Anonymously Yours

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“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”  D.W. Winnicott

If you haven’t heard about the Elena Ferrante controversy, then frankly, you’re doing Twitter wrong!  Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of a highly successful Italian author who was ‘outed’ last week by a journalist whose motives are questionable at best.  The story has ignited a larger debate around an artist’s right to claim anonymity and the public’s sense of ownership when it comes to ‘celebrities’.

We live in the information age, where information is a commodity.  We post our personal lives freely online and have gradually lost our value on privacy, or the knowledge that we have a right to keep our private lives private. So when someone claims anonymity, we’re immediately suspicious and being naturally curious beings, we need to find out why.  Like Dorothy pulling back the curtain to find the Wizard is just a man, perhaps we should leave our enigmas alone and just enjoy the show.

I can completely understand why people choose to work anonymously and without the pressure of having to present themselves to the world.  JK Rowling chose the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, in order to write her detective series without the ‘shackles’ of Harry Potter around her neck.  Editor David Shelley, who first read the novel without knowing who its true author was, said, “I never would have thought a woman wrote that.”   I rest my case (while rolling my eyes at the stupidity of such a statement!).  Sometimes your identity needs to take a back seat in order for the work to flourish and find an audience on its own merits.

Anonymity gives you freedom from expectations, limitations and being pigeon-holed.  You don’t have to worry about what your Aunt Louise will think of that sex scene, or the fact that you based the psychopathic villain on your cousin twice removed.  But it’s not just that; really successful writers/artists have to live with the unwanted side-effects of fame, which can be completely overwhelming.  The media has created an entire industry out of destroying peoples’ image and reputation.  We just assume success is brilliant; the holy grail and that if you have it, you should be happy.  But maybe it’s the work that is the happiness; the creativity.  Isn’t it okay to not want fame?

Australian singer Sia has chosen to keep her face out of the limelight.  She refers to her decision as one of ‘self care’, by choosing not to partake in the celebrity culture.  Daft Punk are another example of musicians who love to make music, but don’t see why they should sacrifice their personal lives or their privacy in order to do what they love.  They’re not entirely anonymous of course, a quick search on Google will reveal their true identities if you’re interested, but the fact is that they have chosen, like Sia with her blonde bob, not to reveal their identities publicly.  The important word here is CHOICE. Despite a world of opportunities, we are told that in order to be successful and happy, we have to follow a formula.  It’s so inspiring to see these artists carve out their own path and find success on their own terms.  However, it also utterly despairing to see inferior beings try to take their right to choose away.  So the question remains, do we have a right to success without fame?

As a very small and insignificant writer and artist (in the grand scheme of things!) this dichotomy is something I also struggle with.  As writers starting out, we are advised to create an author platform, get ourselves ‘out there’.  Post photos on Instagram, share your every passing thought on a vlog. Do we really need to offer ourselves on a plate for public consumption?  Why can’t we let the art do the talking?  I don’t put my author photo on my novels, because I often find that people can have preconceptions about your work based on your appearance.  As one journalist in the guardian said, if you want to know Ella Ferrante, read her books.  Because at the end of the day, people who chose to express themselves creatively, are actually sharing more through their work than they ever will outside of it.

Banksy, another artist trying to keep his personal life out of the conversation – was geo-tracked (something normally reserved for chasing criminals) by a newspaper a few years ago, in order to find out his identity.  A street artist, whose work often engages political themes, satirically critiquing war, capitalism, hypocrisy and greed – he is the embodiment of why it is so important for the artist to be invisible.  People are fixated on the fact that he might be an upper class toff, which (they imply) would undermine his street art.  And if that was the narrative to his work, the message would indeed be lost.

I think we need to question this insatiable need to know everything, to reduce the beauty of human expression to a face, a stereotype or a headline.  Putting people in boxes, telling women they can’t write like men or insisting that someone plays the game by your rules will only serve to stifle creativity.  I salute these people who, despite our best efforts to thwart them, are trying to create a little mystery in our lives by producing pockets of space where we don’t need to know everything, we just need to feel.

Any excuse to play Daft Punk 🙂

#ScreenSlaves

Are you addicted to Social Media?  Could you give it up for a week?  That was the premise of an interesting documentary I watched recently on TV3 Ireland called Screen Slaves.  It’s no surprise that people have become addicted to their online lives – everything is online nowadays, so what’s the problem?  Like many addictions, the problem is usually when you don’t realise you have a problem.  It was only when the participants were asked to delete the social media apps from their phone that the real impact of their online habits  became clear.  They were visibly shaking and anxious; one of them felt physically ill and all of them lamented ‘I’m going to miss everything!’

For the older participants, it was Facebook that kept their eyes glued to their screens, whereas for the younger ‘guinea pig’ it was Snapchat and Instagram.  In fact, she admitted to spending up to eight hours a day on her phone; checking it every 1-2 minutes.  She said her grades were suffering as a result and even her actual social life.  She would find herself going to parties and spending all of her time on her phone – then rushing home to post the photos!  As human beings we are social animals and there is an addictive hit from the instant approval we receive via ‘likes’ or ‘shares’.  Then there is our ‘voyeuristic’ tendancies, that mean we end up watching other peoples’ lives instead of living our own.  So, what exactly are we signing up for here and what are companies such as Facebook getting out of it?

According to Mark Zuckerberg, privacy is no longer a ‘social norm’.  Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg.  So when we sign up to these online communities, we are willingly surrendering not only our privacy, but also our time – our most valuable commodity.  This is our own personal ‘mental time’, in which we think, dream, imagine and create.  Being a writer, time to just do nothing is the most precious thing in the world.  It was clear that this was the biggest challenge for the participants.  When they were suddenly faced with all this extra time on their hands, they didn’t know what to do with themselves and complained of feeling bored. But for me, boredom is the gateway to creativity.  I do some of my best thinking when I’m bored!  And that’s what concerns me for our future generations.  They are constantly switched on, yet constantly distracted, which affects their attention span.  (Note to self – write more short stories!)

Luckily, I was ‘of an age’ when the whole Facebook thing took off, so I was able to step back and make up my own mind about it.  At the time, I was reading a great book by Tom Hodgkinson called ‘How To Be Free‘, a how-to-guide that offered an alternative to our consumer culture.  Tom had a lot to say about the people behind Facebook and why we should think twice about jumping on that particular bandwagon.  You can read his oldie but goodie 2008 article in the Guardian here.  In fact he is responsible for an entire movement, The Idler, reminding people how to find pleasure in the simple things and avoid the rat race.  Check it out on http://www.idler.co.uk.

Facebook’s popularity has grown exponentially since then – with 1.5 billion monthly active users in 2015.  But as the documentary pointed out: ‘If you’re not paying for it, then you are the product’.  And it’s not just the advertising or sharing your private information with third parties, it’s the belief that this is the norm now.  Going ‘offline’ seems to be the equivalent of going to a pub with your friends and declaring, “I’ll have a lemonade please”.  Everyone stares in disbelief, tells you to have a real drink and proceed to buy you a pint anyway.  The fact that I don’t have a personal Facebook page does mean that I am a little out of the loop at times, but I think it’s a small price to pay for the freedom I’ve gained.  If there’s something I really need to know about, the information will get to me eventually.  Perhaps even the old-fashioned way like getting a phone call!

Now I have to qualify that with the admission that yes, I do have an author page on Facebook, but thankfully it doesn’t function like a personal page, so I just use it to post links to my blog.   I’m not completely immune to the pull of social media.  I do use Twitter quite a bit and I suppose this blog counts as well, which is why I always recommend disconnecting your WiFi when trying to write a novel!  It is so easy to get sucked in, so it’s no harm to review your social media habits every now and again.  At the outset, I decided not to have any apps on my phone.  The idea of being constantly available and always connected is a bit overwhelming.  I like the fact that when I shut down my laptop, I’m free from the impulse to ‘just check’.  As Tom Hodgkinson says, people who complain that they don’t have enough time, have simply chosen to prioritise something else.    And that’s the important thing to remember – we have a choice and I think it’s even more important to remind the younger generation of this.  You can either be a screen slave or a screen user.