Making space for a story: A week without social media

Man_Writing_Letter_Metsu
Less social media. More writing (detail from Man Writing a Letter by Gabriel Metsu).

I wondered if a break from social media could help me get writing again?

Like many authors, I have complicated feelings about social media. On one hand, it’s awesome. You can connect with readers, book bloggers and reviewers, other authors, publishers, editors. People befriend you, help you, make you think and make you smile. You learn about trends, scandals and scams. You get spectacular book recommendations.

On the other hand, it’s as distracting as a hungry cat. I find myself scrolling when I never intended to. The urge to check notifications interrupts me when I’m reading. Other people’s ideas and anxieties seem to be jostling in my brain, so there’s no room for my own thoughts. It all feels a bit overwhelming.

So, I decided to do an experiment: I’d use social media for ten minutes a day, once a day, at around 8 a.m. For a week. I didn’t go cold turkey because I wanted to acknowledge things like reviewers tagging me. It feels rude to ignore those sorts of notifications. But I wanted to stop general scrolling and checking.

Here’s what happened:

Night before: Feeling nervous, which makes me all the more determined. Since when did the idea of not checking social media twenty times a day make me nervous? Back when I started writing seriously for publication, I hardly used social media. I focused on writing. I spent my spare time thinking about characters, plots and settings. I found it hard to get into the habit of using social media. Now I’m nervous about cutting back? WTF?

I keep reminding myself why a break could be important: it might help me get writing again.

Day one (supposedly a writing day): Woken at 6 a.m. (thanks new puppy!). Normally I would check my phone first thing, and I felt a definite urge to give in to that habit. What if there were notifications? What if someone had tagged me in a review? Cuddled puppy to distract myself. The urge came and went for a couple of hours, then vanished as I got busy with breakfast and getting kids out the door. I took my ten minutes at around 9am. There were a few notifications, mainly likes for a tweet from the day before. Nice, but nothing that needed acknowledging. Big anti-climax. It was easy to turn off after ten minutes.

Went to the dentist and, while lying with my mouth open, had an idea for a scene in a story. Came home and wrote the scene. Not sure if it’s much good, but it’s more writing than I’ve done for months. Felt like a lamb gamboling in spring grass. Doubt the lack of social media was directly responsible, but it may have helped. The day seemed longer and I felt calmer because I had more time. Family and a friend for dinner so lots to do in the evening and no time to think about checking. But it’s now 10:30pm and the urge has been strong off and on for at least an hour. Keep thinking ‘it wouldn’t hurt to glance, then I could relax and go to bed’. The experiment feels silly, but I keep remembering the joy and satisfaction I felt this afternoon.

Still want to check right now though.

Day two (supposedly another ‘writing’ day): Took cats to the vet. Marveled at how easily ‘writing days’ are filled with things like vet and dentist visits. Once home, was struck by how many more empty times the day has – some of them pleasant and calm, some lonely or disconnected. The urge to distract myself with social media during the lonely times is high. What would it hurt? I’d see a funny tweet and smile and feel better. Still not sure about any of my book ideas. I like different bits of different books but nothing seems to come together. I wish I could pick an idea and stick with it but can’t seem to make a decision. I don’t think cutting back on social media is all I need to help me get writing again. But I’m continuing the experiment anyway.

Hit by the realisation that using social media was a way for me to feel as if I’m still a writer. Because I’m not writing at the moment, social media masked some of the fear that I’ll never write again. So, hello, fear! Come to suck the marrow from my bones? Yeah, great.

horse attacked by lion
Hey, fear.

Days three and four (the weekend): With the kids around, I get snippets of time between other things. Not having social media makes life feel a bit less ‘mine’ and a bit more like I’m waiting around until someone next wants me to make them a sandwich or show them how to ice biscuits or explain the theory of relativity or take them to a friend’s house.

All my story ideas still feel boring or disjointed. But there was plenty of time for housework. So…er…yay?

maid-sweeping
Yay?

Day five (at work): No time to check social media much at work so less difference there. Perhaps I felt more focused. The evening was very mixed. Did some beta reading, which was fun. But then was filled with rage and frustration at NOT FUCKING WRITING myself and HATING ALL MY IDEAS which feel so unoriginal or ham-fisted. Did some free writing (another thing I’m doing to try to get through the block) and broke two pens in pure FURY at the stupidity and slowness of my brain which will not fucking co-operate. Without social media to distract me, the ball-point pens shall SUFFER.

Went to bed early to save the family from my bad temper.

blackbeard-portrait
Lee on Day Five

Day six (at work): Woke up exhausted and headachy which is no surprise. Went to work. Came home tired. CHEATED and looked at social media (Twitter). Felt no guilt, but it was only a very brief check of notifications so perhaps that’s why. Read for a couple of hours (Peter Ackroyd’s London the Biography) and felt more focused than I have recently. No temptation to check social media at all. Quite enjoyed NOT checking. Like NOT going to the work Christmas party. Sure, you might have had fun, but yeah no.

Day seven (at work): Spent the morning (on the train and a bit at work) in conversation with another author via Twitter’s direct message system. Feel fine about that. My aim was to stop the mindless scrolling and checking, not to withdraw from the writing community entirely.

Definitely feel as if there are more hours in the day which makes me less anxious and rushed. Also, less random negativity in my life puts me on more of an even keel. People are often so angry on social media. I don’t blame them; life is regularly shit and cruel and unfair, but do I need to remind myself of that twenty times a day? No, I do not. It makes me miserable and exhausted. To be able to write I need energy to play and to have fun with ideas.

So, the experiment is over.

Now what?

I certainly had more time. More time to think. More time to be. Also, more time to feel angry or frustrated. Towards the end of the week I was able to concentrate better. I enjoyed reading without the urge to check social media every hour or so.

The social media avalanche of other people’s thoughts and ideas can be inspiring or helpful, but it can also be distracting and off-topic. When I’m writing or planning a book I don’t like ‘real’ interruptions, such as someone knocking at the door, and yet I’ve been inviting interruption in ALL BY MYSELF several times a day under the guise of social media.

Some people are able to write AND maintain active social media accounts. Perhaps I’m too new to both to be able to do that yet.

Anyway, overall, I felt that cutting back drastically on social media was a good thing and likely to help me.

When I’ve written another book I might step it up a bit again.

For now, I’m continuing: ten minutes once a day. Oh well, maybe twice a day. Oh go on then. But three times? Uh uh. No way.

Is social media helping you become a better writer? Or has it become too much of a distraction? Want to try the ‘ten minutes once a day’ challenge with me?

12 Comments

  1. That was entertaining Lee (though I know that wasn’t the main purpose of your post). I chuckled at the accompanying pictures, especially the smoke coming out of the ears one. It seems that, by the end of the week, you were beginning to feel a bit more enthusiastic so I’d say to keep going with the experiment … perhaps gradually extending the periods of social-media-free time until you feel so good that you will be immersed in writing again. I love how you got a great idea while in the dentist’s chair. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Best dentist’s visit ever! 😁 and yes, it definitely got easier as the week progressed. I didn’t think finding the right balance would be so hard, but I think social media is just so easy to turn to when the real work of thinking up my own story ideas can be so difficult. When I started writing I was so disciplined about not watching Netflix etc, but I think social media kind of crept in under the guise of being an expected part of being a writer these days. Anyway, I’m taking back control.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t been working on my novel for just over a year now. It started with some family illness, but I can’t use that as an excuse anymore. It’s senseless when I think of how mucho pleasure writing gives me, but I can’t seem to get down to it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I hope you don’t read this comment. It will take up some your 10 minutes without much return. So stop reading it, right now.

    But if you’ve continued on this far, okay, this is a really good idea. The feel-good chemical hit from checking social media is addicting, so there are good physiological reasons why we keep doing it and find it hard to stop. The calming and time-freeing pay-off is already happening for you, so it should only get better from here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL – I read it by mistake! And yes, you’re right. I don’t want the feel-temporarily-good-then-feel-really-shit chemical hit any more. It’s like too many chocolate biscuits or too much vodka. A bit every now and then is nice and fun, but I want to get back to the long-term life satisfaction of writing another book. Onwards!

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  3. Thank you for sharing yet another interesting post full of useful information! Last year I realized that my anxiety got worse on the weeks that I spent scrolling for news. I decided to stop using Facebook (though I still have an account), then tumblr made everyone go away. I now use Twitter, but my TL is clean and safe, and I use notifications to avoid scrolling. I have more time for other things, and when I stress-check twitter, I focus on notifications saying my favourites have tweeted something. it’s always good stuff and there are lots of cats.
    I’d stay away from social media if I could, so I really admire your commitment. Keep going!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am keeping going! Thank goodness for pictures of cats, eh? Yes, using notifications ONLY and not even checking the feed is a good technique. I do that now on those days when I really want to concentrate on story ideas – or if I’m just lacking energy. I have been toying with the idea of a few days of NO social media at all, just to see what happens. If I do try it, I’ll keep you posted x

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a new fan finding this blog for the first time, and I’m cheering on this real-life story also. I know it must be hard to share, but I appreciate the chance to hear about your journey.

    Materials magic may be one of the best metaphors I’ve seen for the writing process. Only, stop trying so hard to master your materials! Sometimes the salt has a suggestion, and sometimes that suggestion leads to Unmitigated Disaster.

    “But then was filled with rage and frustration at NOT FUCKING WRITING myself and HATING ALL MY IDEAS which feel so unoriginal or ham-fisted.”

    You wouldn’t be mad at the salt, no matter how bad the final result was. This writer’s block is just you, sorting something out for yourself. The part of you that is stopping things is very bad at communicating, and it needs patience. Maybe it’s trying to warn you because there’s something else you need to fix first. Most people never hear their materials or have them come to life at all, so please be kind to yours, even when they are acting up!

    Also, don’t worry about your readers. You’re the only one who can write your stories, and we’re interested in whatever you have to show us. Your voice is unique and compelling, and that has nothing to do with your plot or your characters. The world you created is well-rounded because of how well you yourself understood it, and I don’t think you’re going to lose that.

    Other people can’t really get inside the problem, so no one else can help, but it’s nice to see all this support posted in the comments. I’m going to go to the other writer’s block post and add a link to an old blog post Rachel Aaron wrote about trying to apply the scientific method to her daily word count and why it was good or bad on a given day. Good luck! Thank you for taking the time to talk about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Today has been a bad day, so it was nice to receive a supportive comment. I don’t really know what I’m doing right now – I’m flailing around, trying this and that. I suppose it’s always a risk, to listen to one’s materials. Perhaps if one’s a good person (like Mr John Blake) they sense the good and help because they know the goal is worthy. Unfortunately, I suspect I may be more of a demon-master, and I’m afraid there’s no making friends with demons, or not in my world anyway. I’m so glad you enjoyed SMSM and I’ll look out for the link to the blog post by Rachel Aaron. I’m a big fan of science, so maybe a scientific method is just what I need?

      Like

  5. I thought I posted it right after the original message! This is it:
    http://thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2011/06/how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-day.html

    My favorite part is her talking about deliberately generating enthusiasm:
    “The answer was head-slappingly obvious. Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn’t that crazy about.

    This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

    Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again, stupidly simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write for the knowledge component of the triangle, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I’d look for all the cool little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene cool. If I couldn’t find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels. “

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really liked both leads in SMSM for how hard they tried and how basically decent they both were. You’re demonizing yourself, not pulling from demonic inspiration. (Which would probably turn out more like TV’s Hannibal. It’s great, but you end up rooting for the psychotic cannibal.) The missing ingredient that adds the magic is your inner voice, and that’s the part that has to be treated kindly and not judged.

    Here’s a quote from Art & Fear, a book I highly recommend:
    https://kk.org/cooltools/art-fear/
    —————————————————
    “”Artist” has gradually become a form of identity which (as every artist knows) often carries with it as many drawbacks as benefits. Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all!”
    ——————————————–

    When your very identity is on the line, of course it will be hard to move forward. I think that’s why some writers say they have never had writer’s block. It’s much easier when it’s just a dayjob.

    You may have heard the story of the ceramics class elsewhere, but I really love this anecdote from the same book:
    ——————————————————-
    The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
    ————————————————————

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know the ceramics class anecdote (I sometimes used to tell it to people who wanted to write – oh the irony!) and it’s very timely that you should post it for me, because sitting around theorizing over perfection is exactly what I’m doing at the moment. And it’s about as fun as it sounds. Thanks for the Rachel Aaron link (the rest of her posts look good too). I certainly understand the ‘write no boring bits’ theory as I use that approach myself and it works remarkably well. As for the whole ‘choosing the right story’ stuff, maybe that really is the problem for me – I just haven’t found the right one yet. Perhaps I just need to keep brainstorming and eventually something will come up.

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