Are We Losing Our Minds? Writers and Social Media
By Laura Harrington
It’s ironic to be blogging about this topic, but here goes.
Awhile back, I effectively dropped out of social media for two months. And I was not sure I could go back.
Around then, my husband and I took our first vacation in two years. We had both been working too hard for too long and were in rather desperate need of R & R. I had just delivered a major revision of my new book. We had had a lot of family visiting for a solid month. We were frazzled and exhausted.
We not only left the country, we left all of our electronic devices behind. Three weeks completely unplugged.
When I mentioned this to friends they were either frankly envious or else broke out in a cold sweat of imagined withdrawal.
In the first few days we literally twitched when someone else’s phone rang or beeped with a text message, or simply reached for our own, missing, phones.
First thoughts: That’s funny, right? Second thoughts: Are we all Pavlov’s dogs? Insight: I have been trained to leap when my master beeps. As if every message is essential. Even though, if you’re anything like me, it’s just as likely to be my phone company trying to lure me to upgrade.
In the days and weeks that followed I didn’t even hear any ringing phones. I was at the end of the earth in Finistère, Brittany. I didn’t consult Yelp to find out where to have dinner, I asked the desk clerk or the apple seller at the local outdoor market. I didn’t consult an app to see which was the best bakery in town; I tried them all.
We used paper maps. Remember those? The kind you buy in a Tabac – one of France’s greatest inventions – where you can buy everything from a detailed hiking map to a cool pen to a best selling book. Did we find our way? Most of the time. But remember how much fun it can be to get lost? And discover something new?
We rode bikes, walked beaches, visited small towns and tiny café’s; strolled through markets, walled cities, ruined abbeys. I also read six books and played a lot of Scrabble. Wrote in my journal. Recovered from my blessed but often over stimulated life. And reconnected to my own mind and body.
My enjoyment level went up. My own thoughts began to emerge. I was actually musing and daydreaming. My body’s knots from too much time spent at the computer began to dissolve. My world – both internal and external – expanded.
I even began to imagine my next book.
It felt as though my thought patterns were different. I stopped thinking about what I should post on Facebook or Twitter or even what I should blog about. I sat on a porch and watched the sun go down. I didn’t take photographs in order to share them somewhere. I enjoyed good food and conversation. No photo could have captured the entirety of that experience, but it could certainly have interrupted the moment, or made my partner feel that sharing our experience virtually was more important than having our experience in real life.
I realized how hungry I am for genuine, undiluted, unmediated experience; how much I have been longing for the kind of silence or slowness or intimacy that the gods of efficiency and hyper-connectedness will not tolerate.
I began to think about what the writer’s true purpose is – what my true purpose is. I thought about what it would feel like to take care of my writer self. What, exactly, is my job as a writer? And what do I need in order to be able to write as well as I hope to? Time, space, books and more books, great writers to read and learn from, good food and conversation, a lively physical life lived outdoors if at all possible, and some care and attention paid to my spiritual self. Being mentally and emotionally present: seeing, feeling, daydreaming, it all feeds my writing.
The social media and marketing that most writers have taken on recently, in addition to writing their books – Facebook, Twitter, blogging, engaging with readers – are all considered very important, even essential. I watch fellow writers, some with families and young children, seeming to juggle it all with tremendous grace and energy. I admire them. I have tried to emulate them. But I struggle to find balance, and honestly, don’t feel that I have ever even come close to achieving it.
The twin pursuits of writing and social media, the double duties most of us are attempting, are, for me, incompatible. And I am coming to the conclusion that this is not just an inconvenience or a tricky new skill to be mastered, but something more fundamental. What is the impact on the brain of constant distraction? Do our brains get into a pattern of quick starts and stops and is this quickness; pleasurable as it may be, the exact opposite of what a writer needs for his or her work?
I can say with absolute certainty that these other jobs, important as they may currently be, are not feeding my work. I am struck by Virginia Woolf’s remark that she was glad when the “splash” was done after the publication of Jacob’s Room. Which lasted a few weeks. And during the “splash” she was working on Mrs. Dalloway, quite uncertain about it, and planning an ambitious program of reading the Greeks.
No doubt, I am overly romantic, but Woolf’s pursuits – her deep immersion in reading and writing – are calling to me. This kind of immersion only occurs when we can truly focus, when we can fully enter a fictive world by leaving our own hectic lives behind. This is what I love about reading; it is what I love about writing.
Is my inability to go deep into my work and skate on the surface of unlimited distractions at the same time, a strength or a weakness? I am sure the answer to this question is as varied as the writers among us. And equally sure that we need to be able to give ourselves permission to ask these questions and do what is best for us and our work, whatever that might be.
Laura Harrington, award winning playwright, lyricist and librettist, has written dozens of plays, musicals, and operas, which have been produced in venues ranging from Off-Broadway to Houston Grand Opera. Harrington has twice won both the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England. Laura teaches playwriting at MIT where she was awarded the 2009 Levitan Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Alice Bliss, (Penguin) her first novel, widely acclaimed in print and online, has won the 2012 Massachusetts Book Award in Fiction. Alice Bliss has also been published in the UK, Italy and Denmark.Massachusetts Book Award in Fiction. Alice Bliss has also been published in the UK, Italy and Denmark. Visit her website at http://www.lauraharringtonbooks.com/