Writers, like musicians, seek rhythm. We want to ‘get into a rhythm’ so we can ‘drop into the zone’ where deep work gets done. We long to dwell in this sacred place where words flow like a river. When we arrive in the zone we realize the high that comes from transcending the self. We get in touch with universal consciousness — the place where life itself, and by extension, creativity, comes from.
We reach the zone via practice and the powers of concentration. Sadly, modern life in western capitalist culture can rob a person. Spending too much time online, for instance, disrupts our natural flow and replaces the great river of consciousness from which novels and symphonies are borne, with banal ego blasts and nonstop come-ons. To be online today is to enter ‘The Adverganza’ — a digital space inhabited by millions of people acting as brands, and therefore promoting their wares all day, every day. To use a TV analogy, it’s like every other channel is QVC.
Building so-called “thought leadership” is a classic example of the “I’m an influencer” self-delusion trap. As a thought leader or influencer, you will have rewarding and engaging work, speaking opportunities, and so on. Work-life will be sweet. That’s the promise. Depending on your circumstances, the reality could be that you’re just one of a million such creatures with limited reach and little influence outside of your inner circles.
My favorite humanist, Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human and several other landmark books about media and culture, says, “The primary purpose of the internet changed from supporting a knowledge economy to growing an attention economy.” And what do we pay extra close attention to online? To long-form writing that stretches one’s mind? To documentaries, illuminating podcasts, and National Public Radio segments? No. We pay attention to the glaring sirens, to the man about to jump, to the sharks circling in the bay.
As appealing as distractions and digital fluff can be, a writer or artist can’t get caught up in this cycle for too long without suffering the consequences. Writers and artists require long stretches of uninterrupted time to produce anything of significance or particular value to an audience. Given how clear the danger of information overload is to the work, why do any of us allow and even invite the fracturing and the noise that occurs when we pull up to the digital dock?
The short answer is the platforms are seductive. Seductive because we want to be heard and we don’t want to be alone. Twitter and social media are tonics that purport to address loneliness and give one an amplified voice, as well. The amplified voice part of the promise leads some creators to spend several hours a day promoting their work on social. One in a hundred has an agent or publisher. Even fewer writers have a Hollywood deal. To make it all work, we grind and then back that grind with hustle. The humble poet transforms and meets the audience where they live. The writer like a court jester or circus clown performs and entertains. Failure to do this dance may translate into readers becoming painfully hard to find — that’s the fear.
News flash. Readers are always hard to find. Social media use is not a determining factor in this. But overuse of social media does make it harder to think clearly, to stay calm, and to produce works of merit, whatever one’s field of endeavor. To complicate matters, modern life often mirrors the chaos found on the Internet. Things are broken in every direction, including our ability to communicate. Whether it’s the sea of mindless emails that we endure each day, a customer service call, or an actual conversation at the farmer’s market, people are timid, language is cloaked, and meaning is lost. Thanks to this jamming of the signal, it can be maddening to accomplish the simplest things today.
To protect yourself from the noise and stress of modern life, including life online, a new level of patience is needed. A slower pace is needed, and the daily realization that online personas are projections of manufactured reality, not reality itself. If reality is to inform our work as writers, getting the story right demands an active approach to the research and fact-gathering. We’ve got to show up to smell and taste and feel the story. Observing from afar via a telecommunications bridge is not sufficient. To write a novel or book of novellas, “mailing it in” is not an option. You have to show up for your characters and for your future readers and create a world for them to step into. To dream up a world that people want to enter and inhabit, the real world that’s forever buzzing around the writer’s head has to be managed successfully.
Many writers and creators have dedicated spaces to help them focus. I have one and I love being in my space where focus and deep work happen. Yet, no matter how perfect the writer’s room if there’s media allowed into the room in any form, it’s an intrusion. For me, my workstation is a desktop computer. If I were working in clay and making busts of American tycoons, I would never be tempted to scroll, because the computer would not be part of my setup. Since it is part of my writer’s rig, I have to shut the distracting parts down. I do listen to music while I deliberately move words around. Music soothes me. Twitter does not.
Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, explains his fascination with Twitter:
I love Twitter quite like the way I love wine and whiskey…It makes life better and more interesting. It connects with me writers and thinkers whom I would never otherwise reach. But some days, my attention will get caught in the slipstream of gotchas, dunks, and nonsense controversies, and I’ll feel deeply regretful about the way I spent my time.
Like Derek, I am both drawn to Twitter, and at times, repelled by it. I’m drawn to it because it’s a good place to meet interesting people and chat a bit. In this way, Twitter is a new kind of town square. Like a real town square, things can quickly get noisy and messy and it’s often best to retreat to the pub or coffee shop (a smaller more intimate place for meaningful conversations). Of course, Twitter is not designed for this. Like cable news, it’s designed to keep us all glued to the action, even when there is no action, only idle talk.
There’s also something terribly unforgiving about crossing a perceived line in an online community. When you do make an error in judgment or a poor series of Tweets or are merely misunderstood, the ensuing judgments and attacks can unravel and quickly. It’s like being stung by a hive of bees. When the pain of the moment passes and you’ve survived mostly intact, you won’t be the same again. You won’t freely share updates or lay it all out there again. There’s too much room for error on everyone’s part because the chamber is just way too loud. Say what?
The platforms offer online community, but what kind of community is it? Does it offer the same benefits as on offline community? When you have never met the people in your online community in person, it’s hard to rely on them in the same way you might rely on someone from your neighborhood, workplace, church, or school. And when things turn sour in the midst of another frenetic click fest, are your online friends going to forgive you, understand you, and support you?
Like any gold rush that’s ever been, the digital gold rush is one where the glimmer outshines the goods. Sure, there are plenty of Internet-based dreams waiting to be dreamed, but by other dreamers and digital gold dust diggers. This dreamer is concentrating and writing down the bones. Now, please forgive me, the essay is complete. It’s time to promote my writing on Twitter.
David Burn writes poems, essays, short stories, journalism, and advertising copy. He lives in Bastrop, Texas with his wife, Darby, and dog, Lucy Spotted Tongue.