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.