“It is a joy to be hidden… but disaster not to be found.”
3 1/2 years ago, I was participating in an online roundtable about art in the digital age, and Ritesh Batra, a writer and film director, asked a question that I liked so much I wrote it on a 3×5 card that’s still hanging on the corkboard above my desk: “How do I hide and still be out there?”
Batra was speaking specifically about his filmmaking process: He was trying to work out how to balance showing his work, connecting with his audience, and maintaining a public presence online and off with his need to hide, to be private, go away, to withdraw into himself and his work long enough for good, creative stuff to happen.
His question, put another way, was: How do I hide and still be found?
Like all great questions, it seems to grow more important and more complex over time. I thought I’d handled it well in my book, the whole point of which was to outline how artists and other workers might set up a sustainable level of sharing while they work. It was, basically, a book for people who were great at hiding, but not so great at being findable. When I wrote that book, the internet, for me, was a place of opportunity, where, as Olivia Laing put it in The Lonely City, “You can reach out or you can hide; you can lurk and you can reveal yourself, curated and refined.” But even in 3 years, the internet has changed, and this question, How do I hide and still be out there?, it keeps popping up, nagging at me, most recently when I was writing about the myth of the artistic recluse.
We seem to have being out there nailed. We’re all of us, it seems, out there. Maybe we need some help learning how to hide again?
For me, that’s what this year has been about: Learning how to hide and still be found. How to stay connected overall, but how to disconnect in crucial ways that allow me to recover some calm, some privacy, some inner sense of self, so that I can make great things to share. Because if you don’t hide, at least a little bit, it’s hard to make something worth being found.
Years ago, at SXSW 2009, I drew a panel called “Try Making Yourself More Interesting.” It introduced me to this (possibly apocryphal) story about the writer Barry Hannah, told by Rick Bass in his introduction to Boomerang and Never Die:
Another passed-down tale: a student getting her story back from Barry, with the honest criticism on it: This just isn’t interesting.
As I understand it, the student, a whiner, complained, What can I do to make it be interesting?
The cruelest advice I ever heard, but also the best—advice that I do not think I could have withstood had it been given to me directly, but which I have remembered. Barry, I am told, looked long and hard at the student, decided she was earnest about becoming a better writer, and told her the truth[:] “Try making yourself a more interesting person.
Work on being an interesting person other people want to be around and are willing to open doors for…. There are many roads to becoming an interesting person, but they all involve developing your curiosity and your desire to know and understand — yourself, others, the world around you. You can read. You can pursue a new activity like knitting or rock climbing. You can volunteer. You can commit to asking three people a day an open-ended question about themselves and really listening to their responses. You can share your information and connections freely.
My friend Jessica Hagy wrote a whole book about it called… How To Be Interesting.
I wrote about it in Show Your Work!:
If you want followers, be someone worth following. [“Have you tried making yourself more interesting?”] seems like a really mean thing to say, unless you think of the word interesting the way writer Lawrence Weschler does: For him, to be “interest-ing” is to be curious and attentive, and to practice “the continual projection of interest.” To put it more simply: If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.
As I’ve said before, if you want to be the noun you have to do the verb.
“You should write something that you yourself would read.”
“OK, but don’t you have any promotional tips?”
“That was a promotional tip.”
- Documenting your process helps your progress.
Keeping track of what you’ve done helps you better see where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re headed. It’s also a great way to hold yourself accountable — if you dedicate yourself to sharing a tiny bit of your process every day, you’re forced to actually do the work you should be doing.
- Sharing your process reaps the benefits of self-promotion without the icky feelings.
People are often just as interested in how you work as much as the work itself. By sharing your process, you invite people to not only get to know your work, but get to know you — and that can lead to new clients, new projects, and all sorts of other opportunities.
- Building an audience for what you do creates a valuable feedback loop.
Christopher Hitchens said the best thing about putting out a book is that it’s a “free education that goes on for a lifetime.” As you gain fans and followers by sharing your work, they will, in turn, share with you. Even when the feedback is bad, it can lead you down new paths.
That’s a short version of the why. The book will teach you how.
I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself… It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can… The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten… I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained…
This is the way I’ve always tried to approach writing, teaching, or speaking on stage: not as an expert, but as a fellow student. I’m trying to learn in the open. I’m letting others look over my shoulder while I figure things out.
And even when I do think I’ve figured some things out, I’m trying to find more things to figure out, because learning is the thing that keeps me alive, keeps me moving forward.
This, I think, is the great trick: To be a teacher and remain a student.
My third book Show Your Work! came out a year ago. I kept a diary while writing the book, but it’s too painful and embarrassing to share in full. So here’s a list of lessons I learned while writing it, adapted from a series of tweets…
1. Don’t try to write a book while taking care of a newborn baby.
I drastically underestimated how much physical, mental, and spiritual energy it requires. (Sarah Ruhl writes really well about the distractions of parenting.) Those first two months are just brutal — take them off if you can. Keep a pocket notebook and take little notes for later.
2. Write outside of the house.
Get an office, or go to the coffee shop, or ride the train around. At the very least, find a room in your house with a door that closes. Set up a bliss station.
I wrote Show at the top of the stairs in an open loft, wearing headphones to try to block out the cries of the baby. Let me tell you: Headphones are not a replacement for a shut door.
3. Stop researching, start writing.
“There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching,” says David McCollough. “There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.”
4. Once you’re in the middle of writing the book, talk about the book as little as possible.
I’m an extreme extrovert, which is really great after I write a book and I have to go out into the world and talk to people about it, but not so great when I need to sequester myself long enough to actually get some real writing done.
I do most of my thinking “out loud,” which means that ideas don’t really come to me until I’ve expressed them. If I express them through speech, I’m less likely to turn around and say them in writing. (This chart might help.)
5. Stick to an outline until you’re between drafts.
This has screwed me so many times. Don’t try to change structure during a draft. Power through until the draft is done. (Get The Clockwork Muse, which covers this subject brilliantly.)
6. A book can be a pain-in-the-ass to write as long as it isn’t a pain-in-the-ass to read.
People are surprised when I tell them what a horrible time I had writing this book. Which means I did my job!
7. Your partner is so, so sick of you.
Seriously. Do something nice for him/her, or at the very least, don’t talk about your book. Schedule regular time together when you don’t talk about work.
8. Don’t use childbirth as a metaphor.
There is only one way that writing a book is like giving birth: After it enters the world, the pain is mostly over, but the work has only begun.
9. Don’t squander your momentum.
After you finish one book, start writing something else as soon as you can. Chain-smoke.
If you’re truly burnt out, quit for a while. Read. Travel. Talk to people. Go away so you can come back.
10. Know what you’re getting into.
Best case scenario: You write a good book that sells. Then everyone will want you to write another one. “What next?” is a never-ending question for the writer… so beware!
You can get a copy of Show Your Work! right here.
The act of sharing is one of generosity—you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.
I had a professor in college who returned our graded essays, walked up to the chalkboard, and wrote in huge letters: “SO WHAT?” She threw the piece of chalk down and said, “Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.”
It’s a lesson I never forgot.
Always be sure to run everything you share with others through The “So What?” Test. Don’t overthink it; just go with your gut.
If you’re unsure about whether to share something, let it sit for 24 hours. Put it in a drawer and walk out the door. The next day, take it out and look at it with fresh eyes. Ask yourself, “Is this helpful? Is it entertaining? Is it something I’d be comfortable with my boss or my mother seeing?”
There’s nothing wrong with saving things for later. The SAVE AS DRAFT button is like a prophylactic—it might not feel as good in the moment, but you’ll be glad you used it in the morning.
This post is an excerpt from my book, Show Your Work!
Kurt Vonnegut thought every story has a shape that can be graphed — each has a beginning and an end (plotted on the x-axis) and every character goes through “good fortune” and “ill fortune” (plotted on the y-axis). I put a bunch of them together for this chart in Show Your Work!:
I think our days have shapes, too — each has a beginning and an end, and we go through good and ill fortune as it progresses. [Read more…]