I have a friend and fellow author, Dominica, who’s really into tarot. I’ve actually never asked her whether she really believes in tarot or not (as in, does she believe it actually tells the future), but I don’t really believe in it. I think it’s mostly just a combination of cold reading (discerning what your audience wants to hear) and vagueness (if you say that someone’s romantic life is going to be rocky, then pretty much everyone will believe it).
However, I really enjoy having her read my cards, and today I realized why!
I think it’s because I tend to fall into ruts in my thinking, especially when I’m focusing on the future. I tend to either think that the thing I am looking for is about to happen. I never think, “Oh, maybe I’ll suffer a failure” or “Maybe I’ll switch directions.” Somehow my mind doesn’t go there. Instead I just take sight of one thing and get really locked in.
Whereas when Dominica reads for me, she’s really good at opening up other possibilities. For instance, in the part of my tarot reading that forecast my writing future, she gave me a card that meant, she said, I was in chrysalis, and that I shouldn’t be too anxious to break free. Which was interesting to me. I don’t think that way. I never think that maybe my current struggle to write is worthwhile and that it’s part of the process. Then the next writing-related card she dealt me was a tree that was on fire, and she said that meant I’d suffer a rejection soon. Again, that’s not something I think about. It’s something I try not to think about: the idea that one of my precious projects will be rejected. But it felt, in some way, valuable to have to face the possibility.
Put one way, this sounds really banal. Obviously, I always knew that maybe I needed to struggle a bit more before I’d find another project. And, equally obviously, I always knew that rejection was a possibility. But even if you don’t believe in it, the tarot deck feels so definite. When the card is in the deck, it’s a possibility. But when it’s laid out on the deck, it feels frighteningly definite. This is real. This is the card you got. It happened. It’s useful as an imaginative exercise. After getting a reading, I feel like I’m able, to some extent, to process the possibility of future misfortune. So it’s pretty worthwhile. Of course, Dominica does it for me for free. On the other hand, maybe it’d work even better if I paid for it…
I have lived with a lot of people in my life. And I’ve always (with no exceptions, pretty much) been very happy with my roommates, because I tend to have zero expectations. In my opinion, people are going to be who they are. And you can nag at them and nag at them, but they’re still going to make noise if they’re noisy people or be messy if they’re messy people, and that’s just how it is.
It’s a strange paradox (well, it’s not really a paradox, but that’s the word I’ll use) that the people who give the most lip service to tolerance and harmony in their living situations tend to be the most shrill, demanding, and anxious roommates. The person who’s the most careful to be quiet and respectful to their roommates is the one who’s angriest when their roommates are noisy. The person who’s most scrupulous about respecting their roommates’ wishes is the one who’s angriest when their own wishes aren’t respected.
Basically, people will go out of their way to restrain themselves, and then they’ll be angry when others don’t do the same. It’s not surprising. This is what people are taught. Do unto others as you’d want others to do unto you, Which is fine, as an abstract principle. But in practice, it leads to magical thinking. You start to think that you can make some sort of deal with your surroundings. Like, if I’m really good, then people will be good to me. When really that’s crazy. People will act how they’ll act. In this case, doing unto others doesn’t get you anything except a set of false expectations.
Whereas if you just do whatever you want and assume other people will do what they want, then you: a) won’t ever feel frustrated because you didn’t get to do something you wanted to do; and b) won’t feel mad when other people do what they want. And if it means you live in a noisy situation? Well, you can wear earphones. Or if you live in a messy place? You can clean it. Or move. People spend so much time trying to adjust their environment to meet their expectations, but it’s much easier to adjust your expectations so that they meet your environment.
P.S. Occasionally I’m just going to note down here that my mailing list exists. If you want more info about it (and why I’m pimping it out so aggressively), please click here.
People email me all the time asking me to read their work. And I almost always say ‘Yes’ and then drag my feet on it for months upon months upon months. I usually get to it, but sometimes only after it’s literally been an entire year. However, I have one friend who I usually respond to within a month whenever they ask me to read anything.
Why? What’s the difference? It’s not the closeness of our relationship. Although I have come to really like this person, I haven’t physically seen them since 2006, and for most of the intervening time, we haven’t even talked. Nor is it a question of talent. Although my friend is extremely talented, I have other friends who are great writers and who sometimes ask me for help.
No, the difference is that my friend doesn’t need my help. She has many admirers and many potential readers. She’s very well-published, and her book (the one I’ve been reading) has already sold. When she asks me for help, it feels like an honor, and it makes me anxious to help.
Which I find to be a little bit sick. Basically I’m saying that I’m most likely to help people who don’t need my help.
This is very common, though, and very human. Whenever someone is young and hot and their stock is rising, you’ll see all kinds of people offering to hook them up or invite them places or put them in touch with people. But if they exact same person (with the exact same amount of talent) was unknown and on the outside, no one would do anything for them.
It’s tempting to say that this is self-serving behavior, but it’s not quite that. I don’t expect my friend to do anything concrete for me. It’s more a matter of status and ego. When I help someone who has social status, then I can feel some of that status redound onto you. It’s entirely possible that no one else can feel or see that invisible transference of status. In most cases, it’s something that’s only happening inside my own head, but that’s what’s going on. Whereas if I help someone who has less social status, then I don’t get that extra burst of self-importance, and it all feels less worthwhile.
I can see this behavior in other people, too. It’s why I never ask for help from someone unless I also know someone else who I can ask to do the same thing. I know that the moment you ask someone for something that they know you can’t get from anyone else, then you put yourself in a subservient position to them. And, in many cases, people will consciously or unconsciously use that subservience to toy with you and reject you, as a way of making themselves feel more important. I guess I shouldn’t judge though, because, like I said, I do the same things. But I hate it. Sometimes I look at the way we organize ourselves, and the whole thing just feels so wearisome.
I was recently at a party in San Francisco, and everyone there was talking about gentrification. I was actually a bit astonished by how much it came up: it was this last Saturday people were talking about gentrification about as often as an ordinary household would mention the Super Bowl. It was odd to me, because we have just as much gentrification in Oakland, but I and my people around here don’t discuss it nearly as often. Of course, we’re not in the tech industry, so we don’t feel nearly as indicted by the issue of gentrification.
That was what I mostly noticed: the tremendous guilt and anxiety that surrounded gentrification–the feeling that we, the partygoers, were part of the problem and needed to solve it somehow.
This guilt not an uncommon feeling amongst the upper- and upper-middle-class people I’ve known, and I both understand and sympathize with it, but I’ve never shared it. I mean, I believe in all the things other people believe in. And lately I’ve even been involved in anti-gentrification work (yes, I’m an activist now, you jerks). But I never feel bad, on a person level, about this stuff, because…why bother? These are systemic issues, and they need to be solved by changing the system. There’s no need for personal guilt; all you need is to act.
I was telling this to someone else (at a different party), when they were like, “Well…if you don’t feel bad about global issues, then what does make you feel bad?”
And I was like, “When someone’s mean to me.”
But as I was thinking about it, I was like…plenty of things make me feel bad. And I’ve done plenty of things that I regret. But it’s not guilt. It’s alway shame.
I’m sure you all know this, but guilt is when you feel bad about something you’ve done, whereas shame is when you feel bad about who you are. And while I rarely feel guilt, I frequently feel shame. I’m a person who’ll say one awkward thing and spend the entire night mentally flagellating himself for it. That’s because I have so much of my self-image tied up in being intelligent and witty that any failure on those fronts feels deeply unsettling, as if I don’t even know who I am anymore. And once I start to question that, then I also start to feel bad about all the time I’ve been fronting, and pretending to be something I’m not, and the shame gets even worse and even deeper.
This is not at all an original observation to me, but modern Westerners seem to simultaneously espouse two separate systems of morality: the helping-people morality; and heroic morality. The helping-people morality is good Christian virtue: am I helping and not hurting? And that’s the moral system that gives rise to guilt, because there’s something very objective about it. It’s not about thoughts. it’s about actions. Did you do something that helped other people? Or did you do something that hurt them?
Whereas heroic morality is all about being something great. And, you know, it takes many forms. There’s the people who want to be the most learned and witty people in the room. And there’s also the people who want to be wisest and most self-actualized. There’s the ones who want to be smooth and confident, and the ones who want to be genuine. I don’t know. People choose their own model. But all heroic templates share certain traits: they’re all cohesive and admirable. If you manage to successfully model a heroic template, then people will admire you and no one will pity you and you’ll feel like…you’ll feel like you are something. That you’ve actualized yourself.
And if you could always just believe in that vision of yourself, life would be great. But you can’t. Eventually, cracks appear, and you start to berate yourself for not failing to live up to this standard.
I don’t really know what the solution is. Self-compassion, obviously. But should we also stop attempting to achieve these heroic templates? I really don’t know.
Tim Wilson at UVA … brought a group of students into a room and showed them a series of posters. The students were told they could take any one they wanted as a gift and keep it. He then brought in another group, and told them the same thing, but this time they had to explain why they wanted the poster before they picked. He then waited six months and asked the two groups what they thought of their choices. The first group, the ones who just got to grab a poster and leave, they all loved their choice. The second group, the ones who had to write out why, hated theirs. The first group, the grab-and-go people, usually picked a nice, fancy painting. The second group, the ones who had to explain their choice, usually picked an inspirational poster with a cat clinging to a rope.
Wilson they theorized that this was because knowing they had to give a reason influenced what people chose. If people didn’t have to give a reason, then they chose some fancy painting that appealed to them on an aesthetic and emotional level. But if they did have to give a reason, then they’d often choose some schmalzy inspirational poster, because the latter is something that you can talk about. It’s something that contains clear ideas and a message. You can be like, “I like this poster because I need more inspiration when I wake up in the morning.”
Basically, the need to justify themselves caused them to override their real emotional responses, because those emotions were difficult to describe.
This resonated strongly with me in my own life. I, personally, found that I was only able to enjoy ‘high art’ when I stopped trying to analyze it. Even now, I don’t read the footnotes or peruse the study guides. I don’t pore over each paragraph and try to untangle the meaning. I just read the words and let myself try to feel them. And in doing so, I’ve had emotional reactions to plenty of works (like Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past) that you’re only ‘supposed’ to be able to understand by reading them in a classroom setting.
I think what we instinctively understand about art is that it’s irreducible. People write stories because a story is the only way to convey the idea they’re trying to convey. The story can’t be explained because the story is the explanation.
Amy wrote today about how she doesn’t read as many blogs anymore. Which resonated with me, because I recently went through my RSS reader and deleted the feeds of all the blogs that I don’t actually read. But when I did so, I realized that ‘blogs I don’t read’ is a category that’s comprised of two sorts of blogs. The first are the blogs I don’t read because they bore me. Note, in many cases, these blogs aren’t boring. They’re just boring to me. Oftentimes, they were the blogs of authors whose work I enjoyed or they’re blogs that had a certain artiness to them that somehow appealed to me. But, for whatever reason, the content wasn’t there, and I let them limp on in my RSS feed year after year, without doing more than scanning them.
The second kind of blog were the blogs that I did enjoy, but which update way too fast for me to keep up with. This latter category includes Omnivoracious, the Wired magazine science blog, and the Guardian’s book blog (which is my favorite blog of all).
Anyway, I finally settled this latter problem by grouping my blogs into just two categories: fast and slow. Most of my friends and fellow authors are in the ‘slow’ category. They update 1-2 times per day at max, and I’m able to take them when I scroll through the whole ‘slow’ feed at once. The fast feed, on the other hand, is sort of a purgatory. I only dip into it occasionally, when I have time.
I think it’s a good compromise. Before, I divided my blogs into topical groups like “Authors” or “Editors” or “Political,” which was stupid, because it didn’t help me actually read them. It’s not like I’m sometimes in the mood for “Authors” and sometimes in the mood for “Politics.” No. I’m always in the mood for “Interesting things,” and really the only thing that matters is “Is this interesting?”
Actually, I guess I ended up unintentionally duplicating the design of the social network Ello, in that my RSS reader now has one column that I peruse closely and one column that I scan quickly.
Recently read this post on Ferrett Steinmetz’s blog about how every piece of advice can, potentially, land in exactly the wrong ears. And that led me to think about what the wrong ears would be for some of my recent advice on making friends and socializing. And I realized who it was: loud, boring people.
There are two kinds of socially awkward people. The first are the ones who are too painfully shy to talk to anyone. The second are the ones who are so bad at reading social cues that they blunder around and say the wrong thing and talk too much and tend to bore people. These two types of people are, in my opinion, oftentimes more similar than they are different. Prolonged social anxiety often results in trouble with reading social cues. Either people are so inwardly-focused that they’re not paying attention to the signals others are giving out; or their anxiety is so out of control that they monitor every micro-expression and infer emotions that aren’t there.
In general, I have a soft spot in my heart for loud, boring people. For one thing, I sometimes am a loud, boring person. I like to think that I am, at the very least, able to eject from a conversation once I’ve started boring the other person, but boringness happens. If you’re going to interact with people, sometimes you are going to rub them the wrong way. I, personally, think it’s better to be loud and boring than it is to be shy and silent, because loud, boring people are at least having so many contacts with other people that they’re bound to get a few positive ones in there.
However, it’s obviously not optimal to be loud and boring. And loud boringness is something that a person should work on, if they suffer from it. Some people might think that the solution to being loud and boring is to become interesting, but I don’t know about that. I think the problem with loud and boring people is that they think they are interesting. Alot of boringness arises, paradoxically, from a desire to not be boring. A person is so afraid of being boring that they’ll always drag the conversation back to things they know they can talk about: their own experiences and their own interests and their own feelings.
And I think the solution to loud boringness is to stop trying so hard. Just relax. Allow people to talk about what they want. Quietness does not equal boringness. Allow the other person to talk. Allow the conversation to proceed down strange paths and touch upon things that you don’t care about. Try to sense what they want to talk about and do something engage with that. Dare to let things sputter out. The conversation might go stale, but at least they won’t come away with the impression that you are obnoxious.
Basically, my solution to loud boringness is not to be more interesting, it’s to be less loud.
However, because I used to be pretty shy and because I know so many shy people, most of my conversational advice is about how to be more loud. Which, if you’re a loud, boring person, is probably the last thing you need to hear.
Here’s something I’ve never understood. We’ve all experienced the situation where we’re at the edges of a conversation at a gathering where we don’t really know people. Maybe we’ve introduced ourselves; maybe we haven’t. Either way, we’re standing there, looking in, trying to nod along, but there just doesn’t seem to be any natural way into it and all we want is for someone to notice us and talk to us! However, when we’re on the other side of it, and we see people hovering at the edges of our conversations, we usually ignore them.
Of course, in this, as in all things, I am amazing, since I just worm my way into the edge of the conversation and then wriggle my finger and say, “Hey, can I break in?” and then they say “Of course!” and then I listen in until I have something to say.
But most people are not like me. Most people cannot do that. And yet, they deserve to be included. I’m not saying you have to be best friends with the random people who drift up onto the edges of your conversations. All I’m saying is that you should try to include them. Ask them their name. Tell them the topic of the day. Ask them what they think. If they fall silent, nudge them a bit. That’s it. Very simple.
This is the conversational skill I’m best at, actually. To me, it’s so patently obvious when someone wants to be part of my conversation. And it’s equally obvious when they want to say something but don’t know how, or when they feel like they’re slowly being forced out of the conversation. In fact, I often find myself frustrated when someone is talking to me and they don’t notice (or don’t know how to notice) the person lingering at the edge of our conversation, so they never pause long enough for me to bring the lingerer up to speed. Sometimes I’ll just interrupt my friend myself, but sometimes I can’t do it, and I have to watch the lingerer drift away in silent despair. Or, you know, silent mild awkwardness.
When it comes to making friends, obviously the best thing to do is to go to lots of social events and talk to lots of people and be really charming and make a great impression on them. But if that’s something you feel comfortable doing, then you probably don’t need friend-making advice from my blog.
The truth is that talking to new people is difficult, awkward, and tiring. And making great first impressions is a skill that most people are never going to have. And if making friends required charming the pants off of total strangers, then we’d all be completely out of luck.
However, I’ve found that charm is really not a requirement. All you need to do in order to make friends is to find a social scene and keep showing up to the events that it throws. That’s all. Just show up. If you show up long enough, people will talk to you. They will recognize you. Then they will start to be happy to see you. And they will invite you to other things. And at that point your friendmaking problems will be over, and you can forget all about the nerve-wracking anxiety that you experienced at those first eight social gatherings, and eventually your introduction to those people begins, someday far in the future, to seem fortuitous and magical and completely unrepeatable.
Now, I’m sure that there is someone out there who is so socially awkward and anxiety-wracked that my “just show up” advice won’t work for them, but I also think you’d be surprised. I have known some pretty awkward and anxious and quiet individuals who’ve gotten pretty far by just showing up.
Anyway, this is all stuff that I’ve said before. But what I wanted to write about today was a practical application of this advice. Which is that once you’ve shown up, it’s okay to leave. I do this all the time. I pop in to some strange new party where I know zero people. Then I talk to two or three. And when the anxiety and isolation get to be too much, I make an early exit. And it doesn’t feel amazing. It does feel a bit like retreating. But I’ve done it often enough to know that the next time I see those people, it’ll be easier (and very probably one or two of them will remember meeting me).
So if you’re worried about going someplace where no one knows you, just give yourself permission to leave after an hour or two. It’s totally fine.
Another thing I sometimes do is that I’ll go to the party right when it starts, when I know that almost no one will be there. And, of course, I feel like an out of place fool, because the few people who’re there don’t know me. However, when you come early to a party, you benefit in four ways:
A) Oftentimes, the only person that you know at a party is the host. And arriving early is the only way that you’re going to be able to talk to them, because once the party is in full swing they’re going to be too busy.
B) If you know the host, then they can introduce you to new guests as they arrive. That way, you have an intro right off the bat. And you also have social proof. You look like someone who’s standing around, talking, having fun. Whereas if you arrive later, then you have to stand around by yourself and give off the “I am a very lonely man” vibe to everyone.
C) If you arrive early, then people have no choice but to talk to you. I mean, you should make it a little easier by looking at them and greeting them and shaking their hand and doing all that stuff. But if you’re early, then your aloneness will be too big and blunt for anyone to ignore.
D) People are also much more willing to talk to you because no one they know is there yet. Oftentimes, parties are more about socializing with people you already know. Which is why it’s hard for new people to worm their way in. But if you’re early, then most people don’t yet have a long-lost friend to greet.
E) In some cases, the hosts may be worried about turnout for their event and, since people typically tend not to arrive until an hour or more after the posted start time, they can often end up staring at an empty room while they stew upon the possibility that their party will be a complete flop. Thus, they’re often pretty happy when someone–anyone–actually shows up.
(Today, I’m running a guest post from a friend of mine and fellow Baltimorean. One of Ezra’s business pursuits is helping people build their online brands and drive traffic to their sites. Oftentimes, when people ask to write guest posts for my site, I say no, because I’m like, “Well, what’s in it for me?” In this case, I knew that Ezra would deliver a solid essay, and that I might be able to get a little bit of his social capital)
I spend a lot of time on various social media networks, and communities within those networks. Many authors are starting to realize the importance of social media, especially as print publishing becomes all the more shaky, but a lot of them don’t quite seem to be able to execute. So without further ado, some gentle scolding from a person on the other side of the creativity/filthy capitalism divide:
1) Great Content But No Growth
You’re a writer! You excel at clever posts and spend a lot of time promoting your work with bon mots on Twitter or pithy observations on Facebook – but nothing seems to reach an audience larger than mom and your few-remaining college friends. I see this constantly with writers and comedians I know, talented people who put up great stuff but neever reach a larger following. Now the overall subject could fill a book, but in general following and interacting with people is the only way they will come across you. I wouldn’t be afraid to put a small budget into a Facebook or Twitter ad if you actively have a book or other product for sale, but just following and talking to lots of people will have your follower count climbing rapidly.
Link to your social media accounts from your blog, friend’s blogs and other accounts that have bigger following. Link from message boards and comments on forums or aggregators. If you’re making all this great cotnent its really a shame to not have a lot of people see it.
2) Useless Or Harmful Posts
Consistency is absolutely crucial on social media and I would strongly recommend one-two posts a day. However it’s better to not post at all then to have a stream of useless things. Punchy, witty commentary on a football game may make for a good Twitter feed, but rantings about quarterbacks may turn off a lot of your audience, especially if you happen to be a young adult or science-fiction author. I always strive for share-able, self-contained posts on my public social media, ones that will appeal to the broadest segment of my audience. I happen to love Scandinavian Black Metal, but most of my readers (and frankly, the bands themselves) have little interest or need for the latest rare Norwegian cassette form the nineties to be discovered.
Also I know many authors are passionate about their political beliefs, but I’ve seen a lot of follower accounts go down after the mid-term elections and very little in terms of measurable change in our governance…
3) Too Many Qualifications.
Many author profiles I come across list the person as a “writer, editor, blogger, publisher, poet, cover designer, marketing expert, window cleaner, sandwich artist.” Those of you who have been grinding away at this thing know how hard any one of these roles is and it cheapens your main purpose to list so many things. The main bio space on your social media channels is very important, as it may be the only representation most people see of you. Make sure it is clear, direct and highlights ONE or TWO credentials.
4) No Call to Action
Related to the above, people put enormous work into their social media presence, but to what end? On Twitter and Instagram, you are allowed ONE and only one link in your bio, where does it point towards? Figure out what your express goal is (sell a book? drive readers to your blog?) and make sure you have a pinned post at the top and a bio link that all point towards that call-to-action.
And don’t be afraid to go a little clickbait! Maybe you don’t want to be “Which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Would You HAve Sex With?” but an attention-grabbing headline will do a lot to get your reader’s to click through to your Amazon or Goodreads page or whatever the target link is.
5) Too Much Inside Baseball
While it may be tempting to complain about the rigors of NaNoWriMo or kvetch about specific personalities in your genre, I imagine your goal is to reach a wide audience with your writing, and it’s important to keep in mind what they want out of an author’s social media account. Things like productivity tips or content about improving your work are interesting and relevant to many people other than writers but posts about conferences, internal politics, academia etc can all put people off.
Anyway, thanks a lot to Rahul for letting me snag some valuable real-estate on his highly-entertaining blog! My name’s Ezra Winter and I’m a full-time social media and online marketing person, working with clients like the soul singer Bosley, to help grow and take advantage of their public presence. I really love this kind of work so I run accounts on most of the major networks for myself, and I’m beginning to write articles and blog posts about what I’m doing. The most relevant to the Blotter Paper community (and one of my favorites to write) is probably this interview with Daniel Kibblesmith, who is amazingly clever at Twitter, which helped lead to him becoming a published author and writer at The Onion.
The above tips were written from the point of view of Twitter, but apply pretty generally. I find Twitter to be the most effective tool for spreading written or verbal content, though Tumblr offers some exciting opportunities in that regard. If I’ve piqued your interest I hope you’ll check out my blog, and give me a follow on the ol’ social media channels. If you have any thoughts or feedback leave a comment, send a tweet, or shoot me an email email@example.com