Learn to be Quiet, Please

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:

Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver | Image via Wikimedia

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.

Joan Didon
Joan Didion at the Miami Book Fair, 2005 | Image via Wikimedia by MDC Archives

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.

___________

Sources: The NewYork Reveiw of Books, Excerpt from “Notes on the Texts”, Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, Gawker, Mondoweiss.net

Featured image via Flickr by Stephanie Gamble

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8 thoughts on “Learn to be Quiet, Please

  1. The internet never forgets–
    I wish a lot of people will remember this before hitting the ‘send’ button.
    But then again I get the feeling most confessionals are supposed to make these people feel okay. You know, like taking morphine. There’s this feeling you get when you realize your story resonates with someone out there.
    But again like you rightly mentioned, we all need to practice self restraint.

    It’s so easy to write. In the words of Hemmingway, all it takes is a typewriter and you can bleed. But people also need to learn how to get past the bleeding phase, put a bandage on the wounds, and let the world are only the scars.

    Writing should be for personal healing. Once you can get past that, it’s a lot easier to share a story with the world without putting privacy in jeopardy.

  2. Okay I think I have typed and retyped my comment over and over again. First, I see why my sister said I should really read your works. Secondly, It’s just sad that technology has taken over writing your deepest thoughts in a diary, which was probably the best epoch of human existence alongside writing letters. I miss that. Thirdly I leave now to go back and read this again to soak in its awesomeness.

    1. Your sister is too kind, and it seems you also suffer from the same ‘affliction.’ Thank you for the kind words.

      I’ll miss letters too. The future generation is going to be cheated from the experience of reading the fantastic letters of wise folks, the kind that is usually curated by Maria Popova in Brainpickings.

  3. “Don’t scuttle it all by reckless over-sharing. Remember that the internet never forgets. Learn to be quiet, please.”
    I love this piece. It is so easy to get caught up in the superficial connections we make on social media that we forget to separate public from private discourse. The worst is the careless manner of speaking that I see on the internet. What happened to keeping private things private, and the civility in action and speech?

    This is a good reminder for 21st century dwellers that everything posted online lives forever. Nice one!

    Lol at kindness as an “affliction”

  4. if only there is a way i could make my folks listen to this… They say I’m odd when I complain of the ‘rubbishes’ and secrets they share online…

    Sincerely the “what’s on your mind” or “what’s happening” tagline doesn’t mean we should throw caution to the wind and just divulge things that are better left unsaid! I wish we could really “learn to be quiet!”

    Sometimes I wonder if people of the next generation would even physically socialize (like face2face gisting/discuss)… Since we do all the7 talking online.

    Great post bro! 👍

    1. I don’t think we should be too worried about the next generation. They will end up just fine. It is the folly of the present one we shoud carefully consider. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Reading and writing has eroded away due to negative addiction to social media. I appreciate your write- ups. Keep it up , hope the next generation will find it beneficial .

  6. Very right, Uju; the Internet never forgets. Some people spill out their heart content simply because thay can’t hold it anymore and they need listening ears. Some do it for fame. Some for some other reason only they and their God know.

    Those who will use all these heart contents against them however don’t care why they put up personal stuff on Facebook. They go ahead and do their shit.

    Caution is the message here. And carefulness.

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