Work, Fame, and Other Things

There's an essay worth reading in the 5-13-2007 issue of the New York Times Magazine: "Sex, Drugs, and Updating Your Blog," by Clive Thompson.

Here's the link. If you don't want to register at the Times in order to read it, here's the gist: Some young musicians today are using the internet to build their fanbase by blogging, posting music for free, and building a presence at MySpace and other internet sites.

That's obviously not news. What sets this essay apart is Thompson's focus on the flip side of that self-promotional coin: when the strategy succeeds, it becomes a double-edge sword, and the fame a burden: Too many people demanding too much of one's time. Hundreds of emails that the musician feels obliged to respond to, a task that devours his or her day. Too much closeness ("intimacy") with fans, who assume and expect you will respond to their every suggestion, every demand, every email.

It's an unusually thoughtful piece and it affirms my belief that this blogging/MySpace thing ain't all it's cracked up to be. And that they're deadly traps that can ensnare the unwary.

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE hearing from people who've read my work. I.m nearly ecstatic when I hear from a reader who has taken the time to read one of my books. I enjoy using this space to spout off about whatever bug I currently have up my ass.

But there's a limit to how much time I can spend online. Why? Because I have work to do. I have a book to write. And it's not clear to me how anyone can spend hours answering email, finding "friends" at MySpace (yes, even this old fogie knows what MySpace is); trying to get noticed at YouTube, etc. -- and still get any work done. Or, more accurately, I COULD spend part of the day working and the rest building a "fan base" -- but if I do, then what happens to my "life"? I have a husband, two fabulous stepdaughters, an amazing son-in-law. A mother. Friends (the 3-D kind, not the online kind) (although I have some of those, too).

So let's say I spend part of the day working on my new book and the rest online trying to become both rich and famous. (Because let's be honest: musicians, writers, and others cultivate their online presence so that they can sell whatever it is they have to offer so they can make dough and become famous-in-their-field and sell even more of whatever it is they have to offer and make even more dough.)

But where would I find time for the rest of my life? For walking. Talking with my husband. Hanging with friends. Enjoying my family. Watching old movies and "The Sopranos" (which is crucial to my quality of life). Making love. Eating. Cooking. Sitting in a quiet place.

Answer: I wouldn't. My life would consist of a keyboard and monitor. A younger person, one more attuned to the virtual world, would say "So what's the problem? Being online IS life." And that's a legitimate response. But it's not the response I choose.

It comes down to this: I can write books and have the kind of life I want. Or I can write books and try to become famous by cultivating an online life, spending hours each day in frantic self-promotion (again, let's be honest)

Again, don't get me wrong. Self-promotion is utterly crucial to success in publishing. Utterly and totally crucial. I've promoted the hell out of the beer book. But eventually I stopped because I had to get on with my work: I need to -- want to -- write another book. And the only way that will happen is if I disengage from a large part of the world around me, deposit my ass in a chair, usually at a library or archive, and get busy.

I spent five years working on the beer book. My new project, a history of meat in America, will take about as long. And that's me working more or less fulltime on it, with "time off" to spend with family, friends, and myself. (Which is why my blogging borders on the non-existent). (Indeed, I'm posting this piece today only because I'm about to go on vacation and am taking the day off to prepare.)

So yes, "fame" and "success" represent a trade-off. If you do what you love, and become "successful," you run the risk that you won't have time to do what you love because you'll be too busy being successful. This has happened to several writers I know: they self-promote because they want to make money, achieve some kind of "success," only to discover that, well, they're making money but no art. Or thanks to the random churns of the universe, their book hits a bestseller list (and most bestsellers are flukes) and are inundated with demands on their time and frustrated because those demands cut into their workday.

So, sure, I could go the self-promotion- internet route, blogging constantly, working the virtual halls of MySpace, chat rooms, writers' forums,, whatever. I'd probably be better-known than I am now and would certainly sell more books. (Although even that's a crapshoot: the average Jane on the street doesn't realize that writers earn money from sales of new books.) Instead, I choose to do what I love. Fame will have to wait.