Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On Crustaceans and Bathroom Stalls

I'm not a narcissist. Not full-time, anyhow.

I won't claim to understand other writers' psyches or imply that we share a singular set of traits, but I suspect my part-time, selective narcissism is not exclusively mine to claim. I think many authors—perhaps even most of us—swing wildly between two states: abject spinelessness and soaring, improbable demigodism.

From hour to hour and day to day we go from cowering delusions of unworthiness to the height of self-worship. It's hard not to, given how this job is built. We work alone, trapped inside our heads for weeks or months at a time, struggling and second-guessing until a story is complete. Once it sells, we're on top of the world! Success! Edits may bring more doubts, but then release day douses us with a fresh fistful of confetti. The first review plunges us into despair yet again or buoys us to new heights of manic happiness. Up, down, up, down, until finally we're safely steeping in the next project and the bipolarity surrounding the previous story levels out.

Between the highs and lows we have days of relative calm, when we feel worthy without psychosis and humble without crippling self-doubt.

We live in a dangerous time for such mood swings. Though some of our lows come from the frustration (or crustation, as I typed at first, hence the new mascot) of writing itself, they often come from the outside. A snide review, a rejection, a comment or tweet that dings our previously shiny egos. As I've said before, participating in the internet is like living in the midst of a gigantic house party, and the more rooms you poke your nose into, the more likely it is you'll accidentally walk in on a conversation you might have preferred not to overhear. Not poking your nose in could also mean you don't overhear kind words, however, and some days you need that boost just to open the work-in-progress and jab at your keyboard with the bloody stumps we writers call our fingers. The trouble is, you can never predict what lies behind a given door.

I'll disclose my own insecurities so I don't have to talk in hypothetical terms. A Twitter friend of mine, @thedaisyharris, referred to the nose-poking as self-stalking a few weeks ago, which I thought was brilliant. I self-stalk, as most of us do, even though I like to pretend I'm totally above such things.

I self-stalk at different levels of obsessiveness on a given day. If I'm in the writing zone I might only pop onto Twitter a few times to be social and check my @ replies, and read my Google Alerts as they come in. Days when I've reached my writing goal early and have free time sometimes spiral into full-on self-stalking marathons. I'll search for my full name on Twitter to see if anyone's talking about any of my books or tweeting my links, spend way too much time on Goodreads trying to figure out what new review made my overall rating average fluctuate .02 stars. I check my publishers' sites for customer reviews, roll around in Google Analytics, monitor my meager blog visitation stats, and painstakingly tweak things on my websites.

But I do have my own limits. Even on my self-stalkiest day, I never check Amazon ratings for my books or track my sales. That's because one has to draw a line somewhere, and I choose to check Goodreads reviews and the ones on my publishers' sites, and the random blog-based ones that find me via Google Alerts or Twitter, and no others. Those are plenty. It's also because I've heard the vastness and anonymity of Amazon brings out the rock-throwing meanies, and they scare me. I also don't do Facebook, because I don't trust myself with it. Twitter is the right speed and commitment level for me, and anything more would cut too deeply into my actual fiction-writing time. Oh and also because I'm one of those snotty non-joiners who gets off on resisting trends (while embracing others—it's very selective, my self-importance).

Yesterday my erotica-writing alter ego finished a novella, and as such I get a day or two off from writing to recupe and catch up on other responsibilities. With writing no longer taking up the morning, it's easy to get one's wheels stuck in the self-stalking groove. I think we tend to live today based on what we did yesterday, and live this hour as we lived the previous hour. Creatures of habit. If I set a pattern of checking all my usual haunts for evidence of my existence in other people's consciousness, I may wind up cycling back, over and over, for the rest of the day, fiending for a fresh hit of validation. Is anyone talking about me? Did anyone tweet me? Refresh! Refresh!!

It doesn't take much to get brainwashed by the cult of self, and to find yourself spending an entire afternoon staggering around on the hinterwëbs, sniffing for a morsel of other people's admiration. It skews your thinking, as well. Your mind glazes over. You begin to read into things.

For example, I check my Analytics every morning while I drink my coffee. I like to see where my website traffic is coming from and what makes it spike. I'm also nosy and I love seeing what cities and countries visitors come from. So Analytics told me that yesterday a new visitor from New York City was on my site for five minutes! The crustacean of egomania immediately scuttled in and began rewiring my normally rational thought processes. "Surely it's an agent!" the crustacean said. "I mean, who else would it be? There's bound to be more high-powered agents looking you up than oh, I don't know, readers, in a city of seven million people, right? Better stare at your dusty phone for the next eight hours and wait with bated breath for a Very Important Call."

Depending on what my brain chemistry gets up to today, I will either tape this post onto the digital bathroom stall wall and wander away to tackle actual real-life projects, or else I will come back again and again, monitoring comments and checking traffic…basically returning ad nauseum to the same stall to see if anyone's decorated (or defaced) my flier. And so it goes.

If I had to offer advice for getting one's self out of the obsessive validation-seeking loop, it's not remotely revolutionary. Get away from your computer or your internet-connected phone. Take a walk. Meet a friend for lunch or a drink and talk about anyone aside from yourself. Drink less coffee. Read a book outside your genre. Unfollow the Eeyores and the industry bloggers on Twitter, if all their tweets or updates do is put you on edge and distract you from your actual job—putting words on a page with a modicum of confidence. If you've got it really bad and lack any measure of discipline, install one of those internet timers and literally shut off access to your self-stalking hot spots for a set period of time each day, and force yourself to do other things.

My personal solution has so far been to wait out the storm. If I'm feeling self-stalky, I do make sure I go for a walk that day. But most often, unless I really need to buckle down and write, I indulge and embrace the urge to self-obsess, binge on it, and before too long I always OD and wind up strung out and listless and just wander away to sober up. I get sick of myself, and thank goodness. It frees me of caring what others think for a while. Soon enough I want to go back to plotting the next story or painting the bathroom or posting on this silly blog, anything but think about me me me. After all, no one finds me as fascinating as I find myself. And how could I not? We're all—with the exception of those who put their children or partner at the center of their lives—the suns at the hearts of our own solar systems. In the absence of a higher power to worship and seek to please, we naturally become our own gods. That may not be especially healthy, but it is human. And until I wake up a more well adjusted person, I'll continue to indulge my inner narcissist whenever he scuttles up.

And refresh, refresh, refresh…


  1. So if I comment, am I feeding your self-stalking beast? And if I don't comment, is your beast going to curl up and wallow in chocoloate (that's what mine does)? Hmmm.

  2. Hi, Teri Anne!

    I'm only moderately self-stalky today, so you're not enabling me too terribly. And since I have the day off from proper writing, a taste of self-obsession between other tasks is admissable :-)

  3. Wow. Writers are weird. The only self-stalking I've ever done is Google my name. Got a lot of hits, oddly enough none of them had anything to do with me...

    Love your books, btw. Altho' I prefer Cara to Meg. :-)

  4. We're a truly neurotic bunch, aren't we?

    Self-stalking (or, as my friend Scarlett Parrish calls it, Google-wanking) is such an easy trap to fall into. I hate it. I avoid reader reviews at all cost, and have deleted all of my Google alerts. But in that down time between projects, I find myself desperately craving some kind of validation. That's when I start checking the Amazon sales and rankings, or scouring romance review blogs for my name. *sigh* I do find it comforting though, knowing most of us are in the same neurotic boat. :-)

    Thanks for a great post!

  5. Damn it, I wanted to be the one to first mention google-wanking in this thread!

    *shakes fist at Marie*

  6. My bad. But I did give you credit for it, lovey!

  7. LOL @ Google-wanking, that's as brilliant as self-stalking! Not often I acquire two new awesome terms in one day.

    We're all neurotic, that's for sure. I do think Twitter helps me be less so (if only for the semi-constant stream of affirmation that I Am Not The Only One). But anything over 140 characters is liable to lead to trouble and not-writing.