The Tweeting Whitmans: How a Dead Poet’s Mother Made Me Love Twitter

Friends, I have a confession to make.

Several posts back I professed my dislike of Twitter. I may even have used stronger words than “dislike.” True, for lo these many years I did not see the potential benefits of tweeting and being tweeted at. I’m a natural-born Slow Reader, skimming when it suits my needs but generally preferring, in reading as in all endeavors, not to rush. In my previous explorations of the Twitterverse, loose arrays of words seemed to hurtle toward me with meteoroidal velocity and indifference. Too much, too fast.

Since first reading Walt Whitman as a teenager, I have taken to heart the poet’s admonition to dismiss whatever insults my soul (which, despite the egalitarianism expressed in his poems, I now know would include some of Whitman’s own beliefs). And so it was with Twitter. Aside from engaging in some mass tweeting at Congress, I have pretty much avoided Twitter altogether. Two things prompted me to reconsider Twitter:

First, I read “Should You Be on Twitter?” by Annie Neugebauer at Writer Unboxed, in which the author enumerates the pros and cons of joining Twitter. After considering the considerable pros (some of which apply to writers with books to promote, but I think Twitter can be more generally useful in connecting writers with other writers), I felt that perhaps it was time to lay down my “grudge” against Twitter and give it another try.

And then, just as I was beginning to soften to the idea of Twitter, I came across “The Tweetable Letters of ‘Mother Whitman’” on the blog of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The poet’s mother’s “tweets” are excerpted from “walter dear”: The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt.” The full volume, edited by Wesley Raabe, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Kent State University, appears on the Walt Whitman Archive, along with Whitman’s correspondence with other family members and with eminent figures of the time. With tweets such as these, I was won over:

It turns out that the Good Gray Poet himself is pretty tweetable. Were Whitman alive today, I’m not sure he would use Twitter, but then again, his poetry has always struck me as rather urgent. Maybe letting loose with a few barbaric tweets over the Internet would have satisfied his need to sound his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Or maybe not.

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Out of the cradle endlessly rocking–read Whitman’s Sea-Drift poems at http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/106.

Maybe the fact that I was spurred to join Twitter by the “tweets” of people who have been dead for more than a century doesn’t bode well for me socially. But in the week or so that I’ve been using Twitter, I’ve come to appreciate its spareness, relative to Facebook, as well as its capacity as an information-sharing medium and a tool for connecting like-minded people. (I also see the potential for distraction, procrastination, and feeling bad about myself.) In order to keep it manageable, I’ve decided to limit my following to writers, agents, editors, literary journals and writing-related publications, libraries, historical societies, bird organizations (well, because birds), and friends. Writer Nina Badzin provides a great primer for new Twitter users. Following Nina’s advice, I’ve truly enjoyed my Twitter experience so far.

Writing, as we know, can be a lonely undertaking. I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy myself on Twitter, slow-reading introvert that I am. Obviously, I was wrong.

To see what I’ve been up to since joining the 21st century, check out Tweets Like Birds in the sidebar at right.

Writers, Report for Duty: *I Should Be Writing* Boot Camp Starts April 14

If you are a follower of this blog, you may have noticed a precipitous drop in my output over the past few months. When I began the blog, I intended to post two to three times per week. I eventually came to accept that such frequency was not sustainable given the competing demands of full-time work and parenting; still, I thought I was good for one post per week. I might feel rather sheepish confessing this if not for the fact that since January I have been working intensively on establishing a workable writing routine and pressing on with a novel manuscript I began in November. My new priorities have rendered blogging an occasional thing, and I’m fine with that. After all, the blog has served its original purpose as a means of building and flexing my writing muscles, atrophied from years of non-use. Now those muscles are a bit more toned and are being strengthened through a cross-training routine of fiction and essay writing. I’m even feeling fit enough to add some blogging back into the mix.

Lisa Romeo: writer, editor, teacher, coach, drill sergeant.

Lisa Romeo: writer, editor, teacher, coach, drill sergeant.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote that I would be taking a five-week, online course–*I Should Be Writing* Boot Camp: Reclaiming Your Writing Life–offered by writer Lisa Romeo. It was one of the smartest things I’ve done in a long while. Through weekly written lessons and assignments, Lisa helped me distinguish real, practical obstacles to carving out time for writing–for instance, a 40-hour per week job–from what Lisa calls “mental maneuvers,” such as the little fibs we tell ourselves about how “busy” we are while wasting precious chunks of time on Facebook and weekend viewing sprees of whole seasons of cable television series. Maybe that’s just me. But I’m pretty sure it’s not. Lisa’s boot camp helped me see not only where the time goes, but also the unconscious processes behind why I fritter it away. Following the boot camp, I signed up for two months of individual coaching with Lisa in order to focus on my novel manuscript while availing myself of her knowledge of all things writing, from submitting essays to literary journals to applying to low-residency MFA programs. If you are a writer who needs a kick in the pants to begin taking this whole writing enterprise seriously, you could do no better than to sign up for Lisa’s boot camp.

The reason I’m telling you this today is that you have mere hours to get in on one of the last group boot camps that Lisa will be able to run for a while.** If I had taken Lisa’s boot camp just to benefit from her knowledge and experience, that would have been enough. But the group format has the added advantage of mutual support and shared wisdom of writers with varied backgrounds and experience. I know of two novelists who took Lisa’s *I Should Be Writing* Boot Camp to figure out how to direct their writing energies following the publication of a first book or a series of books. So no matter where you are in your writing career, you stand to gain from participating in the boot camp. The group boot camp starts this Monday, April 14, so don’t procrastinate (Lisa can help you with that too). Visit Lisa Romeo Writes for more information.

**Lisa also offers an on-demand solo course, but I would recommend trying the group option at least once.

Certain to Age

We can’t help getting older. Must women characters stay forever young?

Thank goodness I’m not one of Fay Weldon‘s writing students.

This past week, the New York Times carried an opinion piece by the British author, well-know for controversial and contrarian statements. In “Writer of a Certain Age,” Weldon, well into a certain age herself, paints a grim picture of a publishing industry that celebrates the young and attractive, both at the keyboard and on the page, while ignoring aging women writers and characters:

It’s natural for my students to concern themselves with their own generation, whatever that happens to be. Only for the mature female writer does this prove something of a problem. Should she be in her 50s and interested in depicting the sexual and social predicaments of women her age, she will find it hard to get a publisher. Her agent — and these days, it will almost always be a woman — will discourage her and suggest the protagonist’s age be taken down 20, even 30 years. (The alternative strategy, that of introducing a young and lively lead as a stalking horse and putting the writer’s more seasoned reflections into the mouth of a subsidiary character, may seem like contrivance, but the aging female novelist must be ingenious.)

That our society covets youth is not exactly news, and I suspect Weldon is overstating her position, at least a little, for humorous effect. She has a history of making cheeky claims, such as “I’m the only feminist there is—the others are all out of step,” so her argument here shouldn’t be taken too much to heart. But if this truly is the counsel she provides her writing students, she is doing them a disservice. Weldon may speak of sexism and ageism in publishing from first-hand experience, but that experience includes a prolific 50-year career as the author more than 50 books, including three children’s books and an autobiography of her early life: “If you want an account of my early life and times, to know how someone finally turns into a writer, I wrote an autobiography called Auto Da Fay in 2002. That was when I was 70. Not all that much interesting has happened since. Though I don’t know – I daresay if I wrote it up it could be made quite entertaining. But the sad truth is, my theory goes, that no-one is much interested in what happens to women after they turn 35. Which is the age at which I stopped Auto da Fay: the age I stopped living and started writing instead, as a serious person.” Instead of encouraging mature women writers to give in to writing younger characters or give up hope of being published, Weldon–as the only feminist there is–should be urging them to kick down some doors.

Because frankly, I don’t buy it. We’ve known for years that women buy, and borrow, more books overall than than men. The biggest segment of fiction buyers may be women under 45, but is anyone doing more than looking at raw numbers to figure out why?* More disposable income? Greater comfort with e-readers and tablets? I will tell you that I spend more money on books now that I have an e-reader (and it’s to publishers’ and e-booksellers’—and hopefully, authors’—benefit that I have an itchy click-to-purchase finger and sometimes lose track of what I download). On the other hand, my mother-in-law, who is closer to Weldon’s age, may get her books from the library, but she reads far more novels in a year than I have time to read. (Come to think of it, I know several 30-something women who get their book club books from the library, so it’s not just a matter of disposable income, but also spending priorities.)

Maybe more women under 45 read/buy fiction because they are more likely to see themselves represented in the novels they find on the shelves (real and virtual). Looking at the books on my end table and queued up on my Kindle, I’m hard-pressed to come up with any older female main characters who aren’t simply flashing back to their youth for the bulk of the book, even though older women authors feature prominently (my reading list is pretty well distributed among novels, short story collections, essay collections and other nonfiction, though). One recent example that’s fresh in my mind is Mollie Cox Bryan’s Cumberland Creek Mystery series, which features an 80-year-old retired physicist as one of three main viewpoint characters. (I don’t read mysteries widely, but I suspect cozies may be an exception to this alleged rule.) Another is Olive Wellwood in A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and before that…Mrs. Dalloway? This is a challenging list to assemble—just give it a Google, and you will see my predicament.

"You should make her younger. Nothing interesting happens to women after 35."

“You should make her younger. Nothing interesting happens to women after 35.”

I’m approaching a certain age myself (or maybe I’m already there), and like many women who begin or return to writing in midlife, I am concerned with writing about not only what has been, but what is. Having been through my twenties some time ago, I’m not particularly inclined to relive them, in memory or on the page. It wasn’t my best decade. I spent it making a lot of mistakes and writing a lot of bad fiction. My thirties were an improvement, but consumed by continuing my education (and working to pay for it) and caring for my parents through lengthy illnesses until their deaths, two years apart. At 40, I had my first and only child, who is just about to turn eight. I consider my forties my best decade so far–relatively stable, with an abundance of life experiences to draw upon.

Yesterday I had lunch with a dear friend who is in her early forties. She told me she wants very much to read fiction about women our age, women who are working on their marriages, raising children, navigating careers, caring for aging parents, dealing with their changing bodies. So do I. I know we’re not alone. We’re on the younger end of the older woman spectrum—certainly many women our age and older also want to read about characters struggling with empty nests, caring for and losing partners, and work (for not everyone over 65 is retired, and retired does not equal idle).

Population-wise, it makes perfect sense; according to the 2010 U.S. Census, “Between 2000 and 2010, the population under the age of 18 grew at a rate of 2.6 percent. The growth rate was even slower for those aged 18 to 44 (0.6 percent). This contrasts with the substantially faster growth rates seen at older ages. The population aged 45 to 64 grew at a rate of 31.5 percent. The large growth in this age group is primarily due to the aging of the Baby Boom population. Finally, the population aged 65 and over also grew at a faster rate (15.1 percent) than the population under age 45.” All those Boomer women, outliving their male counterparts? Well, they have have a lot of time to read and write. And that generation, of which I’m on the cusp, is responsible for many of the gains young women now take for granted. So I say that if they (we) want to read characters that look like them (us), they (we) can make it happen.

For Weldon, modern publishing has a silver lining, however thin it may be. For one thing, there are no jacket photos for e-books, she points out. And if you have luck and genes on your side, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel—the long, dark, apparently uneventful tunnel of middle age, not that other tunnel, the bright light at the end of which is to be avoided. ”Fortunately, if you just hang in there long enough and hit 80, you will emerge on the other side of the postmenopausal years into bright clear waters — so old as to seem ageless, sexless as a sage, remarkable if not for youth, why, then, for extreme age, and again a salable proposition for publishers.”

Here, I think of the venerable Alice Munro, who didn’t exactly labor in the shadows all those many years before being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (She is a short story writer rather than a novelist, though, so perhaps she can be forgiven her stubborn persistence in writing what she wanted to write.) Munro has written both female and male characters, from one end of the human lifespan to the other, and why wouldn’t she? She published her first story as a teenager and didn’t stop until she announced her retirement last summer at age 81. That is a whole lot of life to write about. (Check out this recent conversation between Munro and Margaret Atwood, who has written many an interesting woman character herself.)

As women readers, writers, agents, and publishers, we need to resist the supposedly dominant paradigm that only young female characters are worth reading about. This doesn’t mean that we should boycott younger writers or books with younger characters, or that we as writers should never take the viewpoint of a younger female protagonist. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the age or gender of its main characters. Rather, it means that we should be real about where we are in our lives and not try to escape that reality by vicarious reliving (and maybe vicariously fixing) our youth. If we reject stories that center around older characters because, as Weldon puts it, we prefer “to identify with [our]selves when young and beautiful, when sexual power and adventures were for the taking and life was fun — not as [we] are now, with bulging hips and crepey necks,” we are, in essence, rejecting ourselves. (It might be relevant and not wholly unkind to mention that Weldon has written frankly about her own plastic surgery. Not that most of us don’t occasionally fantasize about putting the middle-age wattle under the knife, but I can’t help but think that when we actually do it, the terrorists win.)

Women Writers and Readers (and Agents and Editors and Publishers) of a Certain Age, we need a revolution. Allow me to propose a manifesto:

  • Write, read, and represent what you care about.
  • Support writers of a certain age by buying their books, and if not readily available, ask your bookseller to order them (pre-ordering soon-to-be released books is especially helpful to authors). If you’re more of a borrower, ask for them at the library. (Libraries provide a critical service, but as the co-head of a comfortable, dual-income household, I could put my money where my mouth is and buy those by writers whose work I value.) Assuming they have a web presence, visit those writers’ websites, read their blogs, and like their Facebook pages.
  • If you’re social media and technologically savvy, help the writers in your life who may need a hand dealing with technology and navigating independent publishing. (Electronic publishing is not as simple as Weldon makes it seem, and I think there’s a niche to be carved in indy publishing for author services aimed at helping mature writers navigate this rapidly-changing field—legitimate author services, that is, not the publishing equivalent of fly-by-night contractors who take old people’s money and disappear without doing the work promised.)
  • Create—nay, demand space for mature women authors and characters. I don’t even know what this means. Writing space? Reading space? Shelf space? I bet you have your own ideas. My point is, sisters are used to doing it for themselves. Make it happen.

Well, as far as manifestos go, it’s not much, but it’s a start. I’m eager to know what you think. Who are your favorite women writers? Your favorite books? Do the protagonists reflect who you are now? If you are “of a certain age” yourself, do you seek out fiction by older writers or whose work features older characters? Can you come up with a few titles that feature strong middle-aged and older female protagonists?

(*Presumably someone is, but the findings are an industry secret unless you want to fork over $999, which my local public and university libraries and I do not.)