I heard on NPR the other day that you can buy yourself followers on Twitter. True story. There is speculation that some of our “popular” politicians are doing just that. Stuffing the ballot box, in a way. And you know, I’d be lying if I said I don’t look at the following/followers numbers when I hook up with a new TweetBud (I don’t know what the current, cool slang is for these people; forgive me,) as if it matters how many friends my friends have.
It is a version of the cafeteria, really. You know. You don’t want to be the only kid at one of those long tables, your tray of impossibly red spaghetti and carton of milk the only thing to keep you company. And you don’t really want to be at the table with the misfits, either: the girl who eats paste still at 14, the boy who has a patch over one of the lenses of his glasses to strengthen his lazy eye, the albino boy, the girl who wears a helmet all day long. (As an adult I’ve come to realize that these kids grow up to be the most interesting, by the way, but the stigma of being among the losers is hard to outgrow.) Where you want to sit is with the cool kids. And if you can’t get into that elite circle, then you want to at least be in a huge circle. A vivacious collection of friends and acquaintances who know things, do things, are things.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about this social media stuff lately. Especially as I have just joined Google+ (why? because I was invited) and been blogging for a few months and I tweet, for godssakes. My brother Wesley McNair (poet laureate of Maine, you know. Yes, I am bragging.) talks about the internet being anti-poetry. And I guess I believe it is as well. A distraction. A place to write without nearly as much consideration or conviction or revision as one might put into a fully-realized poem, a short story, a novel. And yet, even as I know that, here I am on the internet, on all the sites, chattering with my “friends” and my “followers” and my “circles.”
Mostly because of the book. I want people to know about my collection of stories, The Temple of Air, and so I reach out this way. Yet this isn’t just about my book, it is about THE BOOK. (No, not the bible, silly.) THE BOOK. The thing that holds words and stories and lives and wisdom and dreams and fantasies. I turn to these media now to stump for THE BOOK. For writers. For publications. For the on-going struggle of sharing our work and our ideas. Yesterday The Guardian had a piece about publishing houses making record profits these days, partly due to the ease of ebooks. And we were all worried, remember? What will happen to the future of the book without Borders, without “real” books, without pages and dust jackets and paper cuts? Who would have guessed that maybe, just maybe, people are actually reading more…
Yes, all of this attention I have been paying to social media lately has much to do with THE BOOK. But here’s another thing. It is also about friendship. I am one with many friends, but rather few close ones. The closest are a couple of women in Mount Carroll where I have my house; Anne-Marie Oomen, the fabulous Michigan writer; Dennis McFadden, the wonderful upstate New York writer; Jana and Gail; my niece; my husband; a handful of colleagues at Columbia. I don’t call any of these people very often; we don’t chat on the phone like I used to with my high school girlfriends or boyfriends. Like I used to with my mother every day before she died. Like I did with my brother Roger before he did (one year ago today.) We send emails and thumbs-up over Facebook; we try to get together for dinner or drinks now and again.
And still, this matters. And so do my new “friends.” I know that I cannot consider people I only know through Facebook (Maxine Hong Kingston–who sent me a music video her son made, Alan Heathcock–who allowed me to interview him for my blog, Melissa Luznicky-Garrett–who is doing all she can to support independent publishers and authors) my true friends, but I am grateful for their Facebook friendship nonetheless. We share ideas and gripes, we share good news and political grievances. I am grateful, too, that through these social networks I am able to keep “talking” with people I’ve met for just a few days: Lucricia, Rachel, Chuck, Kathie. In the past when you met someone at a conference, say, or a reading in another state and you said “let’s keep in touch,” maybe you would. The occasional letter, perhaps; but usually these people who often meant so much for a brief period of time would just slip away, out of your life. It still happens, yes, but it doesn’t always have to, and sometimes it takes a little longer than it used to.
And maybe I am thinking about this because this is the anniversary of my brother Roger’s passing. I feel very lonely in that place I held in my heart for him and him alone. As my book launch comes up and I try on the dress I bought especially for it, I remember how he would whistle at me when he liked what I was wearing, would simply say “yeah, cool,” to let me know he didn’t without flat out insulting me. I know he would be proud of this phase in my life; that he would be passing out postcards for the book from the front seat of his cab. That he would be there to give me rides to bookstores and bars for my readings, to the airport when I was lucky enough to get gigs a flight away.
We–those of us still here–sometimes keep our loneliness at bay with these distractions, just as we can keep our real work away. But sometimes, too, these distractions–our followers, our friends, our circles–can remind us that there are still interesting, kind, people out there who are delighted and disappointed with life just as we are, who are filled with wonder and compassion and spirit and even rage when necessary. As I grow older, my closest real circle loses members now and then, and they cannot be replaced. Mom, Roger, Robyn, my Uncle Miller. But I’ve reconnected with people from my past (Gayle, Dale, Helen, my cousins) through this wide web, and I am glad for that. Things shift and tilt and there are empty spots that cannot be filled; and yet, life goes on. A cliché of the worst kind, but true, too. I am glad of the ever widening circles I find as my life goes on, and I thank you for your part.