On July 7 1980, Ray, a writer on the edge of greatness, read the edited copy of the manuscript for his collection of stories. After going through the drastic changes his editor made to his work, he wrote a passionate letter, pleading with him to halt the production of the book. Ray, a recovering alcoholic, felt if the stories were published as edited he might stop writing stories, because they–the stories–were close to his sense of regaining his health and mental well-being.
Gordon, his editor who had just been given his own imprint by McGraw Hill, ignored Ray’s pleas and went ahead with the production of the book. Will You be Quiet, Please? was published the following year and it’s spare unflinching prose, which was owed to the editorial exuberance of Gordon Lish, became the spring board for Raymond Carver’s greatness.
Now, imagine if Carver and Lish were living in our age of social media over-sharing. Carver would have posted a flurry of updates to Twitter or Facebook. One of them might read like:
ARGHHH! SOME EDITORS THINK THEY KNOW IT ALL. FOOL. IF YOU CAN EDIT AND REFINE MY PROSE SO MUCH, WHY CAN’T YOU WRITE YOUR OWN BOOK? DO YOU THINK I SENT YOU MY WORK SO YOU COULD RIP OUT ITS SOUL AND LEAVE IT STILL AND LIFELESS? PLEASE LET MY WORK LIVE. RESTORE ITS SOUL AND LET IT THRIVE IN THE WORLD AS ITS CREATOR IMAGINED IT.
Maybe Lish would have replied him with his own social media update, calling him an ungrateful soul. Other writers would have taken sides, the internet would have been treated to a needless free-for-all e-battle and opportunistic blogs would have added traffic to their sites. Perhaps, Lish would have dropped Carver from his imprint, another editor would have picked up his book, published it, and the Raymond Carver who is said to be one of the writers responsible for the 20th century revitalisation of the short story would have been just another writer.
There has been a rise in detailed pieces about personal life, written and shared on social media. I call this phenomenon the Facebook Confessional. The intimacy of some of these posts and the amount of personal details divulged can make even Joan Didion—the queen of confessionals—blush. Many of these posts garner lots of likes and retweets and sometimes even make overnight online-celebrities out of the people that share them. The Facebook Confessional is not itself a bad thing, but it is easy to see how people with sinister intentions can use many of them to hurt the sharers.
Of course there’s something about confessional pieces and uncensored outbursts that excite readers. It is that same thing that has brought gossip sites like DailyMail and Linda Ikeji’s blog success. We are eager to hear salubrious details about other people, and are even more excited when such persons lose control and begin to spill details they would not have shared in their saner moments.
The urge to be seen and heard is primal and the giants of Silicon Valley have recognised this. They furnish us daily with new and inventive ways to satisfy this urge. Details of life that would have taken years before becoming public knowledge and half opinions that would have gone through multiple editors before being served as essays now go out at the click of a button. We have found shortcuts for expressing the things we feel; a shunt for the mental scrutiny many of us would have gone through if we had to write letters to be delivered by post, or stay for hours in stuffy dark rooms to develop photographs taken with clunky cameras. Now, we feel, we post.
It is possible to share details of ourselves in creative ways that attract people without revealing too much. But this is an art that requires discipline and, sometimes, the help of friends who can stop us from sharing beyond the normal. The career of writers such as Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilberth etc, is based on this kind of sharing. Their personal narratives are served on a public scale with the kind of skill and finesse that can only be perfected with incubation; something many Facebook Confessionals lack.
On January 7 2015, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo Paris attacks, Jim Clancy, a 34 years veteran of news reporting with CNN, had a Twitter spat with some purported Israeli apologists. A week later, he resigned his position with CNN. Although Jim and his former employers were silent about the reasons for his resignation, nobody believed it was not related to his tweets. His is one of many careers that have taken unexpected turns due to outbursts on social media. (Justine Sacco and Elizabeth Lauten easily come to mind here.)
It is wise to pause and gauge the effects of our activities on social media. You might be the next Raymond Carver, and the frustrations you are going through might be the ingredients needed for your success. Don’t scuttle it all by reckless over-sharing. Remember that the internet never forgets. Learn to be quiet, please.