Due to the recent glut of long weekends (and indeed big thanks for those to, respectively, Jesus, the Royals and May) I have spent several days at a time going social media cold turkey – and choosing, instead, to eat cold turkey and suchlike summer lunchery in blossom-blessed gardens face to face with my loved ones.
I got more done – in Moleskines on delayed Great Westerns crawling between rural villages; in the red-flecked blackness behind my closed eyes as I dozed on scratchy lawns – than I have Being Very Busy at my laptop for weeks. Because, rather than browsing, consuming, reacting and opining I was thinking, which was quite an odd sensation. I could feel my brain straining with meatily organic effort. Ossified neurons reluctantly snapped like tough old twigs. New connections wavered wetly forth like frail viridian shoots.
I find novel writing a tough balance between planning and doing. Not plan enough and, despite Stephen King’s exhortation to just put people in situations and see what happens, I become lazy. My mind replays the images and emotions and tropes that surface most readily, resulting in a sort of solipsistic brain-scurf. Plan too much and, well, there ain’t no actual words on the page.
And sometimes I forget about thinking – the coming-up-with of original things (well, as original as stories ever get) – altogether. The process of creation is not found in that first juicy, tingly idea, but in teasing the idea out, interrogating and broadening it, lining up the dominos that will plock into each other with exciting, elegant momentum. That takes work which my increasingly scattergun, instant gratification seeking, always-on-wired-in habits make very hard to do.
One problem with my social media multitasking is the erosion of my attention span, something that research is starting to observe in both children and adults. Another is the echo chamber effect, where I can contentedly paddle in recommended content and likeminded opinions for days without the blast of something challenging or fresh. Perhaps most dangerous is the self-important sense I have of always being part of something, always busy doing stuff that is urgent and important and worthy of my time, when really I am just tinkering around the edges of life – absorbing, organising and communicating, yes – but not creating, not with originality, or insight, or true, generous purpose.
For this, I realised, I needed space, disconnection from technology, pen and paper, time and, where possible, motion (I do all my best thinking on trains). How good it felt (in a painful way) was testament to how little I do.
After the thinking, there’s the doing. Last week I read Scott Belsky’s book Making Ideas Happen, which claims to help creative types “overcome the obstacles between vision and reality”. Much of it is common sense plus old productivity theories repackaged in addictively slick, mission-statement prose, but Belsky knows his audience well, talks straight to our insecurities, and comes out with the odd blinder:
to confidently quell the resistance triggered by our lizard brains, we must choose our projects wisely and then execute without remorse.
Execute without remorse. I considered, briefly, an easily misinterpreted tattoo.
Many of us are feeling a little queasy from the social media sweetshop. I’m edging back towards space, silence and single-minded diligence. Slowly, but I’m edging.
Talking of which.