Just Because You Invite Them Doesn’t Mean They’re There to See You

Baratunde Thurston writes a book in public.

My manuscript for How to Be Black was due to HarperCollins on July 15, 2011, roughly one year after the original deadline. I missed that one due to a dramatic underestimation of just what “writing a book” meant. It is not “just like blogging a lot,” as I had been told. However, in the month before my new deadline, I finally got serious, created a disciplined and streamlined schedule, and immersed myself in the world of long-form storytelling.

In the midst of my focused productivity, I received an email from a friend, Anand Giridharadas. We had met in April of the same year and discovered an uncanny overlap in our personal biographies: teenage years in Washington, D.C.; attendance at the same high school; leadership roles at the school newspaper; an adult life of writing, travel, and public speaking; and unpronounceable names. On the sixth of July, Anand sent me an email with the subject line “dude.” With such a compelling label, how could I not interrupt my focused writing to open it?

Inside, I found the following:

I have an amazing idea for you. as a publicity stunt, create a public writing viewing for your final day of writing the book.


you can share your screen with the world!

Forty minutes later, in response to his 34-word suggestion, I sent a 614-word response. I acknowledged that this was a possibly cool thing to do, observing, “The idea of letting someone get a pilot’s view of the final approach on a book could be interesting or, like actually seeing what a pilot sees, nauseating.” I then dove into a Rumsfeldian matrix of analysis about the complications involved in executing this idea. Should I focus on sharing the raw writing, the polishing, or the editing? Was there a significant difference between sharing the introduction versus the final chapter? Should I announce “SPOILER ALERT” on my own book? I was comprehensive in my apprehension and torn between how this exercise could serve me as the writer/marketer versus my would-be readers.

I replied to Anand with the equivalent of a treatise that might as well have been called On Transparency in the Writing Process (subject line “re: dude”), but by the time I pressed SEND, I had already decided to give it a shot. Rather than wait until the final writing day, I would share the process of writing a chapter from scratch. I had not yet written the story of my first trip to Africa in the summer of 1995, so that’s where I started.

I tested the software with a tech-savvy friend who was online at that moment. He allowed me to see what a viewer would experience and inspired me to add an explainer “billboard” of sorts so visitors would know what was going on regardless of when they joined a session. With many kinks worked out, I posted the URL to my Google+ and Twitter profiles, dubbed it a “#livewriting” experiment, and braced for impact.

The first thing people did was try to take control of my computer. That was not part of the plan. The software Anand had suggested was not designed for experimental, egotistical writers providing a window into their creative processes. It was designed for company-shared document review, software training, and online product demos. In those cases, it makes sense for an attendee to take the wheel, but I was not trying to outsource the actual writing of my memoir.

Next, I noticed the activity in the chat room that came with the software. After obsessing over the comments for a few minutes, I largely chose to ignore them in order to preserve my sanity and actually write. I peeked in occasionally to find folks excited to pre-purchase the book (sweet!) or suggest a chapter title change (thanks for suggesting I change it from “Going Back to Africa” to “Going Black to Africa,” Viewer 27. I owe you!), but I didn’t read most of the comments until after I closed the session and had time to digest the full conversation.

As I delved in, I found that many of my viewers were obsessed with fixing my typos, including my friend Lynne d Johnson who wrote, “LOL who woulda known you are a terrible speller when writing on the fly.” One found it surprising that I used semicolons. I don’t know why. Others thought the entire project was too vain, with Viewer 61 asking, “how self-obsessed does one have to be to set something like this up?” My belated answer is, by the way, “very.”

Primarily, I noticed that people soon stopped chatting to me and started chatting about the story to each other. They celebrated and quibbled over my expressions, and they shared their own stories related to race and identity. My favorite comment, by far, was from Renaldo J, who wrote, “my girlfriend is chinese and I’m half Jamaican/half regular-black, so I think our kids might end up Dominican or something.” Brilliant.

The attendees helped each other with technical questions. They nerded out on the screen-sharing app. They shared how my public writing affected them, such as when Viewer 49 wrote, “really makes me focus on how/why i write/edit the way i do,” and Dltq who claimed, “it helps de-mystify the writing process.” In fact, other writers seemed to have gotten the most out of the process, since rarely do you get to see, word by word, Google search by Google search, and Wikipedia query by Wikipedia query, how an author actually writes.

The most inspiring part of the experiment, though, was when people stopped focusing on my words and started asking questions to each other, such as how and where they first connected to my work. Eventually, people completely left me out of the conversation, started swapping usernames and friending each other on various social networks, with Renaldo explaining, “Somehow or other we all follow baratunde’s work. So at least we have that in common.”

After that initial trial chapter, I opened my computer screen for daily viewing hours during the final week of editing, then shut down the operation. Now, a full year later, I’ve had time to reflect on the value and madness of the act.

I’m a fan of transparency in general, especially when it comes to the political process. For example, I love what the Sunlight Foundation does to expose the role of money in our elections. As a performer and writer, I’ve been on the receiving end of hundreds of questions about the creative process, and have almost always been happy to oblige, knowing that I’m as curious about how others create. But even for me, this live writing experiment was radical.

I largely intended it as Anand had suggested: a publicity stunt. I thought it would be a good way to bring attention to me and to my book. I quickly discovered that it did more.

The experiment turned my previously solitary writing process into a performance of the kind I’m more accustomed to in my role as standup comedian and public speaker. That’s not necessarily a good thing. It taught me a new way to involve people in my work that goes beyond “like me on Facebook!” but short of “do my work for me!” Most of all, this act of radical openness taught me that enabling transparency of my process isn’t necessarily about me. Watching the visitors go from interrogating me to commenting on the story to engaging with each other on unrelated matters was a great lesson that resonates far beyond the writing process.

What began as part experiment in radically open creativity and part act of vanity and ego ended up as a community.

Also, buy my book! ; )

Illustrations by Matthew Brown, senior visual designer at frog

Baratunde Thurston is a comedian and author of The New York Times bestseller How to Be Black. He is the former director of digital for The Onion and founder of the creative agency Cultivated Wit. He tweets hard; follow him @baratunde.

Radical Openness

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