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Are internet friends "real" friends?
Thoughts on being known.
I’ve never understood it when authors say they don’t know where their books come from, as though they are just some channel for art to flow through—I don’t feel that way at all. There is nothing more “me” than my writing—especially my books. If a dream is everything in my subconscious rearranged in a different order then writing a novel is my subconscious rearranging my entire life into a book.
In this way, I often think of myself as a museum. There are so many rooms and galleries that make up my life, each of them filled with every artifact of my existence. There are rooms filled with Catholicism and Victor Hugo and Paris and boxes of old diaries from New Orleans. There are now rooms filled with Buddhism and tea ceremonies and c-dramas and xianxia. There are rooms filled with playbills from every Broadway show I have attended, every concert I sang in high school, and where I still take singing lessons today.
When I write a novel, all of it comes together. All the rooms, all my life. It becomes metaphor, setting, a character, an emotion. It becomes an aesthetic. When I finished my gothic novel Obscurity it felt like I had written down my entire life, or at least a curated collection of it up to that point. In the 29th Chapter, I even used my museum as a metaphor for truly knowing someone. In the chapter, Rémy takes opium and is able to wander the museum of Séverine, his love interest, viewing various collections from her life and learning about every part of her as he does so.
He thought of her lips at first, and then her skin, and then by some trick of the imagination he fell into her very being, as though she were a museum and he wandering every room of her soul. It was a collection of her. A painting of a rose, a crucifix splintering to the floor, a marriage book signed with her signature, a hymnal missing of its pages, a strand of pearls, a portrait with no picture in its frame.
In this way, my novels feel like the most “me” thing about me, and yet none of my “real” friends have read them. They might think it’s cool that I wrote a book, they might even ask me about them, but unless they’ve read them they will never understand me in that particular way.
In fact, if I am a museum, then most of the people I’ve met have never made it past my foyer. We might have one room in common, usually location and all the things that come with that location (my Utah room is filled with hiking and mountains and beautiful flowers and I’ve hung out with many friends in this room), but the rest of my museum is all shadows and darkness, shrouded in sheets where they will never see the rest of me.
There have been people willing to venture into my other rooms. Some might even peek into one of my favorite galleries enough that they can send me an article and say “this seems like something you would like,” but we don’t have that gallery in common. As a result, my “real life” friendships often feel relegated to the part of our lives that we have in common without branching into the best part about ourselves. And frankly, I’ve grown tired of hanging out with one-room people. It has made me feel like no one really knows me and maybe no one really can. But then I think, if I go down that route will I hang out with nobody at all?
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Part of it, I think, is because I moved so often growing up that I never developed lifelong friendships—the kind that know me from start to end. Another part is that maybe I haven’t lived where other artists are—maybe there’s a higher concentration of people like me in other locations. And maybe I’m also being picky—maybe most people don’t need to be known in this way, and maybe one room should be enough. When I was talking with a friend about this she said she felt similarly, but her boyfriend chimed in and said that his friends were skiing friends and biking friends and that was enough. I think my husband feels that way too, to an extent. He has a lot of “recreation” friends, even if I think he still pines for those willing to go beyond that. We have both talked about how hard it is to find “our people.” Even just one of them.
Even in our marriage, we are probably not each other’s “people” in the sense that we have all the same museum collections. We might connect on the more fundamental things, the inner sanctum of our museums, perhaps, or maybe the archives, but our other rooms and collections don’t necessarily coincide. And maybe romantic relationships are different—because I’ve known people in relationships who have all their rooms in common and none of their rooms in common and still there seems to be some kind of X factor that feels more like “we both really like each other’s museums and want unlimited access to both of them.” And maybe friendships can be like that too. Actually, I’ve had a few of those.
But I think all of this underlines the other part: that it’s extremely difficult to find one’s “people,” the ones who are most like us—who we can share our favorite, most vital rooms with—especially when location is a barrier. What are the odds I’m going to find someone who is interested in writing and fiction and art and philosophy and capitalism and humanism and utopia all within a 30-minute radius of my house? And what is the likelihood that, if there is another person like me nearby, we’ll be able to find each other among all the people who aren’t?
I was thinking about all of this when Substack debuted Notes—a way to communicate with other writers and readers on the platform. Instantly, my exposure to likeminded individuals exploded. It’s the first time I’ve been able to really geek out on all of my interests and see them reciprocated. Like when I asked everyone to show me the most beautiful book they own and nearly 50 people went straight to their bookshelves and pulled out their favorite book. Or when I was researching magic systems for my utopian novel and asked for your favorite ones and my notifications lit up with responses.
It's also been fun to deepen my connection with people I usually only see in the comments section but can now chat with on the daily. Like whenand and I started geeking out about c-dramas, k-dramas, and Chinese serial fiction. Or when , , and I got into a discussion about which is more important, the art or the artist? When I recently decided to spend a week in San Francisco, I even sent out a note asking if anyone was going to be in town. It was early days and there were very few people on Notes at that time, most of them were team members from Substack, but they invited me over to Substack HQ where I got to meet the team.
It was surreal to walk in the doors of Substack and have people there recognize me. We only know each other through our newsletters and comments and notes. We only know what each other look like because of the tiny profile pictures of our heads on Substack. And yet, when we met it was like we already knew each other—we’ve been following each other online for close to two years now.
We went to happy hour, then dinner. There was no small talk because we’d already devoted hours to reading each other’s work and were able to start from there. We spoke about writing and publishing, the posts we’d written and the newsletters we loved. We talked about the internet and society and government and capitalism and art. I spoke withabout friendship and how to find it (which inspired this essay). I finally went home around 10:30pm and realized I had just spent seven hours with people who had so much more in common with me than many people I’ve met. And we met online!
All of this had me thinking about online vs. offline community and which category is more “real.” There is this perception that online friends aren’t “real” friends because we haven’t met “in real life.” And yet, the most “me” part of me is the part that comes out in writing, this is where I express all of the parts of me that I am—my whole museum! People I know “in real life” may not have read it, but many people online have. Many people here even read my fiction! Because of this, sometimes I feel like the people who read my newsletter know me better than the people who don’t read my newsletter but know me in “real life” and I think that’s because we have access to each other’s thoughts and minds in a way that can be hard to express at a dinner party.
If I have found it difficult to find “my people” in person, it has been much easier online. I find it entirely absurd that there are somehow 9,500 people who are following this newsletter online and are thus interested in at least a few of the rooms in my museum. Even if I filter to my four- and five-star subscribers—the ones who read almost everything I write—that’s still close to 2,000 people who probably have a lot in common with me. Even if I focus on longevity, there are 1,200 people who followed my newsletter before I even came to Substack, who were around for my gothic religious phase and somehow stuck around for my utopian fiction phase. Frankly, it is entirely strange to me that anyone would be interested in any of it!
There are people I know too, whose newsletters I have followed for a very long time and whose words have influenced and inspired my life in ways my “real” friends have not. There has been writing that has deeply resonated with me, that has made me feel not alone, that suddenly gave me an idea or helped me know what decision to make. Even if I haven’t always commented or made myself known to the author, it is writing that has done this so much more often than a conversation with a friend has. And that’s probably because I am reading works by writers that have quite a bit in common with me, who share multiple rooms with me, and thus resonate with me quite a bit.
And maybe that means my odds of finding “my people” are better online than in person. And that makes me wonder whether the internet isn’t a great place to start an in-person relationship, maybe even the best place. At least, I much prefer starting with hundreds of someone’s essays to starting with “where are you from?” Knowing how someone thinks just seems a better starting place than knowing where they live, or have lived. And if I’m still subscribed to a writer a year later, we probably have more in common than someone who lives near me. We probably have multiple rooms in common right from the start!
It’s probably gauche to call us a community because we don’t really know each other and this is just the internet. But maybe we actually do, in a way, maybe we even know each other better than some of the people we know in real life. And maybe we can actually become a community because of the internet. I am acutely aware that it might just be me. You might do a better job of translating who you are online to who you are in person. You might have literary communities and friends who are just like you. You might have people in your life that really know you, or maybe you don’t need to. But maybe we are also expressing a part of ourselves here that normally doesn’t get expressed elsewhere. And maybe this has become a colloquium for gathering like-minded souls.
In any case, it's been a New Year’s resolution to try to meet more of "my people," in person. I've felt lonely in my museum and I've been craving people I can share my other rooms with so I recently invitedand a few other writer friends to my house. Winston and I met on Substack, we both have fiction newsletters, but he lives nearby so now we’re also friends IRL. We spent the evening talking about writing, our inspirations, the Brandon Sanderson article, and it just felt like one of the few times I’ve been able to share the rooms of my museum that had been gathering dust, that have been reserved for me alone, and my writing, until now.
I want this to be my norm, and I am actively trying to cultivate it—my husband and I have even discussed moving to find it, and maybe there is something to that. After all, my husband’s favorite rooms are all gear closets, and he’s definitely found that here. He might wish for people who can go beyond biking and skiing, but he at least has a higher concentration of “people like him” because of our proximity to the mountains. Meanwhile, I have never had a community of writing friends and I wonder if I’ve sacrificed that by choosing to live in beautiful places instead of busy ones. Maybe I’d be more likely to find my literary community in somewhere like New York City. In her recent newsletter the author, who lives in Brooklyn, actually wished she had less of one. "It is easy to go to an event every night, and to spend every waking hour speaking of writing with other writers," she said, "and to find that those things have replaced the writing itself."
I can only dream about having so many writer friends that I find myself struggling to write. But I also don’t harbor illusions that it magically exists elsewhere, or that moving to a bigger city would guarantee it. I was reminded of this when the authorrecently admitted it was much more difficult than she anticipated. “When I first moved to New York, I thought how it worked was that you would find your people and your scene, and that would be that,” she told Interview. “I’m envious of certain groups where it seems like they have their own self-contained ecosystem.”
I’m envious of that too. My literary community either does not exist where I live or I can’t find it, and maybe I will eventually need to move in search of it. But in the meantime, I have found something like it online. Thanks to the internet, now I regularly have exposure to people who are so much more like me than the people I might know in real life. And thanks to Substack, and now Notes, I have a way to engage with those people in meaningful ways. When my husband and I are relaxing on the sofa, it’s not uncommon to find him chatting with friends via group text as I banter back and forth with friends on Notes. He may have met his friends in real life, and I haven’t, but we’re both connecting with “our people.”
And that still counts as “real” to me.
Thanks for reading,
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P.S. Would you be interested in hanging out in real life?
To continue my New Year’s Resolution, I want to explore more ways for writers to get together in real life: including small informal literary salons all over the place and potentially a writer’s retreat in one location.
If you are interested in small writer’s gatherings, this year I will be traveling to Salt Lake City, New York City (May), Maui (June), Napa (June), San Francisco (June), Seattle (July), Calgary (July), Banff (July), Whistler (August), Vancouver (August), Mendocino (August), San Francisco (September), Portland (October), New Zealand (December), Singapore (January), and maybe Indonesia/Malaysia (January). If you happen to be in one of those places and you’re game for a meetup let me know in the comments. I’ll start smaller email chains with people in certain locations so we can set up some literary salons.
Additionally, ever since I went to Villa Diodati, it’s been a dream of mine to host a writer’s retreat. If you haven’t heard of Villa Diodati, it is the estate in Geneva where a group of writers once spent the summer of 1816. The guests were Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and John Polidori, and the weather was so stormy they decided to stay in and write ghost stories. It was a contest to write the best one, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre came out of that month.
I want to do this so badly—we rent a house, we write stories on a topic and share them, and we just all hang out together—but I feel like I’ve been waiting for a “now is the moment that people would actually sign-up for such a thing” moment and it just occurred to me that I have no idea when that moment might be. So if I were to organize a writer’s retreat somewhere in the world this year, would you have ANY interest? Maybe a week utopian world building somewhere beautiful? Let me know in the comments.
Also if you just want to use the comments section to find your people in your area you can do that too. Thanks for being here!