Writers’ block is something different these days. It’s not just the fear of putting things on the paper and having them stand there in the physical world, to be dissected or dismantled or ignored by readers at some point in the future. Most blocks today aren’t about writing, but of having to deal with the immediate response of people reading one’s writing online.
I haven’t wanted to blog in almost a year. The web isn’t a safe place for writers anymore. Animosity toward “the media” as a whole has been so amped up by government propaganda that readers are open firing on “the messengers.” The user experience for reading online text is so uncomfortable that readers are even less able to differentiate between individual writers than 10 years ago when blogging was just starting to go mainstream. There is a detachment between the text and the people who created it in the minds of most readers. They hate “the media,” or “the liberal media” or “the conservative media,” so they lash out everywhere they can with their ill-informed opinions, not considering that “the media” is just a group of individuals with wide-ranging qualities. If someone says “I hate Americans,” and you are one, you say hey, that’s not fair. There are shitty members of the media just like there are shitty Americans, ones that damage the image of the group to outsiders. And then there’s everyone else. The ones who have to avoid people who think in binary terms.
Some readers of “the media” latch onto articles like toddlers grabbing a toy a few years too advanced for them, slobbering all over it without understanding what it does, and then throwing it aside, not caring if it breaks. The poor toy. That wasn’t how it was meant to be enjoyed.
One of the first interviews I conducted was with Bill Keller, the then-EIC of the New York Times. He described his role as being “a political chew toy.” I didn’t really understand what he meant back then, but I do now.
What if we could write knowing our content would go only where it’s respected? What if we could publish without having to worry about being objectified, insulted, threatened? We pretend like free speech is something that exists here in the United States, but let’s be real: if you can’t write about a touchy subject without having to worry about someone finding your personal information and burning your house down, are you really free to speak? I haven’t experienced a fraction of the abuse some writers have, but it hasn’t stopped me from developing an aversion to the whole system, a system that is mainly designed by men who crave control of the public consciousness.
Life as a writer has been strange all-around, but over the past few years it’s been downright unbearable. Once I met a guy at a party who was studying journalism at a big journalism university here in NYC. I told him I’m a journalist too. “Oh, what do you have like, a blog or something?” “Yeah.. or something.” Sometimes I don’t even want to engage anymore. When I walked away, and someone clued him in that my portfolio extends beyond a blog, he Googled me and came back full of compliments, wanting to get closer, to know me more. Sorry, but I saw you the first time, and I don’t actually want to know you at all.
If you’re a writer and you don’t guard yourself well, people behave like they are automatically entitled to your time, as if you’re a public utility funded by taxpayer dollars. Maybe we should be, because the alternatives are sure as hell not working, but we’re not, which makes our time ours. Sometimes, unprompted, they immediately dump their saddest story or deepest secret on you. I usually listen with inescapable empathy, while I think to myself, I didn’t ask, and I really don’t want to know. Being the bearer of secrets is a responsibility, a parasite that we’re forced to then carry around until we can find a new host. But it seems the machine that used to accept our burdens is only accepting parasites from corporations now. Freelance journalists are left to try to drown their parasites with trusted others in dimply lit bars, and they usually come back.
Usually when I tell people I’m a writer, they immediately try to exploit me. They want attention, they want “press” for their super cool new company that’s going to change the world because it’s the Uber for ___ (insert whatever bullshit people don’t actually need here). Why do they assume that their desire to know me, a New York writer, trumps my desire to be left alone? I don’t like to lie to people, so I just excuse myself and let them think what they want. It was worse when I was at Wired. That affiliation transformed me from Arikia Millikan into Internet Magazine Editor ID # 1835103. I have 150,000 unread emails in my inbox to prove it. To so many people, writers are a tool, a stepping stone, a weapon. Nobody asks us if we consent.
Usually, I write about people namelessly, as anecdotes to make whatever point I’m making, or just to stretch the blogging muscles. Sometimes they see a post and assume that it’s about them. Usually it’s not, but sometimes they’re right. Either way, someone is out there feeling entitled to qualify my literary perspective. They say: I can’t believe you made me sound so dumb, or so mean. They try to argue with my perspective, if it didn’t align with theirs. They attack me like it’s my fault for observing them acting a certain way. I want to tell them: have you instead considered not acting like that, if you don’t want to be seen as someone who acts like that? But usually I just wind up feeling censored. Inspiring a transformation in one person is never the goal with my writing, unless it’s a personal email addressed to them. If you want to play muse in a writer’s work, whatever, but don’t then go to her with hurt feelings because she saw something in you that you wouldn’t include in your conference biography.
People are so used to having Instagram filters, they forget what reality looks like.
Usually I’m mined but other times, when I meet someone randomly and they inevitably ask what I do, and tell them I’m a writer, they immediately go on the defensive. Like I’m a paparazzi who has somehow telepathically magnetized them over to me at a bar just so I can pry into their life. I then have to explain: I don’t do that kind of writing, I’m at a bar, I’m not working right now, I would never care enough to write about your Wall Street dealings to write about you even if I was paid. In fact, I would quit my job if I was forced to write about you. People are my favorite subject to write about, but I have no desire to write about most people on anyone else’s terms.
Increasingly, that’s what journalists are being asked to do in the professional world. The publishers sold out, the editorial walls have crumbled, or were never built in the first place online, the way they once were with print media. Advertisers feel entitled to demand journalists attention and coverage in ways they define with demands. I may think the more interesting angle is about how your company is destroying the rainforest, but my editor may tell me the obvious angle is to write about what a philanthropist the founder is. Why does anyone wonder why journalism is declining?
Most people don’t know the difference between PR and journalism. Even less people will be able to define in 10 years, as the new generation enters the arena. One time I was at a party for a big, trendy media company, and I went up to the VIP lounge to escape the crowd. I wound up talking to a woman who was about my age when I started off interning in the NYC media world. She was telling me about her job, how she reads the press releases and then she writes them up in fun language. I asked her where she finds stories outside of press releases, and she looked at me with bewilderment. It had never occurred to her that story ideas came from places outside of press releases. I think that was the moment I really lost faith in the industry.
So that’s it. That’s where I am right now, and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. This is my dismal perspective, sponsored by no one. And I am entitled to it.