Complete Disengagement From Social Media: A Luxury?

One of my favorite books on writing, “The Writing Life,” was written by Annie Dillard. This is what you will find on the home page of her website:

I’m sorry. I’ve never promoted myself or my books, but I used to give two public readings a year.

Now I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.

Then, on another page:

Like many other writers, I can no longer read, let alone comment on, the many books and manuscripts people send me. I am going to stop even acknowledging them, to my sorrow and the sorrow of many good writers. I’m merely overwhelmed. I can’t help get others’ writing published, not because I’m holding out, but because I don’t know any agents who are taking on new writers or even who handle “literature.” I lay low. 

Nor can I write introductions or forwards or provide comments or text or reviews. It’s a matter of time, not of heart. If I answered one-twentieth of the mail, I could neither read nor write, let alone take care of family.

This raises so many questions in my mind regarding platforms and feedback and the role that social media plays with today’s writers, myself included.

Is her approach toward her readership simply a “luxury” that only the uber-popular can afford? Or is her popularity the result of this kind of complete focus and dedication to the craft? How much better would my writing be if I didn’t bother with all this other STUFF? Would the quality be the same?

If you became a well-known author, would it be a relief to disengage from social media, or would you, in the words of Annie Dillard, feel sorrow?

27 Replies to “Complete Disengagement From Social Media: A Luxury?”

  1. Great questions Shawn!

    I used to think I was a total extrovert … but now I’m not so sure. I think I’m a mix and I want a little of both …

    I want time alone without any interruptions (even family :) and I also want to interact with people in real life and through social media … but I want to do the interacting when I want to (that is selfish, but I also think it could help my writing) not when it’s expected/required/etc of me.

    So I’m constantly trying to find a middle ground … too many times the pendulum swings too far in one direction or the other. I practically avoid my family for a few days, then I suffocate them trying to make up for lost time … or I tweet/update online a lot, then I disappear a for a few days.

    So when you have answers to your questions … let me know :)

  2. I love this question, Shawn, and honestly, I’m not sure. Certainly Dillard has the luxury to make this choice safely without harm to her writing – at least I think so – given that her work is already well-established. . . and she is already a well-known voice. Whether or not I have that option – that I’m not sure of.

    What I do know is that I have to find a way to curb the social media time and build the writing time . . . this is required.

    Thanks for this, Shawn.

  3. It’s absolutely a luxury, and sort of a Catch 22, because when you’re unknown, you have to make connections and “build your platform”. Most writers I know are introverts by nature so much of what needs to be done in order to promote themselves seems very unnatural, but so very few attain a level of success which allows them to disconnect. My guess is that for many, it would be a dream come true.

    1. Insightful comment, Kathy. I think I carry around a very small knapsack of guilt due to my suspicion that I would potentially disconnect if I no longer needed to promote myself…although the longer I blog, the more I sincerely enjoy the feedback and relationships fostered by the winternets.

  4. So fired up. I want to reply to the comments, but I’ll stick to my original self-righteous diatribe.

    Dillard’s opening statement smacks of arrogance and self-indulgence, and the rest of her comment goes on to position her own writing at the precipice of importance while relegating up and comers, talented writers, to the base camp of shilling their work like pimps to the first bidder.

    She says she has never had to promote her writing or herself. Well, good for you, Ms. Dillard, to be so fawned over that you let the tired masses sing your praises for you. She says she “can’t” read submissions, write notes or intros, or spend any time whatsoever in helping the community of writers who hold her in place get some modicum of recognition for their own work. This is akin to climbing the shoulders of giants and then spitting on their heads.

    Finally, to say she can’t just makes me skin crawl. Oh really? She literally CAN NOT? That’s baloney. She indeed can, and could make the time for it if she cared to. I don’t know what her money or family life is like, but I know plenty of people who manage to carve out time to help others. It’s called being a human, and it’s what people do. I’m sure her life is busy, but I’m also sure she has had many of those little daily bothers removed from her responsibility.

    I refuse to accept the premise that art is created in a vacuum. And I cannot abide this idea of crawling into a hole to focus solely on the work. Even if one writes exclusively in perfect solitude (whatever that is), one is always, always informed by the experiences of life, and the people in that life.

    I also think that to elevate one’s work above the work and lives of others is short-sighted and yes, arrogant. Nothing is more important that people. Nothing on earth. The ultimate, then, would be to create something over which important dialogue can be held. But Dillard sounds like she’s only interested in herself. Which is sad.

    Shawn, you are a kinder person that I. I went to this conclusion, whereas you wondered about the implications for writers and our social engagement. Maybe some day I’ll be a good person. Today, I’m just mad at Dillard.

    1. Um. What Jen said. I don’t buy that Dillard doesn’t have time to do any of those things. Maybe she doesn’t have time to do it all but she could do some things. Personally, I love my readers and want to see them succeed. I don’t anticipate ever having Dillard’s status but it’ll be a sad day if I ever become consumed with myself at the exclusion of others.

    2. I should say, too, that her resignation, her statement “I just don’t know why” is way too easy. This is either a lie to get out of doing something she doesn’t want to do or a failure to recognize a greater problem about which only professionals can help her. I mean, withdrawing from life is a pretty big deal. Done now. Promise

    3. “Like”

      You’re absolutely correct. Art is not created in a vacuum. And while I did state in my comment that many writers dream of a day when connecting with people wasn’t absolutely necessary, the ones I work with would continue to do so because they’re actually nice people, however introverted they may be.

      We live in an ever-increasing narcissistic society fueled by social media. Which is not to say I think social media is a bad thing. What’s bad is what many have turned it into–a monolog rather than a conversation. The misguided belief is that the more twitter followers and FB friends you have, the more relevant you are to any and all conversations. Now you’ve got me mad…(again)

      I ranted about social media stars recently if you’re interested:

    4. i don’t think she’s espousing the idea that art is created in a vacuum or that these boundaries indicate complete self-interest. she is putting her family, her own writing, and presumably her actual community before the vocal demands of strangers–even well-meaning, talented ones.

      it comes off a bit sharply worded, but i empathize with her position. i would do well to say no to more perfectly good distractions.

  5. I agree with a lot of what Jennifer says. Let’s face it, we’re all busy. I work 50 hours a week, do everything with my family, write a blog….plus everything else I do. And I have received help and attention from other busy bloggers. We just find time to do what we want to do. She just doesn’t want to help people.

  6. Annie Dillard came of age as a writer in a time before social media. With respect, she doesn’t seem like she knows what she’s talking about.

    That said, it is certainly my experience that some writers seem to be social media/buzz generating machines whose popularity way outstrips the merits of their work. I don’t know what to do about that but I think it’s true.

    1. I think you are right in saying that Annie Dillard is old school, and I think she gets a pass from social media for that. The whole idea that she cannot do for some because she cannot do for all is a cop out, in my opinion.

      I do worry that we miss out on quality writers because they cannot generate the social media buzz that mediocre writers sometimes can, so we never hear about them. But I guess there have always been barriers to publication – in the 19th century you never would have gotten published if you were a peasant.

      1. Exactly. I think the ability to create social media buzz takes the place of having connections–not entirely I’m sure, but it fills that sort of space. You don’t need connections to generate buzz but you also don’t have to be an outstanding writer.

        I also think that a person like Annie Dillard is in a poor position to give advice precisely because she’s so exceptional. If that makes sense.

  7. Ummm, I don’t know why someone would get exercised over Dillard’s decision. She is free to make her own choices. She owes no one an explanation as to why she made those choices. And she most definitely does not “owe” budding writers a thing. No one owes another person anything that person has not earned.

    I don’t think I could or would want to totally disengage, because social media (my blog) is how I established my own readership.

    1. You’re right, of course, that she is free to make her own choices. And she certainly doesn’t owe anyone anything. So why does she go out of her way to list all the things she is not going to do? It just makes her sound like a jerk.

      I still love her writing.

      1. If she wants to sound like a jerk, that’s her business, not mine. I don’t think she’ll suffer any defections from her readers, as you just admitted.

    2. It’s true Ira. The tone of these passages on her home page is, I think, reflected in the tone of her nonfiction writing – those who enjoy the way she talks about writing probably will not mind this or at least will not find it surprising. I know a few people who do not like the pious sound of her nonfiction, and this only serves to add fuel to their fire.

      Now I’m interested in this idea: why do we want to like the people who create the art we enjoy? In other words, why does it matter, if I like her writing, whether or not she is a nice person in real life? Clearly to some people it does.

      1. Quality is quality, or should be, regardless of its source. But I agree with you; public image is important today, for reasons I won’t even try to articulate. We pin all sorts of expectations on someone like Anne Dillard, then revile her when she comes up short in fulfilling those expectations.

        Look, I’m not saying I agree with her. Many people went out of their way to help me promote my book. Reviews on Amazon, etc. They wouldn’t have had to do that. But they did. I won’t forget that. Ever.

        All I’m saying is I won’t waste a whole lot of energy feeling shorted by Dillard’s decision. And that she is and should always be free to make those decisions as she sees fit.

        Also, she may be more media-savvy than we realize. All this buzz on the blogs is publicity. Ain’t no such thing as bad publicity, or so I’ve heard :)

  8. I don’t really understand the fuss over Dillard’s decision to be reclusive. I do understand the wish for a more gregarious public persona, but writers and other artists have a reputation for being eccentric, and so long as they produce good work and don’t bother anyone, the world gives them a pass. Alright, maybe that should just be “so long as they don’t bother anyone.”

    That said, I’ve searched for her online in the past, desperately hoping she had an active blog, or even a Twitter account. “For the Time Being” is, well, it’s my favorite book. It came to me at the right time of my life, and made quite an impact. I still re-read it every year or two. So, I’d love to eek more out of Dillard’s mind, but I certainly don’t believe I have any right to it. Her eccentricities are part of what bring her to such insights and observations that I appreciate so much, so I’ll just wait and hope that her general silence will occasionally produce a new and wonderful book.

    I don’t know what her background is, but surely she became a writer through honest means, by climbing the ropes, which were likely at the time social-media-free ropes? Is it just not possible to become a successful writer in that traditional way anymore? Because, and maybe I’m grossly misreading the comments, it seems like there is some resentment that she would avoid social media, when up-and-coming writers don’t, which makes me think that social media is being viewed as unpleasant, or work. Is that true?

    All this to say, I really enjoyed your post.

  9. January 25, 2012
    About the question, “Do we expect
    our favorite authors to be nice
    people?” I’m 70 years old, and
    have learned that often the “art”
    that “comes through” people,
    whether they’re writers, actors,
    musicians, etc.) does not necessarily
    tell us about who the
    artist really is — sometimes
    I have found various artists to
    be wonderful people, and sometimes
    they’re not. I especially love
    people like Paul Newman who gave
    so much of himself — not only was
    he consummately talented, he
    was consummately good — because
    he knew how to “love” at a high
    level. Annie Dillard’s writing
    is highly unusual and insightful,
    mystical even, and to maintain her
    kind of intensity takes a lot of
    quiet and time alone, and “reading
    (as she says). The thing is, she
    gains her insights mostly from
    reading, and from her inner world,
    rather than from human interaction.
    Notice her writing is nature-
    oriented, very metaphorical,
    very, very unusual. Dialog
    among people doesn’t play a
    major part. Her mind is “the” character.
    The life of her mind and imagination
    and insight are
    informed more by her “inner”
    experience, than they are by
    connection with people. Make
    any sense? I concern myself with
    the “message” more than the
    “messenger,” although I dearly love a
    person whose personality is wonderful,
    inside and out, and who has the
    heart and kindness to share themselves.
    Marg Garner, Butte, Montana

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