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From Phyllida's Desk

Falling Off the Face of the Earth

Toward the end of last month, my young home computer, barely out of puberty, died unexpectedly. Coincidently, my long-awaited new computer at my day job arrived, requiring IT Dept. set-up and the reinstallation of all my software.

What this meant was that, for a brief period, I was almost completely cut off from that online connection with the world that we take for granted. That I was cut off at all is the result of the odd fact that I do not own a genuinely smart phone; and the truth is that it was a very brief period, since I replaced my dead home computer within a few days, and my work computer was up and running for the purposes of e-mail and Googling almost immediately.

But for that very short time I was blissfully free of Facebook, personal e-mail, Twitter, blogging and all the other obligations of being a writer/person in today's strange (if not brave) new world, as it often appears to middle-aged and older people like me. And now that everything is more or less back to "normal" (whatever that is), it feels as if I disappeared into a void, or fell off the face of the earth; that the online world simply went on without me and I can't quite scramble up and out of the deep pit of non-being. Or maybe I just don't want to.

Back in the Paleolithic of 2004 or so, long before I was a (minimally) published author, I wrote letters—actual printed (on the computer) words on paper—that I sent by snail mail to a troglodyte friend. As I transitioned from writing fantasy/sword-and-sorcery to writing a Regency romance, going through several false starts before settling into the novel that would become Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, I wrote about the stuff that was on my mind then: why I like the story of Achilles and Patroclus; what were the realities of ancient Greece's famously homoerotic culture; what defines genre fiction as opposed to literary fiction. "You should write a blog," my friend said after reading one of these multi-page missives. "You write so well, and have such interesting things to say." (I'm paraphrasing.)

Of course, even then, hundreds of people were writing blogs. Today it's hard to find someone who isn't. And as I try to reclaim my role of "writer," the topics and even the style of those ancient letters, as best I can remember them, feel distressingly, exactly, the same as my sporadic blogging now. Eight years and gazillions of bytes later, I'm struggling to find something new to say. After hours of painstaking work I somehow always end up repeating myself in meandering posts that are several hundred words too long and several weeks too far apart to keep up with today's ravening maw of readership that requires truckloads of fresh "content" every hour on the hour.

The honest truth is I don't have an encyclopedic breadth of interests or a factory of anonymous drudges to write them up (as James Patterson employs in his "novel" factories). No matter how often I'm scolded, cajoled or encouraged by advice columns and friends, and by editors and agents at conferences, I simply don't have what it takes to come up with those daily tidbits, interesting and modest—not self-promoting—that will nevertheless convince people to read my fiction. I'm an old, and old-fashioned, writer, a big-book novelist in a world that requires writers to produce in quantities that were unimaginable just a few years ago. An article on this topic made the front page of today's New York Times:


As romance writers, many of whom have been producing three or even four books a year, already know, only literary novelists have the luxury of spending years writing one book.

Now, a couple of weeks into my reappearance, it seems as if my last tenuous links to the world have been severed. Yes, I still get those twice-daily ads from the catalogs I use; and yes, I get those Facebook "status updates" and all those other online groups' notifications. But every remaining personal or at least interesting relationship seems to have disappeared into the ether, as if, sensing that moment when I was truly disconnected, they decided this affiliation was over and deleted me from their files. The few announcements and scheduling decisions I actually want to receive are maddeningly elusive, and I'm afraid of jinxing them by direct inquiry—although clearly I'll have to overcome superstition soon. And it's only made things worse that, something to do with being severely nearsighted, over fifty and intolerant of "face hardware" (reading glasses), my book-reading has slowed to a crawl while my video- and TV-watching has skyrocketed. So I am, to put it mildly, a dud on Goodreads.

This past weekend, as I peered over the edge of that deep pit I've fallen into, wondering if I'll ever be able to hoist myself up and out onto the good side of e-mail and Facebook again, it occurred to me that I had a wonderful opportunity: to start over. Phyllida and Pride/Prejudice are behind me; old and forgotten, but solid achievements, good for morale. My experiment in self-publishing e-books, Lady Amalie's memoirs, is dead in the water. Perhaps I can let go, fall into the bucket and let the other crabs crawl over me in their mad scramble to escape. I may just lie here on my back for a while, claws waving aimlessly, enjoying the peace and quiet, work the extra hours at my day job that I've been offered—the Muses know I need the money—and in my diminished free time, unencumbered by the demands of the twenty-first century, settle into writing my next real novel.

Perhaps, if the writing goes well, I'll send you a postcard from the edge.
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