Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Is Facebook stealing your thunder?

From deathandtaxes, 9 March 2014

Professionally, I’m a bit of an itinerant, with no office and no close colleagues. Up until this year, I’ve had a vibrant worklife, with friends I see regularly and communal projects and concerns. This has been true whether the work itself has happened in offices, newsrooms, and academic departments.

I find myself on Facebook quite a bit, because … well, I have nowhere else to be, if I’m being honest. The hallways and stairwells and water coolers of Facebook are lively settings for conversation, and I use them the way I use actual workplace break areas. I do a little work and then I look around to see who there is to talk to.

For a writer, Facebook is helpful in many ways. Just today I learned of an essay contest with a looming deadline and very few entries. I encountered a call for queries to a major magazine. I read a poem by a writer I hadn’t previously encountered. And I saw a discussion offer several potential resolutions to a problem a writer was having with a publisher. All of this was beneficial.

Where Facebook becomes problematic is when we craft little squibs about our day, our kiddos, our partners, or whatever, and we put them out into the ether for others to remark upon. The “likes” accrue quickly, and we can feel proud of the small accomplishment. I worry, though, that some of my “like” whoring can steal some energy from my poetry and essays.

There are really two factors that concern me. First, and easiest to overcome, is the understanding that one of the reasons we write is to connect with others. It’s a quaint notion for a professional writer to be spouting, but writing is still, at its core, about taking what’s inside of us and putting it on the outside, where others can experience what we’re feeling and react to it, and perhaps even validate our sense of things.

Facebook offers plenty of validation—but it operates sort of like parking validations, where we present this small thing and someone rubber-stamps it and we move on. On some level it works, though—we post something, we amass “likes,” and we can feel somewhat done with the whole project. Were Facebook not a reality in our lives, we might have done something with that cute thing our kid said or that strong sense of injustice we experienced or that oddball news item we encountered. Any of these makes for a fine poem or essay.

The other day I stumbled across an intriguing little news item about a woman who broke from a tour in Iceland to become a member of a search party—only to realize that she was searching for herself. She didn’t recognize herself from the description, and with a sense of great urgency, she was searching the terrain. I don’t know Iceland, but I’m picturing her trudging through a literal ice field, calling her own name into the wind.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. I posted the news item, and I even said, “Maybe I’ll write a poem about this.” A couple of friends agreed—that would make a really good poem. It fires my imagination and it fired theirs, too. I enjoyed thinking about how I would craft the thing—where I would start, how I would depict the moment of realization.

The problem is, I didn’t write that poem. I’m probably not going to write it. I’ve already shared it; some potential readers and I have breathed a collective, “Wow.” The imagination has fired and the fire has since been dampened. The urgency for the poem is gone.

Urgency is important for writing, and that gets at the second problem I see with writers using Facebook. From a process standpoint, urgency is a very interior attitude, and it drives the story or the essay or the poem. We feel it inside, and it propels us forward—what then, we ask, what next? Many stories have died because the author described them to a friend—“So there’s this tightrope walker, see, and he buys himself a monkey, and he begins to think maybe his monkey is trying to kill him, pushing him to the edge of his ability and beyond ….” Try sitting down and writing a story about the tightrope walker and his monkey now and see what happens. There’s no more energy, no more spark. It’s been used up in the telling, and what happens on the page is forced and somehow familiar.

I’m sure some writers can prevail under these circumstances, but for me, sharing an idea in conversation steals it from the page. And what is Facebook, but a big conversation? It may be prudent to hold back a bit—to write first, Facebook later.

Frankly, I’d like to know what happened with that monkey.


  1. Karen, you are excellent job of expressing my thoughts and feelings!

  2. This reminds me of a writing exercise from jr and sr high school. An opening statement was written on the board. I'd write the second sentence, hand my paper to the left, and write the third line of my classmates' story, and so on.

    I wonder if facebook could be used in a similar application, but 'tagging' the next writer for the next line? It'd be an interesting way to update the exercise for classes, or collaboration.

    1. That would be so fun! You should start one. I'll play! :)

  3. That is ^* you DO and you also are excellent!

  4. This is exactly what I have been doing. Thank you for pointing it out. Today I will try to do better!!!