I'M AN INTERNET EXHIBITIONIST.
Don’t go firing up your search engine just yet—you’re not going to find pornographic images of me lurking in cyberspace. I hope.
I’m talking about emotional and personal exhibitionism. A cursory Google will give a candid view of my family, my writing, my worldview, my tastes in music and books, and my many and varied crises. I’ve never been a tell-all blogger, and I’ve never written anything that would impugn my professionalism, but there is a fair bit of intimate revelation. Friending people on Facebook, publishing a blog post: they’re ways of connecting, ways of interacting with the world without actually interacting. Like it or not, it’s who I am and I’m comfortable with that.
Or at least, I was.
Just before the publication of my first novel, Before I Wake, I legitimized my Internet presence with a personal site and blog, complete with a “submit your thoughts” e-mail link.
I quickly realized that my disclosures weren’t going into the ether: they were accruing density. I was building, word by word, a simulacrum, a version of myself that might be the only Robert J. Wiersema people ever “met”.
Which didn’t actually trouble me at all. I learned a long time ago not to put my name to anything that I’m not willing to answer for in the future.
The problem came when people started talking back.
It’s an odd position for a writer to find himself in.
Historically, writers are a solitary breed, working in small rooms, only finding connection through the printed page. Sure, there have been literary superstars, but for every writer whom readers might recognize on the street, there were at least a thousand others, toiling away in virtual anonymity.
So what happens when readers can communicate with a writer? When he can get their thoughts and responses in real time?
I was fine with the few bad reviews and negative e-mails—not everyone is going to like every book. I know that as well as anyone. It was the positive messages that flummoxed me. Readers writing to tell me how much Before I Wake meant to them, or to ask when the next book was coming.
Those responses began arriving around the time I started my next novel. Sometimes a couple a day, never fewer than a couple a week. And they stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly, rather than writing in isolation, with no expectations, I was essentially trying to write in a public space that I had created. Naked.
Note the “trying”.
This was a foreign pressure, writing with an awareness that my words had connected, in a meaningful way, and the attendant fear: what if the new words didn’t?
I was paralyzed. Blocked. Strangely enough, it was the Internet, the root of my problem, which ended up solving it.
It might have been the friendships that I struck up with some of the bloggers, or the group of first readers I found in a Springsteen Usenet group, or correspondents like Caleb, a teenager from Georgia who sent his copy of Before I Wake to a bookstore in Spokane for me to sign. The virtual world crept off the computer screen, real friendships and relationships forming out of the ether.
Once that shift happened, I could pick up the pen again. I could write.
And then, a few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from an Israeli teenager named Sha-ked, who had read Before I Wake. “You made you readers fell connected (if they wanted or not) to people they stair at from the side, on a daily basis, and hate. You made me understand how similar a killer and every signal one of us can be. We all make mistakes.”
Words like that, from a 17-year-old Israeli…I was speechless. Humbled. I really didn’t know how to respond.
In the last paragraph of the note, though, Sha-ked confessed something: “I am now writing a book…do you have any tips or suggestions for a learning writer?”
I do. And it’s the simplest, most complicated advice I can give: connect. In any way you can. It’s not only the ultimate goal for any writer, it is what makes us human. I’ve been trying for a long time, and it looks like I might have finally figured it out.
Robert J. Wiersema’s next project is a novella, coming this summer from ChiZine Publications, with a novel forthcoming from Random House—shortly after he actually finishes it.
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