If you write for an online audience, you’ve probably felt the “read-and-response” anxiety. Here’s how it goes:
You nail your piece of writing to a hunk of cyberspace. If it’s good, you feel a little like Luther nailing his theses to the Wittenberg chapel.
You sigh – well done, self. Let the realms of Twitterdom and Facebook know that the next glorious meme has plopped into the stew of Internet content.
You kill ten minutes.
Then it begins.
You load your blog or website or whatever and look for the gleam of favorites/comments/new follows. You check your email: maybe an alert’s come through there? A Retweet? A Facebook like, at least?
Too soon. Check back in an hour (or another ten minutes).
And so it goes. Every ping is a little harpstring plucked in the heart; every hour of silence, a minor existential crisis. I check and check. I track my site stats after six hours, eighteen hours, waiting for the verification that this meant something to someone. That my words were read and taken to heart and “amen”-ed with the click of a button.
If it isn’t clear by now, I don’t know if other people deal with this, but I sure do.
I’ve read it somewhere – I think from John Gardner, though it may have been Stephen King – that alcoholism is the writer’s besetting struggle. That may be, for many, and may that monkey be pried from every back.
But Internet writers, I think, have a subtler simian: vainglory.
“Vainglory” isn’t common in modern bestiaries, which is part of the problem. It’s not exactly conceit, and it’s not exactly pride. The Greek word under it, kenodoxia, literally means “empty glory.”
To define it, vainglory is the pursuit of praise that has no ultimate value. Empty-calorie affirmation. The Wendy’s FrostyTM of food for the soul.
Vainglory is that floating feeling we get when we feel popular: when it feels like the world, real or cyberreal, has hoisted us onto its shoulders for our contributions to its health. It’s addictive as alcohol (to me, at least), and – if we’re not careful to see it and stop it – can drive our lives as thoroughly into the ground.
One reason I think vainglory is so insidious to Internet writers is that Internet writing invites obsession with popularity. In the absence of money, we measure our work’s “success” by clickstats. WordPress (as well as other sites, I assume) has preposterously thorough systems for tracking the exact progress of my work. I can count the number of visitors, of page hits, of clicked links, and on and on; and WordPress even tells me when I hit new milestones of popularity! Social media has the same appeal. All these platforms ask aspiring writers to check their “success” constantly and thoroughly; this is an invitation to dabble in vainglory.
The second big reason I think Internet writing invites vainglory is that popularity is a counterfeit of the praiseworthy goal of writing. The writer’s vocation is to bless others with my words: to impart some idea or feeling or experience to them that shapes their life for the better. That’s a praiseworthy aim for a writer. For a writer to find out that his or her work has made that beneficial impact on a reader is an utter joy.
But the problem – for Internet writers especially – is that likes and Retweets and all the rest can feel like a sign of that impact without actually being that. Like Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed illustrates, ideas grow in people’s hearts in slow, imperceptible stages. An idea, like a plant, may not become visible for weeks; it may not bear real fruit for months or even years. We won’t really know the impact of our words until the new creation, if then.
Popular response seems like a sign that my work is blessing others; but it ain’t necessarily so. In the same way that people might applaud a speech and then totally forget it, people might share my writing and do nothing else with it. Popular response tells me something about my writing; but it doesn’t tell me the most important thing. And if that’s how I measure my “success,” I’m actually cultivating vainglory instead of a desire to bless others.
In a follow-up post, I’ll think on some ways a writer can fight vainglory while chasing an online-writing career.