Novels and Unicycles: Writing for Attention

January 15, 2010 | 33 5 min read

coverLast summer, I started a personal style blog to help me get over myself. After a protracted and exhausting internal debate concerning the balance of my literary talent with my actual ambition, I decided that writing some would be better than writing none. I’d reached a point in my writing life, between finishing the first draft of a crappy YA novel and beginning anew on the historical novel I’ve been pecking at since grad school, when I finally admitted I was terrified to pick up the pen (metaphor: I type, like everyone else). Here you can insert all the usual clichés about paralyzed writers, and all of them would probably be appropriate, to some extent, but if you want to know why I was really scared, I’ll tell you: I was afraid of being known. I did not want to be published.

Oh, the vanity! That a mostly unpublished young thing would even fancy herself worthy of publication, especially since several of my writer friends have been peddling their fully-formed and radiant manuscripts for months and years with little success. But please, don’t misunderstand: I don’t mean to imply my novel is so remarkable it will instantly be snapped up by some agent type who’ll in turn get me a rad book deal so I won’t have to work for a whole year – that, truthfully, is the least of my worries. No, what’s scary is that sometimes, when I’m lying awake at night feeling guilty because I didn’t write, or because I wrote badly, I begin to wonder if the construction of fictional worlds isn’t just a huge cry for attention, a giant Hey-Ma-Look-What-I-Can-Do! I wonder if I’m as bad as the artfully disheveled hipster who occasionally teeters down my block on his gigantic 1890s-style unicycle. He gets stared at a lot. He knows it. He loves it; otherwise why would he be riding a unicycle? But late at night, when I’m afraid, when I’m alone, I wonder if my novel isn’t just my unicycle, and if being published would be tantamount to indulging one of the most already indulgent parts of my personality.

The only thing I’ve ever been really good at, besides writing, is dressing myself (but please don’t make fun), and I figured there was no place to get over my fear of being exposed as a prideful and self-absorbed jerk than the good old fashioned internet, where every misuse of a word and/or luminous musing is always and forever preserved until the end of time. A little like publication. When I googled my name last July I found only these links: a school essay about an all-black boarding school I wrote when I was nineteen, many Victorian ladies on who weren’t me, some girl in New Zealand who’s a lawyer and also not me, and a transcript of a 911 call I made when I thought I heard someone outside my window. I’m not on Facebook anymore, I don’t Twitter and my Friendster page must be defunct after six years of dormancy. My internet presence was lacking, even though I swear I’ve done stuff to warrant internet space, and though this did incur in me a certain contrarian pride, it also made me feel… phobic. My husband, a physician, tells me the best way to conquer a phobia is through desensitization. Though I was and am still deeply ambivalent about the blog as an artistic medium, I did what any person concerned with the larger intemperance of the soul would do: I started a blog that’s all about me! I self-published, in a manner of speaking.

I set some ground rules for myself. I’d wear a new outfit and photograph it, every single day—that would be my job. But I wouldn’t stress over the blog’s textual content; if the best I could say about a particular ensemble was, “I got this dress in Prague and later I spilled chocolate milk on it,” that was going to be it. I told no one of my endeavor at first, not even my husband. I was embarrassed, because my reasons for blogging seemed cowardly and weak, even to me. I honestly thought I’d try it for a month and then quit.

I don’t think I had any visitors that first week. Maybe not the second, either. This made it easier, not harder, to keep going, and soon I made a discovery: the text was the easy part! I felt unbound in this medium, free to be silly or lame or funny or barbed, because I didn’t know who, if anyone, was reading. My novel used to occupy that space for me (and what a glorious space it had been, one where the all daring possibilities of fiction seemed exuberant and not weighty, one where my responsibility was only to spin a tale, not to become an Author!), but as more and more of my friends from grad school published their story collections or first novels, my own novel ceased to be something I wanted to write and became something I had to write, to measure up.

That is no reason to write, not really. I understand now what a claustrophobic effect comparison has on the creative mind, and I believe most writers ultimately find their own ways to leap this hurdle, but for me, this year, it has been the enforced narcissism of my blog that’s shaken me down from my Tree of Pretentious Reluctance. Slowly, very slowly, people began reading my posts. I got more comments, a few laudatory emails, even a sponsor who wanted to send me free stuff. Then I surprised myself; I didn’t quit. In fact, I emailed a few close friends and asked them to read it. Some of them didn’t respond, and some of them are now regular readers. A lot like when I write a story!

The blog has caused me none of the internal discord my novel has: photos of me aren’t me. Of course, a story is just a story, not me and of course all me, but ultimately it’s an entity so separate that I cannot count anyone’s embrace or rejection of it as anything personal. My novel had become my raison d’être—it was all I was worth and it terrified me to let it into the world. But in the blogosphere, I’m as anonymous as the next sixteen-year-old girl from Minnesota who’s just ripped into her delivery from Topshop and is showing off her new feathered bolero to her three readers, two of whom are probably her real-life friends. My pictures are viewed, judged, passed on, and forgotten. I am published, I am rejected and extolled, and I am still basically unknown. And I love it.

One might be tempted to ask if this anonymity cancels out a personal style blog’s innate vanity. It’s complicated: the two seem to coexist, to feed one another and keep each other warm and even, sometimes, to kiss each other goodnight. Vanity helps anonymity get dressed in the morning, and anonymity helps vanity forget all the mean things the kids said at recess. I wear many things on the blog I wouldn’t in “real life” just as I often write about things I have no intention of doing, but it’s the courage and the daring that fortify my soul. The result of that adrenaline rush is that I don’t care if you don’t like what I’m wearing. My writing, at the end of the day, must be based on the same principles—and there’s indulgence in that, sure, but there’s also comfort in the anonymity/vanity dichotomy. I’m doing it for me, and you if you want to look, but mostly me.

The personal style blog is a brazenly self-centered medium, to be sure, but I’m not convinced it’s any more self-centered than writing a novel. The two seem, at last, wildly similar in that they are both extraordinarily personal and all-consuming, they require a certain abandon that must compete with the inherent pretension that arises from remaking the world in your own image. That forced exhibitionism has helped me forge a bridge between the opposing shores of my artistic personality. Reluctance can be virtually indistinguishable from indulgence. You’re an artist if you do it when no one’s looking, certainly. But you must be willing to do it when they stare, too.

is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. She was a Teaching Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is an enthusiastic proponent of costumery as escapism. She is also the author of Crooked Water, an unpublished YA novel. She blogs at Song of the Exile


  1. jesus christ, i was just kidding around with my comment, but having visited your blog, could you BE more vain? pictures of your outfits?!

  2. I love this, Julia, especially that last line, which really hit home for me.

    Also, it’s interesting, as your friend (one who is a fan of your blog!), to see how your internet persona differs from how you are in real life. It’s both you and not you. On your blog, and even here, your voice is a bit sharp-tongued, and on your blog you use slang sometimes, which I don’t think I ever hear you use in real life! In real life, I think of you as quite reserved and you’ve got a manner that I’ve always attributed to your Southern upbringing. Both versions are you, and I love to be friends with both. I also have that feeling, reading your fiction, which, too, is you and not you, as your work is magical and wild in a way that one doesn’t see when having lunch with you (well only in glimpses). It’s something I really value in my artist friends–their public selves and their secret art selves, which becomes less secret, the further they get in their careers.

  3. Wow, Buk, did you even read the essay? She clearly describes what she does on her blog and admits to the self-indulgence in posting her daily fashions; but she goes beyond to define what it means to her and questions whether it’s more self-indulgent than choosing which book to read next.
    Awesome critical eye and swift wit, Buk.

  4. I’m not exactly sure how, in the end, literature and fashion differ so much in their respective quantities of ‘vanity.’ I’m pretty sure most, if not all, non-private artistic pursuits are essentially about garnering some sort of attention. Publishing novels and/or reviewing them is among these. So is having a fashion blog. I’m very ambivalent about the blog as an “artistic” medium in any sense, but I refuse to buy into the idea that there is some shame using personal style as a vibrant medium for creative expression if one is so inclined.

  5. Of course blogging about one’s daily outfits is more self indulgent than blogging about which book to read next!

    The focus of deciding what to read is, ultimately, the book; the books and how it’s tone, history, authorship, genre, place in the canon or topicality resonates. Hosting a style blog essentially the person’s appearance into a commodity and a vehicle for objectification. Just like those girls on reality TV and oiling up for Maxim.

  6. To suggest that somehow a book chooses its readers is nothing short of ridiculous. Every choice, from choosing that day-old PB&J sandwich for lunch to sparing a nickel for the homeless guy living on your corner, is made by a person, and thus inevitably rewards that person with a variable degree of pleasure. To deny how this underpins every decision every person makes every day, is just more elitist book-snob drivel that repulses me so. Choosing to read a book because of those qualities is a choice no different than any other. Please, step outside of your own existence for just a few brief moments, and consider that what others are trying to do; even if they aren’t in line for the next Booker, it is just as valuable.

  7. Brevity: Fashion is art in the same way that literature is art. From Coco Chanel to Alexander McQueen, the fashion industry has been filled with geniuses that would rival Hemingway, Dickens, and Shakespeare any day. To say “a style blog is… a vehicle for objectification” is extremely ignorant— obviously you’ve never read one, let alone Julia’s blog (which is very good!). Maybe the next book you bury your nose in should be one about the history of fashion.

  8. The tone of this site has been really contentious the last few days. I’m trying to find the common thread, and the best I can come up with is that some writers of The Millions have no interest in the physical world or physical appearances. While I wonder if this is true or if this is merely a stance, I think it’s a shame. To reject a book’s value as a cultural totem is to miss, I think, something important. I can only speak for myself, but there’s something wonderful about reading in public because people can see what I’m reading, and this can give them some small idea of who I am. And isn’t there a secret thrill for all of us when we’re reading a book we’re particularly fond of, something obscure or difficult or attractive?

    In a similar vein, I think clothing is incredibly important, and more to the point, incredibly wonderful. Not only do I take great pleasure in choosing my outfit every morning, I love to see what other people are wearing. Why wouldn’t you? It’s the single most expressive thing about them, from a physical standpoint. It’s the first impression. It’s not about expensive lines or designer labels — though I’m a firm believer that a beautifully made item of clothing is an artistic achievement on a par with a great work of fiction or a beautiful song — it’s about how the wearer has chosen to combine or utilize their various garments. It seems a pity not to care about that.

    As for whether blogging about clothing is more or less self-indulgent than blogging about books…well, this is the internet, right? It’s pretty much all vanity, from where I stand. Some of my favorite blogs are, at least in part, style blogs: Put This On, The Sartorialist, You Might Find Yourself, etc. I also thoroughly enjoy reading about people’s lives, their daily struggles, their joys. Are these blogs self-centered? I suppose I don’t really care.

  9. Oh come! The immediate, ill-considered vitriol this very interesting essay has inspired smacks of insecurity and ignorance. Calm yourselves, internet trolls, and read the essay, which bravely asks a questions more “writer-types” should: why do I deserve, as Whicker writes, to “remake the world in my image”? Are my motives for writing always as pure as I hope? What is the difference between wanting to write and wanting to “be a writer” and what am I to do when I suspect myself of both motives? Whicker is to be commended for being wary of self-involvement and self-regard, for being conscious of the way self-interest so often, and sometimes inevitably, informs artistic acts.

    (Now for some vitriol of my own [laughs maniacally]: Sorry, commenter, just because your internet avatar designates you “retiring,” doesn’t mean you are humble; meanwhile, the rushed judgment of your comment shows both arrogance and a lack of reserve.)

  10. Patrick, I love your spirited and articulate defense of fashion–clothing does possess a unique and endlessly fascinating capacity to communicate. Interested readers should also check out “The Language of Clothes” by Alison Lurie (an awesome if under-read Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist), a fascinating, witty, and serious study of costume and its grammar in which Lurie likens outfits to complete sentences and discrete garments and accessories to words.

    I read fashion blogs for the same reason I read novels: they allow me odd little glimpses into private, distant, otherwise inaccessible lives. While there may be some vanity involved in posting pictures of oneself (or in posting anything at all, as Patrick points out) on the internet, I am grateful to those audacious enough to invite me into their personal spaces, at no little risk to themselves. It’s also worthy noting that the fashion-blogging community (which is huge and remarkably disparate) is characterized by a generosity that is rare on the Internet; I’m always moved by how supportive members of that community show themselves to be in the comments they leave for one another, how interested these comments suggest they are not only in their own self-expression but in the attempts others make to communicate through costume–attempts that are as often earnest, brave, witty, striking, and surprising as they are silly or vain. (And, as others have already said, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that book blogs, say, are entirely devoid of self-congratulatory content.)

  11. One of the problems of the original article and Julia’s subsequent post is that she seems to refer to vanity and self-indulgence interchangeably.

    Is publishing a novel as self-indulgent as posting endless pictures of yourself on the internet in order to reflect a carefully cultivated image? Maybe.

    Is publishing a novel as vain as posting endless pictures of yourself on the internet in order to reflect a carefully cultivated image? Absolutely not.

  12. I don’t think anyone is denying fashion design as an art. I think some may be questioning the tastefulness of dedicating a blog to publishing numerous posed photographs of yourself on the internet.

  13. Oh please, the internet is for voyeur’s. It’s the peeping hole through which we watch others and their ideas of themselves. If Whicker is using her own physical image to break through creative barriers and a squeamishness of publishing why should she be shamed for it? After all, it’s her own to “carefully cultivate.” And while you might find it tedious and vain, others do not.

  14. I’m so glad I stumbled across this honest and wise blog post. Novelists have to be just a little bit nuts to devote their loves to something that, if they’re lucky, might pay them, averaged out over the time they’ve spent researching and writing their novels, a small fraction of the minimum wage. They also have to have enough honesty and wisdom to write something worth reading. And, as you so insightfully explore, a difficult-to-achieve balance of vanity and humility. Aren’t we readers lucky to have people out there who are nutty, honest, wise, vain and humble (not to mention courageous) enough to spend their lives struggling to write something worth reading?

  15. “Reluctance can be virtually indistinguishable from indulgence.” I like it, Julia–and for what it’s worth, I think self-indulgence gets a bad rap. Of course your blog is self-indulgent. It’s a blog; it should be. Any space where you can play around with prose and experiment with self-expression without pressuring yourself to be an Author is worthwhile.

    And you have an envy-inducing eye for style, too.

  16. Julia, I enjoyed your article very much – it’s brave and fresh and well argued. Here’s to self-indulgence! As I’ve found myself saying in the last few years, ‘Everything in moderation, except the things you love’. And who does’t love themselves? Or would dearly like to?

  17. A personal style blogger I much enjoy (and who gets many more comments, both good and bad, than I do) wonders why posting pictures of one’s outfits is necessarily vain. She says “Why do people assume that because you do it, you think you’re the sh*t? Can’t you have a fashion blog and think you’re fairly average?” And I do think there’s some kind of non-sequitur in assuming that because you post photos of yourself, you’re excessively proud of how you look and/or what you wear. That’s a pretty big assumption to make about someone, and many personal style bloggers keep their blogs as records and even categorize them as such. Going through their archives can be really fun!

    I certainly conflate the terms “vanity” and “self-indulgence” in this essay, and I meant to, though Drew is correct — they’re not the same thing, technically. But I don’t really think they’re all that different, or not all the time, anyway, especially in regard publishing a novel. If vanity is defined as an excessive belief in one’s attractiveness to others, I’m not sure how publishing a novel doesn’t fit that definition on nearly every level. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — as Margaret said, we are very lucky to have people willing to do so. But I can’t lie: I do feel more comfortable posting free pictures of my outfits than I do asking someone to plunk down $27 for something I wrote. I’m not exactly sure why, because I gladly pay for books on a near daily basis. I also look at The Sartorialist every day, too.

  18. Drew, when I said fashion is art, I meant all of it, not just fashion design. Putting together an outfit is the same as writing a novel. It’s creative and expressive. There are a lot of different ways to be involved in fashion, just like there are a lot of different ways to be involved in literature— K Mart is to Twilight as Alexander McQueen is to Finnegans Wake.

    Furthermore, everyone’s throwing around the word vanity. Do you know it has the connotation of emptiness or worthlessness, from the latin vanus, meaning empty? What’s empty about sharing your passion, inspiring people, and expressing yourself? What’s worthless about building your confidence, making connections with people, and having fun? IF JULIA HAD A BLOG ABOUT COOKING, WOULD YOU BE SO HARSH? I’m pretty sure all these negative comments are coming from people who have always believed that fashion is a waste of time.

    It’s sad how close-minded, mean-spirited, and negative “smart” people can be…

  19. “But is it Art?” – everything is art. There is just good art and bad art. We individually decide personally which is worthy of our time. As far as style blogs go, I prefer the kitsch of the Cherry Blossom Girl to the self-conscious cool of the wear-7-black-dresses-a-week-for-a-year woman.

    There are far more posts venting spleen at and casting aspersions on the (actually quite few) elitist, ignorant, insecure, mean-spirited, vitriolic etc comments by the posters who as Drew wrote, “may be questioning the tastefulness of dedicating a blog to publishing numerous posed photographs of yourself on the internet.” The people who identified themselves as not being fans are not the ones enraged at other commenters!

    That the blogger presents her style and everyday physicality as art for is brave by the mere act presenting an image of herself for display and critique. No one has said this is not art. But the considering motives behind performance art – which is what personal style blogs essentially are – is inherently part of the act of exploring an artwork of this kind a a viewer. I found it interesting that she has greater comfort in presenting a free blog of pictures of herself than presenting a written work for sale. By the way the blogger herself posed her thoughts regarding her own vanity and fears, there is little wonder that the relationship between commodifying one’s appearance (a rush contained by a level detachment, free to the public) or one’s writings in book form (questioning her motives, putting a monetary value on her ideas and creation) is met with positive and negative response.

  20. Of course the way we cover our bodies is a form of expression–one of the most visible and unavoidable and electric ways we speak to strangers on the street, a barometer of mood or intention, however banal, and certainly a concrete history of choices we’ve made, implicated in a market structure that allows some people (i.e. those with money) to exercise more choice than others. (See below on why I think it’s cool that Julia’s site is deeply aware of budget).

    Julia’s blog is lovely because her voice emerges as it does, because she dresses beautifully, because you see fragments of her daily world and life in the margins behind her body, and because she does exactly that thing strangers on the street never can: narrate the history of what she’s wearing, how it might be related to her life or her mood or her past, transform what was simply material into something shaded with meaning. Or just tell you she spilled chocolate milk on a dress from Prague, which is part of the daily-ness of this whole project. It’s also nice to see a “fashion” blog whose materials are drawn from the ranks of (often) pretty cheap stories–to see money uncoupled from clothing-as-art, to find bricolage masterpieces emerging from the clearance racks at Target.

    I found so much wisdom in Julia’s essays and her responding comments, and I absolutely agree that making oneself visible is not the same as vanity–to express oneself doesn’t necessarily imply conceit, often its opposite, though pride and exposure are linked in interesting ways whether the medium is words or clothes. I agree with Julia that there are important resonances between these forms that get overlooked: the way our desire for attention threads into an imaginative excursion beyond the self (which, in some ways, a novel is), whether this counts as pollution or complication, and how it differs from a performance in which the body of the self features so prominently.

  21. Sorry, my post above should say “cheap stores” instead of “cheap stories,” though I guess it’s only fitting that I should confuse them.

  22. Hmm… this conversation feels somewhat generational and cultural to me; blogging about self (look at me!) is largely a 40 and under phenomenon, no? And largely American? I’m always aware of how my Nepali-Canadian novelist friend so rarely self-promotes; my Danish friend is the same way. I don’t think it’s “personality” difference (I think we have rather similar personalities), I think it’s some nexus of culture and age.

    When I started a blog (strongly recommended by just about anyone I knew in the publishing world), shortly after I sold my novel, I felt much like Julia — like an adolescent both hungry for attention and repulsed by the idea of being “seen” en masse. I still feel that way, actually, every time I submit an essay for The Millions or post something on Facebook, esp. Liking and disliking attention simultaneously seems like a basic human trait to me, and that’s what I took away from this essay. Or maybe it’s a basic trait of youth (and I’m struggling through arrested development); I rather look forward to the day when I am mostly indifferent to being looked at or not looked at.

    Here’s something that haunts me, though, about online presence: I heard a story about a fella who, in college, had written a personal essay for his college newspaper about seeking gay sex on Craig’s List, specifically with a closeted athlete. It was supposedly a very good essay, raw and honest and complex. However, this fella then, years later, decided he wanted to become an elementary school teacher. He couldn’t convince his college to clear the essay out of its online archives (for reasons of journalistic integrity), so it always came up on googlesearch. So the guy ended up legally changing his name. Yikes!

  23. I guess what frustrates me about this thread is not the early vitriol nor the initial contentious tone, but this: why need the discussion have become a referendum on fashion blogs in general or on Julia’s blog in particular? Why question the tastefulness of her blog when that blog and its form and content play what to me seems an incidental role in the essay–when the essay takes as its primary subject enormously interesting and brave questions (questions of obvious interest to the typical Millions reader) about the urge to write and to publish, the links “between pride and exposure…the way our desire for attention threads into an imaginative excursion beyond the self,” as Leslie so nicely puts it above.

    When I was reading the essay, I was looking forward to a discussion of these questions, even to admissions by other writers of self-indulgence and self-protection, of the conflicted motives that drive their writing pursuits, of ambivalence about the very exposure they seek, but due to an immediate hostility to even incidental intersections between the world of books and writing and the world of fashion and the physical, of outfits and posed photographs (I am reminded a bit of the backlash/brouhaha that occurs every few years when some young author reveals themselves to the world in a jacket photo deemed (too) “hot”), that discussion did not occur. At least not to the extent I was anticipating…

    The discussion that did occur was indeed interesting, but it seems a little bit unfortunate that the profound questions about “writing for attention” that drive the essay were passed over by some readers in favor of a discussion that may have been juicier but was also easier.

  24. Julia, even when it’s been months since we’ve been in touch, I’m always a huge fan of you.

    In pictures of myself in my early formative years, my mother dressed me in miniature versions of what now are considered to be some of the most fashionable vintage attire. I stubbornly insisted on picking out my own clothing and dressing myself around age 7 or 8. It took from that moment until I met Julia in college (and she took me shopping) for me to begin to truly dress myself with a conscious sense of creativity, style, flair, sense of self…whatever. My self-esteem took a definitive boost. I had never had the gusto to insist on having my own sense of style before then, and it truly was a confidence builder in many ways. We are holistic people even when we try to pretend that we’re not, and all aspects affect the whole.

    I was always more confident of my ideas than my appearance (even when I did not have reason to be), but even so I struggle on a daily basis with whether or not those ideas should be written, published, and paid for. If there is nothing new under the sun, how can I rationalize the worth of something I write? It is either self-indulgent in that I will do it for myself and to hell with what anyone thinks of it, or self-indulgent in that I think what I create would be valuable to (hopefully) millions of people I will never meet. There was a time when great literature seemed to very nearly change the world, or at least the Western world. And there are so many things worth reading I know I’ll never read them all before I die. But websites like this, with articles and comment streams, remind me of the practical nature of community, and that people who love books, or write personally and/or professionally, are a community (when they choose to be). It’s kind of a grounding thought. In a time when more people (in the Western world) are literate than ever before, and there are more books published than ever before, the proportion of the population that actively reads for pleasure, or stimulation, on their own…it seems much smaller. But the overall conversation of art, literature, culture, fashion…as it occurs through history, is still going on in these communities. And that gives it meaning. I think. To be a part of that conversation. To say something as well as listen, even to stand up a shout a bit.

    This comment goes out to Julia, and Muffy.

  25. “vitriol” seems to be the insult du jour! I came here after being accused of “vitriol” by Julia. I wanted to see what her deal is.

    Who cares about this subject? You guys should talk about something more interesting! Meanwhile, everyone seems to be tossing (and ducking) the word vitriol like it’s the new “bitchy” or “middle class”.

    Bring on the vitriol!

  26. Personally, Julia’s essay really ignites a powerful observation that is absent in today’s literary world; it is brilliantly insightful and honest, and I’m so grateful to have read it.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.