On our second day of workshop in the gorgeous and air-conditioned Center For Fiction, we talked about literary identities – from the page to the internet.
We ate falafel and tabbouleh after morning workshops with Marie-Helene Bertino & Will Allison, and then headed to the Proust floor to hear Paul La Farge’s talk on the uses of persona in literature. There, he surveyed a dizzying number of writers with multiple literary personas – from Fernando Pessoa to J.M. Coetzee, assessing the artistic advantages and ethical consequences of creating these identities.
It’s old news that writers invent characters for their stories, but what happens when writers create authors – imaginary characters with distinct writing styles, personal histories, appearances? These invented writer characters are called heteronyms (a term invented by Pessoa, who wrote under a whooping 81 different heteronyms, autonyms, and alter egos).
This not only fascinating from a theoretical standpoint, but useful from a craft perspective. La Farge offers the creation of heteronyms as a remedy for writers block and an untapped source of inspiration. “Tired of your voice?” he asks. “Try on a new one.” Concerned that no one will care about your writing? Invent a new literary persona (or seven). As long as you keep your writing rooted in reality, these heteronyms will be able to deliver some emotionally resonate truths.
After a short break, we headed downstairs to do One Story author Laura Van den Berg’s “The Ingredients Exercise” with the ever-lovely Adina Talve-Goodman (One Story’s Managing Editor). We wrote three words on an index card, swapped cards with neighbors, and had fifteen minutes to create a scene using all three words. My words were OCD, beach, and running, and I wrote of two teenage bullies in Atlantic City (~*4evr thirteen). Other writers got meta on us and included the index card in their stories. Since the hardest thing about writing is often getting started, the three words constraint gave us a box to expand around quickly, forcing us to get specific and concrete fast.
We broke for dinner and met back up around seven to share some chilled wine and cheese, Brooklyn lagers and butter cookies. We laughed with (and sometimes at) our hilarious Social Media Panel – Seth Fried, Emma Straub and Julia Fierro, who encouraged timid writers to develop an internet presence despite any anxieties. They too felt strange after their first blog posts and virgin tweets.
As Seth joked, “Since literary fiction has the cultural pull of ventriloquism,” social media can help give people a taste of a writer’s personality and build a community of supporters. “Keep it inclusive instead of divisive,” Seth urges. “Don’t alienate people. Build a big tent online and let your work move people. Don’t try to move people through the internet.” Stay posi, keep it cool with the politics, and don’t be that guy who only tweets about his book tour and how many books he’s sold.
In order to preserve privacy and cultivate a genuine persona, post about personal tastes – art, music, books you’ve loved - instead of posting pictures of your new lover or your poor seventeen-year-old (you’re killing us, Mom). Your internet presence should reflect a wide range of your personality and interests, not just your professional life. Julia was able to connect with more people by sharing her identity as not just a writer, but as a mother, knitter, etc. Round out your personality across platforms, but do make sure to have one landing place where people can find quick factual information about you and your book too.
Overall, the panelists agreed that you should only give into social media if you want to, and if it feels true to you. “If it makes your teeth feel like they’re bleeding,” Emma said, “don’t bother.” It can be very helpful, but it isn’t a steadfast requirement for burgeoning writers. Social media posts aren’t direct revenue streams, but they can open doors to score more writing, teaching, and speaking opportunities. (I mean, One Story’s social media panel landed this gig because, well…)
As always, be genuine. And true to who you are: as a person, and a writer.