I love technology and I love social media. The internet has allowed me to make some of the most amazing contacts. Two of my best friends met their husbands, now the fathers of their children, online. I love that Twitter and Instagram and Facebook give everyday people a voice. I love how social media allows friends and families who live far apart to see each other and talk to each other and share their lives. I love how knowledge has been freed up and so made available to everyone, whatever their background. I love that my readers can read Milo electronically, especially with its implications for those with visual impairments and older people who struggle to read small fonts or to lug around heave books.
Above all, I love how the internet allows me to communicate with my readers from around the world.
But, of course, technology, and being online in particular, comes at cost. It interrupts us. It takes our attention away from the here and now. It leaves our focus divided. It prevents us from getting into that state which the psychologist and academic, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, calls flow. And flow is necessary if we are to go deep into our stories and write stories of substances that resonate with our readers.
Writers like Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby and Dave Eggers have spoken openly about their addiction to the internet and its negative impact on their writing lives. These writers claim to use software like Freedom and SelfControl to cut off access to social media and distracting websites while she is writing.
When I first heard this, I remember feeling baffled: surely these wonderfully wise writers I admired so much could simply switch off wifi or get out a pen and paper. At the time I was starting out a full-time author: all I had to do was to sit at my desk and write my stories, I wasn’t yet swept up in the need to promote my novels, to stay in touch with my online readers, and the pressure to be a strong online presence, like my fellow novelists, hadn’t kicked in yet.
A few years down the line and I empathise completely with those writers who struggle, day in, day out, to find the space and time to think and read and write without distraction.
I’m also busier. I have an 18 month old little girl I want to look after and love; a wonderful husband whose company I cherish; friends and family I try (and often fail) to stay in touch with; classes to teach, creative writing workshops to run; literary events to attend; promotional work to do for my books – and all those tedious chores that like emptying the dishwasher or changing the bed, which never, ever seem to get done.
And, of course, I write.
Being online has made me busier still.
At The Eagle House Literary Festival last week, I bumped into the wonderful performance poet, Adam Kammerling. At one point he got out his phone, held it up, smiled and said: I got rid of the iPhone. It’s good for my mental health. And by that, I took him to mean it was good for his writing too. His phone is like the first one I had: a small, dense block with push buttons and a tiny screen: all it does is text and call. For a second, I envied him that phone, more than I’ve envied any piece of technology before.
As artists, we need a place of quiet, uninterrupted solitude. And we need it for a sustained period of time. Otherwise our work will suffer.
So, last week, I made a resolution: one day a week, from 7am – 7pm, I’m going to switch off my access to the internet.
I’m not going to answer emails. I’m not going to tweet or post photos on Facebook or Instagram. I’m not even going to check the internet to research something for my writing, I’ll just make a note of it and look it up the next day. I can use my computer but it won’t be connected to wifi. And I’ll focus on nothing by my stories, the things that, besides the people I love in my life, are what matter to me most.
I did a trial run last Tuesday. A few friends asked me how it felt and the only thing I could liken it to was dieting. Every now and then a little voice would come into my head, like the one you hear when yore trying to avoid a certain type of food: maybe you could open the fridge, just a little, and have a little look – looking doesn’t hurt – and maybe you could pick something up and look at it and smell it – that’s not the same as eating it – and maybe you could taste it, just a little corner, just a lick, a nibble, and then, maybe a bite, a bite isn’t really eating, is it…You get the idea.
At certain moments during my no internet day that voice wasn’t whispering, it was shouting: SWITCH IT BACK ON! SWITCH IT BACK ON! SWITCH IT BACK ON!
That’s when I knew it was important to stay as far away from – the internet – as possible. It meant not going into the kitchen at all – it meant getting out that pen and paper.
And you know what? The world didn’t fall apart. I answered my emails and messages later that night or the next day. People didn’t seem to hate me for the delay – though a few did wonder what had happened to me…And I wrote. Lots. Lots and lots. Hours and hours at a time.
And it felt wonderful.
So, I’ll come back to where I started: I love the internet, I love social media, I love technology. And I know it’s not bad for me per se. In fact, I believe that, most of the time, it can enrich my life. But I also know that taking a break from it, keeping it in perspective, allowing myself to write uninterrupted, is necessary if I’m going to do justice to myself, my stories and my readers.
There’s a long tradition of fasting, a clearing of mind and body, a recalibrating, a re-focusing on the things that matter. That’s how I’m going to see my no-internet days. A cleanse. A chance to hit re-set. An opportunity to remember that what matters most is my imagination and my stories.
See if you can set aside a day a week, or even just an afternoon, in which you switch it off and focus on your writing.