really) and I don’t think I have anything to say about that Roxane Gay hasn’t already said better. Maybe the film is okay. I wouldn’t know. In bookstores, there is often a section of “summer reading” that are the books assigned to local high schools. There are some duds in here too, of course (one year I saw “The Secret” was assigned), but on the whole, high school summer reading tends to be books that are sneakily better than you think. Or, maybe, more accurate, better than you remember. Last summer I re-read a pair of books that are often assigned to high school students, and found that they are much better than I realized, that there was in fact a pretty good reason why those books were read and taught and enjoyed every year.

We have to read what captivates us. Why wouldn’t we? Other than what might be assigned for classes – either classes we are teaching or classes we are taking – some writers will admit to feeling that they haven’t read enough. That they haven’t read enough “good” books or the classics or the canon and that, somehow, this makes their own writing ambitions premature, illegitimate. I understand that anxiety: I used to feel this way, too. But there is so much to read. So much great stuff to read. And once we let go of the worry about reading everything, we can take the summer to read one great big book, like Infinite Jest or Anna Karenina.

Summer has another month to go, but for those of us affiliated with a university, in many ways, summer ended this week with the beginning of the autumn semester. We all have enough worries: literary journals reopened for submissions, new students, new colleagues, why hasn’t my agent returned my phone call?, where’d the Borders go?, mailing costs, papers to grade, and so forth. Why worry about what you’re reading? Why follow a marketing trend?

Go ahead and grab that copy of Dostoevsky you haven’t read yet. Great books are worth reading regardless of the weather. And I’m sure Fyodor reads nicely with flip-flops and an umbrella drink.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye