I quit Twitter for a week, last week. I had a lot of reasons, most of which I don’t want to tell you, but here is one that I will: I woke up last Tuesday, unthinkingly checked my @ replies before I’d even gotten out of bed (I do this more often than I’d like to admit, but you probably do too) and saw one (I guess from someone who disagreed with something I’d written) that said, roughly, “I’m going to find out where you live so I can come take a shit on your head.” Not the worst thing anyone has ever said to me on the internet, but for some reason this was the day I thought to myself, “Yeah, let’s just see what it feels like to not even do this anymore.”
It felt good. Really good. On the second day I started telling people that it was like “a juice cleanse for my brain,” which for the record is probably the only kind of juice cleanse I would ever be interested in doing. I found myself using my internet time productively and mindfully; I replied to a bunch of starred and unread emails that had been clogging my inbox and unsubscribed to a “14-day free trial” of something I’d accidentally started paying for. My friends kept me up to speed on the best of what I was missing, which was basically just this tweet. On the sixth day, I offered up a long, rambling explanation to someone about why I was doing this, and when I was done she plucked out this one sentence I hadn’t even realized I’d said: “The nice comments have started to make me feel as shitty as the mean ones.”
Writers and artists have always had to learn this at some point in their careers, that to continue doing your work you have to learn how to detach from both the retweets and the subtweets, the praise and the blame. But it is this absolute faith in measurement that I am sick of. The idea that something I wrote that got 37 retweets was more “successful” than something that got four. I know in my head that this is dumb and not entirely true (I try to always keep in mind Cheryl Strayed’s definition of success: “Did I do the work I needed to do, and did I do it like a motherfucker?”), but it’s hard not to crave those little dopamine rushes that come from seeing a bunch of people passively “like” or “<3” something you have written. And as with any kind of craving the bar keeps getting set higher, so that it takes more and more of them to make you feel something.
Like 85% of people on the subway right now, I am reading a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories. There’s a part in the introduction where she says that she doesn’t like to talk about the early stages of her work too much, “because they are hard to explain and tend to fade away anyway after the story has been put out into the world and become a stranger to me.” I liked that last part best. Maybe the only way to psychically survive doing something like this in the long run is to let go a little bit, to surrender to the fact that no matter how much you try to reply to every tweet and email and how tightly you try to control the conversation about your work, the things you will publish will eventually become strangers to you.
I logged back into Twitter yesterday morning. I wondered what sort of @ replies I’d been missing—what if an editor for a place I’d really wanted to write for was trying to contact me? what if someone had said something very nice and I hadn’t responded and now they thought I was an asshole?—but as you can imagine it was pretty anticlimactic. You are the best! You are the WORST. I’m so glad you wrote this! How dare you write this! And (honestly): “YOU LIE.”
The time away must have helped, because I felt pretty detached from it all. Still, I don’t want this to seem like I don’t like talking to people about things I write. I try to reply in kind to every email I receive. Sometimes, even on Twitter, someone will point out something or disagree with me in a way that makes me think about something I’ve written in a whole new way. That is awesome, but I’m just saying that the internet makes new and arguably unreasonable demands on writers so it is OK and maybe even advisable to opt out of all of this every once in a while. If you did the work you needed to do the piece should (on most occasions) speak well enough for itself. It is OK, also, to think of your ideal reader as the one who doesn’t like or favorite or RT or email, or maybe the one who will surprise you with a long message out of the blue about something you wrote three years ago. Though it’s hard to remember in an environment that constantly demands that we show ourselves and be measurable and “present,” those people are lurking out there too. I swear.
Silence is immeasurable on the internet. And especially in Western cultures, silence freaks people out. Too often we interpret it as fragility, or retreat, or an admission that someone was wrong. But silence can also be a song, or a joke, or a kind of rebellion. Silence can even be an answer. When I logged back in yesterday, one of the funniest things I saw was that someone had subtweeted me because they disagreed with a review I’d written, but their friend had tagged me in a reply to the subtweet just to guarantee that I would see it. When I didn’t respond right away, this person tweeted, “What do you have to say for yourself @lindsayzoladz?? The people demand answers!” What this person did not seem to realize was that I was already giving one.