“Fear, pain, sorrow, and boredom must remain problems if we do not understand them, but understanding requires a single and undivided mind. This, surely, is the meaning of that strange saying, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” – Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
While writing this blog post, I considered a more provocative, clickbait-style headline: “Why You Should Quit Facebook and Twitter Forever” or “Social Media Murders Your Soul.” People respond to that sort of thing, even if it’s to mount furious refutations. And furious refutations are good for pageviews, right? But I don’t roll like that. No, this is about my experience. You do you, as the kids say — actually, they probably don’t anymore. They said that in 2009 and I am just now catching up.
Anyway. This week, I took a hiatus from social media. It seemed like a great time for it — recent political events turned Facebook into even more of a cesspool of hate and anger than usual. Everyone was either being terrible or lecturing everyone not to be terrible, sometimes both at the same time. There’s nothing like a global tragedy to bring people together, if by “bring people together” you mean “craft endless memes deriding one another’s viewpoints.” Brotherhood! So anyway, I checked out, because while I grieve for lives lost and families torn apart, riding a tidal wave of impotent online fury is not my chosen means of expressing said grief.
With many hours of my day now freed up, I turned to my writing. It’s November, and that means National Novel Writing Month. Nanowrimo is almost at an end now, so for those of you taking part and just about to cross the finish line, congratulations! You’re doing it! For those of who you started and quit weeks ago, congratulations! Quitting can be a valuable part of the process!
I always get glum around Nanowrimo, because I rarely participate in an official capacity anymore. My writing schedule doesn’t often with starting a new novel in November, and I don’t like shoe-horning whatever project I’m working on into the Nanowrimo format. Also, while I like the idea of Nanowrimo’s energetic community spirit and cameraderie, I find I often don’t care for the execution. Writing in public, or hob-nobbing with fellow writers in large groups, feels counterproductive to me. And that brings us to the subject of today’s blog post, four paragraphs in!
While on my social media break, found this blog post about Eugène Delacroix, who had thoughts on the artistic benefits of isolation. Delacroix lived and died long before social media, but his words resonated with me regarding own frequent distractions:
“Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.”
Of course, Delacroix wasn’t the only one who saw his productivity flourish in solitude. In On Writing, Stephen King advised, “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” The door, he implies, is metaphorical as well as literal: you must shut out distractions if you’re to get anything done. He unleashes a rant, either in On Writing or Danse Macabre (maybe both, I forget) about how reading and writing take time, and television commands too much of it.
Likewise, Neal Stephenson talks about why he doesn’t answer emails or post much to his blog:
“Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.”
Even Seneca had something to say about distraction from the real work of our lives:
“Vices surround and assail men from every side, and do not allow them to rise again and lift their eyes to discern the truth, but keep them overwhelmed and rooted in their desires. Never can they recover their true selves. If by chance they achieve some tranquillity, just as a swell remains on the deep sea even after the wind has dropped, so they go on tossing about and never find rest from their desires.”
We can point to all sorts of famous writers who lived in solitude and shunned public life altogether: Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Marcel Proust, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Pynchon. Obviously, isolation worked out for them, at least in the artistic sense.
But the game is often different in the information age. I look at the writers I consider my contemporaries, the indie writers I enjoy and respect. Brooke Johnson, whose star is undoubtedly rising, has taken the daring step of writing a first draft in public on Wattpad, and she’s getting a lot of positive response. Authors like LJ Cohen, Mike Reeves McMillan and Rick Wayne post excerpts on social media every Saturday to keep their readers updated on what’s happening. Readers can’t get enough of it. They clamor for more.
Personally, I struggle with this, because when I’m writing, my instinct is not so much as mumble into a hole in the ground. While not quite of the Neal Stephenson school of bad correspondence, I tend to be sparse and vague with my writing updates. My tendency to work in isolation crosses over into assuming no one is interested in my progress, even when my few forays into sharing my work show otherwise.
And then there’s the question of community. I’ve joined countless writer communities, and abandoned nearly all of them after weeks or months. For reasons too varied and complicated to get into, I just don’t thrive among groups of writers. I detest tribal squabbles over personal preferences and kaffeeklatsch complaint-fests. In small groups of people, I can hold my own. The larger the group gets, the louder and more hostile the groupthink becomes, the more likely I am to feel unwelcome and eventually slink away. This is nobody’s fault. I am a disagreeable and fussy human being, best endured in small doses.
But indie writers need community, or so the industry blogs tell us. We need community to build a fanbase, to support and promote each other. But so many communities I’ve joined (and left) seem like a series of bleats into the void: bland advertisements with a few obligatory “likes” or “pluses” from the crowd. True reciprocity and real engagement are as rare as the basilisk. We won’t even get into what happens when you trust your content to something like a Facebook page, where throwing money at your own content is the only hope you have of getting eyeballs on it.
So what’s my point in all this? It’s that these struggles are, in some sense, eternal. I could pull back another step and talk at length about those Facebook memes you’ve probably seen about how Kids These Days just look at their phones and don’t engage with the real world; and then memes refuting the memes, and Medium think-pieces refuting the refutations, and so on ad infinitum, an endless finger-waving contest. The conflict is not new. It’s just taken new form. And it is all, at its heart, distraction from the real work. But I digress.
I’ve never been a big believer in one-true-wayism when it comes to creativity. I believe writers should introduce chaos into their own process, try new things, abandon old things when they’re no longer working. This applies to marketing and community too — especially in the indie world, the game change on a daily basis and authors have unprecedented power to forge their own destiny.
The final message, then, is the time-honored advice of finding balance with yourself. Indie authors can’t survive without community, but many of us find our voices only in isolation. Social media can be a valuable outlet, but it can all to easily become a crutch. I imagine it’s rare one thinks to themselves, “I’m becoming a slave to this machine.” You just engage in some ostensibly fun habits until you imagine they’re a part of you. (And somewhere, a company monetizes you. But I won’t get into that now.)
If you’re an indie writer, I don’t have to tell you to find your own path. You already know that. But it might be worth reminding you that sometimes, it’s worth getting lost… in a productive way.
Timothy Leary, the radical psychologist and writer, hypothesized that human consciousness worked along an “eight-circuit” model. This model was later expanded upon by Robert Anton Wilson, who posited that most humans (including himself) lived their life in a robotic state, rarely if ever approaching the higher circuits of consciousness. Leary believed that people could be shocked out of their current circuit by jolts to the brain, near-death experiences, or psychedelic drugs.
Since I’m not going to recommend psychedelics or near-death experiences to you, let’s go with the jolt to the brain. This whole train of thought (and if you’ve gotten this far into it, thank you) was brought on by taking my daily social media habit and tossing it out the metaphorical window. So if you’re distracted or blocked, if your writing has stagnated and you’re unhappy…
Try a little isolation. Introduce some chaos. See where it takes you.