How Has My Writing Changed in the Past Five Years? by Alma Gottlieb

How Has My Writing Changed in the Past Five Years?

Alma Gottlieb

Three years ago, I began experimenting with a new genre: writing for Facebook!

I already had a private Facebook page, so I had experience with dashing out quick posts to ask for advice, share recipes, brag about my kids, promote political activism, complain annoyingly about this or that minor inconvenience, or flash vacation destinations shamelessly.

My new writing project took my Facebook involvement in a totally new direction.

At the urging of a publicist assigned to market a new book I’d coauthored for a scholarly press (A World of Babies: Imagined Childrearing Guides for Eight Societies), I set up a Facebook page for the book. Or, rather, I hired a fabulously competent college student, Erica Sheeran, to set it up. (I knew it would take me days to figure out how to do this; it took Erica less than five minutes.) I figured that once it went live, the new Facebook page would just sit there and magically collect Likes and sell books.

Wrong.

The publicist turned out to have a way more active agenda. I’m guessing he’d tried out his idea on other authors who’d, wisely, turned down the invitation. Being an adventurous (read, foolish) sort, I accepted his challenge before remembering to be an anthropologist and ask enough questions.

His strategy? Have the FB page go live two months before the book’s pub date, with a different post every day for those two months. He said that would fire up pre-pub enthusiasm and set the groundwork for a book-buying audience. Then, I should keep up the momentum with a different post for a few months post-pub, and perhaps slow down to a stately pace of a post every other day for a few months, and maybe one post every week, or two after that.

Erica and I had our work cut out for us.

Fortunately, I’d just “retired” from my college-teaching career [or, rather, ”rewired”], and it was summer. (True, my husband and I were moving across the country to live out this new stage of our lives on the East Coast after 34 years in the Midwest. But we’ll ignore that inconvenient impediment here.)

Erica and I hashed out 63 blog posts—seven posts about components of each of the book’s nine chapters. But my publicist warned me not to make the FB page too “sales-y” – by which he meant, we should write additional posts about related questions raised by the book, but not about the book. So Erica and I hashed out another, oh, hundred or so posts about the book’s issues. The book concerned how people around the world raise their young children, from immigrant Muslim communities in Lisbon, to Israel and the West Bank, to urban, modernizing China. So we started collecting news articles about child-related events, features, and crises around the world, and we wrote our own brief commentaries about each article.

Come Labor Day—two months before pub date—we began uploading posts, one a day. We alternated between posts chronicling child-rearing communities featured in the book, and posts about children’s lives and challenges elsewhere. Following my publicist’s directions, once the book was published, we began focusing more on child-related issues around the world, and less about the book itself.

We never lacked for material. Soon after the book was published, Donald Trump became president. His anti-family agenda provided interminable abominations to protest. First, there was the impact on children of his anti-Muslim migrant ban. Then, as soon as news leaked of his inhumane policy separating parents and young children at the US-Mexico border, we stopped the FB presses and posted nothing but daily updates about the crisis Trump had created, vowing to keep the Facebook page laser-focused on this Trump-crafted tragedy until the policy was reversed. We discovered how to use our FB page to promote fund-raising campaigns for organizations pledged to helping immigrant families that had been forcibly separated at the border.

And let’s not even mention our disgraceful Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

We’ve now published some 475 posts about children’s lives and challenges around the world. Beyond politics, we’ve featured art exhibits highlighting images of children and mothers; ideas for celebrating holidays with child-friendly activities; different approaches to pregnancy, childbirth, and breast/bottle-feeding around the globe; keeping students safe in violence-prone schools; and much more.

As with everything in life, there have been gains and losses. In this case, I’ve sacrificed depth for breadth.

On the “minus” side, our posts are, necessarily, far shorter than the one- or two-hour lectures I used to give in my classrooms in Illinois. I dare not offer complicated caveats, try to keep readers motivated with extended narratives, or maintain their attention with provocative questions inviting multiple responses.

On the plus side, keeping posts short enough to accommodate a social-media-habituated reader means finding the tiniest key nugget possible in a long, multi-layered story. That’s a great discipline for any writer.

Plus, it turns out, I missed teaching. I’ve ended up using our Facebook page as a digital blackboard. This social media platform offers me an infinitely expandable classroom to accommodate far more students than I have taught collectively in my ~40 years of teaching. As of this writing, the FB page has now been seen by some 750,000 people from some 47 countries around the world. (Too bad that hasn’t translated into 750,000 book sales! The ratio of FB page views to sales remains, alas, rather infinitesimal.)WOB FB Page, 6-21-19

Meanwhile, my weakness as a writer has always been prolixity. Who knows? Maybe working this new “short-and-sweet” genre will inspire me to trim the fat in my already-too-long book manuscript in progress on another subject. 😂

You Are Not The Boss of Me

My social media feed is often full of things telling me how to think and feel. I must do this, I must do that, eat this, that, not this, that, protest this, that, agree with, disagree with…the list is endless. Much as I enjoy hearing what others are doing and thinking, I don’t like being subjected to a barrage of control. I feel that ideas and actions are being increasingly policed, but in ways I find repetitious, not revelatory.

What really set me off was a Facebook response to a privately sponsored writer’s residency that paid a stipend. No good deed goes unpunished as the offer was attacked from every possible angle—including that they didn’t fund authors enough! I’ve been involved with the vision of possible residency using a Tiny House, and I found this conversation downright depressing.

Then it occurred to me I don’t have to worry. My family tried to control me and I left New Jersey the day after high school graduation. Just a heads up to the universe-—bossing me around does’t work as a form of communication.

I am, however, a willing servant to my autumn blooming roses and my dirty suminagashi tray…Photo by Isabel Winson-Sagan

Facebook, Russian Bots, Data Mining, and Me

Maybe I’m not paranoid enough, but I don’t think Facebook is really paying attention to me. If it was, I’d be seeing pop ups for the two major issues in my life:

1. How to remove skunks (five skunks) from under your (my) house.

2. Is humanity basically more stupid than evil or more evil than stupid?

The first is a short term problem. Those skunks have been trapped and released far far away. The second more ongoing. I’ve been pretty much worrying about it non-stop since I was thirteen when I definitively realized that “adults” had all the power but far far from all the understanding.

Facebook has realized that I can be lured (like a skunk to a marshmallow cookie, I kid you not) by the promise of cheap, colorful, ethnic, hippie, flow-y, items of clothing. As my browsing history, my closet, and my taste at my friend Joanie’s clothing exchange will attest to.

Otherwise, what I post on Facebook is ultra vanilla. I imagine my former dean or my dead mother’s friends reading it. I voted for Hillary. I am never drunk or naked with a lampshade on my head. I never sign in to anything via Facebook. Got it?