The Facebook Effect
On Facebook, every day is an amazing day for someone I know. Twitter, too. On social media, my friends are always doing incredible things. They’re finishing their books, selling their books, finding agents. They share so generously news of their published stories and Pushcart nominations. They post links to new essays and photos of finished manuscripts, packed readings, exciting literary parties, and celebrity encounters. I get lots of late-breaking updates on foreign sales, movie options, book-cover dilemmas.
Like most writers, I greet this news with both joy and jealousy. But mostly joy. Who doesn’t like to live vicariously through the successes of others? These achievements seem more possible for me when they have already happened to someone I know. (I love posting my own small successes, because I know that other writers understand how important—and how rare—any successes can be.)
However, this good news also can be overwhelming. Not every day, for sure, but on some days I feel like a loser: on the days when I stand at the mailbox clutching another form rejection; or on the days when a story I had high hopes for falls apart; or when it gets to be ten at night and I realize that I haven’t written all day, or all week.
I suspect I’m not alone in my temporary misery. Ingesting all these cherry-picked moments of happiness and success might make anyone feel stuck in place while others effortlessly maximize their career potential.
According to this study, people (or in this case, undergraduates) who spend a lot of time interacting with social media believe strongly that others have better lives than they do. They are even more likely to think so if they have lots of social media friends whom they have never met in person.
So I like to remind myself how easy it is to make what psychologists call a “correspondence error” with social media, meaning we take the limited story offered by writer friends as the whole truth about their lives, when it never is. It’s only by speaking with other writers face-to-face that I get to hear about their failed drafts, their anxieties, their frustrations. And this is how I remind myself that a down cycle is just that: It’s part of the cycle.
A writer friend of mine confessed that her editor deleted half her manuscript and told her to start over. Another friend admitted that she’d recently received a rejection letter that ridiculed her writing style. Another friend told me that he had to send a story to 30 publications before it was accepted. Another friend has been working on a poetry collection for four years and went through a lengthy round of rigorous edits with an editor before that editor turned it down. Then her agent told her that the project was probably dead. Did she give up? No. She started another book.
I didn’t learn about these setbacks by reading status updates on Facebook or Twitter. Who’d post such things? I learned about them by talking to these writers in person.
On those days when I feel overwhelmed, I know it’s time to pick up the phone and make a lunch date or coffee date with a fellow writer. It’s time to hear a more realistic version of what someone else is working on, because it reminds me that successful writers soldier through lots of false starts. They’ve had bad luck; they’ve sweated out those lengthy pauses between successful stories; they’ve endured casually cruel remarks from editors and critics; they, too, have felt like losers. And when they felt this way, they did what we all do. They turned off their internet connection (briefly) and got back to their writing desks.
Michelle Seaton’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, The Pushcart Anthology among others. Her journalism and essays have appeared in Robb Report, Bostonia, Yankee Magazine, The Pinch andLake Effect. Her essay, “How to Work a Locker Room” appeared in the 2009 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the coauthor of the books The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009) and Living with Cancer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (HarperWave, 2018). She has been an instructor with Grub Street since 2000 and is the lead instructor and created the curriculum for Grub Street's Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced five anthologies.See other articles by Michelle Seaton