Monday, March 15, 2021

Networking thoughts

I had a panic attack yesterday morning. I went to sleep at 11, then woke up at 1:30 am feeling completely awful all over, and wondered how my life had gotten so stressful. Two hours and a lot of prayer and introspection later, I finally figured it out and figured out what needed to change, and as soon as I acted on my decision, the panic subsided and I was able to get back to sleep.

What follows are some thoughts and feelings on what I feel was a really bad turn in my writing career, and why I am changing direction right now. I'm writing this in the hopes that you will learn from it. I'm disabling comments on this post because I really don't care to know what anyone thinks of this. I'm sharing my feelings not because I care what other people think of me, but in an attempt to help others who may be starting to venture where I did. Pull up and pull out, now. You're worth more than that. Have respect for yourself and for your work.

I also apologize if you read this and feel like I am referencing you directly. If you are reading this blog, you are most likely not one of the people who caused me so much grief and pain these past few months. The people I am referring to - most of whom I have only had brief contact with - would likely never think to look at my blog, because they're too wrapped up in their own little worlds to have any interest in anything I'm doing that isn't benefiting them.

A few months ago, having felt like I failed in advertising my books, I turned to another strategy: networking. 

As a fiction author, I am arguably in the entertainment business. Having gone to school for film and television production, it was drilled into me that success in the entertainment business depends largely on who you know and who knows you. When I ventured into indie authordom, I was told the same thing. "Ads don't sell your books," people were saying. "It's all about making and fostering personal connections. People don't want your media, they want your message, and they want to feel like you personally care about them. And as an indie without a publisher to do some of the work for you, you need all the networking you can get to make sure you have that professional support network and personally loyal fanbase."

Sounds good on paper, right? Who doesn't want to be a nice person? Who doesn't want to feel like they and their work are making a tangible, personal impact on others' lives?

So I began trying this approach. I stopped advertising. I started personally reaching out to individuals, both professionals and readers, who I felt might be interested in what I had to offer, and began trying to make myself useful to them (and for the professionals, their career goals). I started putting myself out there more on social media and literary communities, trying to present myself as gregarious, open, and ever-helpful. I thought of myself as the public's humble servant, just trying to make their lives better with my little offering of uplifting media, and by the way was there anything else I could do for them while I was at it?

This would make people sit up and take notice of my books, right? This would make them think, "Wow, what a wonderful individual who is not only intelligent and creative, but kind and generous--how could I not support her in her career?" Aren't people so marvelously reciprocal like that?

Well, let me lower the boom. This world is full of users and abusers. It's full of people who don't have their heads on straight, who will take out their issues on anyone nice enough to stick around and try to help them. There are kind, good, selfless people out there, and I have definitely met some on my journey, but unfortunately their wheat is mixed in with the tares of crazies right now. And when you put yourself out there and say "Here I am, world, I'm ready to be part of your life", you don't know who or what is going to respond to that. It's like sticking your hand in shark-infested waters and expecting to only pet dolphins.

Over the course of a few months, gradually my schedule became more and more packed with things I needed to do for other people. There were questions to field, events to attend, info to cross-post. There were days when I was running from one to-do item to the next, literally nonstop as I even worked online while I ate, until I could finally crash into bed at night. I barely found time to cook (which is important as I have health concerns that require a specialized diet), exercise, or help my family, and there are some family matters that really need my time and support right now. But all of that was a worthwhile sacrifice, wasn't it? I was helping people, validating them, and this, I was told, was the key to make my books take off.

Except, it wasn't. Out of the scores of people I came in contact with, only a handful of them ever expressed interest in my books. I can count on one hand the people I personally spoke to who ended up actually purchasing and reading any of my novels. Some of them weren't even people I met through writing-related venues.

Perhaps that's to be expected, right? That's the nature of marketing, to throw something out to as many people as you can, knowing that statistically speaking you stand a chance of more than zero people taking the bait. But I can tell you that three or four new readers was definitely not the "incredible career-changing breakthrough" I had been promised.

But okay. I also know breakthroughs take time. We're only talking about a span of a few months, here. Perhaps I shouldn't have been expecting significant sales increases yet. Give it a few more years, right? And here's where all those pep talks about persistence come in. You'll never get there if you give up, you only fail if you stop trying, etc.

So I kept plodding on through the storm, keeping a stiff upper lip, because that's what I thought I was supposed to do, and I wouldn't let anything get me down or discourage me.

Then the mental health issues started to kick in. By the end of February I began to notice, to my dismay, that I was feeling worse about myself than I think I ever have. I felt absolutely worthless and terrible. I felt despicable, inadequate, stupid, and inferior. I felt as though nothing I ever did for anyone was good enough.

The terrifying part was, I felt this way in spite of my increased effort to be helpful and supportive to my fellow human beings. It was as though the more I helped, the less helpful I felt. That's a telltale sign of a toxic relationship, where the more you do for the other person, the less you feel like you're contributing. So I was basically subconsciously getting into toxic relationships with nearly everyone I met. That idea just makes my skin crawl.

And what was I getting in return? Was I accumulating a snowballing following of excited readers and fans? No. I was getting offense over boundary-setting, humiliation, embarrassment, abandonment, misunderstanding, and downright rudeness. When I dared to ask anything of these people, they often turned on me and shamed me for wanting emotional support--the only thing I ever asked of them.

A caring family member said she noticed something about me had changed. I had become less energetic, moodier, and even less intelligent because the stress was actually sapping my brainpower. I kept committing odd social blunders and acting like an airhead, which I initially attributed to my hopeless ineptitude, but then realized it was because my brain was just completely burnt out and spread thin trying to be everybody's best friend. 

And I wasn't happy anymore. I was miserable. It got to the point where I just utterly hated my job and wanted to switch careers. Writing was not bringing me the joy it once had.

That's when I realized this insanity had to stop. Pressing forward and keeping a stiff upper lip was actually not helping in this situation. It was just driving me further into a dark pit of depression, low self-esteem, and letting myself get abused. At the end of this storm wasn't sunshine, but a black hole.

I'm all for persistence. I'm all for courage. Let's just say Winston Churchill is one of my role models and the phrase "give up" might actually not exist in my vocabulary. But I'm also not stupid, and I like to think I have the vision to see when something just isn't working. In attempting to achieve that "breakthrough", all I was doing was running into a brick wall over and over and giving myself concussions. And that won't make the brick wall budge at all.

And I could not ignore what this endeavor was doing to my mental health. People can talk all they like about resilience and getting back up after life knocks you down, but what I was feeling was the emotional equivalent of getting punched in the face repeatedly. No matter what sort of incredible willpower you possess to be able to get back up after getting punched every time--you're still getting punched. And it's doing serious damage. And you really have to ask yourself if it's helping you get to where you want to be, or if it's just destroying you.

In my case, it certainly wasn't the former. My sales pretty much stayed level throughout this entire experiment. More people knew I existed as an author, but it wasn't translating into them taking an interest in my work. They just saw someone to use as a doormat. At times it felt as though my books didn't even exist.

I think the kicker really came when I released Earthkeepers, which I had worked very hard on. I was so excited to share it with people using my new "business model". I thought since I had been networking and socializing so much, surely when my turn in the spotlight came, I'd get all that support I'd been trying to offer people.

Nope. Earthkeepers has sold a total of two copies so far.

That was a little heartbreaking.

And, I believe anything that takes such a serious toll on one's mental health can't be healthy. What is the point of having my writing take off if I'm too much of a depressed and anxious wreck to enjoy it? What if I couldn't write any more books, because public relations and putting business associates first left me so emotionally drained that I could not even function and absolutely hated writing?

I believe that we are all of great worth, and nothing is worth sacrificing our own happiness. We came to mortality to enjoy it, not to become the inferior servant of an ever-demanding humanity.

Another myth that I'd like to bust is the idea that if authors aren't interacting with readers, readers won't be interested in the books. This is actually just readers being entitled. Think about it. Authors invest months, sometimes years in a single book. Writing requires an intense amount of labor; just putting down the first draft is exhausting enough, let alone all the editing and prepping to get it ready to publish. And yet authors are expected to basically be an entertainment figure on top of all of that? As if writing a book wasn't enough?

Why don't we demand the same sort of thing from individuals in other careers? Why don't we insist that surgeons engage more on social media, or lawyers make more public appearances? Why do artists have to somehow juggle two fundamentally opposite and equally demanding jobs - that of the creator and the marketer - when we don't ask that of anyone else?

The answer for authors, I believe, partially lies in the worldwide trend of declining rates of recreational reading. I believe some publishers began to panic when they realized fiction overall hasn't been selling as well over the past couple of decades as it has in the past, simply because with the rise of technology there are now many more entertainment options available. At some point, someone decided they needed to pull in more readers using not the merits of the book itself, but the personality and sociability of the author.

This idea utilizes both most readers' desire to make a connection with the person who created something they like, and most authors' desire to know that their work is making an impact on people. On paper, what better way is there to address both those desires than by making sure the author has constant direct interaction with the readers?

Well, I've now seen what happens when you put that concept into practice. You get overloaded, burned-out, depressed and anxious authors, and entitled, demanding social media users who might not ever even pick up the book, they just like commenting (and sometimes trolling) on posts.

Yes, there are some truly great fans and readers out there. I have several people in mind who sincerely love my work and get very excited whenever a new book comes out. Interacting with them was a pleasant experience. But interacting with nearly everyone else was so intensely stressful that it completely mitigated any positive experiences I was having with the few nice fans. It wasn't worth putting my hand into those shark-infested waters, willing to endure the bites so I could give a few dolphins a token pat on the head.

Especially because readers never become a part of my life anyway. I show my care for them by creating good books for them. I spend months working hard every day to meticulously craft every novel. That is my gift to the readers. What I ask in return is that they spend a few dollars to give a book an opportunity to take them to a higher place. That is my relationship with them. Anything more than that is not only unnecessary, but draining for both parties. I don't take readers out to lunch. I don't buy them birthday presents. I don't attend their piano recitals.


Because if I did all of that, for every reader, I would never have the time to have relationships with the people I'm actually meant to have relationships with. The people who actually care about me as much as I care about them. The people who know me, who understand me, who really need me. For them, I am not just one more human being in their lives, but a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a friend.

Interacting positively with readers was pleasant, but also somewhat hollow. We'd say our how-do-you-dos and I'd say thanks for your support and then we'd go on with our separate lives. Even those technically positive interactions were sometimes draining because they were so superficial. What was I doing, spending hours chatting with people who were nice enough, but who I knew I couldn't open up to if I was struggling, couldn't help me if I needed help, and who ultimately only thought of me as another name on a book cover?

Perhaps I ought to add here that personality-wise, I have always struggled with superficial socializing. I find social interaction the most fulfilling when I have deep, quality relationships with people. So all of this social media chatting was especially draining on me for that reason--because let's be real, social media interaction with people you don't know personally is 100% quantity, no matter how much quality you try to inject. People are going to dash off a quick comment and then keep scrolling down the newsfeed and not think anything of the experience past "that was mildly entertaining".

Plus, as a reader, I have legit never been enticed into reading a fiction novel because of anything about the author. I make book-buying decisions based on the concepts presented in the book, what I know of the overall tone, and if I have previously liked work by the same author. Not based on what pets the author has, what their favorite football team is, or what they ate for breakfast that morning.

Being open about your life to the public has nothing to do with generating interest in your writing, and everything to do with catering to people who are nosy and invasive and gossipy. Do you really expect anyone to respond to a social media post with "Wow, that perfectly-plated sandwich makes me so excited for your upcoming science fiction novel!" It's senseless. And take it from me and my experiences, it actually does nothing for your sales.

On May 16, 1990, puppeteer and filmmaker Jim Henson passed away from sudden severe pneumonia at age 53. He had been running himself ragged with a myriad of projects, appearances, and publicity efforts. He ignored his ailing health until one evening his body just failed. The creative genius behind the Muppets, Sesame Street, and the classic fantasy film Labyrinth, among other things, was gone.

And the sad part is, it was preventable. I don't think his career would have ended that way if he had slowed down, taken more time for himself, and stopped letting so many people take away from him. But he chose not to heed the signs his own body was giving him until it was too late. He was so invested in pleasing others that he forgot how to take care of his own valuable self.

When I was younger, I learned about the way Jim passed and it has always stuck in my mind as a tragic, but important lesson. I never wanted that to happen to me. I vowed to always keep an eye on my stress levels and listen to my body when it started giving me the signals.

So when I got that panic attack, I said, "Okay, body. You're telling me that something is wrong. I'm listening. I care. I want to fix this, because you and your needs are just as important as everyone else and their needs, even if they don't think so." And I did fix it. I made a commitment to myself to change the way I was operating, sent an email to finalize it, and immediately the panic attack ebbed. My physical symptoms lessened, my mind calmed down, and I was finally able to get some sleep. My body knew it had been heard and heeded, and it was satisfied.

The entertainment industry has it all wrong, and I'm speaking out about it. The secret to success - real, personal-well-being success - has nothing to do with running the please-everyone rat race. It's about doing good work and letting God take care of the rest. And it's also about protecting yourself from all the loonies out there who want to take out their problems on you.

So if you're involved in any sort of creative career, I implore you, take good care of yourself. Keep yourself safe. Your worth is inherent and has nothing to do with what you create or what you can do for other people. Don't fall into the trap of social media transparency and "making connections"; it really does nothing for your work, and just makes you one more person for the crazies to unload their garbage onto, to your detriment.

That's why I'd also like to take this opportunity to announce that from now on, I'm going to be a lot less publicly visible. I want my life back, and I don't like that these past few months it has basically belonged to hundreds of other people, most of whom have not cared to support me in return.

I appreciate everyone who reads my books and enjoys them. I like writing good things that make people's lives better and it makes me happy to see my books helping readers. But me running myself ragged isn't going to help anyone, so I'm heavily invested in making my own life better too. And if that means I need to listen to that inner voice that starts screaming "I DON'T WANT TO" whenever I think about socializing or networking or even talking to most people, so be it. I'm going to kick back and thoroughly enjoy being an unsociable recluse, because I care about people but they just plain take too much out of me and don't give back, and that is not fair to me.

I was told my work would not speak for itself. I think that's bogus. The very point of art is to create something that speaks for itself and holds a dialogue with the audience in lieu of the creator. If you have failed to communicate your message clearly in your art, you need improvement as an artist. If art really didn't speak for itself and needed the creator to mediate the conversation, why do people still react so strongly to things like the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and Nō drama, despite their creators having been dead for hundreds of years?

My writing contains messages designed to help people, because I care about them. I distribute these messages in the form of stories, because it is logistically infeasible for me to personally show up at the doorstep of 7 billion human beings and speak these messages to them. It is also mentally and emotionally infeasible. I have my own life to live. I have my own family who needs me more than those people do. 

The only person who was ever asked to personally help every single human being was Jesus. And He did. He died for you, on a very personal level, so that He could be your Master Helper. Not me. I am mortal. I have limitations. I do not possess divine power. 

God loves me, and he sent me here to undertake my own special, personal journey. While I can't always see where His paths are taking me, He has been sending me strong signs that the path I started on a few months ago is not the one I'm supposed to be on.  My mind and body have let me know, quite strongly, that they want to be happy again, and that what I was doing was not making them happy. I refuse to destroy my life in a vain attempt to please, pander to, and serve abusers, and to hope for some nebulous "success" that theoretically should make up for all the real, deep mental, emotional, and physical damage required to achieve it. I have more dignity than that. So I'm switching paths.

I wish everyone well, but like Galadriel, I'm going to retreat to Lothlórien and remove myself from the festering illness of the world because I deserve better than that. I can serve you better, and in a truly dignified manner that ennobles you and me both, when I am not a part of your lives. 

I hope you will continue to enjoy my work that can very well speak for itself. Please pay no attention to the author behind the curtain. She wants to be left alone.

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