Stop playing the viral slot machine
My kid was anxious to buy his book about animal kingdoms. He’s 5 and possesses the consumer certainty only a 5-year-old can have. I like this book. I want this book. Buy this book.
I, however, am simultaneously filled with joy and dread when walking into a bookstore. I love the joy of being so close to so many great minds. I despise the dread of residing which one to bring home.
My son tugged at my sleeve. He had his sights set on the free bookmarks at the checkout, not to mention the one book, of all the books, he chose to purchase.
I didn’t want to leave empty-handed. The pandemic has shuttered all libraries and I was starved for the real feel of paper between my fingers instead of the awkward weight of my Kindle. In my haste I scanned the shelves, looking for something, anything to catch my eye.
A red spine. Bird by Bird. Anne Lamott.
I grabbed it and paid, falling 86-cents short in cash. The bookstore employee was nice enough to let it slide. My son and I left. He exuberant in his find, me more hesitant. Some instructions on writing and life, the subtitle read. Great, another writer writing about writing I thought.
Little did I realize that this book is the book on writing. When we got home, I opened the front cover, and before finishing the introduction knew with absolute certainty that Lamott wrote this book for me and me alone. Never has anyone spoken so directly to me. Never has anyone rekindled in me a passion for my craft.
I started reading Bird by Bird yesterday, I haven’t finished it yet, but in my excitement, I sat down to write this morning and what poured forth was a manifesto outlined below.
You see, I began this year with a promise to myself: I would make writing my career. I’ve been writing for over a decade but I never took myself seriously enough to bravely say “I’m a writer” when asked what I do.
I didn’t know what exactly, career-wise, my writing would entail. I figured the majority of my writing would be published online on various platforms. I’d keep some writing to myself. And I’d possibly dabble on side projects and a book or two.
Three-quarters of the year has gone by and although I haven’t made a living out of it per se, I’ve grown addicted to what I call the viral slot machines. It’s a fun game. I refresh my browser or app and see what coins, I mean views come tumbling out.
The views, the notifications, the praise, the comments, the highlights. They may seem harmless, even a poor analogy to a slot machine. I’m not frivolously throwing money away, right? That’s true in a sense, but the act of playing the viral slot machine does cost me something: my time and my attention.
Bird by Bird slapped me across my face. I write not in the hopes of going viral, but for writing’s sake. Somewhere this year I’ve lost that.
Could I get back the joy of writing for writing’s sake? Could I get back to waking early, before the other members of my household, sitting at my desk and alone with my thoughts, through a groggy haze of early morning confusion, string together words in a coherent order?
Could the pleasure of writing derive from the writing itself and not from the off chance that the thing I wrote “broke the internet” so much so that I feel instantly validated inside?
Yes, I believe I can.
And again that’s the reason for this manifesto. Anne Lamott has spoken to me and now I’m speaking to you, dear writer. I am speaking to you because I know we are both blessed and cursed by our craft.
We are blessed in that the gatekeepers of old are long gone. The powers of the interwebs have created a meritocracy where voices that want to be heard can be heard.
Yet we are cursed because to acquire other people’s time and attention we must play a game. A game no one understands. A game without rules. A game that feels like you’re losing until you hit it big. And when you hit it big, you want more. You’ve tasted virality and it’s sweet and sour like a stale bag of Sour Patch Kids.
It never feels like enough.
This is a call to arms my fellow online writers. We must stop playing the game. We must take back our craft. We must find joy and pleasure in the act of writing, not in the downstream effects it may incur.
We must write. Here’s how we will do just that.
The Online Writer’s Manifesto
- Appreciate the offline art of capturing ideas and thoughts in an analog manner. A good pen and a sturdy notebook will suffice. The back of cocktail napkins are fine, but rather cliche.
- Plan and prepare a sacred time of writing each day. This time is to be protected and never encroached by the duties and responsibilities of daily life. Early morning and late nights work best. During this time, we will set aside the desire to think of anything else besides writing our truth. And if the truth is not compelling enough, to exaggerate just a little.
- Never check our bank account before writing. It contaminates our thoughts either by filling it with fear and angst or swelling our ego to disproportional size. Money is a terrific tool in the real world but in the world of writing, it is useless. Unless of course, you’ve run out of paper.
- Read for the sake of reading. We will carry at least one book on our person at all times. Our brains need new ideas and books just happen to carry thousands of them. Read wide and read deep.
- Be aware of the mindless meandering. The screen time measurement on our phone is a great indicator of this. Sitting in boredom is a lot different than sitting and scrolling on our phone in boredom. We will not waste precious time being drip-fed information. Instead, we will ask the questions. We will seek out new curiosities. We will control the flow.
- Ignore the anonymous feedback. We will not feed the trolls. We will let our anger and frustration and sweet clapbacks percolate until they warrant their own written pieces. We will not engage the faceless. We will not allow them to take our precious time and attention.
- Treat our art with the respect it deserves. We will clean up spelling mistakes as we find them. We will cut out the fluff. We’ll get to the point. Many of us don’t come from traditional writing backgrounds. Many of us are still learning. Keep learning. Keep promising to be a better writer this year than last year. Don’t just publish to publish. Publish to speak the truth.
- Observe and experience the world around you. A writer is not a writer if she sits all day at her desk and ignores the outside world. If we are to speak the truth and write something that is worthy of other people’s time and attention, we must step away from our desks and live. It is not enough to conjure up imaginary realities or rely on the distilled hot takes of our media peers. We must see the world as it is — with our own eyes — and judge it for ourselves.
- Finish things. Or as Neil Gaiman says, “You learn more from finishing a failure than you do from writing a success.” And if our writing truly is not up to par, we won’t throw our words away. We’ll keep them in a scrap pile. We’ll let them rot and become new ideas. We’ll finish what we start, even if it means leaving our fingers in a bloody mess. Then, we start the next thing.
Go and write
I’ve written this manifesto for myself but I know I am not alone. The world of online writing is evolving but one thing remains the same: we must keep writing.
From time to time we must remind ourselves that our work is unlike all other work. Often we are isolated. Deadlines are arbitrary or self-imposed. Results aren’t guaranteed. We don’t create physical products but rather we gather ideas. We hope to change the world, or at the very least one small sliver of it.
I’ve taken up enough of your time and attention. Print this out. Tack it to your wall. But most importantly, go and write.