My last blog post was a contribution to a “writing process blog hop,” but the truth is I haven’t been writing much lately. In part, that is because of my disenchantment with the experience of being a writer. There is a big difference between writing and “being a writer.” Working with words and crafting stories is a wonderful, solitary pleasure, yet ultimately most writers crave an audience. And as I learned after publishing my novel Au Pair Report, audiences do not materialize like rabbits out of hats.
Knowing how important it is to “reach out” to strangers who may be willing to take a chance on an unknown book, I have immersed myself (albeit sporadically) in the world of social media over the past two years. Connecting with readers and other writers has at times been a rewarding experience. Through Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, and SheWrites, I have gotten to know many talented and supportive writers. We comment on each other’s blogs and share each other’s shares. Some of these online acquaintances have gone on to read my book, and I have read some of theirs. Building and maintaining such relationships is time-consuming, and social media crowds out time for writing fiction or anything other than the occasional blog post. Yet what has bothered me more is the way it encroaches upon my reading time.
By reading time, I do not mean time spent perusing other authors’ blog posts or reading articles online with an eye toward tweeting a link along with a clever comment. By reading time, I mean the time I spend away from my computer turning the pages of actual books—books chosen simply because they interest me and not out of self-interest or reciprocity (as in, I’ll read and review your book if you read and review mine).
It feels wrong that so much of my reading these days is mediated by screens. I am always happier when I can focus on a book without getting distracted by the temptations of the Internet. Although the Internet gives writers opportunities to market themselves, writers have to work harder than ever to capture the attention of readers because of the abundance of available content. Unfortunately, for those of us who don’t have the luxury of being full-time writers, this often means staying up late and staring at a screen rather than winding down at night with a book.
Perhaps because I am a former medievalist, the word “worldliness” comes to mind because “being a writer” is a form of social engagement that alienates me from what one could consider the more “spiritual” mode of reading. Although I am a committed secularist, reading is probably the closest I come to a spiritual practice. Communing with a book is a solitary and meditative act, and often the stories we read invite self-reflection and a yearning for self-improvement. Writing fiction has that potential for me also, but “being a writer” does not.
When I am playing the role of a writer reaching out to a potential audience, there is always some element of vanity in my actions—in spite of my desire for a genuine engagement with readers and other writers. It is too easy to worry about what other people think and to focus on book reviews, blog stats, and other such indicators of a nascent reputation. Author Kathleen Hale recently wrote a confessional piece about how a reviewer’s harsh comments led to her obsession with exposing the reviewer’s fabricated online identity. This is an extreme example of how unhealthy being a writer can become. The backlash against Hale’s essay suggests that she may lose more readers than she will gain by sharing this story.
One could object that just as there is a difference between writing and “being a writer,” there is a difference between reading and “being a reader.” The latter is especially true for book bloggers such as the one who wounded Hale’s vanity, for these bloggers construct online identities as readers. Although I also blog about books sometimes, I do not feel the same disconnect between whatever online identity I have as a reader and the act of reading.
Having taken long breaks from writing in the past, I may not be one of those writers who absolutely must write, but I am a reader who absolutely must read. Spending time with fiction is fundamental to my happiness, and while I sometimes think writing novels is not worth it if I have to exert so much energy to market them, the value of reading novels is something I never question. My love for reading is what first brought me to writing, and it is what will bring me back. For now, however, I’m focusing more on being a reader and less on being a writer.