September 08, 2016

On Being Connected

I accidentally crashed my website. Overwrote the code during a WordPress install for another project. And the theoretical backup didn't do the trick.

If you visit, you might not notice initially--the very first thing I did was re-create the landing page and the two pages most people come to visit ("Upcoming Events" and "For Hire"). But if you start navigating into the page detail for individual books, you'll come up blank. No hi-res cover art, no purchase info, no blurbs, no record of reviews. I'll spend the weekend rounding that stuff up, and re-editing for website display, and hope that by next week it's good as new. 

I would be more devastated if it wasn't something I manage to do every few years. I'm of the cusp generation of modern computer using--we had to take computer science in high school, but we were learning things like Pascal and C++. In other words, when I go into the HTML I know just enough to make a big mistake, and not enough to fix it. 

My first website was part of GeoCities; I was a "homesteader" in the Soho neighborhood, which was designated for pages related to arts and writing. Once buying your own domain became a thing--and once I realized there were other Sandra Beasleys out there--I bought the URL of my name and created my first standalone website, painstakingly cobbling together code copied from how-tos. Black background, white font, with bumble-bee yellow accents. Frames and animated gifs were a big deal. 

My "about the author" entry was a painfully long, awkwardly personal and yet third-person account of my life to date. The drawbacks of oversharing became obvious when I sat down to dinner with a potential suitor. I made the usual small talk of volunteering facts about myself--grew up in Virginia, daughter of an Army general and a visual artist--only to be met with a muted response. He'd already looked up my website. 

Then blogging came along, and this space (with its blessed WYSIWYG editor) became the repository of quirky stories and passing interests. WordPress put professional design within reach. I took at step back and re-conceptualized a website as a streamlined, relatively static resource for a professional career.  

The fundamental elements of a good author website:

-Name, at least one photo, professional bio note
-Titles of any books or genres in which you write
-Major media coverage for any publications
-Recent and upcoming activities--readings, festivals
-Services for which you're available 
-Hi-res, easily downloadable files for publicity
-Instructions for how to contact the author or a rep

It's important that no one ever need to click more than twice to access content. I think it's better to link outward when you can--whether to a Twitter feed, a YouTube channel, or a lit mag's page--rather than trying to aggregate everything under one roof. That's it, really. Add a shopping cart element, if you have pubs that aren't distributed through traditional or online retail channels. Be sure to look at the site on a cell phone, and an iPad, to see what transitions smoothly and what gets buggy.

(That "buggy" came to mind dates me to the days of running a compiler on my code.)

The last time I crashed my website was in 2015, two days before Count the Waves came into the world. I had no choice but to simultaneously rebuild my website while keeping the conversation going here, on Facebook, and on Twitter. In those moments, it is reasonable to wonder if it is all worth it, this availability. The words I put into the world as an "author" vastly outnumbers the number of words I publish in poems and nonfiction. There is something undeniably strange about that.

Is my website any putting information in people's hands that they couldn't get via Google search or an email query? Does anyone actually read this blog, in the weeks when the only comment I get is a spambot promising twenty-pound weight loss? How many positive Facebook threads counterbalance a random attack or painful misinterpretation? Am I spending the energy of what could have been a paying freelance piece into a series of 140-character shouts into the void? 

I don't know, to be honest. None of us do. Writers manage this question of how much to connect, and the vulnerability that creates, day by day. This morning, a spiteful comment to a friend's blog had her debating whether to deactivate her Facebook account. Another friend only dips his feet into that water twice a year. I know authors who have had great success, who travel the world with their work, all without the aid of a website or blog or Tumblr. They have never lost a night's sleep trying to correct something on an outdated Wikipedia page. 

There is no magic formula. No one teaches you how to handle this in graduate school. One writer's joy of networking is another writer's personal hell. Every author stands at a unique crossroads of free time, experience, tech savvy, thick or thin skin, financial resources, sense of humor, and desire, all of which shapes the extent to which they do or don't connect beyond the page. I've been part conversations where poets were described as being really putting themselves "out there," a judgment that can quickly turn uncharitable--as if he or she is overcompensating for average talent with supersize social media savvy. I don't believe that, but I understand where the sentiment comes from. Connecting is a privilege and a gift. It's also a skill set. 

In Illinois, a high school English teacher's final assignment to his students was to artistically depict a line of poetry from the semester's readings. One of his students chose to illustrate "The Piano Speaks."

For an hour I was a maple tree, 
and under the summer of his fingers  
the notes seeded and winged away  

in the clutch of small, elegant helicopters.

I'm going to try and hold on to the exhilaration of seeing my poem translated into these bright hues this weekend, as I tinker away for hours in WordPress's Customizr template, trying to redo what was undone. I'm also going to try and remember my delight and pride--years ago--in figuring out how to turn a link from blue to purple after it had been visited. I'm going to tell myself, as I always do, that the website will be a little bit better this time around. 

There has been a few times someone has said "You're so out there" to me, then paused. I think we're both unsure, in that moment, whether they mean it as a compliment. Yet every time I feel the urge to withdraw, I get pulled back. I only know about this homage to "The Piano Speaks" because that high school teacher felt comfortable sending it my way (and passed along permission to share it here). He texted it to me this morning. Because he has my cell phone number. Day by day, we navigate.


Gerard Reese said...

I think you nailed it when you said there is no magical formula. There is no way to know what is too much and what is too little. All any of us can do is try. If something doesn't work, we try something else. Good luck with the changes on your site. I am interested to see them all.

Gerard Reese @ Kafe Digital Marketing

Orville Johnson said...

I love how you take us from where you started to where you are now. It's interesting to see the progression and how much has changed. Good luck with changing around everything on your website. That is a tough job and a long process but it will be worth it in the end.