One evening I sat by the not-so-secret lake hidden in the nature reserve behind my home. It’s my favorite place to unwind after a day spent in front of a laptop. The only view that doesn’t hurt my eyes is a soothing expanse of green or a body of water.
Of course, I am not the only one who likes this place. It is a communal meeting place for tired humans and wary animals. If you follow me on Instagram you might have noticed the photos I post of my four legged and feathered neighbors who inhabit this space.
However, this Friday evening was different. Although I acknowledged the antics of the monkeys on my way to the water’s edge, all I wanted to do was sit on the rock and observe the gentle ripples on the water. The day had been blistering hot and the faint breeze was pleasant. A brilliant blue kingfisher flew excitedly from one tree to another on the other shore. Every movement of its feathers was an invitation to stop my silent contemplation and look at it’s beauty and grace.
After a while, even that seemed too much of an effort and I turned back towards the water. A tiny turtle was swimming, slowly, calmly, not breaking the pattern of the ripples, yet getting to where it wanted to go.
These two creatures represented the tug of war that had been playing out inside me.
Like a busy bird, I had been flapping my wings – finishing up the final edits to the book, fixing the cover design, figuring out the interior layout and many other activities that required my attention. Every outsourced activity seemed to boomerang and land back in my court for clarification. I was exhausted from a series of decisions.
Where was the joy of creation? Had I lost my way?
Write and rejoice
Back in 2001, when I first began writing personal essays to understand myself, life was simple. I just had to open a new document on my computer and begin typing. Spill the words onto the page. Let it steep, check if done and hit publish – submit to a website or print publication.
Not once did I care about what others in my niche were doing, what were the rules of my genre, or where my readers were hanging out. There was something naively refreshing about approaching life with a sense of wonder and zero expectation, like a child. I rejoiced when editors accepted my work and moved on when I received rejections. The ups and downs of editors’ decisions had no impact on my writing output or the joy that the act of writing gave me.
When I walked out of my marriage and figured out life as a single parent, my predictable life took a detour into uncharted territory, I stopped writing altogether. The pressure to create something coherent from the mess of my life was not a priority. I wanted to lick my wounds in private. My immediate world took all my attention.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this time of my life coincided with the rise of the popularity of Facebook. I was aware of the raging phenomenon but I was not interested. When you stand in the midst of the wreckage of a tornado, you aren’t thinking about reaching out to long-lost fellow alumni (although a perfectly composed picture on Instagram may go viral I guess). I had absolutely no interest in opening a social media account. Life was too chaotic.
A decade after that disastrous turn in my life, I began writing again. I didn’t go anywhere near the raw hurt and disappointment that I had endured but focused on the good. Books, friends, travel. I wrote about the small pleasures of my new life in a blog that helped me exercise my dormant writing muscles. Nothing too deep, nothing too private. Life was good.
It’s a slippery slope
When I moved to Singapore, my life demanded a whole different level of change and I began writing again. This time, I decided to start a new blog that was more raw, more personal. It felt right somehow to share the doubts and uncertainties of life as it was happening, instead of pushing it away for processing at a later time. When the body of writing began to overflow, I began to once again submit my writing to various outlets.
I still got rejections but I also had surprising successes as well. From old favorites like India Currents, in California to my latest regular op-eds in the Straits Times newspaper in SIngapore, my personal essays have been resonating with readers and to my surprise, have fetched me awards!
It made sense to have a digital home for all my writing, specially the personal bits that didn’t necessarily belong in other publications. I got this website designed. It was fun to write for myself, keep a public journal of sorts that I could share with interested readers. And with a regular newsletter, I could stay in touch with those who resonated with my writing. I felt more empowered by this simple act.
At the end of 2020, after months of staying home, thanks to the pandemic, I began to write my memoir about divorce. Knowing that the story would be something of a niche offering I wanted to reach out to readers who would be interested in the topic. I was told that I needed to go where my readers hung out. And therefore I stepped into the murky waters of social media, something I had successfully avoided for long.
From learning glitchy operational aspects to fickle algorithms that were beyond my understanding, I endured a love-hate relationship with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Over time, I made my peace with including them in my life confident that I would not get sucked into the doom scrolling vortex of (mis)information. And I didn’t.
I began posting details about the things that spur me to write – daily observations, passing thoughts, interpersonal interactions. And of course, books and the writing life. Writing was fun. Sharing was a bit painful, particularly because the snippets had to be small enough to match the attention span of readers poised to scroll through with hardly a glance. And the worst part was to post prolifically.
My trouble with social media is the focus on bite-sized chunks of easily digestible information that doesn’t stretch either your imagination or memory. It’s a quick fix of entertainment, a light dose of enlightenment and a small rush of dopamine. As a writer who only publishes that output which has undergone some level of deep thinking and analysis, I am unable to keep pace with the insatiable beast that demands consistent creation for the audience to linger.
“You need to connect with your audience”. I keep hearing this refrain. And it bothers me.
Should I create or should I connect?
I would rather be the turtle that remains hidden in the water yet gets to his destination without drawing attention to himself, unlike the bright kingfisher who is always performing, showing off his feathers with every flight.
I am torn between these conflicting demands. I know that the creation gives me joy but I am also thrilled when I hear from readers who reach out and let me know that my posts on social media matter to them. They are two sides of a coin although I prefer one side.
I’m doing both right now. Plus everything related to my book. I’m sure you will hear more from me on this topic. I’m not done yet.
Have you ever felt torn between two competing demands? Let me know.