My novel Permanent Makeup came out last month, as many of my friends and colleagues quickly discovered on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Their discovery, as much as I hate to admit it, may be even more novel than the novel.
Since my last book, Do Not Go Gentle, was published in 2006, the world has changed, as have I. Back then, I was reluctant to share my fiction with people who knew me in other walks of life. These people respected me as a science writer or medical historian or public health advocate, or so I liked to believe. Would they think less of me if they saw me as another wannabe novelist? Yes, I wrote novels, but they weren’t bestsellers or widely critically acclaimed – certainly not to the degree that I considered commensurate with my other accomplishments in life.
And so, I’d quietly write and publish novels, and simply sit back and hope they’d be discovered. We all know how well that worked. I got some reviews, a bit of publicity, a few sales – which, let’s be honest, is what the vast majority of writers can expect. But most people I lived with and among had no idea who I was or what I did or what I cared about the most. I was fine talking about my science and medical writing. I was fine talking about my medical history background, and my editing business. I’d talk freely about my public health advocacy, to the point of obsessiveness. I’d even break down and brag about my kids now and then. But I wouldn’t mention my novels.
Why didn’t I tell them? Part the reason was humility, both real and false: Was I the one who should be tooting my own horn – and didn’t everyone and their mother claim to be a novelist anyway? Part of the reason was perspective: I knew plenty of fabulous writers and books; was my work really worthy of being pushed on unwitting friends and colleagues – and possibly putting them in the uncomfortable position of saying something nice when they thought my writing was dreadful? And part of the reason was, quite honestly, fear: wasn’t it better, to paraphrase an old saying, to be silent about my books and be thought a mediocre writer than to share my books and have the thought confirmed?
I see my novels as reflecting me more than anything else I do. And paradoxically that was why I didn’t want to associate myself with them publicly.
What changed me was getting older, coupled with social media. The social media part is pretty easy to understand. Until a couple of years ago, I was a lurker at best, using email, of course, but never sharing personal information, much less publicizing my personal stories or professional milestones. Social media seemed like a giant band of horn tooters.
When I started using social media to promote a public health reform, everything changed. My crippling concerns about privacy, and even dignity, were replaced by an awareness of how tools like Facebook and Twitter were turning social hierarchies upside down, giving relatively weak and poorly resourced voices an unprecedented chance to be heard. I threw all caution to the wind and told everything and anything to anybody and everybody. In doing so, I had a life-changing revelation: the best way to toot your horn on social media is to help others toot theirs. Sharing, liking, or commenting on the news of others helps promote the person doing the sharing, liking, and commenting. As a result, the tooting takes on a new, and, to me, less reprehensible tune.
More importantly than my revelations about social media, though, my perspective on myself, my work, and my role in the world has changed since crossing the border of 50. In the past few years I’ve realized that whether or not I spoke out about my writing, or shared it, or allowed it to be judged, I was still going to grow old and die. I could grow old and die without being who I was, and that included admitting I wrote novels, or I could grow old and die and admit it, enjoy it, and share it with others. Whether those others liked it or not, or cared or not, thought me a fool or not, in the end I would at least have participated in life, something I finally realized I should do, not so much our a sense of entitlement as out of a realization that, like everyone else, I am mortal.
One of the great virtues of growing older is realizing that it’s absurd, and a little sad, not to let yourself be who you are, do what you love, and, above all, fully partake in the world while you still have a chance to be, do, and partake.
And so my book “came out” on Facebook, and immediately friends were able to download it on their Kindles at little if any cost, discovering just who I was, how I wrote, and what I had to say. I tweeted the novel, shared it on LinkedIn and Google+, too, and, of course, am admitting authorship right here on this electronic blog. Take it or leave it, but it’s what I am and what I have to give.