Monday, May 14, 2012

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

When my husband wants to drive me crazy, he reminds me that computers don't live in our world.  Instead, we live in theirs.  I balk at that, but then I remember the irony of that last scene in The Social Network where Zuckerberg's sitting at that computer, obsessively refreshing the screen every few seconds.  Here, the invention of this social network has both made him rich and profoundly isolated him, costing him his only friend.  The best he manage now is to hope that a girl he's never met will accept his invitation to "friend" him.

Which is pretty sad, when you stop to think about it.

I was reminded of all this when I ran across an article in the May issue of The Atlantic all about social networking and Facebook and the web of interconnectivity in which we all seem to be snared either by choice or design.  The upshot of the article, though, was intriguing: all the research would suggest that, despite our being so very electronically connected, we're actually lonelier and more self-involved than ever.  

This is fascinating--and yet makes perfect sense.  Think about the number of times you've seen people in restaurants or on the train or in an airport or a waiting room and what are they doing?  Everyone's playing on their devices: answering email, surfing the Web . . . you know the drill.  Sure, some people are reading and, yes, this is a solitary activity but one which I believe is profoundly different than clicking and surfing, bopping around, hoping to find something "interesting."  Particularly weird are the couples sitting right across the table from one another and not speaking much at all but playing with their devices.  When they do manage a conversation, it's fitful at best and broken by cell phone calls and email checks.  (Why people feel the need to answer a cell when they're at the table to begin with is lost on me.  This is why there's voice mail.  But the sense that you just MUST answer the phone call is profoundly narcissistic, if you ask me.  NO ONE is really that important; barring life or death, nothing is so earth-shattering that it can't wait for a half hour.  You just are not THAT important.)

But I don't want this post to degenerate into a diatribe against social networking or interconnectivity.  I mean, I AM blogging, for God's sake; I'm on Twitter and Facebook.  But I wasn't initially there by choice, and here's why.

I am profoundly shy.  Really.  I know.  This always surprises people who meet and/or know me in person.  But I really am.  (Hey, we shrinks don't go into shrinkdom simply to do good in the world; we frequently want to understand ourselves.)  In my mind, you guys are always much better looking, better spoken, more at ease than I can ever be.  My husband knows that when I absolutely MUST go to some social event that revolves around his work, we follow this fairly predictable pattern.  He tells me about the event; I ask if I really have to go; he says yes; I ask why; we have anything from a minor scuffle to a modest brawl; I give in and say, fine, okay, I'll do it, FINE.  Then I flounce around for awhile and, on the way into the event, I always turn to him and suggest that he do all the talking while I listen and . . . oh, by the way, when are we leaving?  Is it time to leave yet?

So, yes.  Shy.  I'm not going to go into all the gory detail or anything about adolescence or medical school or dating--(although if you recall your Joseph Conrad, it really was a bit of the horror, the horror)--but suffice to say that, as with Sherlock Holmes, if there's a wall or suitable piece of drapery, I'm likely to be wearing clothing most likely to double as suitable camouflage.  

Now, after years of practice--forcing myself into forensics and drama and all that, where I HAD to go out there and be in front of other people and say SOMETHING (even if scripted)-- I'm much better; I function fine in social situations; no one would ever know that I was the very definition of a wallflower.  The downside of being shy, of course, is that you also tend to be somewhat lonely and envious all at the same time.  You stand there and watch everyone else having a good time at the dance or party or whatever, and it's just . . . depressing.

This all ran through my mind as I read this article because I started thinking about what social networking has been like for me, both personally and as an writer.  When I started out, I didn't do any of these social media things; I didn't have a blog.  I was pretty much told by my editors that I MUST have a web presence; MUST be on Twitter; MUST be on Facebook.  For a shy person, this was a very tall order; just because I couldn't see you didn't mean that I wasn't tongue-tied.  What could I possibly have to share or say that would interest anyone if it wasn't connected to a story (or, better yet, the story itself)?

As a writer, I've been kind of surprised.  The problem for a lot of writers is that even if our minds are full, our work is very solitary. (As Annie Dillard once put it, writers don't write books so much as sit up with them, a tad like holding the hand of a dying friend and hoping that, somehow, it will all get better eventually.)  But it is a solitude I embrace; I like hanging out in my head.  Most of the time, I really don't mind being alone; it's the life I've chosen.  

Yet while maintaining a regular Web presence has taken some getting used to, there have been a lot of upsides to being connected.  I'll give you one example.  I was in the middle of touring last year and I missed a connection or something . . . I forget the exact circumstances.  But I'm stranded in the airport and stressing, so I tweeted about it.  I'm not even sure why I did that.  But within about five minutes, someone had tweeted back, expressed their sympathy, said some nice things . . . and then spent, maybe, ten minutes or so going back and forth with me on Twitter, just keeping me company, offering encouragement . . . stuff like that.  In that instance, I was grateful to have someone to talk to for a few minutes, just to get my frustrations off my chest and have someone feel a little sorry for me (because I was feeling plenty sorry for myself).  For that brief period of time, I wasn't . . . well . . . alone or lonely.

So, for me, that's an instance where social networking was a nice thing to have.  The connection wasn't DEEP or anything; it was a lovely example of another human being reaching out to assure me that I wasn't alone and everything would be okay.  I've since discovered that it's kind of nice to drop in, chat a bit, drop out again . . .

And yet, I'm also bothered by this because I can see where some people might mistake this kind of fleeting contact as a true connection, which I'm not sure that it really is.  Don't get me wrong; I'm grateful there are people out there with whom I've grown kind of chummy via email and Twitter and what-have-you.  A couple have reached out to see if we can actually meet--which would be fun--and I LOVE how social media have allowed me to connect with other writers and, most especially, my readers.  I LOVE hearing from folks who've enjoyed my work; I love chatting with kids and adults about writing; and I know of at least one kid who pursued something she normally wouldn't have if not for Facebook, which allowed us to toss around a few ideas.

Yet I've also succumbed to the Zuckerberg-refresh phenomenon, too: tweeting or Facebooking about something only to then obsessively return again and again to see if anyone--ANYONE--cares.  (It's a little bit like that tree-falling-in-the-forest kind of thing.)  

And here's what I've found: THAT'S when I feel loneliest, when I keep (re)discovering that there's no one out there.  In those instances, I let the social media dictate how I act and, subsequently, feel.  It's not the loneliness of writing that leads me to do this; it's the reinforcement of what we all dread: that we're really only important to a very few people--or, even worse--not important to anyone, at all. 

What I've also discovered about myself is that I tend to do this when I'm having a horrible time maneuvering around some annoying plot point or the story's not cooperating or I can't seem to move the chess pieces in the right way or order and the work's not going well.  THAT'S when I tend to start tossing out bon mots and obsessively checking and rechecking email and Facebook and Twitter, hoping for a response, a bit like throwing out chum to lure sharks.  Of course, everyone else is going on with their lives; it's not like I've picked up the phone and asked a friend to meet me for coffee or something; and so the non-response can make me feel even worse.  In those moments, I do feel as if I've crossed into the machine's world instead of remaining firmly fixed in mine and empowered to act rather than depend on random bits of electrons.  I've gone searching for a fleeting and ephemeral connection which is no connection at all, and nothing compared to the satisfaction of simply going out and being in the world.

I'd be interested in what other folks--readers and writers--think about this.  Have you guys noticed that your use of social media goes up when you're frustrated, feeling blue?  Do things like Facebook and Twitter help?  Hurt?  Make you feel better or worse?  Or are they ways of tricking yourself into thinking that what you're doing is REALLY important when all you're really doing is avoiding something else, like work?  And are we lonelier than before?  More narcissistic and dissatisfied?  Because, really, having thirteen trillion followers . . . that doesn't make us any less lonely or alone.

Does it?


Jordan Dane said...

Someone once called me an introvert when I was at a writers conference. Me, who can get on stage & address a ballroom of people without a single butterfly or regale a bar full of peeps with a joke. But after they explained, I realized they were right. I like my alone time. I love being in my own head. I actually HAD to steal away just to be in my hotel room alone, to rejuvenate.

So much of your post resonated with me, but as for STALLING on the writing, I believe its my brain telling me something is amiss in PLOTTERVILLE. I did a post on it here, about my screaming brain. What I do to stall can vary, from phone calls to chores to online time sucks, but it comes down to the same reason.

Trust yourself that this is more of an instinct to not waste time writing things you will only delete later. This isnt a bad thing. Its your mind telling you to slow down. Its part of your writers process.

Either that or you really need therapy.

Ilsa said...

LOL! Next time, I'll go stand before the mirror and ask the shrink if I do, indeed, need therapy ;-)

Carmen Esposito said...

I'm a bit shy although my friends will disagree with me. Of course, they've been my friends for 20 years; I can let my hair down around them. I gab, chat, and ramble on and on but the moment I have to write something that others may see, I clam up. I dislike social networking but started a Twitter account. What do I say? Who will read it? Or even answer me? Nobody. I barely get comments on my blog. Why do writers have to walk this rusted nail encrusted road?

Anyway, I found that although I don't care for Twitter or comments on my blog (that's a lie, I live for comments), if I wrote something I checked for feedback constantly. Wasting time that I could've used to finish my first draft.

Jordan Dane said...

Hey Carmen. Thanks for visiting ADR3 & commenting. I wondered the same things when I started on Twitter but I look at it as reaching out & meeting people like me. I retweet interesting things others post & pass along writing tips that helped me. When I need to promo, I do, but I spend as much time or more helping others online. It feels good to connect with other authors or people who share the dream to write. We are a different lot, but when you think of others first & try to reach out & help, it will make social media more palatable.

I've met people all over the world too. Another bonus.

Blogs are tough to sustain on your own, but publishers do look at an author's online presence before they extend an offer to someone new. Blogs, tweets, facebook, & websites all become HITS when they query your name. It's about perception & trying to find the right balance.

Bottom line is - good writing comes first. Focus on your draft & push to get it done and in shape. Set aside a short time for social media, but only after you get your daily word count in. That way you know you're making progress on all fronts in the right proportion.

Good luck!