BUILDING MY AUTHOR PLATFORM WITHOUT A SMARTPHONE
A Craft Essay
by Mallory McDuff
“I hope you’re working on your platform,” wrote my agent last year after I sent a substantive revision of my manuscript. I had previously published three nonfiction books with small presses, but I typically spent more time following other writers on social media than promoting myself. That might not be unusual, but I did have one unique challenge: I needed to build online visibility, but I didn’t have a smartphone—a conscious decision. I wasn’t sure how to boost my social media presence without carrying a screen in my back pocket. But I was determined to try.
It’s not like I’m a Luddite with an off-the-grid, back-to-the-land lifestyle. From my laptop and iPad, I obsessively followed writers I adored. On Facebook, I’d reposted a link to nearly every Rebecca Solnit essay since the Kavanaugh hearings. I watched the sunrise in Dani Shapiro’s Instagram stories before reading her new memoir, Inheritance. I relished Kiese Laymon’s true-to-life tweets about Trump. But I was a perennial stalker, not much of an original poster.
When my own essays were published or I taught workshops, I shared those links on Facebook, but I rarely posted personal photos or anything else that might allow readers to get to know me. My profile picture was ten years old, which I didn’t even realize until I got my hair cut before the holidays: “I can’t believe how blonde you used to be!” chirped my hip hair stylist when she saw my photo online.
I know writers capture snapshots of their everyday lives and post to a variety of social media—Instagram, Facebook, etc.—using their smartphone cameras and web apps. And many people can’t live without those phones for viable reasons. But my routine was to carry a cheap prepaid phone when I traveled, much to the embarrassment of my two teenagers. Since I wouldn’t purchase smartphones for them, my daughters found babysitting jobs to buy their own devices, an iPod Touch in middle school and a phone in high school.
Perhaps my aversion to portable technology was a product of my upbringing. I had grown up in Fairhope, Alabama with a family that tried to minimize their impact on the natural world, which meant using the least costly, most functional item that could do the job.
Perhaps my aversion to portable technology was a product of my upbringing. I had grown up in Fairhope, Alabama with a family that tried to minimize their impact on the natural world, which meant using the least costly, most functional item that could do the job. From the late 1960s, my father sold IBM mainframe computers to hospitals and universities, but we didn’t have a computer in our home until I left for college in 1984. During high school, when a few classmates were using their family’s first desktop computers, I typed papers on an IBM Selectric typewriter, using Wite-Out to erase mistakes. That should have been a clue to the lifestyle my parents were slowly adopting, one of needs versus wants.
And since my parents were the focus of the book I was writing, it felt incongruous to purchase an iPhone to promote a book about living a life scaled for a changing climate. As a single mom, I was happy to save that money too. I told myself the other technologies I already had available would do the job. My challenge then was to figure out how to accomplish that.
In North Carolina, I teach environmental education at a small liberal arts college, where I live on campus in a 900-square foot duplex about a five-minute walk from my office. So, it usually wasn’t hard to reach me. Even without a smartphone, I was already online too much of the time. My students marveled that I answered e-mails faster than many professors on campus, but my responsiveness was a deterrent to a focused writing life. I was addicted to social media and e-mail, even without the constant companion of an iPhone. If I had a mobile device, I was afraid I would take it everywhere. Leaving my house and office without one gave me freedom from being tethered to The New York Times and Facebook when I ran on the trails or listened to my daughter’s middle-school band concert.
Maybe the challenge was to live in a digital world without being consumed by it. I recognized many writers depended on their phones for work and family. But in the acknowledgements for her novel NW, Zadie Smith paid tribute to the apps Freedom and Self Control for blocking Internet distractions. From a different generation, Wendell Berry famously wrote longhand and presented his reasoning in the essay “Why I am not going to buy a computer.” His rationale to farm his land with a horse and use pen and paper to construct an argument seemed both poignant and prescient.
I also knew the point of creating an author platform was to connect my writing with its potential audience, what Forbes Communication Council calls “the extended friend group.” My last two books, published with small presses without an agent, focused on the intersection of faith and climate change, topics I continue to write about. But this manuscript was more intimate: It was a memoir about my parents who, among other acts, used the forty days of Lent to give up trash and driving to decrease their impact on the earth.
As a family of six, we aimed for a zero-waste household before recycling ever came to my hometown. However my folks weren’t earthy hippies or radical activists: my mother had a bridge group, and my father sang in the church choir. After we were grown, they learned to live with even less stuff as they walked thousands of miles to complete the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and most of the Continental Divide Trail, with backpacks weighing about 10 pounds each.
The narrative was about their deaths as much as their lives, as they were killed in mirror-image cycling accidents, two years apart, both hit by teenage drivers. The book confronts the question of how we learn to carry the love of people who have died. The lessons from my mom and dad—learning to live with less because they could—would be critical to my daughters who face a changing climate. Here in the valley where we live, summer temperatures have lingered into winter, and floods have resulted in the wettest year on record. My oldest daughter said the world was turned upside down. My girls would need the story of my parents to help navigate the enormity of an uncertain world.
To address the challenge of building my online platform without a smartphone—and in a way that honored the book—I started with the simplest of actions: I updated my Facebook photo. Within one day, more than 200 of my 750 friends liked the photo and many commented with supportive notes: “That picture captures your spirit!” one friend said. While I discourage my teenagers from “counting likes,” it was uplifting to know my Facebook contacts were glad to see the new-but-old me.
To address the challenge of building my online platform without a smartphone—and in a way that honored the book—I started with the simplest of actions: I updated my Facebook photo. Within one day, more than 200 of my 750 friends liked the photo and many commented with supportive notes…
Next, I needed a website: My 13-year-old whipped up a sample draft on Wix within minutes. Yet, I chose to use modest professional development funds from my college to hire someone who understood my desire for a simple and clean aesthetic. A photographer who is a generous friend offered to take pictures in exchange for a six-pack of IPA, some good bourbon, and a gift certificate to a taco shop. After my initial awkward smiles at the camera, I began to grow more comfortable as the focus of attention. As a single mother, I’d been behind the camera for most of my adult life. Now my story—and my parents’—would take center stage.
Last I signed up for an Instagram account. At first, I had to connect my camera to my laptop, download the images, and then upload them to Instagram via Facebook messenger. By that time, I could have graded several student papers or started cooking supper for my children. The process grew infinitely less cumbersome when I used my iPad to take photos and upload to Insta (yes, I started using the shorthand). Rather than just stalk other people’s stories, I began by posting pictures of the donkey Tallulah in the pasture in front of our house. I tried to share a picture or story daily, and found even my old iPad did the job just fine. Only I would know that I’d forgone an entire decade of Apple updates.
When I perused the photos I’d posted, I saw the small perimeter of the life I’d documented showed me as writer with a life beyond her books. The images reflected the area around my house: the stubborn donkey who grazed in the pasture, my Mom’s wine glasses in the dish rack after book club, and my coffee mug with the inscription: “And also with y’all.” I didn’t have videos of hilarious conversations with Uber drivers headed to the airport or footage of hikes in exotic locations. But even my clunky iPad, which won’t fit in my pocket, could capture the immediacy of my very ordinary life on this small college campus.
My two teenagers were following along: “You should stop posting pictures of the donkey,” advised my youngest. “You went overboard when you called Tallulah your ‘spirit animal’.” My 19-year old religiously liked each photo: “I asked some of my friends to follow you,” she said, feeling sorry since I only had a fraction of her 600 followers.
Now I could also do more of what I cherished online—sharing the stories of others. I got an adrenaline boost from posting on Facebook about my former students who were doing work in line with my writer platform: Kelsey Juliana, suing the federal government to protect youth from the impacts of climate change; Jamie DeMarco, promoting state-level policies for climate action with Citizens Climate Lobby; and Danielle and Mikey Hutchinson, growing organic food on a farm just down the road.
These are small steps I’ve taken, but significant ones for me. By creating my website, using Instagram to share visual glimpses of my life, updating and expanding my Facebook footprint to include more of my life and to shine spotlights on others, I’ve begun to carve out a presence, a platform perhaps. It’s one that doesn’t rely on a smartphone, or I think suffer from the lack of one. From here, I see that I can do more even without a device in my pocket: I just sent out my first e-mail missive and plan to video-chat with followers on Instagram. (Someday I might tackle Twitter, although I worry about my possible addiction to that tool.)
While I recognize building a platform is about using a diversity of strategies to become known and sell books, ultimately to me, it’s about elevating the work of others for a better world, magnifying voices to lift and connect us all.
While I recognize building a platform is about using a diversity of strategies to become known and sell books, ultimately to me, it’s about elevating the work of others for a better world, magnifying voices to lift and connect us all. This seems especially true when our current times call for despair. The key seems to be integrating technology in a way that is true to my life, even if the outcome is a scaled-down version of what it could be. In the end, I think my parents would approve.
Mallory McDuff teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, where she lives on campus with her daughters. She is the author of the books Natural Saints (Oxford University Press, 2010), Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012), and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015). Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, The Rumpus, Sojourners, and more. Find her at: https://mallorymcduff.com/