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The Cheap & Easy Way to Be a Writer
It is fairly embarrassing to me how often I end up writing in this newsletter about trying to stay off social media. You're all very nice to me. Not one of you has replied to these emails saying, "Sheesh, Julie, get ahold of yourself. If you want to stay off social media, just stay off social media!"
I am hoping that none of you has done that because, you, too, feel like social media is this weird sticky thing that keeps drawing you back and you can't figure out why. We know a lot now about how it's algorithmically altered to keep us engaged, and about how it lights up our human reward brain parts. I think one of the things that keeps confounding me is just how very many tentacles it has in me: the rewards, the connection, knowing it might be good for promotion, generalized fear of missing out, cute dogs.
Once I realized that social media isn't part of what I want to focus my life on, it got easier to disengage. But I'll admit it was still a draw. A few weeks ago I read Nick Offerman's new book, and he talks in there about the joy of what he calls "good work," which for Offerman means things like farming, building stone walls, and carving canoes. None of which I ever do. But I do believe in the concept of work in the way it relates to writing -- the hard and sometimes tedious job of sitting down, writing something lackluster, and showing up every day to keep writing and revising.
I don't want to make a canoe, but I do want to make books.
And I realized that one of the reasons social media keeps pulling me back is that it's a cheap and easy (and, I would argue, fake) way of fabricating the artistic cycle of creation --> validation. If my broad goal is to write a book and then eventually have people read (and like!) the book, I can get a tiny phony version of that feeling by writing a tweet and having someone read and like it.* There's still a part of my brain that says, "I made something! And someone liked it!"
But it's not hard work to write a social media post, not the same way writing a book is. And clicking a heart is not the same as reading a book and liking it. The creation --> validation cycle is the same, but it's all too fast and cheap.
I'll admit I crave attention and praise. The process of writing a book is a solitary one, with no one praising me except my inner cheerleader (who starts out very "rah! rah!" but quickly deflates into a somber "keep going, I guess"). So it's natural that those of us who are working to create are also tempted by something that replicates the cycle but takes 45 seconds. Write a tweet, get praise! Post to Instagram, get attention! Right now I'm much more interested in doing the hard, unexciting, long-term work of writing books. I don't mind if people don't know what I'm doing every day. There was certainly a time where I felt like I needed to be out there and open about what I was doing (like explaining the details of my revision process). But now I think it's ok to be out of sight for a while (maybe even a long while!), if I show up at the end with a book.
I'm currently reading Peak Mind by Dr. Amishi P. Jha, which is less about getting attention and more about paying attention -- how our brains pay attention, and how to get better at focusing (it's the book-length version of Dr. Jha's TED Talk). The short answer is to do mindfulness meditation for at least 12 minutes a day.** If you are someone who thinks you can't do meditation, you might be heartened by a story Dr. Jha tells about being frustrated with some particularly distracted meditation sessions, and asking a colleague who has been meditating for thirty years how long he's able to hold his focus. He says he can focus for seven seconds. SEVEN SECONDS! See, it's not just us! Our brains are always wandering all over.
The book talks some about the purpose of boredom, and I've been thinking about boredom a lot. About how often I was bored as a kid, and stayed bored for ten minutes, and then figured out something to do. We're not bored anymore. As soon as we're bored, we turn to our phones, which are always there with us. If I watched General Hospital when I got home from fourth grade, and then went outside or up to my room, the television and whatever was on after General Hospital stayed in the living room (I just looked it up, it was The Edge of Night, which is why I always started doing my homework at 4 pm). I want to be bored again in order to force my brain to have to turn to itself. I'm thinking a lot about seeking boredom.*** About standing in a grocery store line and staring off into space. About making dinner and not listening to anything while I do it. About getting to a tough part of writing and looking at the ceiling until I figure out what words to type.
About not turning to social media the minute things get dull.
There was a time when I wanted to be strategic about my social media use, and figure out how I could do it so people would buy my books. Now I'm much more interested in being intentional about my social media use, so I can figure out how to write more and better books.
*Is it a coincidence that "phone" and "phony" have the same root? Well, yes, probably. But still.
**I think it's fine to use meditation apps on your phone. I do! A few years ago I spent months stringing together free trial periods for a bunch of meditation apps (I tried Unplug, Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer). Try them out! You've got to figure out which one works best for you. (I settled on Insight Timer, or, as my hilarious friend Casper Bryant calls it, "the bowl app.")
***Dr. Jha writes that the three things that most affect your focus and attention are stress, bad moods, and (real or imagined) threats. When I am tired or grumpy, I am not as good at sitting down and focusing on deep work, and I am much more likely to end up scrolling on social media. What I've been trying to do instead is read. It feels incredibly indulgent to read a book at 1:00 in the afternoon instead of working, but reading helps build your brain's focus muscles -- and it's not any more indulgent than social media. And is cooler, I say. If you're waiting somewhere, it's much cooler to be reading a book than frowning at Facebook. Says me.
Thoughts and Links
This essay about teaching writing vs teaching acting has me thinking about how we learn how to write well, and how so much of it is self-figured-out.
I'm thinking about this essay about trauma plots. "The experience of uncertainty and partial knowledge is one of the great, unheralded pleasures of fiction."
I have been doing Morning Pages (from The Artist's Way) for over a year now, and I just realized I was supposed to be writing on 8.5x11 paper (I've been using composition-book-sized journals, which are more like 7x9). I was in a worry tornado for a bit, wondering what mind-blowing insights I've missed because I'm not writing enough. And then I decided: who cares? They have been mind-blowing enough. I need a new journal soon, and I'll look for a bigger one (but if I find one I love that's not big enough? I can just write more pages! they're only for me!).
I have decided that 2022 will be the year I shift my mindset about money, and I'm starting by rereading The Art of Money by Bari Tessler. I read it a few years ago and the entire book terrified me. Which is admittedly a problem. So I'm reading it again now, with fresh eyes, and a willingness to embrace the scary parts.
One thing that pushed me to consider going deep on rethinking my relationship with money and consumption was this essay by Ann Patchett about what she learned by not shopping for a year. I have spent January consciously avoiding my impulse-shopping triggers, and I have already learned a lot about myself. Over the weekend, Zuzu and I had to run to Target, and we walked out twenty minutes later with the four things we'd gone in for. That has never happened before.
Over the last year, I've gotten a bunch of emails and calls to my home phone (!!!) from people saying they can help me publish my book and get it into bookstores ("I'm calling about your book Snappsy the Alligator, and I can help you publish it and have it for sale on Amazon!"). Apparently writers are frequent targets of scams now. And while I'm not about to agree that someone can publish my already-published books and get them into bookstores, where they already are, some scams are harder to spot. Be careful out there, friends.
I finally watched The White Lotus, and wow, was it ever as riveting as everyone said it is. It made me think a lot about how to build slow tension in stories, and how to create real and flawed characters who are sometimes terrible people but who are, deep down, relatable. Or at least fascinating.
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