If people don't choose their gifts, then I was cursed with a passion for words. I love making them bend in ridiculous ways, to do the back-flips I can’t perform in real life. My childhood was filled with the Joy of Words: in hundreds of books, in the filthy jokes told with the panache of a true master—my mother—and our family’s endless debates about art and life and politics and justice. Making them work for me is so entwined with my being that I fall asleep thinking about what to do with them next. I wake up in the middle of the night finishing the sentence, and then ignore pressing chores because I’d rather complete the paragraph.
I once wrote the engorged, passionately silly diaries of a pubescent girl, and then a much more somber suicide note in my mid-teens. I followed these with maudlin prose in my late teens, explosive essays in college, and research about women here (sex workers) and abroad (the Palestinian women’s NGO’s of the first Intifada).
I’ve blogged, made alternate identities with entire histories, and written shitty poetry (not often and alway for humor). I’ve written hundreds of essays. I’ve got three novels in various stages of completion—and one personal history about which I’m extraordinarily proud.
None of this matters when you choose obscurity.
The internet is a beast: multi-headed and holographic, it shifts with the light and dark of people’s souls. We daily witness acts of selfless generosity between complete strangers. It has created successes out of gamers on YouTube who play Minecraft in front legions of rapacious fans. People have built careers from blogging about politics, parenting, or targeting celebrities for a host of transgressions, real and imagined.
We’ve watched as children have tortured each other in the gladiatorial arenas of social media, encouraging teens to kill themselves after haunting them like hyenas. Women have been forced from their homes for speaking up against sexism. Daily, people are threatened with rape, torture, having their houses burnt to the ground, their families killed. Black Americans, fed up with systemic abuse, are uniting online; white Americans are rallying in embarrassing numbers to heckle them.
I’ve watched these developments unfold for the last three years while I was away from social media. News outlets were still the most visited sites in my online history (followed by some absolute trash—the brakes in my rising anxiety if things get too intense).
But when I was off the sauce and out of the arena, I wasn’t ignorant about the world. I was sane.
The internet has been kind to me. Without submitting my writing through normal channels (and not knowing how to do so since I came to writing through the back door), I managed to find—albeit briefly—a small but nice audience on the internet. More importantly, I’ve met other writers like myself. Many of us have never met in person, yet I consider them close allies and friends.
But by the time I decided to log off social media the first time, the internet was my foe, an inflated reflection of the smallest, meanest parts of my psyche, eating me up post by post. I was jealous of others, I was embarrassed that I had fewer followers than my peers. I didn’t want to “friend” strangers, but I wanted them to read what I’d written because I was proud of my creations. I never wanted to “follow” anyone for the very reason that it sounds like I’m stalking them; metaphors have strength, even subconsciously.
Three years went by. I logged in to Twitter once or twice when horrible international disasters unfolded. My husband was recognized professionally, which I shared on Facebook, and that was the last thing I documented before I deleted my Facebook account.
I kept a nom de goon account just in case. What that “case” was I wasn’t sure, until a tragedy struck my son’s school community and I followed it with grief and silence on the end of my false account. I pulled my given name off as many things on the internet I could, with the exception of some essays I wrote that still made me happy. I wasn’t sure how to find an agent, and was so exhausted by social media that I chose not to learn.
I started a novel about climate change. I read the news. I did a lot of laundry. I learned how to gild glass. I raised my son and was a wife to my husband. I stopped the novel about climate change because the events I predicted in my story were unfolding faster than I could believe.
And I was happy. While my son is too young to know how good we have it, the grown-ups have enough experience of the world to be grateful every day for what our small piece of it looks like. The luxury of being able to care for my son without worrying about paying the electric bill is a gift. The fact that we don’t have to worry about food and clean water is amazing. That I don’t hold three crappy part-time jobs to raise my child is manna. That I’m still in love with the father of my child is an honor I can’t believe I was given. I’m surrounded by art and love.
I’m not sure what prodded me to revisit Living in Twilight. My father died in 2010, and I worked on the personal history of his dying doggedly for the two years after. I completed it about the same time I left social media in 2012.
By that time, I had gotten a number of kind rejections, publishers concluding their press was not the right press, though I would eventually find it. Some just never answered me. It’s both a complicated book to package neatly, and difficult subject to swallow; in some ways I understood. But sometimes the small girl who wrote dark words in high school would rise from the deep.
There wasn’t a moment when I decided to quit trying to get Living in Twilight published. I just did.
Living in Twilight is the only book I’ve completed, but if I was going to complete one, it’s the one I will be proud of, no matter its success. It’s both hilarious and heartbreaking. It takes the greatest parts of humanity and synthesizes them down to rubies and diamonds, Fool’s Gold, and tin. It embraces infirmity while recognizing our fear of it. It recognizes death, but admits confusion. It includes one of the funniest things I’ve ever written, which is also one of the most jarring—and I love the juxtaposition of humor and the shivers of horror that unfold simultaneously.
It also embraces art. Because Living in Twilight is about my father Charles Moone dying, and my father was an artist, every other page of text is married with a painting, or a sketch, or a doodle. I live with thousand of his paintings and drawings in my basement; Living in Twilight celebrates Dad’s dedication to art and the creative process. The art in Living in Twilight was chosen by me—sometimes choices based on good aesthetics, or as a parallel narrative—sometimes just because the painting was amazing and needed to be seen by people other than my family and the spiders in the corner.
Creative people are also conflicted people. Though my life is one of great personal contentment, it rubs angrily against my desire for connection with others, for reaching beyond my own tiny world and into the hearts and minds of my fellow humans. I’m on the receiving end of the conversation with writers and artists because I absorb the creative endeavors of my peers—but living a life of self-made seclusion necessarily has made my work isolated to the confines of my hard drive.
When I dusted off Living in Twilight, I entertained that since it was so hard to write a good pitch for it, maybe I should just show it instead of tell it. I realized it would translate elegantly to the internet because the story is filled with the art my father made up until his death.
But this introduced the inevitable struggle of getting the word out. I was forced to accept the reality that elegant websites with no audience might as well not exist at all, and therefore the only way to get one—even a very small one—was to put on my armor and join the ranks of the Circus Maximus again.
This decision is a tough one to reconcile for a hermit who quite happily said farewell to the games.
Facebook is my perfect medium. For someone who spends as much time thinking about words as I do—in short quips, pointed barbs and absurd observations about the very mundane—Facebook and Twitter are endless sources of gratification. I aspire to being really fucking funny, and if I’m not, then I’m content with “mildly amusing.” It feeds a vanity in me like a contestant in a beauty pageant, except instead of flaunting long thighs and perfect teeth, I prance about in acute observations and satire. It’s my form of sport.
When I held my nose and logged into Facebook a couple weeks ago, my heart rate sped up. My chest got tight. I felt high. I sent my first post, but no one responded: everyone knew I had deleted my account, and it occurred to me that some people might think my identity was hacked. Regardless, I was slightly morose about the lack of welcoming committee.
Not to be defeated, I sent a second post several hours after the first: “So who’s going to get me up to speed on the last two and a half years?” The comments started immediately; being a novelty (and perhaps aided by the time I posted), all the sudden I was in the ring: there were back-slaps and welcomes and disbelief that I returned. But I was BACK, and immediately swung into high gear. My funny posts remained funny, my scathing barbs were still scathing. Verbal sparring is still my favorite sport, but as a retired gladiator, I felt the assault on my soul almost immediately.
Because I’ve been off media for so long, I had the perspective to witness the changes it wrought upon me. Like an alcoholic falling off the wagon, the first party was delightful, and the first hangover was mild. But I could feel the delirium tremens coming on. It’s unhealthy, this relationship I have with social media. It affects my soul in brackish, tarry ways. Immediately I’m checking my status too often, wondering why this subject got a good response while that one got none at all. I wonder why people haven’t “liked” me. I’m critical, and nervous and panicky. Edgy. Adolescent.
I’m the girl in the past who wrote dark words on rice paper and ate too many pills to ease the pain.
A few months before I came back to social media, I articulated my dilemma to the only audience I had: my son and my husband. “Pitching myself makes me crazy. It makes me miserable. It makes me a person I dislike.” This oversimplification of my feelings aside, it remains true.
But I’m a person for whom the decision is of extreme importance: the long, dark mental health history I’ve lived through—and arrived on the other side—for me, social media is a choice between happiness and success. If I want an audience in this day and age, I have to be an internet-pitching-constantly-updating-funny narcissistic machine. I’m aware of my skills as a desperate narcissist. I’m really good at desperate narcissism. I’m also prone debilitating depression, and I’ve worked many years to conquer it. But to be a successful writer, I have to be willing to keep at it, even when I know it’s harmful to my mental health. The endless perpetuating Cult of the Self carves me into the lost, desperate attention-grabbing tart I’ve strived very hard to make behave, but the creative writer/artist/whatever won’t find a home without me reviving her. And she’s a drag, who my husband and my son do not deserve to live with.
I’m capable of one or the other: a self-promotion machine able to endlessly and voraciously talk about myself, up until I implode—or a good parent and a good partner, who might not be successful in the eyes of the world, but is successful in living, which often seems a lost art.
I can’t be both.
To say that I’m happy making this decision—whether or not to be a quiet, reticent artist, toiling away in obscurity—is a complete lie. I’ve never been happy making this choice. But life is sacrifice and all of us make it every single day. One of us chooses not to eat because their children are hungry. Another chooses to work late and misses a child’s recital. One person chooses not to have children; another person chooses to have many. None of the decisions are easy. But they’re honest.
My decision is one of great privilege: I choose whether to be successful or not, based on my willingness to expose myself endlessly to the great Circus Maximus of our time. For now, I’ve chosen to be a gladiator for a minute or two, but if I notice that my armor is weakening, I will take it off again and come home.
Obscurity is better than the alternative.