Protecting the instrument

April 16th, 2012

I’ve been working a lot, writing what is for me a lot of poems. I’m in the middle of a project that’s exciting me, a project that has the work bubbling up from below. It’s got its own agenda, so although I am writing down all the prompts for the April Poem a Day challenge run by Robert Lee Brewer I’m not writing to any of them. There’s this project, and it has got its own agenda.

However, I am taking a peek at the platform building challenge Robert is running over on his personal blog, though I have to say I’m peeking at it with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Writers want to be read, of course, and I love when people find my blog; if I can do things to make it easier for people to find my blog I’m happy to do them – to a point – but I’m very wary of “driving traffic” for the sake of driving traffic. There is a very difficult to define line in my head at which point on-line activity seems to me to take on the characteristic of looking for clicks regardless of the engagement behind them. I’m…wary. In an inarticulate sort of a way; clearly I need to think this through more fully, need to find the right words for my discomfort.

There are, however, some extremely useful tips over at My Name Is Not Bob, and for anybody interested in dipping your toes into social media, platform building, and possibly “branding” it’s very much worth a peek. Frankly, it’s worth a peek if you think you’re not interested in all of that if only to give yourself a minute to think about why you’re not interested in it and what your feelings about the point of your personal on-line presence are.

As I work my way through this platform building challenge, the phrase I keep recalling is: “Protect the instrument.” That’s what Colin Harrison, an editor with Scribner Simon & Schuster, said at a Q&A session at the Geneva Writers’ Conference back in February. The instrument is the writing. Anything that damages your instrument – by crowding out writing time, by introducing distractions, by putting the cart before the horse (for the best platform in the world is worth nothing if you never actually finish your book), by turning your attention away from the hard and lonely work of hammering one word next to another – anything that damages your instrument is getting in your way.

My instrument requires a quiet place in my head. My instrument takes a long time to warm up. My instrument needs space and time and the trusted voice of a few well-chosen first readers. My instrument is skittish, wary of bright lights and loud noises. My instrument is high-maintenance and high-strung. My instrument is capable of producing fine, fine work but it needs me to shelter it. It needs me to know when to shut the door, turn off the radio, disconnect the internet, delete my account for whatever New Shiny Thing popped on the internet last week. My instrument needs me to protect it. My instrument trusts me to protect it, and when my instrument knows I have its best interests at heart, when I protect my instrument, it rewards me with words, words, words like birdsong.

So here is my challenge to all of you participating in the platform building challenge: sit down and think about your instrument. What makes it tick? How much can it handle? What does it thrive on? What wounds it? What conditions does it need to produce its finest work? Then every step you take, ask yourself: are you protecting your instrument?