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Thursday, May 13, 2010

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Lines in the Sand: Redefining Boundaries in New Literature


Patrick has been stepping out in social media lately, and he knows it's making me a little anxious.

"You think I'm sharing too much?" he asked me this morning, just to humor me.

I considered his recent updates.

"Well, relative to publishing a book about our entire marriage, I guess not," I said.

It may seem like a contradiction for a memoirist to claim to be a private person, but I really am. If anything, my concern with privacy control has increased commensurately with life becoming more public. My husband and close friends will tell you it borders on paranoia. I don't mind getting personal, but strictly on my own terms.

The thing is, I'm always redefining those terms. I keep entertaining this idea that one day I'll have the boundaries mapped out just so--the blog for this, Twitter for that, Facebook for something else, and all my content and relationships will stay tidily within their assigned compartments. But if you have any kind of online life at all, you already know that's like trying to draw lines in the sand with a tide rolling in. Social media defies compartmentalization.

I got a very timely email last week from a long-time reader, Janie, who is hoping to publish her own book, and is pondering the place of social media in an author's career. She kindly agreed to let me post the crux of her query here:
It seems that any writer today who hopes to be published needs to have a blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc. to build a presence, a following, and a community...How do you balance the personal/professional aspects of all this social media?
Funny she should ask, because in between folding laundry, supervising 5th grade field trip, and getting caught up on lunches with ladies, this is exactly the same question I've been mulling over. As Janie notes, the boundaries between personal and professional writing have never been more fluid. Citing authors Justine Musk and Chris Guillebeau, she observes
it seems that it's all just One Big Thing for them - personal and professional rolled into one
I'd never heard of either of those authors, but I was taken with this post by Musk that Janie passed along, which makes a case for integrating a writer's output under the roof of "personal brand." I've long been allergic to the word "branding" as applied to human beings or the arts, but I've decided to write it an exemption under the rule of Lack of a Better Word. I can get behind the concept, if not the semantics. And I like how Musk says we should just quit trying to make new media fit the old floor plan. Knock out the walls, she seems to say. Embrace open space writing.

I've been planning to launch a new website for some time, and am excited about the opportunity to build a new online space as an author. In case you've been wondering, I do plan to continue to journal online, though there will likely be a change of address and some renovations. I think of Notes as my sketchpad: I'd no sooner be without it than a painter would be without paper and a bit of charcoal, or a photographer without her Polaroid. It's how I capture the fleeting thought. As you'll see when the book comes out, many of the quick studies drawn here are elaborated there. But I'd like to bring the online journaling under the same virtual roof as my print writing. It doesn't feel right to be a blogger, here; author, there; magazine writer, somewhere else. It's time to bring it all together.

That's more of a "me too" than an answer to Janie's question, I know. So let me volley it over the net to you. Do you follow any authors online? Does having a sense of a relationship with a writer enhance your relationship to their writing? What if there's an apparent incongruity between their online voice and print voice? Is that jarring, or dynamic? And in which direction do you travel: does print prompt you to go looking online for the author, or does the online presence drive you to read the book?

More specifically and selfishly, how do you like the idea of going to a website for, oh, I don't know, a PERSONAL MEMOIR, and being able to pull up related digital memorabilia-- snapshots, letters, marginalia, etc., like the "extras" section on a dvd?

I would love your thoughts and questions. I bet so would Janie.



Blogger Pam said...

You mean like Stephen Fry? It just seems obvious to me, to have everything in one place, and it's certainly the trend, I think (ahem, apart from my personal public presence...)

And online first, or print? Works both ways - moreover, I think readers are coming to expect it. That 'By a Lady' thing is obselete.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Florinda said...

I'm a book blogger; I follow a couple dozen authors online, and add more to my blogroll regularly. In some cases, I've read their books first and then sought them out online; in others, I read their blogs before their books. (And there a few whose books I've yet to read at all, but I'm trying to fix that.)

An author's integrated website is a great resource, but I tend to like the ones that include a blog best.

(I usually lurk here, but I hope you don't mind that I had to speak up about your topic today! It gets a lot of attention in my corner of the blogiverse.)

5:16 PM  
Blogger Courtenay said...

in the cases where i've googled an author i love, it's been rather disappointing. the latest case being dennis lehane, who i absolutely devour. i couldn't find enough, and what i did find was outdated, but i would have loved to have found a "buffet" of sorts, as his mind fascinates me.

i totally relate to your first bit, about how much to reveal. i have a 10-yr-old son, who would be mortified if his friends' mothers read my blog. we have a deal to keep it hush-hush around these parts. i let it all hang out on facebook, having tonight posted, "do you know how many people you have slept with?" followed by, "all my friends are drunken whores." the PTO is NOT on the friends list. twitter is mos def PG-13.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

In some ways, this post made me uncomfortable. I'm bad a change. I guess I already miss the days when starting up a blog seemed... well, something important. I think in your situation, you need to go this branding route, especially as the book comes out, and you will need to market yourself. I have a feeling that this route is going to be very common, not just with published writers, but with everyone -- and pretty soon, our blogs will be less a place of weirdness, overemotional rants, and mommyblogger fights than online extensions of our "brand." This is not all bad. I think anyone who has blogged for a few years knows about the seedy underbelly of the enterprise. It is time to grow up. It will be nice for all of us to wear sensible shoes. But we will also lose something that went along with the chaos.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Christa said...

It makes sense to me to have all of your writing in one place. I read authors' blogs (mainly books first but not always) and have found them to be interesting and meaningful. What matters is that you write and we read. Just because the blog looks different doesn't mean the quality will change. Just keep being yourself and writing what you know. Thanks.

11:17 PM  
Blogger janewilk said...

Kyran, thanks so much for opening up this discussion. Your readers, as usual, have lots of insight to offer!
Incidentally, I found this today:
It's an editor's advice on how a writer should use Facebook. Interesting. And scary. (To this INFP.)

5:13 AM  
Blogger Bon said...

i'm interested in this from two sides...i've just been asked to talk to a group of writers about blogging, first, but i'm also beginning to come to terms with the idea of personal branding myself and am finding it sparking a lot of ideas in terms of my thesis on social media.

sometimes i think those of us who come from arts & education backgrounds where "brand" has always seemed such a vulgar word are disadvantaged - and, increasingly, disadvantaging ourselves - in turning a blind eye to the permeation of business discourse in the social world in which we swim.

i've been thinking about educational futures lately, and wrote about how i see the negotiation of branded identity yesterday: would love your writerly input.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Great post, Bon. Though I had to do a lot of nodding sagely and pretending I understood words like "filiation" and "behaviorism." ;-)

Janie, the Writer's Digest article is great too, but it freaked me out a little! Got me thinking though. I reserve Facebook as a place to interact mainly with offline friends and relatives, the folks who aren't cultivating online brands, and are maybe not as hip to privacy considerations. So the idea of opening the gate and letting strangers run loose among my aunts, cousins, high school friends and neighbors gives me a panic attack. It's not that I can't use the privacy settings to control who sees what on Facebook (in fact, I already do). But I can't prevent a curious blog fan (or troll) from befriending my mother or sister-in-law, who might be less guarded or net-savvy. I can delete wall comments that give away information about my comings and goings, or my children, but you know, cats and the bags they come out of.

That level of privacy is not so much a security issue for me as one of self-preservation. I need, and my family needs, time offstage.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Hey, Neil, I want to come back to your comment when I've had a little more coffee and time to think about it. You've said some important things.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Kelly said...

On Facebook, I *think* (not 100% sure?) that you can create a Fan page, which is different than a regular-old-person page. For instance, Mary Karr has a Fan page, and because I'm her "friend" through that, I get access to her status updates on her book & tours, etc. Which is weird, b/c she is sort of the uber-memoirist and I regard her so highly, and yet get to hear her talk about being a little nervous about being intervied on 20/20, and being a little bummed that "Lit" didn't win the Natl. Book Award.

All of which is to say, I think you can still have the personal & the private remain a little separated, still.

I've been a long-time follower of your blog and resist change just by my nature, but hope you'll still share the journey with us as it all takes off.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

I love how Karr uses her Facebook fan page! I just "liked." Thanks for the tip.

All of this is so helpful to me. I really like what Neil said about chaos. I take that to mean a certain artlessness and spontaneity. I've never understood people hanging on to an "indie" aesthetic when it clearly no longer reflects where they are, nor do I understand the fans who confuse moving on with selling out. But having perused a few author sites, I have to say, I much prefer the ones that have a blog that feels and looks like it sidestepped the publicists.

And I'm aware, as my friend Amy said to me, that this blog isn't just about me anymore. It's a community of sorts, and any shifting around that happens will be done with minimal disruption. I think one day you'll click on and simply notice a few new doorways, opening upon new rooms.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Justine Musk said...

A really lovely, thoughtful post, and thank you for linking to me (partly because it's nice to have found you). And I love the phrase "open space writing".

Chaos isn't going anywhere. Most online writing *is* artless, spontaneous writing and will continue to be so.

And I think when writers react against the whole concept of "brand", they're reacting -- and rightly so -- against an old-school idea of 'brand' that doesn't apply to the new world of the Web.

You cannot control your 'brand' on the Web, because you cannot control your 'message'. People make up their own minds about what you're really saying or really doing, and talk back to you and to each other. The 'brand' is whatever people say it is, and it evolves (or not) with the conversation. (That's why people prefer blogs to static websites -- blogging is an ongoing conversation with your readers and gives them a reason to keep coming back and form a relationship with you or, for lack of a better word, your 'brand'.)

So you can't decide what your brand is going to be, because that part is out of your hands. But you can decide the kinds of conversations that you want to have, and be known for, and you can direct all that online energy toward a larger goal or purpose. And in order for that purpose to be effective, it needs to mean something to other people -- has to have value for them -- as well as for you (because you have to stay interested and engaged enough to maintain the kind of passion and consistency an online presence requires). Which is why I talk about folding your 'branding' into a sense of creative vision or mission statement about what you want to achieve as a creative.

And let me stress: you don't have to write about your personal life if you don't want to. In fact, it's probably better that you don't. For the most part, people don't care. They want to be entertained and they want to be informed and they want to feel connected to something bigger than themselves. You find your point of connection by figuring out where your passions and their passions overlap...and that's what you write about, and how you start to gather your tribe.

Also wanted to point out that what might seem like 'artless' writing is actually quite artful. You can be honest and open while still deliberately selecting what you share and won't share. It's about skill and technique (which writers employ without even thinking about it) as well as self-expression. And we all have to define those boundaries for ourselves -- but we certainly can define them. (In my personal blog I write fairly openly about certain aspects of my life, but I've always had a strong instinctive sense of where those boundaries are and I've never felt in violation of them or had anyone else accuse me of being so.)

There's a reason why the word 'authenticity' has been so overused in social media. In order to connect with people, you have to be real. In order to gain any influence, you have to earn trust. If you come off as fake, controlled, one-dimensional, etc. -- all those things that made us distrust corporate brands in the first place -- people click away from you. You need to have some real substance (and maybe a little bit of style).

5:13 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Well said. And lovely to have found you too, Justine! Look forward to reading you more!

5:44 PM  
Blogger Bon said...

between you & Justine, i've just gotten a whole lot more perspective & clarity on branding and voice.

too often social media (or technology in general) is either seen as a utopian transformer or dystopian horror for wary of embracing some of the implicit commercial values in the discourse of branding, but the way it operates in terms of how people are taken up online is actually a good fit with Derrida's concept of writing and the death of the author (not, erm, a literal death...she says to the authors) so fits with the philosophy i'm working with. odd bedfellows, but good.

thanks, dudes.

6:13 PM  
Blogger mo-wo said...

I was just ruminating on the special features of ebooks we will see coming from publishers. As a video librarian, mom and school board staffer I say yay. I look to teenagers who relate to the whole creative process of any work and do interact with 'special features' it will find some place.

also I think authors make great performers and I love to watch them.

11:49 PM  
Blogger alexgh said...

Hello, I've been reading your blog for a long time and would buy your book. But, people buy blogger's books because they are accessible, you read them on the plane, in the metro etc. and this is usually regardless of the actual quality of the book. People read blogger memoirs beacause they are relatable, not because we are looking for a role model in a blogger. So, no, I would not go looking for associated photos on a new website, like the Extras feature on a DVD. Especially not since you offer them...I might google stalk you if I really liked the book, but..going to a website where the author is robbing me of my voyeuristic experience by bearing too much..Please! Otherwise Kyran, I hope your book will be a massive success.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I travel both ways. Print does prompt me to look on line, and also looking online leads me to print.
No matter what a personal memoir says or shows, we still won't know the whole person. So I think the writer still has their privacy intact. Only they and the people they live with really knows that persons true self.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Jen K-C said...

If I have enjoyed a book I have looked online but not to search for a personal connection. I may read interviews but I am mostly interested in other works by the author. I think it would be delusional to believe that I would know a writer better based on what is being presented online.

I have worked in an industry for the last 15 years that binds me to a level of confidentiality that comes with very serious repercussions based on disclosure. Publicly I have to very mindful of what I say and how I present myself. I set those boundaries. If I choose to give more there is always a risk involved and I always think of my family first. Although my perspective is not as a writer I do believe that the writer has a choice what they share and when. I always think that writers expose a small part of their soul when they share their written work. As a reader I am not wanting to exploit this I am just intrigued by the process.

Kyran I await the day I can read your book in part because of a shared sliver of the past but mainly because your writing is witty and thought provoking. I don't need to understand the inner most workings of your mind or soul. You provide entertainment on an intellectual level that is refreshing so I would search for you online. I love to read.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I just commented on Bon's piece and through that found you. Hello!

I followed one of my favorite writers (Molly Gloss) on Twitter for awhile and then gave up, because she wrote about the process of writing and I was interested in the ideas she conveyed through her novels. I was just a tiny bit disappointed in her clay feet, too.

My sister in law is an artist. She set up separate Facebook & Twitter accounts for herself -- one as a professional artist and one as a member of a small community of friends/family. For her the wall between those is pretty thick. In a way it's a gift to the reader/follower; finding a personal account can be the 21st century equivalent of finding (say) Jane Austen's private letters.

2:11 PM  
Blogger jen said...

Love this conversation.

I've been reading your blog since your boys had private school hair cuts, and as a writer I've loved watching all these new doors and opportunities open up for you as you work so hard.

What I love about social media for writers, is the marketing and distribution of our material is no longer limited to the publishing house.

The blog/twitter/facebook presence is *always* working for you, even when you're not in your office or near a phone. I wrote a little about this in regards to web video specifically, but the Big Idea applies to the rest of social media -

As a writer, I view my personal blogging the way Anne Lamott once described her writing. In a radio interview she said, "I write about things that are universal to everyone, though they originate from a personal experience."

So when I consider sharing something personal on my blog, I always ask myself whether others can identify with it or be challenged by it.

It doesn't suit my style or goals to simply post cute anecdotes about my kids simply because they're adorable, though others in the blogging world may do this.

Also, I love author Don Miller's blog. I read it faithfully along with his books:

1:58 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Thanks, Jen! I'll check out both those links. A timely observation and affirmation, as I've been mentally composing a post about why I tell these stories I tell. Stay tuned.

2:25 PM  

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