How Social Networking Kills the Creative Spirit

You want to hear some hard truth? Do you promise not to get mad at me? Promise?

Okay then. Here it is. Your social networking habit? It might be hurting you.

Yes, I know it’s fun. Meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends, discussing the price of tea in china with strangers, staffing up your mafia, finding out your Princess personality, etcetera, etcetera. But every minute you spend on Facebook and Twitter (I'm not even going to try and list the gajillion other social networking sites available) is another minute you aren’t writing, or reading. Nurturing your creative spirit.

The Muse is a delicate flower, a fickle Goddess. She must be treated with respect and dignity. She must be nurtured, given the proper nutrients: water, sunlight, fertilizer, a touch of love. If properly taken care of, she will reward you with great things: a bountiful garden of words, a cornucopia of ideas. But if you neglect her, she will forsake you.

And none of us want to be forsaken.

I read an essay last week that broke my heart. It was one writer’s honest, true assessment of her burgeoning Twitter addiction. She openly admitted compromising her family time so she could spend hours a night talking to strangers on Twitter. Her online world became more important that her real one. And I get it. I see how easily that happens. Especially when you’re a new writer, and networking is so vital to your future success. (I am so thankful Facebook and Twitter came along after I was already published.) A little encouragement—that tweet that gets retweeted, the blog entry that starts people talking, that link you sent that helps someone else—it’s heady stuff. A classic, undeniable ego stroke, and for a lot of us, that’s just plain intoxicating. (Yes, some of us not so new writers fall into the Twitter trap too…)

But when does it become a problem?

I can’t answer that question for you. You may want to ask yourself some hard questions though. Namely, how much time are you really spending online? Can’t answer that offhand? Spend a week keeping a log of all your online activity. Not just Twitter and Facebook and Goodreads and Shelfari. Track your email consumption, your blogging, your blog reading, your Yahoo groups, your aimless surfing and your necessary research. Be honest. Don’t cheat. Add that time up at the end of the week and take a candid, truthful look at the results. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at how much time the Internet takes.

Then ask yourself these questions:

Is the Internet as a whole compromising my writing time? Am I reading less because I’m spending more time online? Why am I doing this? Am I reaching out to strangers because I’m not feeling the same sort of support at home? Am I lonely? Blocked? Frustrated?

Because here’s the heart of the matter. Writers? Our job is to write. And I don’t mean pithy status updates and 140 character gems that astonish the world. I mean create. I mean writing stories. I mean taking all that energy and time you’re spending online playing and refocusing it into your work.

You know why it’s so easy to say that and so hard to back it up with results? Because Twitter and Facebook are FUN! And you’re talking to other writers, so you can sort of kind of tell yourself that this is really just research, background. You’re learning, right? You're connecting with your fans, with your readers, with your heros. Very, very cool stuff.

Listen, if you get inspired by social networking, if watching successful authors launch successful campaigns helps spur you on to greatness, fabulous. I have been greatly inspired by some posts, links and attitudes on Twitter. I think it’s so important to try and have a positive experience out there in the world, and I follow people who exude positivity, who are following the path I want to follow.

But if you’re forsaking your Muse, taking the easy way out, then you have to do a bit of self-examination and decide if it’s really worth it. I am “friends” with people who are online every single time I open my computer and go to the sites. And I can’t help but wonder – when are they working? When are they feeding the Muse?

An editor is going to be impressed with your finished manuscript, submitted on time. The jury is still out on whether they’re impressed that you can Tweet effectively or that you’ve rekindled that friendship with the cheerleader who always dissed you in school.  

The thing about social networking is a little goes a long way. I love Twitter. It’s my number one news source. I follow interesting people, I’ve made new friends, and more importantly, I’ve gained new readers. It’s a tremendous tool for me. But I’ve also (hopefully) mastered the art of Twitter and Facebook. I can glance at my Tweetdeck, see what I need to see, read what I need to read, then move along.

Facebook, on the other hand, became a problem for me last year, so I gave it up for Lent. I spent six weeks only checking it on Tuesdays and Fridays. The first two weeks were hell. I was missing out! Everyone was on there having fun except me.

And then it got better. At the end of the six weeks, I added things up. I wrote 60,000 words during my enforced Facebook vacation. That was enough of an indicator to me that it was taking time away from my job, which is to write.

Now Facebook is a breeze. I’ve separated out my friends, the people I actually interact with daily, so I can pop in one or twice a day, check on them, then keep on trucking. I’ve set my preferences so I’m not alerted to every tic and twitch of the people I’m friends with. I don’t take quizzes or accept hugs. Ignore All has become my new best friend. Because really, as fun as it is to find out that I’m really the Goddess Athena, that aspect isn’t enriching my life.

I read Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART recently and was so struck by his thesis, that artists fight resistance every moment of every day, and the ones who are published (or sell their work, etc.) are the ones who beat the resistance back. Twitter, Facebook, the Internet in general, that’s resistance. (And to clarify, resistance and procrastination aren’t one and the same. Read the book. It’s brilliant.)

For professional writers, the social networks are a necessary evil, and as such, they must be managed, just like every other distraction in our lives. I still have my days when I find myself aimlessly surfing Twitter and Facebook, looking at what people are doing. Getting into conversations, playing. But I am much, much better at feeding my Muse. I allot time in my day to look at my social networks, but I allot much more time in my day to read. And most importantly, I have that sacred four hour stretch—twelve to four, five days a week—that is dedicated to nothing but putting words on paper.

There’s another phenomenon happening. The social networks are eating into our reading time. Readers have their own resistance, their own challenges managing their online time.

Yes, there are plenty of readers who don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, who may read this and laugh. But many of us do, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, every minute spent conversing online is another minute we aren’t reading. I can’t help but wonder if this is what will ultimately drive the trend toward ebooks, since one out of every three readers prefer to read electronically now. One in three, folks. That’s a large chunk of the market.

So how do you turn it off? How do you discipline yourself, walk away from the fun?

It’s hard. But what’s more important? Writing the very best book you can possibly write, or taking a quiz about which Goddess you are? Reading the top book on your teetering TBR stack, or reading what other people think about said book?

For writers, you have to set your priority, and every time your fingers touch the keyboard, that priority really should be writing. The rest will fall into place. I hypothesize that while the Internet is taking a chunk of reading time, most readers still read a great deal. Which means we need to keep up the machine to feed them, right?

Does this post sound like you? Are you easily distracted? Frustrated because you can’t seem to get a grip on things? There are a bunch of great tools out there to help you refocus your creative life. Here’s a list of the websites and blogs that I’ve used over the past year to help me refocus mine.



43 Folders

Zen Habits


The Art of Non-Conformity


The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

The Creative Habit – Twyla Tharp

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life – Winifred Gallagher

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

Take fifteen minutes a day off your social networking and read one of these. I promise it will help you reprioritize your day.

Because really, what’s the point in being a writer if you don’t write?

What do you think, 'Rati? Are you overdoing the online time? Any tips for making the best out of your Internet experience? How do you find the balance?

Wine of the Week: 2008 Quattro Mani Montepulciano d'Abruzzo