For years I’ve had a bit of a running joke that I tell even if people aren’t in on it. It’s often rumored that talking about your goals will actually give you an inflated sense of accomplishment. So, as a writer who hasn’t really had a huge amount of success (yet), I tend to rely on self-deprecation to avoid actually stating my goals out loud. Don’t get me wrong, I remind myself every day that I’m a writer and that’s what I want to be, but when I talk to other people I try to make sure I don’t get a big ego about it. We’ve all met that guy who says he’s writing a screenplay or novel and thinks that means the world should kiss his ass. I never want to be that guy, so I make sure to label myself appropriately.
I’m a professional bullshit artist.
Because that’s what you have to be if you’re going to be working in fiction. You have to be able to craft the most unbelievable bullshit into something people become invested in. You have to sell people on notions that you just pulled from the aether (or straight from your ass), and make them want to pay you money for it. It’s a skill that’s easy to learn but hard to master – a field where everyone feels they should be able to do it but only so many can actually pull it off. And that perceived ease of entry is part of the problem for guys like me.
See, writers, by and large, have to sell themselves as much as possible to get people to look their way. But, since there are so many of us out there, it’s hard to make that happen in short order. Most famous authors and screenwriters didn’t really have a major break until their 30s when many of those started trying earnestly somewhere around high school. There are always a few modest writing gigs here or there, you’ll make some headway as an intern if you have the right connections, but for the most part you’re just hoping you manage to out-shine someone else’s bullshit. Unfortunately, recent events with some politicians derailed my efforts for a bit and I was a little upset.
But, sometimes, you just have to tip your hat to a true bullshit master…
Hashing It Out
In the world of social media there are three distinct breeds of author. The first, most visible breed, is the group that “made it” and can get away with whatever they want to do. They can be controversial, self-absorbed, or even boring without much fear of reprisal because the people following them already love them. Not everyone in this group is automatically half-assing, but they could if they really wanted to and wouldn’t suffer much in the aftermath. Their work speaks for itself, and so long as they don’t actively burn bridges with their fans, they’re going to be just fine. The other breeds have to work at it in a wholly different way.
Once you get past that first group of authors there’s a need to give people a reason to want to follow you. You’re going to need to provide them reasons and incentives to hit a button to give you the time of day. You need to be almost constantly “on” in some fashion, trying to do as much as you can to be noticed or give people an idea of what you’re about. For many, this generally turns towards a heavy dose of automation – getting a bot program or a service to retweet excessively anything that may be perceived as interesting to your audience. You have the service scan the net for a specific hashtag or series of keywords and they start posting that to your feed like some sort of aggregate site for all the dinosaur erotica news they could hope for.
But me? I’ve always been in the third group of people who choose the hardest path possible and just run at it for all they’re worth. I sometimes refer to these people affectionately as idiots because they have me as a member, but I always make sure to tip my hat to them when we meet. Rather than filling my feed with endless shares of other people’s work, I try to do my best to circulate my own brand of bullshit and provide as much original content as I can as quickly as I can. That’s why this blog has hundreds of entries in it, why I comment on whatever I may be watching when possible, and why I sometimes sit and contemplate the pros and cons of a substance abuse problem. But for a long time that didn’t quite feel like enough, there was definitely something missing, and my friend finally made a suggestion that clicked. After debating about it for a couple months and wondering what the format would be, on December 24th, 2014, I made what is the first post with the hashtag #AlterFacts.
— Jeremy Varner (@JDVarner) December 24, 2014
It was a modest, silly idea where I would try to get people to wonder what exactly was an #AlterFact was I gave “Facts” about “Alters“. Tying that first tweet into Christmas, which had a ton of tweets flying through at the time, I was hoping that I could get some early views. Fact is, I didn’t, but I was just stubborn enough to keep at it for the next two years on a fairly regular basis. With thousands of tweets featuring hundreds of these “Facts”, I eventually found the rhythm. Ironically, the bots I was trying to avoid became one of my great allies, with many of them retweeting for keywords and others retweeting because other bots had. As a result, for a while I was getting thousands of impressions per day according to a couple analytic apps. Though I hadn’t captured that momentum for my blog or my books just yet, it was the sort of groundwork you put down for a big marketing push.
And the fact was, it was primed and ready for that. As of a couple months ago I was seeing short, temporary tweets pop up within the hashtag by bots which were trying to use it to sell random goods. From shoes to other people’s books, I was seeing advertisements thrown into the hashtag by robots, left up for an hour or two, then deleted again. I had reached a point in the hashtag’s momentum that the computers were hoping to use me for advertising. If that wasn’t a sign, I wouldn’t know what is.
And then Kellyanne Conway opened her mouth, removed all doubt she was a fool, and ruined my marketing efforts in a single sentence.
That one sentence launched a thousand memes and started a wave of hashtag #alternativefacts that would continue to hold momentum for some time to come. In a sentence she’d burned the phrase into the minds of millions of people who instantly knew that “Alt” and “Fact” were part of this woman’s monumental bullshit. And the funniest part is that if you watch her face as she says it you know that she knows what she’s about to do.
She knows that the phrase could haunt her if anyone catches onto it. That’s not the face of someone trying to swallow their pride, that’s the face of someone trying to control their digestive track so they can really get down to that grade A bullshit. What you see in that one moment is someone with such talent at telling bullshit that she is literally summoning it from her own bowels. The rest of us have to import it from other places or cultivate it for years on end, but Kellyanne Conway makes her own, on-site, fully organic and possibly GMO free. And when she says it she hopes, like the rest of us, that people will just believe her bullshit and carry with their lives without stopping to question it. She hopes, like any good fiction author, that people will be invested in the world she’s crafted – no matter how unbelievable it is. And you can see, as the phrase gets quoted back to her, just how she feels about the fact it didn’t slide by.
By the time I was online that afternoon, the phrase had set in as a viral trend. Though the first day didn’t see many people confuse #AlterFacts for #alternativefacts, the few that did made it clear what the phrase would soon be associated with. After two years of grinding away for the traffic and notoriety I had, my efforts were pretty much dead that afternoon. As time went on, the mistakes became more frequent and the phrase was appearing everywhere. In terms of recognition, I’d lost the war before the first shot had been fired.
I should be angry about this, maybe even a little depressed, and for a couple days I was understandably upset. After two years of grinding away to achieve something akin to a brand recognition, it was gone and the people who were using it were people I couldn’t blame for it. After all, when someone like Conway spits in the face of objective reality, it’s a good idea for that reality to spit back. So to be angry at the people who made the tweets that started to seep into my hashtag would be siding with someone like Conway. And, while I may be an attention whore, I still have a soul.
Ironically this started because Trump, glorious leader of the future wastelands, felt he wasn’t getting enough credit for the spectacular size of his crowds. He wasn’t feeling that people appreciated just how well loved he was. He needed everyone to know that his crowds were just the best crowds there ever were – even if that required lying through his teeth. Because, you see, Trump is a Tulpa – a fictitious entity brought forth to existence by people’s belief in him. Should people stop believing he’s a billionaire, he’d start to lose money. Should people stop thinking he matters, he would. Should people stop thinking his name meant something, it would become worthless. Surviving purely off of attention, Trump is like Tinkerbell, requiring people to clap so he’ll continue to survive but having hands too small to do it for himself.
So, after a couple of weeks of mulling it over and rebuilding under a new hashtag, I’ve come to a conclusion about how I should feel about it all. Despite the fact his crowds that day were bigger than mine may ever be, Trump needs those fictitious, altered facts more than I do. While I can’t be happy with my life all the time, and I certainly wouldn’t qualify as a success the way he does, I know I have things he lacks. After all, while he had every reason in the world to succeed from birth, he never really got the things he really needed in life like intelligence, perseverance, and security in the knowledge of who he is. He never really needed them and it was always easier to posture over people who had less. After all, his greatest success before winning the presidency was firing people on national TV.
Trump is a man who filed bankruptcy for a casino and called it good business. He’s a man who repeatedly says his name holds value, only to find that the brand fails if put on anything other than a building. He’s a man who receives a million dollar loan from his father and calls it “small” so he can feel like he was self-started. But he’s also a man who loses repeatedly but comes out on top because he can bullshit with the best of them. Trump and Conway need their bullshit to survive because they don’t have anything but their bullshit to survive on.
The thing is, I’m a fiction author, I’m supposed to be fabricating unbelievable scenarios. But you will never see me standing in a place like Conway and Trump. I don’t mean in terms of success: you likely won’t see my name on a building or in lights, and it’s safe to assume you won’t see me getting a parade. But all of that is fine because I know something about myself that Trump never will: I can do better, I can be a better person, and I can do it honestly. If and when I find success, it won’t be because I lied and cheated to get there after daddy gave me a boost. No amount of bluster or double-talk from his stooges will ever convince me Trump can say the same.
So you can have them, Trump & Co. You can use all the alternative facts you ever want and you can tarnish the good name I was trying to build. You can associate “Alt” and “Fact” with bullshit until the end of time. It doesn’t matter, we know you’re lying, so you can keep the phrase. I realize now that I’m going to be just fine letting the phrase go. Because, in the end, you clearly needed this more than I…
And I’ll just be over here, living a more honest life… with my fiction.