Rebecca Kauffman's Another Place You Never Been is a wonderful novel told in stories, charting the pivotal moments in the life of Tracy, whom we see from age 10 (visiting her father near Lake Michigan) to middle age (where she’s a restaurant hostess in Buffalo). Kauffman talks about her aversion to social media and the complicated relationship between writing and visibility.
This past January when my publisher gently suggested that I join Facebook or Twitter or Instagram in order to promote my debut novel, I thought it might be worthwhile to consider why I’ve resisted social media up to this point.
I missed the first Facebook wave, when a college email address was required to create an account, even though I was a college student at that time. I was attending the Manhattan School of Music without a personal computer, and (to my recollection) there was only one small computer lab that serviced the entire student body, and you always had to wait at least an hour for your ten-minute slot. So although I was provided a college email account around this time, I never actually created a password and signed in, and eventually it was deactivated. Then the second Facebook wave hit, when everyone over the age of thirteen was permitted to join. I can’t remember why I didn’t. I was twenty-three at the time, living on the Upper West Side with my best friend, working at a PR agency, dyeing my hair jet black, and occasionally eating gourmet canned cat food on salads. In other words, I was doing all sorts of questionable things for which I cannot recall my own reasoning..
Then, over the years, came Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and many others.
Of all the platforms, I’ve been most perpetually tempted by Vine. This particular medium of 6-second videos hits my funny bone just right—it’s the perfect amount of time to set up a joke and deliver it. But when I mentioned this recently to my class of college freshmen, they informed me that Vine is “Snapchat for old people.” They said it would be “weird” and “creepy” if, when asked if I’m on Facebook or Twitter my answer was, “No, but I’m on Vine.” Quite frankly, I don’t understand what could possibly be “creepy” about this. But I digress.
I decided to look into the online activities of one of my heroes, Haruki Murakami. The official Haruki Murakami Facebook page does not immediately announce itself as publisher-run (which it is), so statuses such as: “Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich hopes that the Nobel Prize in Literature this year will be awarded to Haruki Murakami,” and a steady feed of quotes from his books, with no other context, seem hilariously egotistical. In 2015, Murakami created an online advice column called “Mr. Murakami’s Place,” to which fans could submit questions, and of the 40,000+ that appeared, he personally responded to over 3,000. One fan wondered if Murakami might be able to help locate her lost cat. “Cats just disappear sometimes,” Murakami wrote. “You have to love and appreciate them while they’re near you.” The website was eventually discontinued but seemed to delight fans, as it provided the first direct and personal access to Murakami himself.
Murakami’s Twitter presence confuses me. Various official-looking accounts exist, and most of them exclusively tweet Murakami quotes, often apropos to some current event. I strongly suspect that Murakami himself is not behind any of these. Aside from the rare interview, “Mr. Murakami’s Place” seems to be the extent of Murakami’s online interaction with readers, although in addition to his publisher-run Facebook page, he has a very flashy publisher-run website.
It could be argued that Murakami is either incredibly good, or incredibly bad, at social media. On the one hand, he is alluringly mysterious, yet generous and warm-hearted in the few appearances he has made. On the other hand, to the reader who doesn’t have the patience to determine which of the many online identities Murakami himself has actually sanctioned, he might seem like a stiff and weird egomaniac.
At this point, my personal aversion to social media could perhaps best be compared to my feeling about tattoos. I enjoy looking at other people’s tattoos. Some I really love and admire. Some are not so good. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting one myself from time to time, but I have never liked any particular idea for a tattoo for more than a few months, and usually at some point I become horrified by the very idea that I once loved. So far, I’m glad I’ve never done it.
One final thought. There has been only one point in the past year in which I found it impossible to write fiction for weeks on end. I had been asked by a literary website to provide a Q&A for them to publish online, alongside an excerpt of my novel. I was honored to be asked, and very grateful for the publicity. I had several weeks to come up with this brief and informal piece. It was during this time that I found myself so distracted by this “assignment” that I was unable to do any creative work. When I sat down to work, (to write fiction), I was terribly unfocused; consumed with thoughts not about my book and the work I should have been doing, but about that 500-word Q&A, which I had drafted quickly but not yet submitted to my publicist. Does this make me sound smart? Will people like me? Am I a narcissist? As an artist, I find these thoughts about image and self totally crippling.
It’s not at all unlike when you’re writing fiction, and find yourself hung up on a certain scene, deciding if you should write “shit” because that’s what your character would actually say, or “bowel movement” because your mom will one day read your book, if you are so fortunate as to have it published. The answer is obvious, but obsessing about how a certain person (or the internet) will react to something you’ve written can interfere with your vision of the world you're creating.
For me, the best way to work, the only way to work, really, is to create a space for myself in which the reader’s perception of me (as a person) does not exist. It’s only after I have squashed down all awareness of myself that I’m able to access another world and explore it freely and truthfully.