Today’s internet thrives on polarization. Websites profit when people take opposing sides. That’s what happens in what we call “the comments” on just about any article, especially those on websites that are designed to make money for someone. “The game itself is rigged and it deranges the players,” Benjamin Cain says.
There’s no obvious way to respond to online criticism, especially when so much of it is trolling. One type of response works in one situation, another type in another situation. Often, a writer’s best strategy is not to engage the critic at all, especially when the critic isn’t sincerely interested, isn’t informationally equipped to have a real discussion, is going to harass the writer, is backed by an algorithm that will mobilize an army of trolls, or has fled the scene so the writer would be speaking to empty air.
But if he could give one piece of advice, it is to “transcend the medium.”
I note: He does not say to transcend conflict itself. More specifically, he doesn’t say to transcend the meaningful elements of online conflict. Instead, he says to transcend the medium that is producing unnecessary, ridiculous, unproductive conflict.
Let’s keep that question in mind. What does it mean to transcend the medium in which one writes? How does one do it?
In his introduction, “The Practice of Sustaining Attention to Climate Change,” he writes of “strategies for holding attention” for fiction writers. These steps are:
– Create a handful of compelling characters. – Put them in a unique situation, and place before them a challenging dilemma. – Differentiate between characters who are driven to overcome this dilemma and characters who (or situations that) exacerbate that dilemma or pose new dilemmas. – Allow conflict to play itself out in patterns of defeat and triumph, betrayal and collaboration, despair and hope. – Hold out the promise that some final resolution is coming.
—Min Hyoung Song
We, too, as much as our fictional characters, need the promise of resolution. Otherwise, what do we strive for? And so we have to provide ourselves, in our real lives, with this goal. In our writing, yes. Also, in our lives.
“A writer, a little bit lonely and a whole lot desperate, signed into social media,” begins Michael J. Seidlinger’s new book, Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma.
Isn’t that how the day often begins? Reading people’s online conversations about books. Thinking about joining the conversation. Drafting the post. Posting the post. Receiving a notification of one engagement. Checking the stats. That’s how the book will be written, correct?
“A writer just needed to keep scrolling.”
A writer may, or may not, have this fraught relationship with social media. A writer may, or may not, occasionally drink one too many beers. Occasionally, a certain writer exists who has never opened a social media account nor a beer can. That is OK, because that writer, too, is also included and is grateful to be seen, if at an angle. That writer is also afflicted by nostalgia and best-laid plans and egg timers and fountain pens and friends to whom they owe phone calls.
The runaways are the itch and the scratching of the itch. The counting of the words. The tallying of the rejections. The reading of Runaways is a meta-runaway.
We read and write to feel seen and to get better at reading and writing. We do that, right? We read and write.
“Eventually, a writer abandoned the books and went back online.” — Michael J. Seidlinger
So, there have been recurring sightings in Colorado of a particular four-year-old male elk, noticeable because he had slipped his head through an auto tire and then grown antlers so large that the tire would not slip off. I do not live in Colorado, but I heard about this yesterday in the New York Times.
“It’s tough to look at nearly two years of a pandemic head on, to describe exactly what happened and is happening. To talk about the grief and loss and hope without reaching for symbols, for comparisons that might confer some meaning on it all. The elk’s predicament (tire on neck) and its remediation (remove tire from neck) are appealing in their simplicity. Real life, of course, is sprawling, abstract, unpredictable. It’s easier to say “We are all the elk” than to reckon with the bewildering particulars of Covid, quarantine and after.”
For this elk, there was a solution. People tranquilized it, sawed off its antlers, slipped the tire over its head, then gave it a drug to reverse the effects of the tranquilizer. It woke up and walked away. For a while, it will also be less vulnerable to hunters, as they will not want to shoot it if there are no antlers to take as a trophy. The elk had to accept help. This, too, is a metaphor.