If You Build It, They Will Come: On Blogging, Service and Platform-Building

Shoeless Joe Jackson by John McNab

I started my blog almost two years ago after attending a writers’ workshop on publishing in the digital age. There wasn’t much talk of e-books or self-publishing from the presenters. Instead, they hammered a single message into us all day: you, as writers, need an electronic presence . . . preferably a blog. It’s how you control the message of who you are and what you do. Your site is Google’s gateway to you and your work.

Like many writers, I long resisted self-promotion, finding the very idea distasteful and embarrassing. But I’d learned from the experience of publishing my first (mostly overlooked) book, Silence is Death (oh! the irony of that title in this context…), that if you don’t advocate for your own work, no one will. I knew that this time around, I had to swallow pride and do things differently. So, in preparation for the publication of my second book, Epistolophilia, I decided to take the workshop’s advice. I bought a domain name (my own name as well as my books’ titles), and started a blog.

Despite my initial reticence, blogging quickly brought unexpected rewards. From the very beginning, I enjoyed the discipline regular posting required, and the way the site grew slowly, like a garden or a manuscript. I’m obsessed with archives, so I love the way blogs are keepers of their own histories. Finally, I have been delighted by the community-building opportunities that a blog creates.

A long time ago, I sat on an academic board that organized a biannual conference whose participants’ median age was going up and up. Board members worried constantly about the organization’s impending death and wondered how to attract younger attendees. “Offer them something,” I suggested. “An opportunity to win a book prize or a shot at a fellowship. Offer them something, and they will come.” So, that’s what we did. Once the association started a modest fellowship program and book prize, youthful scholars began returning to the association (and the financial investment quickly paid for itself).

The same principle works for a blog: offer something, and readers will come.

Blogs need not be navel-gazing, self-aggrandizing, or mean-spirited. When setting up the parameters of my blog, I asked myself how I could serve fellow writers. I decided on a ratio of 1:2. For every post about myself or my work, I featured at least 2 items about someone or something else: a review of a book or essay; a funding announcement or call for submissions; an author interview with a fellow writer of creative nonfiction.

By shining the spotlight (small as mine may be) on another writer, or by giving her a platform to talk about her work, I not only gain traffic on the blog (for every other writer brings friends and fans with her), I also gain insight, contacts, friends, knowledge and the occasional free book.

The more I extend myself to other writers, the more they reach back.

Writers are also readers. We are each other’s colleagues, but also each other’s audiences. Serving writers means reaching readers.

Be brave, be bold, and build. Then open yourself up to others and share.

[Photo: Shoeless Joe Jackson, by John McNab]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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The Literary Pyramid Scheme: On Book #2

Those of you who follow this blog know about what I call the Literary Pyramid Scheme. Nonetheless, in case there are some newbie readers, here’s a quick recap:

Some time ago, I posted a call for volunteers to step forward to help me with a literary experiment. I described a letter I received that invited me to become a member of an informal book club. It went on to outline a kind of literary pyramid scheme, whereby I would send out one book and six letters. In return, I could expect to receive a maximum of 36 previously read books selected by strangers from their very own shelves.

The idea behind this project is to write an essay about the books I get in the mail from strangers. The first book to land in my mailbox was Gods and Generals, and it prompted some musings on the traces of former lives and journeys that we find in second-hand texts.

Book #2 arrived last week: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. And even though it arrived quite a few days ago now, I haven’t written about it yet for the simple reason that I’ve been too busy reading it.

I’m a die-hard New Yorker reader, so Gladwell (a regular contributor) is very much on my reading map. Still, I’m not sure why, but I’ve never read any of his books. Recently, though, I have been especially tempted by Outliers, where he argues that geniuses become who they are and accomplish what they do in no small part because of the sheer number of hours they spend doing whatever they do: hockey, cello, writing, painting, you name it. I think the magic number of hours was 10,000. Now, for someone who spends every day in front of some manuscript or other, logging hour after hour, this is oddly comforting news.

Blink, by contrast, is about the genius of intuition. It’s about micro-cognition, and how we all carry split-second wisdom deep inside our most unconscious thought processes. I’m not done reading yet, but so far, the most fascinating and terrifying chapter for me (married eight years, and counting) has been his account of how the outcome of marriages can be predicted with shocking accuracy by analyzing very short snippets of conversations between couples. I’m sure you know this study (the key emotion is contempt). If you don’t, it’s worth reading about.

This book made its way to my home near Montreal from a stranger in West Virginia. What a lovely gift. It’s furthered my thinking on creative nonfiction (Gladwell’s version of it, though quite different from mine, is very good indeed). It’s satisfied a curiosity about a writer I’d wanted to get to know better, and made me want to read more. Outliers will be next on my list of his books for sure.

Here’s hoping for more packages from strangers!

[Photo: angelferd]

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The Literary Pyramid Scheme: A Few Thoughts on Book #1

A while ago, I posted a call for volunteers to step forward to help me with a literary experiment. I described a letter I received that invited me to become a member of an informal book club. It went on to outline a kind of literary pyramid scheme, whereby I would send out one book and six letters. In return, I could expect to receive a maximum of 36 previously read books selected by strangers from their very own shelves.

Well, my first book arrived! The package came with a Maryland postmark and inside I found a second-hand copy of Jeffrey Shaara’s Gods and Generals.

Lately, my husband and I have been talking about the benefits of e-books as compared to paper ones. One of the things that the arrival of Gods and Generals has reminded me of is that paper books come with traces of their former lives and readers. And Book #1 contains some interesting clues as to its history.

Trace number one: the former owner’s name (female, interestingly) on the first page.

Trace number two: the book sent contains a business card from the South Mountain State Battlefield in Middletown, Maryland that was likely used as a bookmark. A vestige of some kind of civil war pilgrimage? Did the reader/owner of this book take it on a trip to places it describes?

Trace number three: amazingly, this book has been signed by its author — the autograph is dated Sept. 1, 2002. Why, I wonder, would a reader send away an author-inscribed book to a complete stranger?

All of this reminds me of a 1990s Algerian raï song sung from the perspective of a beauty parlor chair that tells about all the beautiful women and behinds that have graced it. Or of François Girard‘s film The Red Violin that traces the life of an instrument as it is passed from hand to hand. Tracking the life of an object, it turns out, is another way of writing life.

Finally, though American Civil War history is far from a major interest of mine, I’m so thankful for this gift, whose conception is a beautiful gesture of love. Jeffrey Shaara wrote this book as a prequel to his father’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Killer Angels, that told the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. He wrote it after his father’s death, so the very text is a kind of conversation with the dead, an elegy, or maybe even a love letter.

Already new avenues for thinking about reading, writing and exchange have opened up for me with this first arrival. I hope more books will come, and with them fodder for a solid essay. If not — if months go by without another book — that will be something to write about too.

Keep reading. Keep writing. Happy Holidays!

[Photo: Troy Holden]

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Alternate Economies and a Literary Experiment: An Invitation to Help Me with an Essay Project

Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from a really funky writer friend of mine in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It contained an invitation to be part of an “informal book club” project. The letter asked me to send one already-read book to a designated recipient, and to send six more such letters to others, inviting them to do the same. In theory, the invitation explained, if everyone down the line participated, I would receive 36 random and gently used books through the mail.

Yes — it’s a literary pyramid scheme!

Now, ever since an old high school friend handed me a video and implored me to watch it, saying it was something I would be “really interested in” (it turned out to be some sort of incomprehensible Amway pitch), I’ve been really wary of this sort of thing. I don’t like chain letters by email or otherwise, and won’t take part in them, but something about the informal book club has appealed to me.

I’ve always loved alternate economies: garage sales, freecycle websites, barter networks. I love the flow of infant clothing and equipment that happens among young mothers who pass on articles to the next woman down the line as their little ones grow, knowing that more will come their way from those with older children. It’s a simple method of recycling and a way of resisting the message that we should consume more and more and more.

The informal book club idea strikes me as being in this spirit — it’s a cashless or low-cost exchange of goods, but with a surprise factor.

I like the idea of selecting a book off my shelf that I’ve read, enjoyed, but can do without, and sending it off to a stranger as a gift. And I like the idea of random people doing the same for me. It’s an experiment I’d like to try, and I think there may be an essay in it. If you help, I’ll do my best to write something insightful and funny about the experience.

I’m looking for six willing participants to take part in this literary experiment with me. If you are interested, please send me your mailing address via the contact page, and I’ll send the letter off to you so you can get started. As you can see by the fact that I have no ads on this site, I’m not particularly capitalistic by nature or spam-minded, so there’s no danger of your address being sold or used for nefarious purposes. Information you transmit through the contact page comes to my private email address, and is not made public. I’ll send you the book club letter and that’s it. Promise.

Drop me a line, and let’s see what comes.

[Photo:patrick colgan]

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On the Value and Meaning of Work

I’ve been reading my friend Margaret Paxson’s book, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Paxson, an anthropologist, watched, interviewed and listened to the villagers of Solovyovo for many months to learn how they related to each other, to their land and to the past.

Yesterday, shortly before going to a dinner party with some other writers, I read a section on currency, debt and exchange.

In a village where people grow their own vegetables, raise animals, keep bees, produce their own alcohol, fetch their own water, and build their own houses, it’s fair to ask what the value of money is. In Solovyovo, one needs money to buy things like grain, heating fuel, radios, televisions, but cash is not the primary, purest or most “comfortable” form of currency. Rather than pay one another in rubles, Solovyovo’s villagers prefer to exchange meat for vodka, honey for cheese, or milk for a few hours of help in the potato field. Debts are settled through deeds and other goods. Money, as much as possible, doesn’t enter the calculation.

So, with my friend’s description of this alternate economy in mind, I set off to my writers’ dinner party.

Over food and wine, shared our stories: we told what had brought us to writing, how we organized our workdays, and we outlined the decisions each of us had made to create room for writing in our lives. Finally, toward the end of the evening, the talk turned to finances and the concept of work. The discussion was sparked by the description of one author as a “working mother,” when she practiced no profession other than writing. Was this a fair description of a woman who writes and raises kids, but who may not earn a whole heck of a lot?

Several questions arose for me as a result of that discussion: Is writing only “real” or “valuable” or even “work” if it pays the rent? Should an author’s work conditions be taken into consideration before we judge a piece of writing? Does it matter, in other words, whether a writer’s life is tough or cushy? (Tolstoy was rich; Kafka was relatively poor. Should we care?) Is the sum of one’s life’s work measured only in dollars, or is there another currency we can use?

What can the villagers of Solovyovo teach us in this regard?

[Photo: napugal]

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