My Own Worst Character

Is there any worse feeling online than being dropped from someone’s blogroll, unfriended on Facebook, or unfollowed on Twitter, and you have no idea why this has occurred and you are not sure if you said something wrong, or if you are now officially “dead to this person,” and you don’t know if it is proper etiquette to ask the person why or just leave it alone?

I sometimes get unfollowed on Twitter for saying something stupid about mommybloggers or the “hotness” of a woman’s avatar.  I know this information now because I downloaded this iphone app called “Birdbrain,” which alerts me when I am unfollowed.  It is a mean-spirited and relentlessly annoying iphone app.  Opening this app each day is akin to dragging yourself through the city square in 18th Century Paris for a beheading.

Since I am a humorous type of guy, I wrote this comment on Twitter today, “The next person who unfollows me, will get a stern phone call… from my mother!”

I received this witty response from another blogger, “I’m almost tempted to unfollow you today just so I can chat with your mother.  Your mother is so sassy!”

This reply gave me pause.  This woman on Twitter was being nice and complimenting me on my mother but how does she know — or even assume — that my mother is SASSY?

Of course, the answer is that I have portrayed my mother as sassy in my blog and tweets.  This made me angry at myself, and my own failure as a writer.  After so many posts about my mother, is this what my artistry has produced? — that she is sassy?  Have I used my mother to create a character from “The Golden Girls?”   The insides of my stomach tightened and I had to turn off my laptop.   I was upset not because I might have characterized her incorrectly, but because I can do better.

It is so easy to forget the power of our words.  My writing may not have the ability to bring the Maytag Company to her knees, like Dooce’s, but I have the ability to create images in your mind about others  Is my mother sassy?  Well, maybe to YOU she might be, particularly if you have a prim and proper matriarch as a Mom, but that is not the first word that would come out of my mouth in describing her.  I see “sassy” as closer to Esther Rolle in Good Times.

Is there anything more difficult than capturing the personality of someone close to you — in words?  When it is a fictional characters, cliches can often be enough.  But your own mother?   She is sassy.  She is shy.  She is efficient.  She is an  unorganized mess.  She is too complicated to make into a clear-cut fictional character.  I can only give you a “taste” of her.

I have done an equally poor job in conveying the personality of Sophia.   Probably my least developed online character is “myself.”   The job of the writer is to focus on the narrative and delete unessential elements  in order to tell a story.  I am  envious of all those who are writing memoirs about their lives, and are able to focus on a specific chapter of their life — overcoming a divorce, raising a child, or a road trip across the country.   I get so lost in my own head, that I am not even sure how to describe my true character.  I can be funny, and serious.  I am neurotic, and confident. How am I supposed to tell you who I am, when I am full  of contradictions to myself?

My biggest frustration with online life is the way it is both so extremely intimate, and at the same time, superficial in how we present ourselves, and interact with each other.

I met quite a few bloggers at BlogHer.  Most bloggers were exactly as I pictured them from reading their blog.  Others were different, as if the blog persona was in the deep recesses of the brain and only came out during the writing, like a Devil taking over the body.  Some never said a word to me, and I didn’t speak to them.  Most clearly emphasized only one element of their persona online — their parenting or their business side — and it was difficult to understand the real person behind the monitor.

However you view me, or my mother, or anyone I write about, you would be completely right.  And wrong.  And that is a frustrating thought.    In the future, I am going to try harder to capture my real world and my own character on paper.   Or is it ultimately impossible to bring the reality — in all its three-dimensional glory — into words?

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36 Responses to My Own Worst Character

  1. witchypoo says:

    The best you can do is paint a word picture. Two dimensional. Simple answer. People are complex. Word.

  2. V-Grrrl says:

    I have no idea how many followers I have or if I have ever been unfriended. Blog readers come and go. A core group stays. I am a “friend” to some and a commodity to others, and that’s fine.

    I continue to be surprised by how much time/energy you devote to considering the meaning of your online relationships, trying to attach labels and a hierarchy to them. It’s a topic that rarely crosses my mind.

    Relationships and people are ALWAYS complicated, never easily categorized. I don’t expect online life to be simpler than real life ones. Do you agonize over the nature of your relationship with your local barista, the regulars at McDonald’s, the people you pass on the street, neighbors in your building, your wife, your mom?

  3. Neil says:

    V-grrrl – You are right. That’s why I shouldn’t have written this post. I need to give up writing a post every day this month. It is bad for my health. You end up revealing too much.

  4. treespotter says:

    honestly, me, i don’t know. I don’t even meet people from ‘online’ life. some interesting some don’t.

    regardless of if whether it’s impossible or not, why do you think it matters?

    do you really know more in person? or just you think you know more? the mask – or the empty hollow face.

    just a thought.

    Hi Neil!

    PS: yours must be the one blog i read longest, and consistently over so many years – i don’t know you in person tho i’d love to – but i really enjoy knowing you, and trying to understand you from the words alone.

  5. treespotter says:

    actually, on the unfollowing business, i was curious of this so i asked around a few days ago – admittedly, not very comitted – how and if i could see who unfollow me. i use twitter on web so i can’t use the iphone alerty stuff. i don’t even know how to do it. aren’t there like many twitbots going on and off all the time?

  6. kenju says:

    I think people are going to draw their own conclusions about you and your subjects (or me and mine), no matter what the truth really is. We can only understand based on our interpretations of your words and what we assume is the feeling behind them.

    That’s why we shouldn’t attempt to write for others – only for ourselves.

  7. Tara R. says:

    I have no idea either how many people have ‘unfollowed’ me. And, can’t seem to care. If I notice it, it would be people who I actually interact with. I don’t keep track of the numbers.

    I was pleased that all of the bloggers I met in Chicago were exactly how I imagined they would be. I was nervous in that I was afraid that I had not portrayed myself honestly enough. And, people would be disappointed with me.

  8. Anyone who unfollows you for thinking avatars are hot is uncomfortable with the sensation of their own quivering thighs.

    Also, consider: people who comment that your mom is sassy are being flip, as you are when you show us that sassy taste of a complicated woman who is a hundred different and conflicting kinds of things.

  9. Kathy says:

    I’ll stop following people I realize I could never be friends with in real life. Unfair? Maybe, but why should my online standards differ from my offline ones? I’m not gunning to be the next Dooce, and having 1000+ twitter or facebook friends isn’t a goal of mine.

    I understand what you’re saying about your words not fully representing who you are online. We only give what we’re willing to give. It’s all too easy to reinvent yourself online.

  10. Neil says:

    Kathy – in my opinion, it is less being afraid of what others might think, than being afraid of what you might find in yourself.

  11. Jack says:

    do you agonize over the nature of your relationship with your local barista

    If that barista is really hot, I sure do. It makes for great blog fodder. “How I charmed the hot barista” It is a tale of two people who fall in love over a counter.

    I am telling you if they can make 18 sequels to Friday the 13th than I can turn it into a screen play.

  12. you’re such a worrier. you can only get to know a person based on what they choose to reveal, whether it be on line or in person.
    i don’t know whether i would have used the word sassy to describe your mother, i’d have to meet her in person to be sure, but she is something special.

  13. Jett says:

    I think we are all different people on different days and to capture all the nuances would take many, many endless days of writing. (Like, I feel very maudlin in my writing lately –both online and off– but that’s not my typical personality; usually I have a pretty wry and healthy-sized sense of humor. There are just some things going on at the mo and my brain is cracking in two just a little.)

    That’s just my theory, though. You don’t have to put too much stock in it.

  14. Aunt Becky says:

    Ultimately, people are going to take all of of their own bullshit, add a dash of what you say, a sprinkling of what’s going on around then when they read what you write and THAT will be what they think you are.

    Is it the correct picture? Of course not. You’ll never change it, unfortunately, no matter how much you stamp your feet.

    I try my best not to take it all too seriously, otherwise my head might explode.

  15. tysdaddy says:

    No one knows me. They know a bit about me. They see my pictures. They get snapshots. But no one knows me.

    So don’t take it personal.

    I have made it my habit to only friend or follow people I feel I have made some sort of connection with, either through my writing, or in real life. Facebook is an interesting experiment, and lately I’ve seen it reek havoc so monumental amongst various family members that I’m tempted to give it up . . .

  16. Becky says:

    Oh, Neil. You’re so neurotic. I like that.

  17. Heather says:

    My own mother is an alcoholic, so if the worst thing someone can say about yours is that she seems sassy–I’d take that any day of the week. I think it’s impossible to know anyone through writing as there is so much lost from feeling + cognition to getting it into language on the page.

    When I sit across from a blog friend digging into food from the Indian buffet as I did a few weeks back, well that was much the same as our email banter, sort of the same as our blog comment banter, but not at all like our blog content.

  18. I follow your blog because I admire your intellect, wit, and writing style. That means content and focus take a back seat, i.e. for me, it’s not so much what you say but how you say it that makes it so compelling to read. I don’t have a specific focus for my blog, I just hope that readers enjoy reading my content as much as I enjoy writing it. As for the unfollowing, I’m thinking that those twidiots probably aren’t smart enough to understand your blog and you don’t need them. Dump the Birdbrain and get on with it. We still love you. Last, stick with the month of writing goal if you can, I think it will leave you changed and an even better blogger. Besides, you know I can always be counted on for motivation *wink* *wink*

  19. mamatulip says:

    Your contradictions are part of why I continue to read you, invest time in your writing. To me, as a reader, it’s rather appealing.

  20. Angella says:

    1. I don’t pay attention to who follows/unfollows me on Twitter. It has served me well.

    2. I believe it was Dooce who said that only 5% of our lives are actually placed online. It seems to be true.

    3. I know I didn’t spend a ton of time with you at BlogHer, but I did approach you and hug you. I hope I lived up to what you thought I would be.

  21. slouchy says:

    No matter how I try to argue against the fact, I can’t help but think that yes, it may be impossible.

  22. CarlaDelvex says:

    Haven’t you ever unfollowed anyone??
    Go on try it. It could be cathartic.

  23. 3boys1mommy says:

    I get that you’re a professional writer. I get why you expect more of yourself, but this is a blog not The Pillars of the Earth. Why does every post have to be sweeping and verbose? Why can’t it just offer a laugh, a cry, or provoke thought? Isn’t that a powerful thing? To make a stranger laugh or cry with your undeveloped characters, an old photo of your father, a broken youtube link.

    P.S- It doesn’t matter what you write about your mother, in my head your parents are Frank and Estelle Costanza.

    P.S.S- I’m in no way implying that you’re incapable of writing an epic novel, I’m just saying you shouldn’t publish it here. Save that for the paying customers.

    P.S.S.S- I just unfollowed a tweeter because her eyebrows were really bushy. True story.

    P.S.S.S.S- Forget that last p.s, I shouldn’t of shared that, that’s nothing to be proud of.

  24. Neil says:

    3Boys1Mommy – My parents are much closer to Jerry’s parents than George’s parents. Although I do know friends with George’s parents.

  25. MammaLoves says:

    It is hard to really know someone completely from the way they write about themselves, but I think you come across as the dynamic person you discussed here.

    No one is two dimensional. I know there are many parts of me that I don’t discuss on my blog, but I know they probably bleed through a bit if one were to pay close attention.

    I look forward to see how you begin to write differently.

  26. In real life we only know what a person chooses to show us. It is the same online. Spending time with you in Chicago convinced me you were who I thought you were … but also much more. Like all relationships, the more time you spend with a person the better you get to know them. Oh – and also there are those naked photos. They help a little too.

  27. headbang8 says:

    You are a skilled writer, and your backtwitterer is a lazy reader.

    You mention, on your blog, that you like a certain kind of cheese. Your mother doesn’t march into your room and say, “Hey, why didn’t you tell me? Look at how long I’ve been buying Jahrlberg when you really like Muenster! No wonder you go slow on my cheeseburgers…” That would be sassy.

    She sinply went out and bought the right kind of cheese. You found it, and thought it sweet. That’s shy of both of you.

    Both you and your mother were mildly taken aback, and a little embarassed, when you caught each other naked, recently. That’s shy, too. And you both got over it instantly, which is the way an intelligent person would. Intelligent–another adjective your backtwitterer could have mentioned as a reason to call.

    But no. Jewish mothers are all Estelle Getty. They’re all Sophie Portnoy. They’re all Anne Bancroft in Torch Song Trilogy. I suspect a bit of subtle stereotypes amongst the tweeting.

    Your backtwitterer is a twit.

    My blog has a select coterie of readers who actually get it. Fine with me.

    Many casual visitors don’t get it–especially the gay ones, who would rather I upholster the pages not just with the scathing wit for which we homosexuals are famous, but with more eye candy.

    Go ahead and unfollow me. Plenty of other places to find soft porn online, boys. Hashtag yourself a dating profile, and enjoy a twitter-tug. No skin off my nose.

  28. SciFi Dad says:

    To me, the audience is made up of two groups: the core readership and the occasional visitor. Some people float back and forth between groups, some never become anything other than occasional, yet comment more often than some I’d call core. It’s a nuanced thing.

    As for the portrayal of characters, I would not have thought “sassy” when describing your mother; I don’t know what word would spring to mind (doting is probably close, but that might just be me stereotyping Jewish moms from tv).

  29. Finn says:

    I don’t think it’s possible, no matter how good a writer you are, to capture a whole person and present them wrapped up in a neat package.

    And really, why would you want to?

  30. Noel says:

    akin to dragging yourself through the city square in 17th Century Paris for a beheading

    I’m trying to imagine this. The French Revolution occurred in the 18th Century. So, are you saying it’s like going through a city square with the premonition that, a century later, the streets will run red with blood?

  31. Loukia says:

    My commnets were left to you on facebook, but I wanted to add that I don’t even know the numbers of my followers on Twitter… I think it might be 800 although maybe it’s 700 something? I block people all day, it seems, which makes me want to protect my updates, because there are a lot of weirdos out there and they scare me!
    As for you, stop caring about these sorts of thing! You have so many people who admire and love you for your writing and I truly believe you’re just as awesome in person.

  32. carma says:

    Bring on the real you. I’m ready for some three dimensional glory!

    Interesting tidbit on the BlogHer ladies. I was thinking you were going to say most were different than their online personas…

  33. Jane says:

    It’s funny. I read this post yesterday and thought, It doesn’t really bother me if someone “unfriends” me. But then this morning, while on Facebook I noticed that I was missing a friend. I must have spent 15 minutes scanning and obsessing over my friends list trying to figure out who it was. Geez!

  34. Di says:

    To tell someone that their mother is ‘sassy’ is a compliment! Friend me, unfriend me, tweet me, or don’t. The real world is here where I sit with my husband each evening and as much as I enjoy online and blogging friends they will never hold a candle to my real life relationships. Oh, except you…

    Di
    *giggling away as usual*

  35. Pingback: Top Ten Thursday: A Few Good Posts

  36. Sharon says:

    I’ve had people leave comments on my blog that I’m daft, that there’s no way I’m this stupid in real life and in one particularly astute reader moment that “I have confirmed the fact IQ tests should be required before having kids”.

    In real life I will also have a drink in my hand.

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