TweetSocial media had sunk its teeth deep into my flesh.
I noticed that I was spending more time reading my colleague’s work, reading articles about writing, absorbing top ten lists of famous author practices, shaking my head over the latest news about Pope Francis, and laughing over clever memes and looking over quickly written haikus more than I was doing the process of writing; that space where your hands pause, your mind lowers into a deeper spot, and lips slightly part in anticipation of a clearer word to use. That space was filled with links, GO HERE commands to read the latest brilliant quote from Junot Diaz, a MUST READ with my name tagged in it from an activist group, and then there was my offering community support to others: dropping off a few dollars via PayPal for activists and writers whose rent and grocery bank accounts were low, reading breakthrough essays from emerging writer friends in Salon, The Paris Review, or the The Rumpus, passing on information on crowdsourcing projects for independent films and memoirs about Caribbean girlhood, access to clean water, and protecting Indigenous rights. There are petitions to Free Marissa, animated videos to learn about Syria or the government shutdown, and applications for writers’ studio time, grants, and artistic residencies. All opportunities, all good, all of my life swirling into one screen on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, GoodReads, and Google+. I started noticing my attention span was getting shorter and shorter and perhaps social media was contributing to that frenzied jump from link to link.
So I booted myself off social media. It was time. My attention span was like a connect the dots map with no lines connecting for a big picture. It became apparent one embarrassing moment the other day when I raced up the stairs to use my computer to get directions before my family went out and when I sat down in front of the screen, found an open tab, and quickly sunk underwater in an article about postpartum depression, then about the origin of the magazine it was published under, then about its founder, then about one of the zines she had once written, then about … then… click. click. pause to read. click. click. Several minutes passed and then I heard a voice from downstairs, “Did you get the directions?” Nearly 20 minutes had passed. I glanced down and saw my scribbling: Research PPD across racial and cultural lines. Possible legal implications in cases involving custody disputes or child endangerment? How has women’s mental health research changed in the past 30 years? How much of that accessible to patients with prenatal care? How effective are ob-gyn physicians in identifying severe PPD?
Even though no one could see my face when I realized how long I had taken to get directions, I blushed. Have I no sense of time, respect, discipline to seek out one thing and close myself to all the other distractions?
As I cooked dinner that night night, I thought more about my struggle to be a balanced, modern essayist, a mother, with my fervent love of all things new, wordy, and smart. As my hands grazed the bottles of Hoisin, sweet chili sauce, and Sririachi, and I made a new concoction for a marinade, I smirked at the culinary comparison that came to me as I prepared the marinade. Some writers absorb and process like tofu. Splat some cubed tofu into a bowl of sauce and it will rapidly inhibit the spices and flavors of its saucy environment. Within minutes, the soybean curd will reveal a combination of tongue-pleasing goodness that any foodie would appreciate.
But I am not like tofu.
I’m like the thick piece of poultry that needs a few days to trust and then gradually swallow the Italian spice, or the adobo seasoning, or to deeply kiss the depth of the curry. I need time. I’ve always been a slow reader and writer. Slow, as in, I frequently put a book down to think about what it conjures up. That happens quite a bit. Somehow, though, over the past few years, that patience has left me.
If you ask me if any of the things I’ve recently read online have really moved me, I have to be honest and say with the exception of one essay, I don’t remember the others. Out of the hundreds of things I’ve read through social media, I only remember one. It’s a reflective essay from David Sedaris about his sister who committed suicide. And, as only David Sedaris could, the essay brought me to audible mmhmm and hearty laughter. Yes, the essay was about his sister’s SUICIDE. Who can do that?
That is the work of a writer. To take the reader into an unexpected place. I’ve been busy, but I don’t know how much work I’ve been doing that has contributed to my own craft.
But the discovery over the past several days has not been about the writing, reading, or even the processing. It was the renewal of self-confidence that came with being socially quiet and emotionally attuned. Social media for writers can be the port to community, resources, networks, and community that every artist needs for creative survival, but it also comes with an alluring temptation to spend one’s time in observation rather than creating. There is a safety in observation. An endless excuse for learning more. But the deepest learning a writer can do is not through reading, it is through writing.
As an extroverted writer with an insatiable addiction to intellectual stimulation, the internet is an infinite playground. Social media is unhinged door with no threat of closing. Even though it is a digital New York City lifestyle with its endless temptation of distraction, an endless conversation with myself that often leads me to a blank screen and endless drafts, I miss it.
I want both worlds. I want the buzz and the quiet. I want community support and the isolation to work.
This afternoon, as I got off the phone with my publicist about my book, she reminded me to grow comfortable in getting “out there;” in establishing my voice and testing how it sounds in public spheres. Pitching to more places. Writing more articles on the subject matter. Using my voice means strengthening it for the long term. A part of that strength training is using social media effectively AND writing more for public consumption.
I felt fearful to return to social media. What if I waste my literary life? What if I can’t control my attention span? The demand for writers to produce original work requires mental space. That sacred real estate is precisely where social media coyly conspires to set up permanent residency. The reality for published writers is that a platform must not only be created but also sustained. Social media is the primary and most effective tool for doing just that. Thus continues the quandary, the tightrope walk balancing platform maintenance (which quickly can slide into general entertainment and social meandering) and producing creative work.
Over the past several days, I picked up my SLR camera more often. I texted love poems to my partner. I snuggled with my son without wondering if I should take an Instagram pic of how cute he looked. For the billionth time, I started another morning prayer routine hoping I can make it sustainable. New meals were served on the dinner table. My mom was surprised to hear from me a few more times than normal. I was present to others more, but what surprised me most was how much more I was able to be present to myself. I read books with pages, turned the pages with my fingers. It felt authentic. I felt authentic.
That cannot be downloaded.
When I licked my lips and logged into my old friends named Twitter and Facebook, I find, not surprisingly, that the pace felt dangerously hurried and wonderful. I could feel the tide tugging at my legs as I waded in knee deep. It’s strong, the pull shifting the sandy ground under my feet.
I am staring out into the abyss of the ocean, afraid again. I see a buoy ahead. I straighten my shoulders, take breath, and wonder if I can swim with one arm.