28 June 2012

Save Your Writing Life: How NOT to Let Social Media Take Over—Part I

... Or How to Make Choices about Social Media

A few weeks ago, I rode up to the Portland Art Museum to see a David Hockney exhibit with my pal Jan Eliot.

I confessed how life lately felt overwhelming, and I couldn’t seem to accomplish the simple tasks on my list.

As all good pals do, she reminded me that I’d just finished a novel and was revising my last one and with all the work I’d been doing, never mind juggling family and a part-time job, it was understandable that I was a little “fried.”

Don’t you just love best pals?

I was also in the waiting game—six readers had my manuscript and I was waiting for their feedback. Waiting always weighs on me psychologically even though I try not to think about what the readers will say. Did they love my characters? Will they love the story? Did I miss something? How huge will the changes be? Did I blow it somehow? Would they buy this novel as a book? A dump truck of doubts will unload in my mind without permission.
So back to my pal Jan and our conversation.

My dumb luck was to actually have good timing. Jan had recently returned from L.A. and a visit to her brother-in-law and his wife who just happened to be reading The Now Habit, first published in 1989 and recently updated.

Jan said, “After talking about the book, I came away with one great rule for getting things done—do the most important thing on your list first.”

For a minute, that sounded so obvious that I was about to dismiss it. Do the most important thing first. Hmm.

Then I had to admit something to myself—I usually did just the opposite. I took care of little tasks first so I felt that I’d accomplished something right away.

A follow-up to an email. Accepting a friend request. Sending a pdf of the notes to a meeting.

I should know that little trap. A few hours later, I’ve gone from email, to the web because I just have to respond to one of my social media pals because I’m a responsible human being. Or I need to post something so important. If I’m really sucked in (and my mind has been taken over by future tripping), I watch a TED talk on book cover design because, of course, that will be important in the future if I decide to self publish.

(Ha! Admit it. Right now you’re thinking, What TED talk on book cover design?)

Jan and I talked about this big aha moment, how such a simple bit of advice seemed so important. Don’t we always have to be reminded of the obvious? Then we arrived at the museum, and we surrendered to Hockney and art.

The next day, I remembered our discussion and downloaded a sample of The Now Habit onto my Kindle. This paragraph grabbed my attention; the bold highlights are mine:

“Surfing the Internet, instant messaging, e-mailing, and the use of cell phones have added to the number of distractions that can seduce us away from our mission of starting on a major project that could change our lives. Because these new devices give us an immediate response, they have an unfair competitive edge over activities that will not be rewarded until the end of the month or—as in the case of finishing school, writing a book, or learning to play the piano—until after one to four years of intensive work. All the more reason to use the tools offered you by The Now Habit.

Bingo. I had a new rule—do the most important task on your list first.

One of his points is about procrastination, and I’m guessing here that this has to do with fiddling around with small chores before doing the most demanding because, well, it’s the most demanding. The other, I’ll bet, is about breaking habits that let us believe we’re being productive when, in fact, they’re not.

So how do I change the habit of going for the immediate reward?
(Well, not exactly)

Back to my beginnings

To answer that question (and while I read the book), I decided to go back to the beginning of my own experience in social media to understand what I’ve done, why I made my choices, and where I’m at now.

As a writer, I’m always reading about why I must be a social media expert in order to be successful. Articles abound about the topic, but I have not found many that help a writer make personal decisions about the social media that will work for them and how to manage it along with writing a novel, memoir or anything else.

I decided to approach such a big subject by breaking it down into three blog posts, kind of like a three-act structure--beginning, middle and end:

Part I (below) – Back to my beginnings. How I chose the social media that I thought fit my personality and needs, and my major screw ups.
Part II –Asking for help and making my biggest mistake. How four of my writer friends responded when I asked what they chose to do and why (Jennie Shortridge, LJ Sellers, Cheryl Strayed and Christina Katz), followed by my doozy decision.
Part III – What I’m doing to save myself, plus a few hardcore ways to manage social media and put writing time first. Ideas to vanquish demons, break a habit, and not feel guilty, plus a few tools for your toolbox for retraining purposes.


How did I begin? The usual. I just dove in.

I joined Facebook on November 23, 2007. How do I know this? Facebook’s Timeline. Great for keeping track of yourself.

From the beginning, I wanted the FB page to focus on writing. I’m not one for needing to know if a friend had just kissed a walrus or ate a nouvelle cuisine worm pie. (Sorry, but sometimes posts do seem this ridiculous.)

At the time, I was at a month-long writer’s residency at Vermont Studio Center. Two friends, Randy Sue Coburn and Cheryl Strayed, posted on my page. I think I had six friends in all. I started out with the right intention, to make Facebook focus on my writing. My first “like” was PBS. Good start.

But then came the social media gurus, the people who tell you that, as a writer, you need to build a platform, to “brand” yourself online so that you become known before you publish. Then that fan group will purchase your book.

I confess: my mom once said, “Valerie, you’re a good girl who wants to be a bad girl.” I think she meant I do what I’m supposed to do until I smack my forehead and say, “This isn’t working for me, People!”

Years went by and, like a good girl, I joined Twitter, two Yahoo groups, and LinkedIn. I joined groups within those social networks and the next thing I knew, my email box was flooded. I was following blogs, I’m clicking on links that have to do with how to encourage followers, how to e-publish, the pros and cons of self-publishing, how to use key words, etc. ad nauseum.
 If I were still a pirate, I would be yelling, “Arrrrrgh!”

Oh, what the hell. “Arrrrrgh!”

Soon, I was creating folders for articles I needed to read but didn’t have time for. Soon, I was dreading my email because I felt guilty because I couldn’t keep up. Then I received two abusive responses on LinkedIn for a post of an article about Amazon.

What in heck was I doing?

None of it helped the writing. None of it gave me that gorgeous imaginative space for creation. None of it inspired me.

I was fractured.

What happened next?
Tune in for Part II, next week, when I do something really stupid.

Until then, walk around a new neighborhood, fill your lungs with fresh air, clear your head, and escape into that magical zone of daydreaming.

And if you, too, have something to confess or can guess where this is going, leave a comment. I’d love to hear what you’ve been through, how you began.

Let your naked thoughts and confessions find respite here.

Where I work. A photographic peek into my writing spaces.
A confession: What happened after my six readers responded to my novel.

And thanks, Jan, for your fun comic strips about the 40th Birthday of Title IX! Check it out:


Julia Whitmore said... [Reply to comment]

OK Val. Turning off the computer right n....

Becky Green Aaronson said... [Reply to comment]

Valerie, I think we're all trying to navigate the Wild West of being writers--trying to avoid being sucked in by the fun of the social media "saloons," reminding ourselves of what's most important, staying connected with those whose opinions we value, and avoiding "outlaws" who distract and pull us down and away from our goals. Fortunately, there's a lot of blue sky and wide open spaces in the Wild West so as we gallop through it we can be inspired and energized!

FYI: I'm finally getting around to putting up a blogroll on my site and wanted to add your blog, which I enjoy so much. I'm glad I dropped by today to read your delightful post!

caryl said... [Reply to comment]

Story of my life, sista! Looking forward to Part 2.

Beverly Diehl said... [Reply to comment]

Now matter how productive we are, we can't do EVERYTHING. Not at one time.

Good luck on your journey to let go of the clutter that gets in the way.

Katie Checkley said... [Reply to comment]


Very interesting post. I think we ALL feel this way. I know I do. Sometimes I feel like my head is going to explode.

That being said, I like your blog a lot, and I enjoy having you as a follower. I have just "renovated" my blog, updated the look, switched over to wordpress, etc. and unfortunately, in the process, lost my followers! I'd love to keep you as a follower.

My new site is: http://theintrinsicwriter.wordpress.com/

You can simply subscribe through email.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

That's the best response!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Love your metaphor, Becky. Or is that a simile? Can never keep those straight.
Yes, it is the Wild West and whenever we can offer a few maps, we need to. I love social media, while at the same time, it's a damn tough terrain to navigate without drying up creatively.
We will, however, figure it out and balance the need to explore and the need to focus. Yeehaw!
Thanks so much for putting me up on your blogroll. I need to do that on my blog, create a blogroll. Another trail to blaze.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

We will survive this new terrain!
We just need to balance the load. And that's the tough part, isn't it?
Thanks for stopping by, Caryl.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks, Beverly. No, we can't do everything at one time. We have to learn to manage it all, however. It's like having a baby. So fun, yet exhausting to juggle everything with this new addition.
Thanks for stopping by. You're always there and encouraging.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

I love that--feel like my head is going to explode. Made me laugh!
Thanks so much for following my blog. And thanks for posting your new site. I signed up. Email subscriptions are so much easier to keep up with.
Stay creative, Katie!

Patricia said... [Reply to comment]

B.A.L.A.N.C.E. - I keep trying ...

Grace Elting Castle said... [Reply to comment]

I know I'm wasting time on Facebook and I have so many "good" excuses that all end the same way: I never get around to the writing that I want to do. If we're all supposed to have an equal dose of willpower someone else got most of my portion!

I did become worried about you when I saw the Pinterest posting.

Your blog posts are always so thought provoking---and often guilt inducing. I've opted out of most of the rest I was reading because they tend to be puff pieces by writers seduced by the "you'll never be a successful writer unless you have a blog."

I think being a successful writer means that one actually WRITES, don't you?

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

The magic word! We all keep trying. That's all we can do. Hope you're doing well.
Thanks for stopping by.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

We all have good excuses, Grace. That's the problem. And willpower? So much I've read in the research about social media warns us of the way social media has taken over our brain, making it like an addiction.
I left LinkedIn as an active social media site and switched to the visual Pinterest because, to be honest, it takes so little time and I love visuals. A picture tells a thousand words. Makes me want to return to being a visual artist.
Thanks for calling my posts "thought provoking." I was worried they were just "provoking."
I think the "you'll never be successful writer unless you have a blog (or FB, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc.) is the old selling technique of scaring you to death. Fear seems to be the motivating factor in everything today. In Part II & III, I'm covering the "quit being fearful" portions of my posts. Do we need all this? Do we need to be connected in every thread available. I don't think so. But the people selling it think so.
Caveat emptor.
As always, thanks for following my blog. You're the best.

Deborah Batterman said... [Reply to comment]

What fascinates (and charms) me as a writer who recently finished a novel, too, is that the creative space that consumed with writing has been opened now that I'm done. I'm doing my best to use it for other projects, creative marketing, etc., but the truth is, I need a break. And, in a way, social networking seems to insinuate itself into my day a little more now. It is the 'Wild West,' as Becky puts it. And, thankfully, we have such thoughtful blog posts to bring a valued perspective. The writers on our Facebook group will definitely appreciate this.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you, Deborah. I try to be thoughtful and consider why we need social media. I'm not against it; I'm more the "advocate for creativity over social pressure," and that's what it feels like to me more and more, although I'm noticing plenty of articles now on the negatives of so much time spent on the internet and how it's creating focus issues. Yes, I love Becky's analogy to the "Wild West." Certainly is true.
And I like what you say about finishing a novel (Big Congrats!!) and how the time has opened up and you need a break. Being online as a "break" seems reasonable as it can be entertaining, social, and educational. Having it be a distraction WHILE we're creating, not so good.
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your work on our Facebook page.

Debra said... [Reply to comment]

Now I have a new rule—do the most important task on your list first. Excellent advice, especially for writers who can easily get caught up in social media.

I have this friend who published not one, but two books with Simon & Schuster. And she’s always, always preaching platform. In fact, everyone is preaching the same sermon, over and over and over again.

Looking forward to reading the parts to come!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Hi Debra,
Thanks for Networking and yes, good advice to do the most important thing first.
I understand what your friend is preaching, but she has a book to promote and that's when it pays to have a platform. But it doesn't do us a lot good if we have no creative project to promote. I'll be addressing this in the next two parts of this blog. Yes, everyone is preaching this. From agents to editors and especially those who have something to sell that educates us to social media. I know that we have to have education on all this, but to keep us so plugged in and distracted from our work, well, that's the problem. We need to apply common sense: if we have nothing to publish, then social media won't help us.
Thanks for following. If you come up with any good ideas, let's pass it on!
Good to be connected, Debra.

Britton Minor said... [Reply to comment]

I hadn't looked--February 19, 2009, was my Facebook "launch.". One of my first posts was about how easy it was to explode coffee in the microwave...but I redeemed myself with one that asked my friends for some of their favorite quotes/sayings. I am proud to say that I have not yet bragged about my oatmeal toppings, but I did post a pic of my daughter's fabulous bread pudding, a la macro style.

I have a separate FB page: The Jaded Lens, for my photography, but have been lately posting my blog entries there instead. I should straighten and separate out these pages and take my writing more seriously.

Joining FB has helped me in many ways, from strengthening/deepening my relationship with my brother, to filling in memory gaps by being back in touch with high school peeps. I'm not leaving FB any time soon, BUT, I do need to monitor my time better, so that I can write more. There, I said it, admitted it!

But I love the writers group that Deborah Batterman started, and like to support each writer who posts there with reading and commenting, but it is then difficult to do my own work. Still, these women feel like sacred, cherished friends-so warm, supportive, funny, talented, and encouraging, that this is one priority I will keep on the top of the list. Besides, I DO write more since joining this group as they are the best kind of "muse."

I'll end this long comment by saying that I am looking forward to the next two parts, and that the latest message I need to take to heart is to do the most important priorities first-as I have been doing just the opposite!

Kate Cone said... [Reply to comment]

I have stopped reading She Writes posts because there are so many, but today something led me back. Facebook: also November, 2007. I too post photos of not-quite-worm-pie, but food I've cooked or am about to eat. (Big foodie here). I too have a hard time determining how much time to devote to writing, and how much to getting "known." I am trying to finish a novel I started years ago. Writing every day seems so elusive. So doing the most important thing first will be my new goal and a reminder that the other "tasks" is procrastinating. And I can't get known if I don't finish the novel and get it out there.

Diane Prokop said... [Reply to comment]

What great advice, Val! I shall do the most important thing first. It's revolutionary. Thank Jan for me.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Valerie -
Great post!
Just wanted to let you know that I have awarded you a Fabulous Blog Ribbon! Stop by my blog, http://cherylfassett.wordpress.com/, on or after 7/18 to see what it's all about!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

I can totally get behind a bread pudding recipe post!
Yes, FB combines so many interests and when I'm working (writing), I don't get on it unless necessary and then bail quickly so I don't get sucked in. But then I learn that I've missed a fun Walk-Dance in celebration of a friend's birthday and I kick myself. But not too hard. If I jumped at every opportunity offered on FB, I'd have to give up writing and I can't.

That's so great about you strengthening your relationship with your brother. And yes, I love the writer's group Deborah Batterman started. It's smaller than the big, comprehensive writing groups out there where you have to navigate around all the sub groups you want to be involved with. And if the FB group works like a "muse," then it's the right thing for you.

Now all you have to figure out is what's the most important thing! :)

Just posted Part II. Hope you enjoy and get something out of it.
Stay enthusiastic!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

I do the same, Kate. I stopped receiving all the posts via email for the groups I signed up for. Hundreds of emails! I'd love to support everyone, stay in touch, be there to offer anything I can, but I already feel guilty for not giving my immediate friends the time and focus they deserve. Stick a note up on your fridge that says "Do the most important thing first--Write!" I always find that when I'm getting my first cuppa in the morning, and I see that, I stay more on track. (Plus, I hate to say it, but the fridge works the best for me.)

Come back with the good news that you wrote a chapter! That will give you something to work toward. I love goals. I love writing them down and crossing them off. If goals stay in your head, they don't get accomplished, or so that's what I've discovered.

Keep at it! Every page counts.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks, Diane! I suspect we all have our other passions that make us feel alive. It's just the damned juggling act is so hard to maintain.

And I will thank Jan for you, tomorrow, at our weekly lunch that we've been having for 23 years to focus on our creative selves. I still can't believe it's been that long.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much, Cheryl! That's so sweet of you. I will stop by after I finish six hours today on my job, a home business.
Woohoo! a Fabulous Blog Ribbon.