How social media (almost) ruined my writing, aka Creativity & the Myth of Multi-Tasking

A few weeks ago I was trying to describe a pay phone to my eleven year old son. He'd never seen one and was utterly baffled. 

"You put a quarter in it? I don't understand. You had to put actual money inside the phone because otherwise you couldn't call someone?"

Jewel, 15.senior company ballerina at Maple Youth ballet, ca. Photo credit: hannah levin

Jewel, 15.senior company ballerina at Maple Youth ballet, ca. Photo credit: hannah levin

"Well, if you didn't have any change, you could always call collect," I said.

"Call collect? What's that?"

"It means you'd dial 0 for the operator and then—"

"Wait. What's an operator?"

I stared at him. It was hard to believe we were having this conversation. When I was his age, I'd never have guessed pay phones were so near becoming obsolete that my own kids wouldn't know what they were. Technology couldn't move that fast, right? Ha. These days my idea of an "old" phone is the iPhone 5.

This troubles me.

I feel like I've lost something significant in these past few years. I feel like I've lost my real life. Or maybe I've just lost my ability to be present in it.

In the heady, early days of blogging, tweeting and smart phones, everything seemed possible. The fact that we could instantly communicate with people all over the world—it just blew our minds. We called ourselves Early Adopters. We were proud of ourselves, of the Internet, of being the lucky generation to experience this brave new world.

I mean, it was pretty incredible. I'll never forget how I felt holding my first iPhone.

It was magical. All my email accounts: available immediately. All those amazing apps: instant life-changers. FINALLY, I would hit my fitness goals because of this thing called a couch-to-5k-app. 

And blogging. Ohhhhhhh, blogging. How I loved you! How I still love you!

But then something happened: I started writing books and found myself unable to concentrate for extended periods of time. When I sat down to write, my sentences were 140 characters and my chapters were, like, 500 words. Max. I was THINKING IN TWEETS.

Over and over my editor would say: "This is a great idea, develop it more." Develop what more? A punchy little opinion wasn't enough?

So, I tried developing my ideas. But I kept tapping out at 500 words. Yikes. Was I losing my ability to write long-form? Had I lost the capacity to engage a deep, extensive thought process because I'd been spending too much time on social media?

Book writing was much different than blogging, not to mention blasting out pithy little tweets.

But I couldn't imagine living without my iPhone, my Twitter, my Facebook, my blog—they seemed indispensable. A new blog comment pinging my inbox totally derailed my train of thought. The ring-tones attached to Twitter replies and FB notifications endlessly distracted me. I began feeling anxious when I didn't have my iPhone on me. I needed it.

Still, I didn't think anything was really wrong with—wasn't everyone addicted to their iPhones?— until one night I witnessed someone else's unhealthy attachment to their phone. 

I was throwing a dinner party and had cleaned the house, prepared a meal and set the table just so. My friends arrived one-by-one and we exchanged hugs and greetings— except for the woman who walked in the door looking at her iPhone. She glanced up, said, "Oh, hi!" and gave us all a distracted side-hug while still looking at her phone. Throughout dinner she kept looking at her phone, sometimes chuckling to herself or shaking her head or texting. She dipped in and out of our conversation but it was so awkward that eventually someone joked that our real life dinner party must be boring compared to the one our friend was having with her iPhone.

We all laughed. But it wasn't really funny. And that's when it hit me. I've done that.

I've been the half-present person at a dinner party. I've been the half-present mom at the playground, the half-present friend, the half-present writer. What if distraction was ruining my writing?

What if distraction was ruining my life? Has 24/7 accessibility really improved communication? Are we better listeners now? Are we better employees because our bosses can reach us anytime of day or night? Are our relationships more intimate now that we communicate through texting? When did real-life interaction—not to mention an actual phone call— become inconvenient? 

All of this leads me to today. I've been quiet online again. I had to. My second book was in crisis.

It was pretty clear the quality of my writing suffered when I was toggling between book-writing, blogging, FB and Twitter. 

At first I thought I just needed more time to write. But no. Even if I had all the time in the world, if I was only half-present, it wouldn't matter.

I didn't need more time in my day. I just needed to use that time more wisely—meaning, I needed to be FULLY PRESENT to book writing when I was book writing. And also, FULLY PRESENT to the rest of my life when I wasn't writing.

Jewel, 15. senior company ballerina @ Maple Youth Ballet, CAlifornia. Photo Credit: Hannah Levin

Jewel, 15. senior company ballerina @ Maple Youth Ballet, CAlifornia. Photo Credit: Hannah Levin

When I wasn't fully present in other areas of my life, being present during the creative process of writing was a struggle. Improving my craft requires discipline, patience and most of all, attentiveness. Just like no dancer becomes a skilled ballerina after a few classes, no writer masters their craft just writing blog posts. For me, great writing requires mindfulness and fully-present attention. If I want to be an excellent writer, I must forsake multi-tasking.

Honestly, fasting from the Internet has felt like a kind of death. I didn't realize how attached I was to my online world until I detached from it.

I went through withdrawal. No, seriously. It took about a week for the initial phantom-vibrations to stop. I had to delete all my social media apps off my phone so I wouldn't be tempted for "just one more look" at Facebook.

I limited myself to twenty minutes a day "checking in" on FB, Twitter and Instagram—but without engaging.

A huge controversy erupted on Twitter and it was precisely the kind of thing my former self would have engaged extensively. But I didn't. Know what I learned? Problems solve themselves with or without my intervention. The Internet doesn't really care (or even notice!) if I disappear for awhile. And I love that. It's removed the compulsion of always needing to know What Is Happening Online; as if the world needs me to respond. Immediately.

I've also learned something else:

If I live my life on the Internet, I just might miss the real life that's happening offline.

It isn't easy, but I'm learning the virtue of a life lived more slowly. I'm learning to appreciate the value of relationships in real life with people whom I regularly see face-to-face. I'm learning the value of carefully chosen words. I'm enjoying the satisfaction of a well-crafted sentence. I'm slowing down to savor long meals with many courses.

Here's what I know for sure: I still love blogging. But mostly, I love writing. I just can't write-super-fast anymore (or, at least not as often). I won't be compelled by the false urgency of social media. I can't play by Internet rules. For my own health and to protect the quality of my writing, I have to place limits on my iPhone & social media usage.

So, this is what you can expect from my blog going forward:

  1. I'll post less but each post will be deeper—meaning: I'll be writing posts that are longer than 500 words. I may DEVELOP a topic over several (or many) posts. I'm writing for depth, not for reach. I don't care HOW MANY people read so long as the few who DO read, are truly touched. You can expect one new post a month. Note: If you were subscribed to my "old blog's" RSS feed and would like to receive new blog posts by email, you will need to re-subscribe by clicking here and entering your email address. Once you do, go to your inbox and confirm the message sent to you. Note: this is an email subscription to my new posts ONLY, not my mailing list.

  2. For EXTRA stuff, I'm starting a subscriber-only "EE-letter." This quarterly newsletter will contain updates on my second book, journaling prompts, book reviews, odes to a new fave lipstick, recipes I've tried and liked, pictures of puppies!, gushing about my ballerina and other fun, subscriber-only content. Sign up below! NOTE: The EE-letter will contain separate content, NOT blog posts. If you want both the EE-letter AND new blog posts, subscribe to both separately. :) 
  3. Some other changes: my "old blog" is now accessible only via the ARCHIVES page. This new JOURNAL page is my "new blog" and from now on will feature all new (LONGER AND MORE DEVELOPED!) posts. Once again, if you want NEW blog posts via email, you will need to RE-SUBSCRIBE by clicking here.

How to subscribe:

To receive NEW blog posts via email (old blog RSS subscribers need to re-subscribe), please do so by clicking here: NEW POSTS BY EMAIL.

To follow my blog in your favorite RSS reader, click the JOURNAL RSS link below:

To sign up for my EE-letter:

 Elizabeth Esther RSS  photo mailing list  photo Email RSS

Welcome to my new website. Take a look around. It's pretty isn't it? My precious friend, Hillary Rain, crafted this beautiful space for me and I couldn't be more thrilled. Thank you, soul-sister.

Here's to writing. Here's to passion. Here's to excellence. Here's to being fully present and fully alive.  

Jewel, 15. senior company ballerina @ Maple Youth Ballet, California. Photo credit: Hannah Levin

Jewel, 15. senior company ballerina @ Maple Youth Ballet, California. Photo credit: Hannah Levin