That Moment When I Realize the Problem is Me

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Photo by Jangra Works, via Flickr

This might come as a shock to many people. (Brace yourselves, sisters!) Occasionally…very occasionally…I do fleetingly think, “Gee, if I had a smart phone right now I could…”

I always decide that for me, the benefit would be far outweighed by the nuisance, the expectation of being always available. But I’ve realized in the past few days that my reasoning is faulty. I’m absolutely right to stay disconnected, but the real issue in having a smart phone wouldn’t be the technology. It would be me.

It seemed like for a week, I kept hearing stories about people who had found their family relationships strained—in some cases broken—by addiction to screen time. Then I read a striking reflection, provocatively titled “I used to be human,” by Andrew Sullivan, who embraced life online until he realized his physical health was failing and so was his ability to have meaningful relationships. Yesterday, I heard him on NPR’s program Here and Now (a great interview, btw).

And when Christian and I talked these things over, we found ourselves stumped by the lack of self-regulation that seems ubiquitous to modern life. I scolded him for how often he feels compelled to check his work email day, night, morning, weekends. And he pointed out how much time I spend on the computer.

That was when I realized that I am not immune. I, too, am driven by a need for distraction. If I get stuck while I’m working, I’ll click over to email, and when there’s nothing there, I’ll hop on Facebook or (less frequently) Twitter. (There’s always something to distract me there.)

I value going out to the Pinnacles or Gans Creek to write because it takes me completely off the grid. It’s just me and my muse and the Spirit. I go out there, first, to be still and meditate, but despite devoting half my nature time to stillness and not doing, I generally get more writing done than I would if I stayed home.

backyard-retreat

I haven’t been going out much lately. We invested in a set of patio furniture that has made my back yard like a retreat—at least, when the wind is out of the north, as it has been the past week or so, and I can’t hear the interstate roaring. But there’s wireless down there, and any time I ran into a speed bump in my manuscript, my brain went, “SQUIRREL!” and I ran off to check Facebook.

Late last week, I decided to safeguard my writing time by unplugging the wireless router before I went downstairs to write. See, theoretically you could just turn off the wireless on the computer (or turn off the phone). But I’ve tried that. When all it takes is a flip of the switch to reconnect, there’s not a whole lot standing between me and distraction. It’s been illuminating to see how often I’ve said to myself, “Oh, I’ll just go look up…oh, wait.”

I’ve accomplished a ton in the past week.

Then, early this week, I imposed a Facebook cap on myself. I’m now only allowed to get on Facebook three times a day. (Only! There’s your first clue, Sherlock.)

The sense of withdrawal engendered by all this clarified for me that the only way I can do everything I do is by staying disconnected, by opting into the digital realm on my terms instead of being in by default and having to consciously opt out. I might be able to control myself, because self-discipline and self-regulation are key to my world view. But I would spend so much mental bandwidth policing myself, I would be taking away from the energy required to do the things that are more important to me.

So for me, not having a smart phone, not texting, not doing All The Things Everybody Else Does, are what allow me to be the woman I want to be. But I’m glad that now I recognize the problem isn’t the technology—it’s me.

The Balance Between Authenticity and TMI

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A caution sign used on roads made in inkscape,...

I’ve spent my writing time the last several days researching literary agents. When you Google someone’s name, you get a lot of clutter, but if you take the time, you can often get a good sense of who they are by the things they say online. For an author hoping to find someone to represent her, this is a tool you’d be foolish not to use. And for an agent considering a potential client, the same holds true. So authors are always admonished to be professional in their online presence: to be careful what they say and how they say it.

“Careful” is a hard word for me. I overthink almost everything related to what I “should” or “shouldn’t” do, and the tension between what to say and what not to sometimes creates complete logjam. I’ve been wrestling for two weeks with a query pitch for my novel, for instance, because I’m pretty sure it’s not right yet, and I’m having trouble shaking loose a fresh take on it.

Online, the tension is between stories that are mine to tell and stories that are not. Between sharing the journey and risking looking whiny. Between affirming other people’s struggles by opening up about mine and opening myself to criticism and judgment for what I did or didn’t do.

Caution sign, in parking on 5th street

Caution sign, in parking on 5th street (Photo credit: gregoirevdb)

Life is not all unicorns and rainbows, and when I run across people online pretending otherwise it really grates on my nerves. Yet I can understand why a person might whitewash (or self-censor) the tough moments, the ones where defending yourself might make you look petulant, or the ones where you don’t come off like mother of the year and it’s not funny but instead an excoriation of the soul. Your “tribe” will get it. They see you as a whole person. But they’re not the ones you have to worry about. It’s the person who’s Googling you out of nowhere. What if that moment is their introduction to you?

The balance between authenticity and TMI is something everyone who is online faces–or should be cognizant of, at any rate. I stopped Journaling when this blog took over that role, but more and more often I’m recognizing the value of an outlet where I can work through things without worrying about who’s looking over my shoulder. Now, where to find the extra half hour of time?

On to the next impossible question…