Friday, June 12, 2015

(Almost) All My Controversial Opinions in One Place

I’m on social media a lot for both pleasure and work, and the temptation to speak my mind about things other people will disagree with sometimes gets overwhelming. Rather than post things 140 characters at a time, I’m putting them all up here to 1) get them off my chest and 2) make myself a handy target for concentrated outrage so I can ignore it all in one place.

In no particular order, here goes:

The story of your life is about what you pay attention to. Pay attention to the people and things you love. Ignore the people and things you don’t. Fix what you can. Say yes as often as possible. Start every disagreement with the thought, “Could I be wrong here? And what are the consequences if I am?”

We should all live as our best selves, whatever we believe that to be. The overwhelming press coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition makes me feel I’ve been trapped on an airplane next to someone who wants to tell me about her hysterectomy. It is none of my business. I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know. Please let me get back to my book. Do you mind if I put my headphones on?  

None of my business is a good way to get through life, except when you see someone in pain. Other people’s pain is everybody’s business. Other people’s joy is not, especially if it doesn’t interfere with your own.

Humor is based on shared assumptions, because it’s about surprise and inappropriate juxtapositions. When you ask, “Don’t you have a sense of humor?” you're really asking, “Don’t you share my assumptions about how the world’s supposed to work?”

We need to reinstitute mandatory national service: two years for everybody between high school and college, no exceptions except for profound disabilities. It doesn’t have to be military service alone. People could choose health care, infrastructure, education, community policing, sanitation. But we must have a system that brings people from disparate parts of our society together for a common goal, and shows people the work that goes into keeping it all running.

We need to have a national conversation about why we have police, and what we expect from our police forces. Some places probably need to disband their current police forces and rebuild them from scratch. Same goes for the prison system. No private citizen needs an assault weapon.

My personal pro-life credentials are pretty hard to challenge, but I don’t want to live in a society that enforces laws against abortion.

If you didn’t like a book, you didn’t like it. That’s fine. I don’t care for most seafood. That does not mean seafood is bad. I’m not going to go online and post one-star reviews of seafood restaurants — why would I do that? I’ll just go to a steakhouse instead. Bookstores work the same way.

Nothing is boring if you pay close enough attention. Boredom is exhaustion, depression or laziness.

We all start from a position of ignorance. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s nothing to be proud of, either. Until we admit our ignorance, we can’t learn what we need to know.

If Fox News or MSNBC is your only news source, you’re keeping your world very small. That can feel like a safe thing to do, but the bigger world and the broader conversations are happening without you.

 If God is infinite, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, our feeble human brains aren’t big enough to comprehend the true and complete nature of God. Sorry, we’re not. Every attempt is an approximation. I have my way, which is about feeling part of the community that produced me. You have a different way. God is big enough to welcome us all. If God can walk the earth as a living man — which I believe — God can also be a many-armed woman, or a bird-man made of gold. We can’t know. The whole point of faith is that it isn’t knowledge.

Most of what we can know comes down to ratios and patterns, things we identify as recurring. Color charts, musical scales, units of measurement.

Spelling counts. Vocabulary matters. The way we speak changes the way we think. We can feel things we have no words for, but we cannot know things we don’t have words or symbols for. Our names for things change the way we see them. The first time I heard my nephews say “firefighter” when I would have said “fireman,” I almost cried.

Because this is true, we need to be careful about the words we use for terrible things. Inconveniences and annoyances aren’t traumas, they’re part of life in the mosh pit. If you call a single unwelcome remark “harassment,” you are interfering with justice for the people who are truly harassed. Poison's in the dosage.

Last but not least, “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.” Repeat that. “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.” One more time: “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.”

Thanks, I feel better now. Feel free to disagree in the comments, which will be moderated.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Social Media for Authors - The Basics

It happened again this morning: I followed back an author who'd followed me on Twitter, and got a direct message asking me to "support indie authors" by buying this author's book. I immediately unfollowed and blocked this person.

Over the past couple of years, social media has become an important marketing tool for authors and publishers, and self-published authors in particular prize the various networks as free platforms for advertising and self-promotion. I help manage social media for more than one author, and I see how valuable it can be to build connections between author and reader, fuel word-of-mouth before and after new books come out, and create a public persona — a brand, even.

Social media is not, however, an electronic billboard, and using it that way is not only a waste of a great resource, it's actively counterproductive. Because human beings learn social skills by modeling the behavior of others, however, one author misusing social media leads to many authors misusing social media — and some seriously bad advice is out there for new authors, especially new self-published authors.

I'm giving away work I sell here, but this is important enough to me that I consider it a public service.

10 Tips for Authors on Social Media

1. Social media is social. Each social media platform creates communities of people who visit it for different reasons and use it in different ways. Choose your platforms first and foremost according to the ones you feel most comfortable with, then according to the ones that are most likely to be hospitable to your target audience. Twitter is an online cocktail party; Facebook is an online break room. Instagram is more like a flea market, and Pinterest is more like a crafts fair. Vine is the A/V club on spring break.

2. Social media is a long game. Sign up for an account and spend some meaningful time on it before you start posting things. Get a sense for what people talk about and how. No social media platform is the equivalent of a billboard or a TV ad; if you treat it that way, you'll be ignored and you deserve to be. In the beginning, at least, follow, like and friend accounts you find interesting, and don't pay any attention to whether or not they follow you back. Engage with them on what they're talking about or posting. If you treat it as a zero-sum game, you will always be losing.

3. Social media is about building a brand, not about selling a product. This is an offshoot of Tip #2. The most effective social media accounts are about the person, not about the product. They give followers a sense of who the person is: his or her interests, likes and dislikes. The goal is not to make followers say, "I want to buy this book," but to make followers say, "That person is so interesting, I want to know more, and I want him/her to do well."

4. Engage people on subjects of common interest — not your book. Replying to Tweets or leaving comments on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Vine is just like entering any other kind of conversation. If someone interrupted your conversation to say, "Hey, buy my book," you would consider that person a clueless boor, and wonder who invited them to the party. Don't do it on social media.

5. Don't send strangers messages about your book. Following someone or friending them on Facebook is not an invitation to be sold to. Direct messages about your book or even public direct Tweets about your book are spam. Spam, spam, spam. They are spam and they are an abuse of the terms of use you agreed to when you opened your social media account.

6. Follow, like and friend people you admire, and people whose careers you aspire to. Watch how they use social media. Neil Gaiman, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr, Patton Oswalt, Rosanne Cash — these are just a few of the arts figures I follow who do Twitter really, really well. Go to your bookshelves, your iTunes playlist, your Netflix queue and find your favorites on your preferred social media platforms. Watch how they engage. Not everybody you admire will do it well, but enough will to give you some meaningful role models.

7. Don't schedule posts. Yeah, I know your online publishing forum has told you how great TweetDeck and all those other automated services are, and I've seen the blog advice on how to schedule automated daily and weekly Tweets. Don't do it, especially not on Twitter, where news breaks and where people go to get updates on the latest breaking tragedy. If the world is watching an earthquake on Twitter and your autotweets are promoting your latest erotic novel, you will become a laughingstock and you deserve to be.

8. Keep hashtags to a minimum, and keep them relevant. Overuse of hashtags marks you as an amateur, and on Twitter, at least, it's a waste of limited characters. And be real: reviewers and serious readers don't go on Twitter and search the hashtag #books.

9. Be who you are. You cannot create a false version of yourself on social media. I'm not talking about pen names or fictional characters, which can be quite useful to authors on social media. I'm talking about trying to disguise your essential self on a social media platform. It didn't work in middle school, and it won't work on Twitter. Let's say you write military thrillers, but you yourself are a research librarian; you cannot pretend to be an ex-Special Forces guy on social media. It's exhausting, it's unsustainable, and it will inevitably backfire on you. If you're just someone who really likes that world, be that person. Social media is a world of fans. Wear your fandom proudly, and don't pretend to be things you aren't.

10. Don't do it if you don't enjoy it.  This is the single most important piece of advice I give my clients when they ask me about social media. If you're doing it because your publicist told you to do it, or because that self-publishing blog told you to do it, you're wasting your time and everyone else's. The most successful social media accounts are the ones run by people who are obviously having fun online, who engage wholeheartedly and like making those connections the Internet makes possible.

It is possible to make friends with strangers on social media, and you do that by discovering the interests and passions that connect you. One of these days, that interest or passion might be your own book — but you have to earn that. There are no shortcuts.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Reads of 2014

I don't read as much as I used to. This morning I finished reading the manuscript of my friend and client John Connolly's next Charlie Parker novel, A SONG OF SHADOWS (coming to the UK in April 2015, in the US sometime in early summer), and that brought my total to 115 for the year. It is possible, but not likely, that I'll finish Lisa Unger's CRAZY LOVE YOU before the end of the day, but I wouldn't do that just to boost my number.

About half of my reading this year was work-related: manuscripts, review copies, books I read for conferences (I moderated two panels at this year's Bouchercon, which accounted for about a dozen books), and books I read in my capacity as a judge for the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. One of my 2015 resolutions is to do more pleasure reading; too often this year, when I wasn't working, I was destroying my brain with a video game and calling it relaxation. It's true that books are competing not only with each other, but with Netflix and YouTube and Candy Crush, and I've been as guilty of that as anyone else.

In making my list of favorite reads of 2014, I've deliberately excluded my clients, even though they published great books this year, too: The Wolf in Winter by the aforementioned John Connolly, and Conquest by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard; Terminated by Ray Daniel; Suspicion by Joseph Finder; Desperate by Daniel Palmer; and Fatal Impressions by Reba White Williams. (All of these clients, by the way, have equally good books coming out next year — and so does Lisa Lutz, whose forthcoming How to Start a Fire may be my favorite among all the books I've ever worked on.)

Alphabetically by author, then, here goes:

Alison Gaylin, STAY WITH ME (2014). Stay With Me completes Gaylin's trilogy about Brenna Spector, a private investigator cursed with hypermnesia, an ability to remember everything that's ever happened to her in precise detail. Over the course of three books — and her entire career — Brenna's been trying to find out what happened to her teenaged sister, Clea, who disappeared when Brenna was only a child. That search has damaged every other relationship in Brenna's life, and is now threatening Brenna's connection with her own teenaged daughter, Maya. I was awed by how well Alison (who's a friend) brought this story to a heartbreaking, profoundly satisfying conclusion.

Donna Johnson, HOLY GHOST GIRL (2011). Donna's agent sent me this book, saying he thought it sounded like just my kind of thing, and he was right. Holy Ghost Girl is Donna's memoir of growing up in a tent revival community, as the daughter of a woman who became the organist for (and later mistress of) Brother David Terrell, an apocalyptic preacher. Donna remembers the practical details of that nomadic life in a way that reminded me how quickly almost anything can start to seem normal, if it's how you live every day; but what impressed me most was her extraordinary generosity of spirit toward the adults who raised her, even Brother Terrell. Brother Terrell is a weak, sinning man, but one who also seems to have access to a realm of the spirit most of us can't reach. These things are not mutually exclusive, Donna shows us, and having seen examples of that in my own life, I continue to ponder that mystery.

Stephen King, MR. MERCEDES (2014). You know what? Being popular doesn't mean that something's not good. I expect to see this book on next year's Edgars shortlist. Retired police detective Bill Hodges can't let go of his unsolved cases, especially the apparently deliberate mass murder of a crowd of people lined up for a job fair, run down by a man in a stolen Mercedes. When the murderer starts to taunt Hodges, the retired detective has a new series of clues to pursue, and a new lease on life. This book blew me away. As much as I admire Stephen King, I was surprised by what this book showed me about the genre I work in. I have already pre-ordered the sequel, FINDERS KEEPERS.

Frank Langella, DROPPED NAMES: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them (2012). When I'm exhausted or burnt out on fiction, I read celebrity memoirs. I binged on them this spring, recovering from gallbladder surgery, and I have a stack I plan to go through this weekend. This one, a series of anecdotes — some very short, some longer — about the dead famous people Langella worked with, played with and slept with, is the literary equivalent of a whole can of Pringles. For the most part, he's kind, although some of the stories are sad, and a few have real barbs. I loved this book so much that when I finished reading it, I bought the audiobook so I could listen to Mr. Langella tell me the stories himself.

Laura Lippman, AFTER I'M GONE (2014). 2014 was an embarrassment of riches for me, as I got to read two full-length Laura Lippman novels —this one and the Tess Monaghan coming next year, HUSH, HUSHas well as Laura's bibliomystery, "The Book Thing," and another e-book novella, "Five Fires." AFTER I'M GONE was my favorite of these, as well as being an objectively impressive book — a true ensemble story, about what happens to a family of women after the man of the house (husband, father) disappears. What appears to be the central mystery — what happened to Felix Brewer? — ultimately turns out to be irrelevant. The real story is, as the title suggests, about what happened after he left. Among other things to love about the book, the early chapters on Felix's courtship of his wife, Bambi, evoke memories of Herman Wouk's classic MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR, a favorite of both Laura's and mine.

Liza Palmer, NOWHERE BUT HOME (2013). This year's winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction is a magical book about food, forgiveness and love, three topics that preoccupy me pretty much constantly. Aspiring chef Queenie Wake returns to her small Texas hometown and accepts a uniquely difficult job: preparing last meals for the death row inmates at the nearby state prison. Each meal becomes a meditation on Queenie's own past, including the alcoholic mother who taught her to cook and the high-school hero who was the love of Queenie's life. It's a beautiful, loving novel that feels like a gift and will make you want to eat chicken-fried steak.

George Pendle, STRANGE ANGEL: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (2005). You know what they say about stepping on footnotes before they start to multiply? I discovered this book through a mention of John Whiteside Parsons in GOING CLEAR, Lawrence Wright's fantastic history of Scientology. Before he founded Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard spent some time in Pasadena, living in a group house of Aleister Crowley's disciples headed by John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; in fact, Hubbard's second (bigamous) wife had been Parsons' sister-in-law/girlfriend. The story only takes a page or two in GOING CLEAR, but I had to know more. This wonderful, expansive biography by the author of THE REMARKABLE MILLARD FILLMORE (which I also recommend) deserves to be a movie — and is going to be, if all goes well. The Satanic bedhopping isn't even the best part of the book: the most fun are the stories of Parsons and his friends blowing things up in the San Gabriel mountains, and that turning out to be Science.

Louise Penny, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT (2012). I had spent a few years away from Penny's Three Pines series, after THE BRUTAL TELLING, which broke my heart, and its sequel BURY YOUR DEAD, which enraged me (and which I still consider a cheat, and which still makes me want to bite someone). This book, however, went a long way toward bringing me back into the fold. Artist Clara Morrow's professional triumph, a solo show at the Montréal Musée d'Art Contemporain, is ruined by the discovery of a dead body in her garden that night. The dead woman is a childhood friend of Clara's, and her death sets off a chain of events that shake Clara's world to its core. A TRICK OF THE LIGHT is not only a murder mystery but a brilliant story about women's lives, women's friendships, and how women discover their own value at midlife.

Alex Stone, FOOLING HOUDINI: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind (2012). Probably my single favorite book of this year, this memoir of Alex Stone's life in magic becomes a discursive history of the art form. The thing about "magic" is that it often involves feats of skill, strength or technology that are just as amazing as the illusion the magician is offering; they're just complicated, and tedious, and hard to explain, and the audience would rather have the illusion. I like things complicated, and the obsessives who populate Stone's book are my kind of people. I'll reread this book in a month or two, and expect to get new things out of it then. If you're giving this book as a gift, pair it with Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy.

Joakim Zander, THE SWIMMER (2015). I got an early copy of this book through sources I cannot divulge, but the person who gave it to me said, "You know how everyone's supposed to be 'the new Le Carré?' This guy is the new Le Carré." I read this book in a single sitting. A veteran CIA operative abandoned his baby daughter decades ago; when, as an adult, she becomes an international target for reasons that seem unrelated to her parentage, her secret father does what he can to try to save her. The lines between hero and villain are fuzzy here, if they exist at all; as Steinbeck once said, there's no good and there's no bad, there's just stuff people do.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On having it coming

We all got it coming, kid. 
—William Munny, Unforgiven
Someone I loved hit me once.

I can tell you exactly when and where: Sunday, January 22, 1984, in a service hallway in the Flour Mill apartment complex in Georgetown. I was a sophomore in college. One of that year’s leaders of Mask & Bauble, our theater group, was hosting a Super Bowl party. Washington’s team lost ignominiously to Oakland that year, 38-9, but I left before the game ended.

The person who hit me was someone I’d had a romantic relationship with, but at that point we hadn’t been dating for almost a year. He was seeing someone else, and so was I, but our breakup had been more than usually complicated, with some long-term repercussions. I was only 18; he was only a couple of years older. We’d been avoiding each other, but I’d gone to that party knowing it was likely I would see him, because I wanted to see him. Sometimes it works that way.

I don’t remember why or how we wound up alone in that hallway, but I’m sure it was because I wanted to talk to him, and he wanted to avoid a scene. I don’t remember what I said to him. What I remember is an open hand striking my cheek, and a small popping sound because my mouth had dropped open as I realized he really was going to hit me. Not hard — he didn’t knock out any teeth, he didn’t leave a mark. And I remember what I thought:
I guess I had that coming. 
Yesterday my friend Sue Lin and I had breakfast at a funky coffee house in downtown Baltimore, and she gestured to me as we sat down. “Do you see what that girl’s wearing?” she asked.

I almost gasped. A very young woman at the bar was wearing a Ray Rice t-shirt. She was flirting energetically with the young man beside her, whom I assume was her boyfriend. It was hard not to leap to conclusions about her, about them, even (or especially) when she pulled out her card and paid for their breakfast. During breakfast I saw her turn a couple of times on her barstool and look over her shoulder, as if she expected people to be reacting to her shirt, as if she were wearing it to make some kind of statement.

They left before we did. I suppressed the impulse to jump up and intercept her on the way to the door. What could I have said to her? What should I have asked? I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

If you haven’t seen the video of Ray Rice knocking his girlfriend out, don’t watch it. What it shows is Ray Rice and his fiancée having an argument before they get on the elevator, and it continuing once they’re in the elevator. She’s a slender woman; he’s an NFL running back. She flies at him, apparently scolding, and he cold-cocks her with a punch to the face. She goes down like a deflated balloon, and she is out. He drags her out of the elevator, then picks her up at the waist like a blow-up doll and drops her, still unconscious, immediately outside the elevator door while a hotel security manager looks on.

The Ravens have suspended Ray Rice indefinitely, but that wasn’t what happened first. What happened first was a press conference at which Janay Rice, having married the man who punched her, apologized for her role in the incident.
I guess I had that coming. 
Even now, I’m ashamed of my own behavior when I think of that January afternoon. To do that young man justice, years later I got a handwritten note from him, apologizing — for the slap, presumably, and for other things. I would like to say here, 30 years late, that I’m sorry for the damage I did him, too.




Nobody has that coming. Nobody. Not in an elevator, not on a football field, not in a hockey rink, not on a playground. If you strike someone in anger, you are disqualified from further play. You leave the field. You apologize, you make amends, you get whatever help you need to learn more appropriate ways to manage your anger.

So I guess what I want to ask that girl I saw at Spoons yesterday — what I would ask her, if I ever see her again — is, “Do you think you have it coming? Do you?”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On human nature, nationalism and self-determination

Scots are voting on independence today. I'm not a Scot, and I don't vote in the United Kingdom. I have no opinion on the referendum, nor am I entitled to have one. But the debate has stirred a lot of thoughts in my distracted brain.

Above the auditorium entrance in Georgetown's Intercultural Center, which houses its School of Foreign Service, is a quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist:
"The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build the earth."
As a 16-year-old college freshman more than 30 years ago, I believed that. I wanted to do that. I saw that the division between our side and theirs was artificial and unsustainable, and I believed we were moving toward a new era of communication and peace.

This is why it's always young people who lead revolutions.

It's not cynical to say that human beings can't be trusted to do the right thing, it's history. The gift and curse of our creation is free will: we are capable of great goodness and great evil, but mostly we incline to indulgence and expedience. As an old boss of mine liked to say, we are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. That's not a moral judgment, that's just biology. We breathe, we excrete, we eat, we reproduce. We fear darkness and danger, so we band together, and then we fight with each other because no group allows every member to get everything they want (Yeats on Ireland: "Great hatred, little room"). But because we are human and not rats, we yearn for meaning and we dream of freedom.

Teilhard wrote about nationalism in the wake of the Great War, where he had served as a stretcher-bearer at the first Battle of the Marne, and the battles of Champagne and Verdun. After the war, he got a doctorate in geology, and he spent most of the rest of his life doing paleontological fieldwork in China. What he learned and what he found gave him a mystical insight into the universality of the human condition, over both time and geography, and an understanding of the futility and wasted energy of national boundaries.

Because the first thing that nationalism does, Teilhard understood, is dictate who does and doesn't belong to a group. We are Us; you are Them. We celebrate Us, we reject Them, like that "Simpsons" episode about the old enmity between Springfield and Shelbyville. If you believe, as Teilhard did, as I do, in an omnipresent and all-forgiving God that created us all, there is no Them. Who would be Them? Who does God call "Them"?

Do away with nationalism, then, but it leaves us still with the drive to self-determination, which is not only a human desire but also, in this post-Eden exile, a human obligation. Especially now, in 2014, when our religions seem to be failing us and our governments and public institutions have become too large and complex to be held accountable in any meaningful way, we crave some sense of agency over our own lives. Or at least I do, which is why I have been self-employed for the past 15 years, and why I moved to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and why — or at least one reason why — I never married. It's not a noble thing; it's not so far removed from my three-year-old self, who snatched away utensils, washcloths, and items of clothing from adults with a shove and "By myself!" It's the teenager's manifesto: You're not gonna tell me what to do, man.

The problem with insisting on independence, I have found as I approach my sixth decade, is that people will give it to you. Cooperation and collaboration take time, energy, compassion and compromise. It is, in the short term, often harder to do something as a team than on one's own. It's just that teams can do more, for longer, without tapping out every one of their members.

My big lesson, after almost five decades on this planet, is that it's a lot harder to be a good team member than it is to be a solo operator. The mistake people make — or at least, the mistake I made, and continue to try to correct in myself — is thinking that belonging to a team means that the team comes first, and that the team's interests override its individual members'. The best teams balance the needs of the group with the needs of the individuals, and operate on a constant cycle of feedback: What do you need? What do we need? How are we doing? What are we doing? It's hard, and the bigger the group, the harder it gets.

So maybe Scotland has the right idea: take it down a notch. Make the group smaller, so that we all listen better. Can we get to a point where no country's big enough to marshal an arsenal that will destroy the world? That's probably naive. It's certainly romantic. But I watch today's election with fascination and hope. Whatever the outcome, it would be nice if it meant everyone listened to each other a little more closely.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Freelancing and the Law of Diminishing Returns

diminishing returns, also called law of diminishing returns or principle of diminishing marginal productivity, economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output.

Encyclopedia Brittanica

I could give you anything but time.
Elvis Costello

It's Labor Day, and I'm working. I worked yesterday, too. I worked Saturday. This is the nature of things when you have clients instead of employers, and when your clients pay for prompt attention and rapid response. If I want to take time off, even a day, I have to let clients know in advance; I've learned this by making the mistake of not letting clients know in advance. A lot of what I do is not especially time-sensitive — does it make a difference, really, if you get manuscript edits back on Wednesday instead of Monday? — but some of it is, and some of the work I do is not the kind you can leave for 24 hours at a stretch without some kind of backup in place. I have no backup. That's also a common issue for freelancers. 

I'd hoped to take a week off in July. I announced it to my clients well in advance. I had plans, or at least plans to do nothing, for at least five days and maybe as long as seven. But then one of my clients got an offer, and in turn made me an offer, neither of us could refuse. I figured I'd find a week to take off in August. 

Instead, this August was the busiest I've ever had, in 15 years of freelancing. I turned work down in August. I'm still catching up. And I am exhausted. 

A friend said to me yesterday that I work all the time, and it was meant as a personal criticism, not as a compliment. I admitted it. How could I deny it? I've gotten myself into a spiral I don't know how to break, though I see that it is unsustainable. I feel so anxious, all the time, about so many things I can't control. The only reliable remedy I've found for that anxiety is completing a task for a client, and the only sure motivator for me is an external deadline. So I keep the to-do list full, and I move from task to task, and I am so tired and distracted I put my phone in the dryer yesterday. (I heard it thunking before any damage was done.) 

I need — I need — what do I need? It's more than a single day off, but I don't know what. 

A Facebook meme is going around about the Ten Books that Have Stayed With You, and I posted my list last week after Erin Mitchell tagged me. One of the books I always include on that list is Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. My mother gave me a copy for Confirmation, and it ranks second (only behind John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things) as the book I've most often given other people. This morning I pulled it out again, and found this:
I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact — to borrow from the language of the saints — to live "in grace" as much of the time as possible.
If I could find that place, I tell myself, I would not need to be so busy. If I were not so busy, I tell myself, I could find that place. 

I have no answers to this. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Social Media and My/Your/Our Terrible Summer

The other day I did something I hadn't done in much too long: I read a daily newspaper, on paper. I was meeting friends at The Tombs for an early dinner, and for once in my life I got there before they did. I had a beer at the bar, and picked up a newspaper lying by the register.

Once upon a time, all bars used to have at least one newspaper on the bar, for patrons who were drinking alone. You see it less often now, because of the assumption that people at the bar are otherwise occupied, watching one of the many screens on the wall or looking at their phones.

Since the paper was there, I read it. And it felt like taking a long bath, or going for a walk, or having enough oxygen after a run. It felt like a luxury.

I haven't subscribed to a daily paper in about ten years, which embarrasses me. I pay for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Portland Press-Herald online. I get daily news summaries emailed to me from Bloomberg Business Week, The Boston Globe, The New York Post (for the horoscope) and something called Trove that I don't even remember signing up for. I follow Slate, Vox, Politico, FiveThirtyEight, The Wall Street Journal, The Texas Tribune, Romanesko, RTE and at least half a dozen publishing newsletter/blogs on Twitter.

I am a news junkie. And whether it's booze, pills or news, addiction kills.

Everybody agrees that this has been a terrible summer, terrible to the point of absurdity. War in Gaza, war in Syria, war in Ukraine, war in Iraq — and those are just the wars the global media are reporting. Ebola in West Africa. Refugee children at the U.S. border, being treated like criminals. Ferguson, God help us, exposing the ugly truth that some people sincerely believe we're not all equal citizens in this country. Robin Williams' death. The Hachette-Amazon dispute. I could keep adding things to this list all day, but let's move on.

The one constant through all of this has been my Twitter stream, which I made the mistake of downloading to my phone four months ago.

"Doesn't it seem to you like people are crazier than they used to be?" I've had that conversation with at least half a dozen friends in the last month, in almost exactly those words. People are losing their ever-loving minds. But why? Are things really so much worse than they've been? Are they worse than the summer of 2002, when we were (or at least, I was) looking at the sky for strange planes and jumping at unexpected noises? Are they worse than the summer of 1998, when Congress was getting ready to impeach the President of the United States? (And God, doesn't 1998 sound great right now?) Are they worse than 1968, which I barely remember except for the smell of smoke from downtown Norfolk, and my mother crying in front of the television?

I don't know. I only know that it feels worse, and I've decided that Twitter is why. Facebook too, but Twitter more so.

I love Twitter. For people who work alone at home, like me, Twitter is a constant online cocktail party. I keep the Twitter window open on my computer all day — it's open now, with a tab telling me there have been 62 new posts since I last checked it. I justify that by saying it's part of my work, because I do help some authors manage their Twitter feeds.

But I'm realizing that Twitter is a big part of the anxiety that's infected me this summer. Twitter is a constant emergency, and it's all too much.

Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist, published a study several years ago that found that most people can maintain meaningful social connections with a maximum of 150 people. This is not a Western phenomenon; this is a global pattern, whether you live in Greenwich Village or a village in central Asia. Relatives, friends, co-workers, connections — 150 people is about the limit of how many names, faces and relationships we can take care of.

I follow just over 1,000 people on Twitter. I have 572 Facebook friends. How can I pay attention to 1,000 conversations at once? How can I be a friend to 572 people? I don't even know who some of my Facebook friends are; they're aspiring authors who sent me friend requests in my early Facebook days, I think, or friends of friends, but now they're in my news feed and it would feel unkind to drop them.

It has to stop, because it's making me crazy. This summer has not been bad for me personally. I've had a lot of work, I've seen family and friends and baseball and some great movies, I have a ridiculously good cable TV set-up and a view of the Washington Monument from my living room window. I have a rooftop pool, for God's sake! Which I've used exactly twice this summer, because the pool doesn't have wi-fi, and God forbid I detach myself from the electronic tether.

Let me be clear: this is my problem, and I've written this all out because I suspect I am not alone. I am not saying that social media or the Internet is bad — they're obviously not. I'm saying that I have been binging on social media and the Internet like a teenager on Boone's Farm, and it needs to stop.

The first step is taking both Twitter and Facebook off my phone, which I'm doing right now. The next step is to shut the Twitter window (41 new posts since I checked it!). I'm going to subscribe to the paper Post again, and make an effort to get more of my news from print and less from Twitter. I need that distance, that space. The step after that . . . I don't know. Ideas, suggestions?

Yes, I realize the irony of blogging to request help with my Internet self-discipline. Send me a letter. I'll email you the address.