Salvador Dali once said, “To gaze is to think.” I agree. My best ideas often come to me when I’m staring off in a daydreamy way. Imagine how many great ideas have come to writers who’ve turned away from the screen, the typewriter, the parchment, and looked out of a window…to gaze.
Here’s my concern. Many writers no longer turn and gaze out of a window. Instead, in those moments when we need to break focus, we go to social media. There’s a window, yes – but it’s not a window looking out on the yard, the gray skyline, the bulky clouds. It’s a screen.
We might feel like we’re gazing, but we’re actually being devoured. The artist Grant Wood got his best ideas while milking cows. Chuck Palahniuk said, “Some of the best ideas I get seem to happen when I’m doing mindless manual labor or exercise. I’m not sure how it happens, but it leaves me free for remarkable ideas to occur.”
These are classical processes. Artists throughout history have talked about how doing rote tasks is actually rich creative terrain. Studies have shown that doing something that engages your prefrontal cortex, keeping it busy, allows your associative mind to wander.
I love how Chuck puts it so simply: It leaves me free.
Social media does not leave you free. It’s not just keeping your pre-frontal cortex busy so your mind can wander. Your brain is processing wildly and is fully consumed – pictures of your frenemies on vacation, your high-school classmate’s racist meme, an ad for the new boots you were just googling … You’re fully engaged. You’re emotionally and intellectually at work. There’s no room for the creative mind to even get a foothold.
Maybe this is obvious to you. Social media is devouring your time, got it, check, whatever. Maybe you’re seeing me as some old cranky writer, waxing about the days of yore.
Nah, the upsides of social media are enormous. We’ve gained so much — the democratization of publishing, the speed of response, community, the ability to share each other’s work… not to even mention the availability of research on the internet. I never want to go back.
Here’s the deal. We can keep the upsides while trying to control the downsides.
We all know that if want to write more – and with deeper focus – we should cut back on social media. From my perspective, there are three main reasons.
1. The obvious reason to cut back is that social media is simply a time suck, and what writers need most of all is time. But this isn’t simple for the writer; social media is our job. We’ve been told – in no uncertain terms – that we need a platform. And so time spent on social media is work; it’s part of what we do, as writers in the current age. We can rationalize social media time as a kind of writing time, as it falls under the writerly umbrella. That said, it’s disruptive and distracting. And worst of all, it exists like a giant black hole – desiring to drag us in – and the black hole is located in the exact same place where we do our creative work. It stares at us while we work. It wants us. And on so many days when crafting the next chapter seems daunting, crafting the right tweet sure can seem easier.
2. The second reason is that popping onto social media gives the illusion of having taken a break, but it’s actually been hard work for your brain and it hasn’t offered any of the positives of gazing – those bursts of insight that come when you least expect them.
3. The third reason isn’t a result of what and how you’re consuming. It’s a result of expressing. When you write, there’s a shot of good chemicals to the brain. When you share and get reactions to that writing (thumbs up/hearts/a heated conversation about something important to you), you also get a shot of good chemicals. Those shots are fulfilling, gratifying – and it also feels, to me, like a nice pop of a release valve.But part of the writing process for many people is a feeling of building pressure. Joyce Carol Oates has put it this way, “’At times my head seems crowded, there is a kind of pressure inside it, almost a frightening physical sense of confusion, fullness, dizziness.”That pressure is important. And I worry that the mini-exertion and rewards that come from posting, sharing, and tweeting let air out of the balloon. Imagine the kettle’s whistle fading . . .
So, what to do about all of this?
In the book Thinking Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman calls refrigerator trips and websurfing evidence of “an urge to escape.” If you need to escape, that’s okay. It’s often a good thing. But writers have mentioned to me that they don’t even realize they’ve stopped working; they just seem to find themselves on some social media page, inexplicably. Since the screen is a screen – the place your work is also the place you play – it’s easy to shift and not fully realize it.
I suggest being very aware that you want to escape – and letting yourself.
If you want to pop onto social media, just simply set a timer. It might be embarrassing; you’re an adult and all. But it also might be really revealing and ultimately helpful. Know how much time you’re spending, how long it’s derailing you, and how much of your creative time it’s devouring.
Better yet, when you need a break, how about instead of hopping onto social media, move around instead. Physical activity is great; it gets blood flow to the brain.
Or simply try this: Find a real window and gaze…
Do you find yourself on social media more than you want to be? What pulls you toward it? What, if anything, helps you to limit your time there? If you’ve developed strategies for yourself and they’re working, please share in comments.