by Tess Gerritsen
Last week, I flew out of town for a speaking engagement. For four days, while I was away, I didn’t check my email. The morning after I came home, still groggy from fatigue, I booted up my computer and stared at a hundred new emails in my in-box. Only a few were from friends or family, a few were from my agent and editor, but the vast majority were from people I’d never met. Some of them were very nice emails telling me they liked my books. Others asked for signed books for their charity auctions, or for signed photographs (I seem to get a lot of these requests from Russia), or for advice on how to get published or get an agent, or whether I’d come to speak at their library/school/luncheon/etc. There were emails asking for online interviews or to set up lunch dates so they could tell me the needs of their favorite charity. There were emails asking for money. And there were a few from people who were angry that I had insulted old people or obese people or their favorite dog breed in my latest novel, and they would never read another one of my books. Facing that long list of emails, I felt a sense of overwhelming exhaustion because each one of these emails needed to be read. Each one needed a response (and I do try to respond to every single one.) And if I put it off for a day or two, I’d just end up with fifty new messages waiting for me. Meanwhile, there’s a book I still have to write, a husband who’s irritated that I’m not downstairs for breakfast, and a stack of snail-mail that needs to be attended to.
Which is why I’m thinking about shutting down my public email access, unplugging my internet, and hiding in a cave.
Other authors have told me they’re astonished that I’m still accessible to the public by email. They shut down their public email addresses ages ago because they didn’t want to deal with the nasty messages. One author has her husband read all her emails first, and he deletes anything that might be upsetting. If you’re a public person, you will certainly get those messages. Sometimes they’re upsetting enough to screw up your writing brain for the day, as you obsess over how lousy a writer you really are.
Then there’s the dilemma of how to graciously respond to all the requests for your time and attention. You want to be polite. You want to be understanding. But sometimes I’m really bad at saying no, and I’ll fret over just how to word my response without sounding like a jerk.
The truth is, staying in contact with lots and lots of people is not just distracting — it’s work. While I do have a Twitter account, I tweet only once or twice a week, and usually only about the TV show, “Rizzoli & Isles.” I have a Facebook account, but I’ll post only occasionally, usually about publishing news or events. And that’s about it for my online social life. In fact, it’s a lot like my real social life. I like hiding out in my office. I like eating popcorn by myself on the couch, in front of the TV. With the phone unplugged.
I just watched “The Social Network,” a terrific film about the founders of Facebook. I came home thinking that there’s something wrong with me, because I don’t understand the overwhelming popularity of Facebook. Yes, I do use it. I appreciate its ingenious design. But I never imagined that people would want to stay so obsessively connected with each other.
Because most of the time, I just want to be left alone.
Franzen works in a rented office that he has stripped of all distractions. He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can’t write serious fiction on a computer that’s connected to the Internet, he not only removed the Dell’s wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. “What you have to do,” he explains, “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.”
Most people who read this probably think: “Wow, Franzen is a total weirdo.” I read it and think: “How do I keep the superglue from getting into the rest of my computer?”
I think Franzen has a point. All this social networking is getting in the way of our writing. It’s distracting us. It’s sucking up our time. Yet we’re made to feel obligated to do it, for marketing, for success. Every author’s been told she must have a website. Every author must blog. If you drop out of the chatter you’ll be forgotten, and no one will buy your books. If you neglect to blog, tweet, and continually post on Facebook, you are doomed to die penniless and unread.
Yet I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore. I’m mulling over the consequences of getting unplugged so I can devote more time to what got me here in the first place: writing books. Not answering emails. Or taking on more speaking gigs. Or tweeting and Facebooking.
So here are some questions I’d like to address to other authors:
Do you still have a public email address?
Do you answer your own emails?
If you went private, why?
Are you getting more writing done as a result?