I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
– Henry David Thoreau
* * *
I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a certain appeal to stepping away from all modern things, walking into the hills, and being silent for the rest of my life. But even Thoreau had visitors at Walden pond. (He wasn’t as isolated as we were led to believe in school.)
And so, even during a social media break, I put bits of my mind out there — in blog entries like this.
A stranger could easily cobble together a vague idea of who I am from what they can find out about me online. I’d hope the impression is, “Christopher seems like a decent person.” But if one were to think, “Christopher is an asshole, and I wish he never existed,” that’s beyond my control and fine by me as well.
The Appeal of Silence
I’ve mentioned before that I once asked some writer friends if they’d take a deal like this:
If a wealthy patron offered to pay you to write and offered — say — $100,000 or $200,000 a year after taxes for the rest of your life (adjusted with inflation), would you take it with this stipulation: they are the only person who would ever read your work?
I’d take it in a heartbeat. To pull in enough money to have a nice, quiet life doing only what I wanted for the rest of my life — and all I’d have to do is never be known? Where do I sign up?
But I understand my friends who said they would not take the deal. For some, attending conventions or book festivals is part of the appeal of writing. Others want fame; some feel no shame in their craving to be famous as a driving goal to what they do.
But me? I’d have a quiet place in the hills where I’d write, juggle, read, and simply exist — free from ever having to sit in another cubicle again. To do only what I love most in life.
Elena Ferrante’s Letter
I woke up late today, so no writing first thing this morning. Instead, my day began with reading this piece about Elena Ferrante. If you are of the too long; didn’t read type (or if reading about writers isn’t your thing), here’s the gist: when Elena Ferrante’s debut novel came out in the early 90s, she wrote a letter to her publisher saying she would not do any public appearances to promote the book. In fact, she would do nothing at all to promote the book. She believed simply writing the book was all she should have to do, and that once a book is done, it is no longer the author’s. (The letter in its entirely, for those interested.)
In an age when authors are encouraged to have a social media presence and be available to the public in so many ways, Ferrante has been able to stay secluded for well over two decades, simply doing her thing. Because she is able to create without the pressures of touring and television appearances (or even being available on Twitter), Ferrante feels that her writing is better than it would be were she forced to be available to the public.
The Lit Hub piece is not a take down of social media, however; in fact, it provides a balance by focusing on writers for whom a public life has worked. Even Jonathan Franzen promotes himself when he writes about how much he dislikes promotion of writing on the Internet and the effect social media and other time sucks can have on an author. By actively riling up those who take his bait, he is talked about without having to do the talking himself. (It seems no coincidence that he often releases pieces of writing meant to ruffle feathers around the time he has something new coming out.)
But for the Ferrantes and Pynchons of the world, it seems a nice thing, to somehow disappear [almost] completely.
The Quiet Life
I’ve been spending part of my recent weekends in a canoe. It seemed fitting to buy it with money made from a travel article I wrote for the Dallas Morning News. For years, though, the canoe has been in storage. It’s only been this past month that we’ve had access to it and been putting it to regular use again.
Each time out, there comes a point where my wife and I stop paddling and just sit, enjoying the silence. Grapevine Lake is not the quietest place, but getting out early — before planes begin lining up for approach at D/FW International Airport and water skiers zip around behind loud powerboats — it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine you are completely alone in the world.
And that’s a nice place to be. Quiet and solitude inspired Einstein to say this:
The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.
– Albert Einstein
So until the day comes along when a wealthy patron offers me six figures a year to write only for them and ignore the rest of the world, social media breaks, the canoe, hikes, and other things will be my escape. I’ll be happy to put things out there that make me a bit accessible to others, all while admiring those who were quiet from the start — proving that even in a time when so many of us are told that without an online presence we’re nothing…some are completely free in their solitude.
CM Stewart says
A more accurate definition of irony than Morissette’s.
It’s now daily that I weigh the urge to permanently disconnect from social media. I’ve pretty much abandoned my blog, I rarely post anything to Ello, and my G+ breaks are becoming more frequent. Perhaps being on social media was just another phase in my life, and I’ll be moving on. The thought is so appealing…
Christopher Gronlund says
I understand the urge. I sometimes think that if day jobs were like they were for our grandparents (these things you go to and put in the time in exchange for security and a paycheck that could cover the expenses of a family and an annual vacation or two), that I’d just work and do all my other things in silence. Just put in my work time and then do my stuff, knowing that all things are covered.
It’s sad, in many ways, to think, “If only writing, podcasting, and other side things I do brought in enough to be supplemental income,” because the days of, “Man, I want this to be a full-time thing!” are [mostly] over.
Really, I just want security and silence. Like you, I sometimes feel like social media was a phase. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t gained a lot by being online (I wouldn’t be communicating with you right now, for example), but the cost has been this weird view of what seems like a decline in communication. Even when visiting friends and family, it’s, “Did you see what so-and-so posted on Facebook?” as conversation starters. Social media is often the topic of conversation, even when taking a break from social media. (Last night, Cynthia and I visited my mom, and a fair part of the chatter was talking about how weird social media is, all while my mom showed me things on Facebook that I’m not seeing because I’m taking a break.
A quiet life of juggling, writing, long walks, and no mental noise sounds more appealing each day. I don’t know if I totally believe that it’s more “pure” to write only what one wants and be silent in the act, but I know it’s more pure [for me, at least] to be more focused on one’s writing than their social media “platform” and becoming the dreaded “brand.” All that stuff seems more hollow with each new season…and I was never a fan of the terms to begin with.
I do communicate online because I genuinely enjoy talking with intelligent people I respect. I could be trying to get retweeted by some “name” instead of a more lengthy reply right now, but you and a handful of other people I’ve met through social media and blogs are the people I prefer chatting with when I dedicate time to communicating online. I don’t like the quick, “LIKE” as an acknowledgement that I saw the thing you posted. It’s all nothing without an exchange of thoughts to me.
So I don’t know. It could be the approach of what passes as almost-autumn in Texas and knowing that at least sometime in October, we will experience a cool day. And with that change to my favorite season comes a time I tend to be more reflective and crave silence and solitude even more. Or maybe it’s all just wearing a bit thin on me as well. At least you’re not alone in the thought of leaving social media behind for good…
Oh, and I agree: not even poetic license can save Morissette’s definition of irony! 🙂
Christopher Gronlund says
I suppose another concern about social media is one day “doing it right,” and amassing a following that detracts from the communication I enjoy with a smaller handful of like-minded people. I know that’s in my own control, but I see writers who blow up and move on to talking with bigger names than the people they chatted with when they were unknown. And I don’t fault them, necessarily for that. But at the same time, there’s an appeal to being like Ferrante or other writers who have made it, but not lost any sense of self along the way by having to perform for the public.
I suppose that’s my craving when it comes to what success looks like to me — not being the writer with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and throngs of people who will show up to signings, but making a living doing the writing I love and staying in a vague bubble of stillness that allows me to write to the best of my ability. (While still being in touch with the handfuls of people I genuinely like sharing time and thoughts with.)
Catherine Rourke says
This is one of the most refreshing pieces I have read in a long time. I am with you all the way, Christopher. A year ago I gave up my serene but low-paying literary life to return to work as a high-priced hack in a large urban area. What a mistake. After 7 months of stressful 7-day weeks and 16-hour days having to constantly post crap on social media and other shabby channels, I quit and returned to solitude and serenity by the sea. I am barely surviving on Social Security now and have $20 to my name, but the freedom and joy of simplicity, serenity and living in my true literary bliss has bestowed a new definition of wealth. I feel like a millionaire. And I steer clear of social media as much as possible. If that’s what it takes to get the word out today, then I will settle for the peace and quiet of literary obscurity like Elena. Right-minded readers and kindred spirits will find our work by the universal laws of vibrational magnetic attraction.