Novels and Unicycles: Writing for Attention

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Last 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 That a mostly unpublished young thing would even fancy herself worthy of publication, especially since several of my writer friends have been peddling their fully-formed and radiant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.