First, my heartfelt thanks to all of you who responded to my last post, “Being Cheryl Strayed.” You energized me. You made me believe in myself again and my writing. When I read your comments, I wanted to reach out and hug you all and let you know how much I believe in you.
I hope you’re all still digging deep for that authentic self, the one you always carry, the one that sometimes gets layered over with other people’s expectations, perceptions, and needs. The one that gets lost in our modern world, the world that keeps us so distracted we forget who we are and what makes us powerful creative beings. A toast to all of us.
Now to tell you what happened after I wrote my last post. And it wasn’t what I expected, not by a long shot.
I truly expected to have a mega burst of creative energy. I was raw, open, and a little scared, but raring to go, especially to finish my novel.
Instead, I found myself drop kicked to the ground. I just couldn’t get up. I couldn’t find the energy to write, to keep up with my responsibilities, to even be excited about the novel. What was wrong? What was happening? When I finally dragged myself to my feet and examined myself, I had a whole new problem to figure out and another layer to dig through.
It was morning, a few weeks after the last blog post when I dragged myself out of bed and realized I was anxious and depressed. I’m not one to be depressed. It’s just not me. I took my usual half hour to wake up, my usual easing into the day. Dan was downstairs, drinking his coffee and reading the paper. He knows not to talk to me first thing and woe is he who asks, “What should we have for dinner tonight?”
I stumbled around, heated water for tea, and tried to remember what my last thoughts were before I fell asleep and what I’d dreamed about. I often use sleep and dreams to solve problems. When I’m fully in tune with myself (happy, excited, adventurous, expectant), I go to bed with a story problem and sometimes wake up with a solution. My dreams are vivid, Technicolor, intense, full story dreams with a beginning, middle and end. Sometimes they are simply stories. Sometimes they are a collage of recent personal events and fears, or my fears for the world. Before 911, I had, like many people did, dreams of being in a tall building that was crumbling around me.
But that morning I couldn’t remember anything about my dreams or what I’d wanted to process before I fell asleep.
While my tea brewed, I wiped down the sink, put dishes away from the night before, and read part of the paper standing up at the counter. I grabbed pencil and paper and wrote down a few groceries we needed. My fuzzy morning brain was waking up, but I wasn’t happy. I plunked down on the kitchen stool. When was the last time I was happy in the morning? When had I last woke up feeling excited, adventurous, expectant? I couldn’t remember.
Okay, the best way to push through all this was to prepare for the day. I flipped to a new sheet of paper and decided to write down what I would do that day. I started a list:
Write a blog post.
Then it came back to me, what I’d gone to bed mulling over and worrying about—I could not come up with a subject to blog about.
I’d never had a problem writing this blog. Never. I did think about what my readers would find interesting, but for the most part, my topics came from what I found interesting. Readers would find it worth reading or not. Sure, I worried about execution, the old “Can I pull this off? Or will I sound like an idiot?” I didn’t worry too much about the last part. I’ve sounded like an idiot before and it didn’t kill me.
Okay. So the problem was a topic for the blog. Easy then. Quit trying so hard. I could do a follow up to the reader comments from the last entry. I’d take the “Being Cheryl Strayed” to another level. I wrote that down on my list. I could write about my decision to drop the pirate persona, how I now found it tedious, and I’d explain why.
Nah, that wasn’t even interesting.
I took a deep breath. My mind was all over the place with ideas but I just couldn’t get excited about any of them. Okay, don’t panic. I’d set that aside for the moment. I would make a list of everything I needed to do and start working on that. Crossing things off a list was always therapeutic. I wrote:
Check your Facebook page because you’ve let that go.
You forgot to check ValinParis account for comments.
Post the Cheryl Strayed piece to Women Writing the West Yahoo users group.
Set up Hootsuite; need to follow hashtag groups.
Goodreads—woefully out of date!
Go through all your email; needs attention!
Respond to SheWrites messages and post to groups.
Write the column for Books By the Bed.
I set the pencil down. I felt a little sick. I stared at the list.
I took my now cold tea to my writing room and stood there, looking at my library of novels and reference books, the stacks of literary magazines and the binders full of research. A partial manuscript was tucked in my laptop bag with all my revision notes.
|Reading area in my writing room|
What used to make me happy, excited, adventurous, expectant was writing. Writing fiction. Why wasn’t I devoting every waking—and sleeping—moment to finishing my novel? That’s what I used to fall asleep with—characters, story, plot problems, structure possibilities. I know I can’t do that all the time, but I remember when I’d wake up in that fuzzy first hour, noodling ideas and excited about perhaps a scene I needed to finish.
That’s why I couldn’t move, couldn’t be excited, was depressed. I’d been letting all this online networking and social media—creating a web presence, as they call it—take over. What was the use of having all this “presence” if I didn’t have a finished novel? What good did it do anyway? Who were these people who said you had to have a web presence if you wanted to be an author? Who were these gurus who insisted that this new world of publishing demanded an author FB/Tweet/blog/Google+/Klout/Pinterest, etc.?
I drank my cold tea and pushed away that old Puritan who said, “How dare you question authority.” What authority, I asked? I used to work in advertising and marketing. I understood the old caveat emptor warning. So I asked myself, Who is selling us on the idea of all this social media and internet marketing?
I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to recognize a need and create a service to fill that need. They have to make a living and they do give away lots of good info before asking you to buy something. I subscribe to three of these social media gurus e-newsletters, so I asked myself, What roped me in?
Use of their urgent language? Use of their authoritative tone? The fear of not doing it?
“If you don’t do this, you won’t succeed.”
Well, maybe. But does anyone have the numbers to prove this? Sure, I want to be successful. I want to be ready for the moment when my book is published. But what price am I paying?
If I’m sacrificing my happiness, my creativity, the immersion time I need to write, if I don’t have time anymore to read other novels, why bother? I’d even dragged these demands to Colonyhouse retreats because when you’re on that many sites, you have to keep up on a daily basis. You have to get online and be “present.”
No, I said to myself that morning. Not if it means you can’t be fully present in your writing. In that wonderful creative half-awake state that morning, not once had I thought about my novel.
I had to do something drastic.
So I did. I dropped all my social media activities and went on a blog hiatus. Just like that.
Once again, I was back in the land of the writer. I went to bed with my novel, woke up with it, noodled it in the car, devoted myself to it for a month, and fell in love again. The novel grew stronger and deeper with this immersion; the writing was some of my best.
I finished April 1, the deadline I’d first set for myself, and that’s not an April Fool’s joke. The novel is now out with five readers and I’m happier than I’ve been in … damn, I can’t remember when. Probably sometime before I dove into the social media. Even Dan has commented on how much happier I seem.
I've heard the argument for balancing both, limiting my time online, giving myself one hour in the evening, etc. etc. But let’s be honest. How many of you have been online for an hour? It’s more along the lines of look at the clock and gasp because three hours have gone by. And never mind trying to return to your writing, fully present in that. No, you’re concentration, that precious immersion in story, has been infected. With internet.
As many of you know, the gift of being a writer is the joy of noodling an idea, slurping it around the mouth, playing with the creative food. It’s about immersion. When I’m writing, even the bad days are good. Even when I’m writing drivel, the days are better than anything else.
I did have pangs of guilt for not being on all those internet sites I’d joined. But it didn’t depress me or make me anxious. After the novel was done, I decided to clear up my writing room, weed out saved articles and old magazines. Spring was in the air and I like order. As I went through articles I had saved, I came across one that took away any residual guilt about my dropping out from the internet.
The article, “Inner Space: Clearing Some Room for Inspiration,” by Frank Bures examines the same problem I’d been dealing with and that many creative people face. When I was online every day to do my social media, I had what Bures admitted he developed, what researcher Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention.”
Continuous partial attention.
Ping! I couldn’t stay in the story or daydream or be in the warm fuzzy creative space upon waking. My focus was chopped up into too many small bites. I yearned for my childhood days when I would spend hours sitting under a tree beside Lake Winnisquam, making up stories that I’d spin into words later on paper.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m organized. I have systems. I keep great files. I’m pretty good at time management.
This, however, is something entirely different. Overuse of the internet slices and dices your brain. It damages your focus, your creative headspace.
So here we are in this modern tech age when we are expected to be online every day to create a presence and it’s rupturing the connection to our creativity? And what of our writerly isolation and prolonged sitting? (Lots of new info on how dangerous that is.) I know I have even more reason to limit that “online presence.”
I do love my online communities, the amazing, helpful, wonderful people, the great resources. But I will from now on be absent when writing and promise to give you a heads up.
And yes, I finished my novel. Relief! Happiness! Fulfillment!
For fun—after the novel was done—I ran the first page of it through the website “I Write Like …” and came up with David Foster Wallace. Yes, go ahead and play with the site. Drop a chunk of your writing into the box and see who pops up. I wanted my writing to be like Margaret Atwood’s, but David’s would definitely do.
I’m celebrating, both the finish of my novel and my new freedom. You’ve been with me for almost a year and a half, given me support and courage, and for that I’m giving away a copy of Cheryl’s memoir Wild. If you leave a comment, your name goes into the hat. Either use the comment box or send to the ValinParis email.
Also, I would love to have your reactions to my story. Do you have similar stories and concerns? What are they? Have you experienced a negative effect on your writing from being on the internet? Or not? I’m really curious. I know we have to market our books once they’re published, but is all this social media necessary and does it work? What do you refuse to do? What do you think is really necessary? How do you make those decisions?
Thanks again for being there, for reading this. Please join the conversation. In the meantime, ask yourself this: what is running around inside your head when you wake up? Does it make you happy or anxious? Why?
And for your information, I won’t be blogging weekly. I’ll blog when I’m inspired and want to reach out to you.
Until then, hugs all ‘round.
p.s. If anyone heard the NPR Morning Edition story about this same subject/issue, please let me know when you heard it and if there's a link to it. I didn't hear it, but was told about it. Thanks!
Also, if you're interested, check out the books I'm reading, Books Beside the Bed, at We Wanted to Be Writers.