Telling the Truth

My Klout score is 58. This morning, I weighed 126 pounds. The advance for my first book was $0. The advance for my last book was $5,000.

Why am I telling you this?

About a week ago, I read a story in The New York Times about Klout.com, which claims to track and score your social influence. I had no idea what it was, so of course I checked it out. And now I know my Klout score. What I learned in the process is that, although everyone I asked about it told me how silly it was, how it made the internet seem like high school, many of the people I know and follow were on Klout. They were presumably checking their Klout scores as well. (I won’t name names. You know who you are.) The higher their score, the more likely they were to be registered on the site.

And this got me thinking about all the things we don’t talk about.

There are so many of them!

I think it’s because we don’t want to seem shallow, vain, narcissistic. We don’t want to seem overly concerned with money. (When you’re in a group of writers who are just starting out, they talk about craft. When you’re in a group of professional writers, and all of you in that group are professional writers, you know what they talk about? Money. And sales. That’s where you get the real information.) We know that we’re supposed to focus not on our weight, but on our health. We know we’re not supposed to compare ourselves to others (although we don’t, don’t we?). We’re supposed to be inclusive rather than competitive. But the truth is that many of us are competitive and ambitious. We just politely disguise the fact that we are. And of course there are the things we’re ashamed to talk about, because they might expose that we’ve failed.

The problem with not telling the truth is that we end up not telling each other things – withholding information. I spent years reading ridiculous and potentially harmful diet books before I realized that the people who actually maintained the shape I wanted to be in all monitored their weight carefully. So now I count calories, and I weigh myself every morning. If I weigh more than I would like to, I cut back on my calories. When I say that I need to lose five pounds, I always get “Oh no, you look fine,” as though my statement were some sort of code for self-doubt or criticism. But what I actually mean is that in the next month, I intend to lose five pounds. I take ballet classes. If I don’t understand and have control over my body, I could injure myself.

Similarly, we are often given the impression that people with writing careers got them in some mysterious way – by luck, by good fortune. That may sometimes happen, but it’s rare. The people I know who have writing careers built them – they are ambitious, they kept track of their progress. They publicized in specific and targeted ways.

I’m always fascinated by stories of how people got where they are, like this article on how Imogen Heap makes and markets her music. How she has found her own way in the music industry, which is even harder to navigate than the publishing industry. And when I read stories like that, I think, is there a lesson in it for me? For what I do? Because I am ambitious, and silly as a Klout score genuinely is (what does it mean, anyway?), I’m going to keep track of it. And if it falls, I’m going to wonder why.

I’m always grateful to people who tell the truth, rather than practicing polite reticence or obfuscation. People like Catherynne Valente or Tobias Buckell (who once gathered and posted information on book advances – the first information some people had ever seen on what is standard in the industry). And I think that if you’re a writer, telling the truth is important. That’s the business we’re in, after all: truth-telling, even if we tell it with elves or dragons. If you’re a writer, you have no business maintaining polite fictions.

I think society expects us to make it look easy. Like ballet: a good ballerina will make it look as though anyone can jump that high. But it takes a lot of work. If I didn’t watch calories, I would gain weight fairly quickly, because I like food. A lot. I want my next advance to be higher (if any publishers are listening). And I’m going to keep working on this writing career of mine, because it really, really matters to me.

Also, and this is the final thing I’ll say, in our society there’s a tremendous sense of shame associated with failure. I’m always so grateful when people talk about their failures (Imogen Heap was dropped from record labels twice), because it makes me feel as though my failures are not so bad, nothing to be ashamed of. Simply bumps on the road. So in the interest of truth-telling, I did not get into graduate school the first time I applied (my essay was not particularly good, and I wasn’t mentally ready – it was a failure, but turned out to be good for me because I ended up in the program where I belonged). My hair color is Naturtint 7G Golden Blonde, and yes it’s close to my natural hair color, but redder, brighter, because I like it that way. And I deal, on and off, with depression, which is not a mood but a recurring illness.  I’ve been dealing with it a lot this year.

If I can think of anything else to tell the truth about, I’ll let you know.

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16 Responses to Telling the Truth

  1. Ari Berk says:

    Really enjoyed this, Theodora. Thank you.

  2. It’s funny how when my mind starts down a certain track, I start to see other people following that same track over and over again around me. The idea of truth-telling has been on my mind a lot recently. The thing that’s been gnawing at me revolves around the shame we attach to things we don’t talk about. It isolates us and everybody around us. Depression is one of those things that many people don’t often speak about publicly, I admire you for being open about it. I admire two authors who used to blog publicly about living with bipolar disorder. There is a lot of shame attached to “mental illness” still. I don’t even like the term “mental illness.” We don’t talk about it because we’re ashamed of it, but by not talking about it, we ourselves feed into that shame.

  3. Michele Lee says:

    I needed to read this right now.

  4. Peter Huston says:

    Just FYI, don’t mean to be argumentative, really, but as someone who is teaching graduate students in China, and has lived in Asia off and on for years, I am regularly grateful that I come from a society where failure is so much more readily forgiven than it is in
    Chinese culture. Everything’s relative perhaps.

  5. Cecilia Tan says:

    A brave and thoughtful post. No one ever really wants to hear that things take diligence and work, whether that’s in maintaining health, maintaining a creative career, or what — they want to hear that the Talent Fairy waved a magic wand and made you a “winner.” As if life were a game where once you won a round, you never had to get back in the ring?

    I’ve noticed this a lot in ebook sales. People are VERY reticent to talk about their actual sales numbers because they’re afraid they’re going to look bad. But without knowing what kind of numbers are out there, there’s no way to know if they *are* good or bad numbers. People do have a tendency to compare themselves to others, but in this I think a lot are trying to find out where they are on the mountain. How much higher could they climb if they knew the way? Or should they be happy with the plateau they’ve reached? For some, they’re content with whatever they get in sales because either they’re a hobby writer just gratified to be read by people not close friends and family or because they’re still doing most of their sales in print and so the digital stuff is just gravy. For others, they’re content because their artistic goals were reached. But for many they’re still mapping out this odd new digital landscape that seems to be changing all the time. The only way to explore it together is for people to share their yardsticks and measurements and too try not to be judgmental about it, but open-minded instead.

  6. Steve Hughes says:

    While some with high Klout scores have quit or had issues with the scoring, the overwhelming majority are people that are not satisfied with their scores. Them the facts.

  7. When I was still hoping to go for a PhD, I applied to seven or eight programs, and didn’t get in to a single one. I was depressed for quite a long time over that. I’m debating now whether to get a low-residency MFA or not; the City University of Hong Kong offers one, but I don’t know if I could even attempt it until Anya’s older.

  8. Margaret Fisher Squires says:

    It is so important to be honest about and accepting of our own “failures”. Keeping in mind that “failure” is an experience we have, not an identity we own.
    Kristen Neff, in her book Self-Compassion, has good things to say about letting our failures unite us with other human beings, instead of isolating ourselves with shame.

  9. Anonymous just this once says:

    Like kimberlycreates, I’ve been thinking a lot about telling the truth lately, especially as it applies to my struggles with depression. (The only way I’ve written about my depression online is on LiveJournal, under heavy friends-lock.) On the one hand, several people I admire — you, JT Eberhard, Cleolinda — are open and honest about your experiences with mood disorders, and that makes me think that I should be, too.

    On the other hand, one point of being open about such things is to reduce the stigma. If I admit to dealing with depression and then proceed to publicly fail in some way, not only will I be embarrassed by the failure, I’ll have to worry that my actions reflect on others with depression. (I know because this has happened before, on a smaller scale.) And even apart from that… the people I admire who talk about this, I admire because they’re awesome. I’m nobody in particular. If I wanted to be more open about what I’ve been through in the past few years, I’m not sure what good it would do.

  10. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Telling the truth is, unfortunately, often harmful to the work of writers. It’s an industry and culture where everything is smaller than it appears. To tell the truth–to really tell the truth, rather than just recite numbers–is often to voluntarily diminish something beautiful that deserves to be bigger, and more respected, than it is. Anyone can type a number. Here’s a number: 30,000. Here’s another one: 2,700. Even if I told you what those numbers meant, they would still lack all causality, all real context. (Recite numbers to those outside of the industry and they just look at you blankly as if you’ve confessed but the confession was a lie, and then go back to the narrative in their heads about the glamour of books.) Like most everything in our world, but perhaps more than some, the world of books lives and breathes, is animated, by elements so unscientific and random that to put forward a number is just a Kafkaesque joke of cosmic proportions. JeffV

  11. Danny Adams says:

    Not just talking about failures, but also the fears that even the successful have. This past weekend I watched an interview with Herman Wouk where he was talking about writing The Winds of War. He spent eleven years researching it and writing it, and even though he was already a well-established bestselling author by that point, and had committed so much time to the novel, he still often thought during the process, “Who will care about this book? Who will read this book?” This was refreshing to me, because I also think that admitting fear is considered by many to be nearly as shameful as failure.

  12. Hi all! Sorry, this is the last week of the semester and it’s been hard for me to find the time to comment back. But I think there are some very important things in the comments you’ve made. I love what Margaret says about letting our failures unite us. I honestly don’t think you can succeed without failure, because if you’re doing something important, you’re going to be pushing yourself and taking risks. So you need to give yourself permission to fail. And that’s easier to do if you know that other people have been there before, have failed and then succeeded. Jason, this is probably going to sound silly, but when something doesn’t work out for me, I tend to say to myself, that wasn’t where I was meant to go, so where am I mean to go? And then I listen, and wait for weird coincidences to tell me. (See? Sounds silly. But that’s what I do. And just FYI, the second time I applied, I not only got into a great program, but I got my tuition paid plus a stipend to pay all my living expenses. It was the best failure ever.)

    Anonymous, you sound pretty awesome yourself, and very thoughtful about all this. Whether you want to talk about anything is always up to you, and based on what’s best for you. The thing I’ve learned about depression is that it’s a time to be kind to myself, to go into myself. (Took me a long time to learn that, thought.) And a time to cut myself a lot of slack. So I hope you do that . . . And I also hope you have someone to talk to. I make sure I stay in touch with friends, and I also have an excellent therapist. And while I haven’t gone on antidepressants myself, I have friends who have been helped significantly by them.

    Jeff, you’re right, writing is much bigger and more important than numbers. But I do want to know the numbers, too. Especially when they have dollar signs in front of them. 🙂

  13. Ouch. I’m one of those “just starting out,” struggling with how to make it good and how to establish a pattern of writing daily (not just when the inspiration hits!). Only five or so weeks ago did anyone explain to me how important social networking is (and networking in general– you’re supposed to _introduce_ yourself to editors, even before your book is done!?), and it’s a struggle to learn how these sites work when I’ve never used any of them. Oddly enough, it was a massage therapist who taught me the importance of networking, and was open about how much more money she made that way than though traditional routes (without networking, clients come to the spa and don’t know you; networking, they show up and ask for you by name), which may say a lot about truth in the different industries.

    In the past month of searching for authors’ blogs and twitters, I’ve only twice seen anyone talk about book advances– your opening lines here, and two week ago when someone said her average was $10,000. So until tonight, I thought that $10,000 was “normal” for anyone who managed to get their book picked up by a publisher (obviously, ebooks don’t come with advances, though that would be nice!). The lack of public information is frustrating… with most industries, and all the other career fields I’ve been a part of or considered (from massage therapy to Dreaded Government Work to some of the more obscure scientific fields where your day job is actually teaching college classes), money, how to break into the field, how to pitch yourself to an employer, what they’re /really/ looking for, even what kind of office politics to expect– these things are openly discussed in person and online. In some cases, you don’t even have to ask, because people will /volunteer/ information they think you ought to know, even if you don’t seem very interested. But in the past month, I’ve seen a lot of posts saying “Why didn’t anyone warn me!?” and “No one talks about this!” with very little information. That’s what gets to me– if someone is complaining about the lack of information, ought they not to give all the information /they/ have, so fewer people get screwed (or just plain confused)? It’s perpetuation of a cycle.

    I know why this happens; they’re upset that they weren’t warned, but they also don’t know if they’ll hurt themselves if they speak out. Every time I see advice on how hirablity relates to the internet, the advice is the same: Google yourself. If there are any search results, scan through every link. Your facebook might be professional– but what about your /friends/ there? Your website and blog might be professional– but what about the comments? Do any results lead to a LiveJournal rant about someone’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, who unfortunately shares your name? Did you once at the age of 12 get on a website that was PG-13 and boast about how you were “too smart for all those losers who make rules”? Even if all search results lead only to your own comment-less pages, you aren’t supposed to post anything personal… which on the one hand makes sense, if as a fan I am searching your website for your next book release and latest short story anthology appearance, and you have a website that’s already difficult to navigate. On the other hand, sometimes fans look around and wonder if it’s possible to be famous for scifi and still be lesbian… almost the only authors /period/ who talk about their orientation are the ones who /writing/ about it, which discourages new authors from ever mentioning their own (“What if only straight authors get published? Is this an industry where I can still be blacklisted for being gay?”). The same is true for mental illnesses, learning disorders, and any political view whatsoever, which is particularly amusing when you consider that Picasso suffered from depression, Da Vinci was dyslexic, and some of the most well-known novels ever written continue to stir up controversy today. How much information constitutes TMI? Is one allowed to talk about these issues after publication, or do you have to be famous to keep getting published (and would even a famous author be dropped by their publisher)? How can you be honest, open, friendly, and forge social connections if you barely feel comfortable saying you real name (because what if a relative has some picture of naked baby you out there, ready to embarrass you with, not understanding–or maybe not caring– that they’re destroying your career)?

    That’s all the internet in general, but… I think it’s part of it. What you’re really doing is tailoring yourself to look like a certain kind of person, a professional, acceptable in all social circles and to anyone who is looking for a fellow professional to work with. What you’re /also/ doing is tailoring yourself to what fans want, which is a good writer who loves their work and does think about the money. The first is lie when you’re alone, and the second is a lie if you care about getting published… if you truly only care about the work and not the money, you self-publish on Lulu or for free on a website, because going through a publishing house is a pain in the neck. And yet, that’s not what many fans want to hear… so people stay silent about the money (because of the fans) and silent about themselves (because of the publishing industry), and in the end, there is no information about anything from anyone.

    With exceptions. But still. It isn’t enough, there’s just not enough information.

    (Now that I’ve written a poor and long wall of text, I think I should ask for forgiveness– it’s like a blog in response to a blog, only it’s not on my own page! XP)

  14. ariannaerlaine:

    Book advances depend on the book and the publisher. They can go from nothing to six figures.

    Part of the reason writers don’t talk about these things is that they don’t want to be compared to other writers, but another part is that there is no path, no one way to do anything. Every writing career is different. It’s as though at the beginning you get handed a machete. And you hack your way through the forest. You create your own path. Information helps, but you still have to figure out how to use it for who you are, what your career is going to be.

    There is only one way to destroy a writing career: stop writing. Nothing else matters, everything can be overcome but the writer’s own lack of productivity. Trying not to offend people, look respectable, hide parts of yourself — those are ways to be a lawyer or business person. Not an artist.

    Tailoring yourself to anyone else’s desires or expectations never works. There is no way to do this except to be yourself. And most people have to find themselves before they can be themselves. But you can’t be an artist and be inauthentic. It doesn’t work. This isn’t something you can fake.

    I don’t know if this helps at all, but the things to do if you want to be a writer are to write, get as much information as possible from people in the industry (and it is out there, you just need to talk to people and piece it together), work at your career in whatever way you can, and find and be yourself, true to yourself — including on social networks. It’s a process. But if you’re overly worried about how you will look and what other people will think — well, you just can’t worry about that. Art isn’t about being respectable or making friends. It’s about putting out into the world a vision that is in you.

  15. And you shouldn’t ask for forgiveness. This is a conversation, and you’re being part of it. 🙂 But you should write about this on your own blog, because it’s obviously important to you. And the very, very best of luck with the writing!

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