Digital Diet? Not For Me.

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Years ago, I followed health guru Andrew Weill’s advice and took a “news fast.”  I stopped reading newspapers and news web sites for six weeks.  I found myself calmer during that period, and spending more time both working and enjoying myself.  I read more books, I wrote more, I relaxed more.

Lately I’ve seen talk about “digital diets” or fasts: taking time to unhook completely from our constant connectedness.  I get that.  I actually returned my Android phone six months after I bought it and went back to a pre-smart phone.  I had found myself more obsessed with email than usual, checking it at doctors’ offices, on line at the post office, even when I was in my car stopped at red lights or train crossings.  I decided I need more free time away from work, and the phone was just too tempting.

But going cold turkey, for even a week?  I just can’t.  It doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Like most authors, my professional life is digital.

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If my publisher or my editor contacts me, it’s via email.  If an editor wants me to write a story or essay for a new anthology, that’s how I heard.  Ditto with other authors or anyone who’s found my email address via my web site and wants to write me fan mail or invite me to speak at a conference, a university, a library or any of the many other venues where I do talks and readings from my work.

I’ve done entire book tours here and abroad without ever needing the phone.  In fact, the only time I’m on the phone for business is firming up details that have already been set up via email, and that’s infrequently.  And when I am connecting via phone, I’m often simultaneously checking details on line, or even emailing something to whoever’s called me.

Now that I’m also a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, a digital fast makes even less sense. I need to stay in touch with my students and also with other faculty members. That’s become specially important as I continue to work on the planning for a study abroad program I’m co-leading in London this summer.  Emails to various people and institutions in London have been legion.

The place where I can cut back, though, is Facebook.  I think I can live without cute cat videos for a week.  Who knows, maybe even six weeks…..

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Author

I’ve done hundreds of talks and readings from my books across the U.S. and in Canada, and in Great Britain, Germany, Austria, France, and Israel.

When I’m picked up on tour at a train station or airport, one of the most frequent questions is a rhetorical one: “This must be pretty exciting, right?”

It is.  I’m an extrovert.  I love meeting new people and speaking to new groups.  I prepare extensively for every gig I do: finding out as much as I can about the audience and venue in advance, then writing talking points, studying and rehearsing those, and practicing my reading to get it right.

It helps that I did so much theater in college, and that I’ve taught for many years as well and feel comfortable as a performer of my own work–and my own life.  And yet there’s always a trace of sadness, too, that’s unrelated to being away from home.

I was recently in Marquette, Michigan, a picturesque town of about nine thousand, and my days there typify being a tourist author. I did five different talks starting with a keynote at the beautiful interfaith Holocaust memorial ceremony.  My time there was more intense than a typical tourist’s would be.

I got to see the area from the local standpoint because I met so many natives and so many people who’d moved there either from elsewhere in the Midwest and around the country.  I saw the beautiful tiny synagogue in tiny Ishpeming, which has remarkable stained glass windows and feels like a spiritual jewel  box.  Members told me about the area’s Jewish migration patterns and gave me an in-depth look at local sites and drives.  The beautiful downtown with its late 19th century stone buildings and churches was especially impressive.

And I had what I always have, whatever the city or country: intense talks with people I’ll probably never see again.  I was lucky to be there three nights, because it’s rare to spend more than one or two days on tour as an author.

The whole experience is intense, and wonderful, and fulfilling–and then it’s over way too soon. That dynamic repeats itself over and over and over.   That’s one thing I never expected when I launched my career as writer many years ago: the miles it would put on me, the smiles, too, but also the sadness of random, lovely contacts that fade away–until the next tour.

Promoting Your Book Untraditionally

Writing is an art.  Writing is a business.  Sometimes the business takes too much time from writing, but sometimes careful promotion pays off.

My most successful book marketing of all my twenty-four books came with the 19th, the memoir/travelogue My Germany.  It explores the role Germany played in my life as a Jewish writer with Holocaust survivor parents.

It was published by my first choice, The University of Wisconsin Press, which does gorgeous trade books and superb marketing.

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But I planned my own campaign, too.  I looked for all the German Studies and Jewish Studies programs in the country, studied each one, and wrote individual, personalized emails to various professors in both fields.  It took time and consideration, but it wasn’t back-breaking work by any means.

The response was terrific and I’ve ended up touring on and off for four and a half years at colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve also done readings and spoken at German cultural institutions, museums, synagogues and churches, and even The Library of Congress. Thanks to my publisher, the Jewish Book Council picked up the book and I appeared at a string of Jewish Book Fairs, too, but my own efforts ended up garnering me two expenses-paid tours all across Germany.

I already had a platform as one of the earliest Jewish-American authors of what’s called The Second Generation, so that helped enormously.  I wasn’t an unknown.  But a platform isn’t a guarantee, just a starting place.  I did my research and it paid off beyond what I expected.  And so I tell budding authors, “Is there a non-traditional way you can promote your work, aside from trying to do signings or reading in bookstores?  Who is your audience?  Try to find them, and then maybe they’ll find you.”