On Zen and the Art of the Social Media Sabbatical

Neil Gaiman has announced he'll be taking a six month social media sabbatical starting in January 2014. When I read the story in the Guardian this morning, I couldn't help but cheer for him.

Every year, during Lent, I take a social media sabbatical. I preload a bunch of links, I warn everyone I'll be gone, and I disappear. I've done this every year for the past four, and each year I write somewhere between 50-70K works (1/2 - 3/4 of a standard length commercial novel.) So I know that social media impacts my time, dramatically.

I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I adore meeting my readers. I love hanging out with my friends. Seeing photos, celebrating happy events, comforting after bad news--it's a wonderful way to stay connected.

But it's also the Great Procrastinator. I lose more time than I'd like to Facebook. Twitter isn't nearly as bad, and that makes sense - Facebook is all about the interaction. Twitter is a drive-by shooting. 

I've always struggled with how to budget time on social media.  My friends know I try various methods: logging out, deleting the apps from my devices, disappearing for days, lurking, then being drawn into the stream and posting four times a day. I can't seem to help myself. Everyone else is doing it....

When I read this article about how much time you're willing to give your readers, I realized how tightly I've been holding on to my time, and how difficult I've been making it for myself. A few minutes every day is more than enough to do what I need to do, both personally and professionally. I don't know why I try to isolate myself outside of a deep-seated fear that if I don't, I will be consumed by the beast. Facebook and Twitter can have the same effect as caffeine to my brain, and I avoid caffeine at all costs, because it revs me up and I spin out of control.

I digress. The article really helped me realign my social media priority, giving me permission to hang out with my readers and my friends for a bit each day, then to wander off to get some writing done.

But here's the rub.

[Gaiman] says the problem isn't the amount of time spent using social media; it's how it spreads into every cranny of our existence.
"People ask me where I get my ideas from," he said, "and the answer is that the best way to come up with new ideas is to get really bored."
This is so true. We so rarely, if ever, allow ourselves to get bored anymore, and it's killing our creativity. It's killing mine, at least. Those moments of downtime, the dark spaces, are where the best ideas come from, and they seem to be fewer and further between the more interesting the Internet becomes.

This was a very topical article for me today. I had a superb book idea over the weekend, and grabbed my 2013 "Ideas" Moleskine to scribble it down. When I was done, I flipped through the preceding pages and made a horrific discovery.

The notebook is basically empty.

It's not that I haven't had any ideas - I have. They've been mostly directed toward the two series I'm currently writing, so they're focused, and they're going into the book notebooks instead of the "ideas" one. And that's fine. But those wild, silly, whimsical or dark thoughts I used to have on an ongoing basis, that filled notebook after notebook, aren't happening as often.

I know a lot of this is purely psychological. I've been holding my imagination at bay because while I might have some superb book and story ideas, I don't have the time to write them. And there's nothing sadder than a writer who has a brilliant off-book/off-contract idea and no time to work on it. (Trust me. I have twenty treatments in my ideas folder. I will never be at a loss for something to write.)

But maybe it's not all self-enforced anti-inspiration. Maybe it's a result of the constant influx of information and socializing. There is so much to read online now - from my RSS feeds to Zite to the news to interesting links posted to Facebook and Twitter. There's chatting to be done, commenting on friends' pithy status updates, hanging around the virtual water cooler. All of which is, I posit, necessary to the health and well-being of the classically introverted writer. If we don't reach out and connect, we run the risk of unhealthy hermiting.

But unhealthy hermiting is where the great ideas come from.

Something to think about.

I'm wondering how many artists will follow Gaiman's lead. He clearly knows what his mind needs - some quiet time to truly create - and I can't disagree with him. 

And I wonder how his fans will react. Mine have always been incredibly accommodating of my six-week Lenten fast. But six months? What do you think?

J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of fifteen critically acclaimed thrillers and is the co-author of the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. With over a million books in print, Ellison’s work has been published in twenty-five countries and thirteen languages. She is also the co-host of A Word on Words, Nashville's premier literary TV series, which airs on Nashville Public Television. She lives with her husband and twin kittens in Nashville. Visit JTEllison.com, and follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick or at Facebook.com/JTEllison14.