Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Cinthia Ritchie: Take a "naked" writing break

I just spent a “naked” weekend down in Seward.

Don’t worry, I had my clothes on, or at least most of the time. What was naked, or missing from my life, was Internet connection. I checked my email once (to make sure no one had died), posted on Facebook once (so no one would think that I had died). Other than that, I cut myself blessed free from all Internet obligations.

It was the first time my mind had truly relaxed in weeks.

Since the publication of Dolls Behaving Badly six weeks ago, I’ve bulked up my online presence. I tweet and Facebook, and then I furiously blog about my tweets and Goodreads reviews. I guest blog and guest interview, and then I turn around and guest blog and guest interview those who invited me on their sites. I compulsively check Amazon.com to see how far my book has dropped in ratings, and then I tweet some more, in desperate hopes of keeping my book, and my name, alive.

All of it has taken its toll. My mind whizzes so fast that it’s difficult to concentrate on one task (right now I feel an overpowering need to check my email even though I know no new emails have come in since I last checked.)

I’ve read articles on how easily we can become hooked on the Internet, how each new email, tweet and Facebook pings our brains with small kicks of dopamine. I just never thought it could happen to me. Yet the more I multi-task (blatantly ignoring studies showing the futility of multi-tasking), the faster my mind zooms until before I know it, I’ve work myself into a hyperactive state, manically switching from one task to another until I end up accomplishing close to nothing.

You hear a lot about the need for a writer to have a platform and very little about how to keep that platform from taking over a writer’s life. Social media has helped with my novel promotion, has gotten my name out there, has introduced me to people who have guided me, supported me and offered much needed advice and solace. In that sense, it’s been invaluable.

In another, it’s been a curse. And more and more I wonder of the cost of this emphasis on social media, and what it’s doing to us as writers, how this dependence on the Internet is changing not only how we write but how we see and think. How we imagine the world, not only the world around us but our inner, private worlds.

I like to imagine Emily Dickinson walking dreamily around her house, her dog trailing behind her (did Emily have a dog? No matter, in my fantasies she owns a scruffy golden retriever), her mind lost in streams of poems, scatterings of conversations, vague memories, all of which will sooner or later appear in her work, and if they don’t actually appear they will be there, hidden in the white spaces. As Mark Doty once said, the most vital aspect of a poem is what isn’t said so much as what is implied. It’s the mystery which lures readers, the unsaid as much as the said. We read to discover what is hidden in others, and ultimately, in ourselves.

It seems to me that our lives have lost a lot of mystery. We can verify facts within seconds. See pictures of any place in minutes. We take photographs of everything, relying on them, not memory, to define our pasts. Reality might be the truth, but writing isn’t about truth so much as the quest for the truth. And searching for the truth is painful. It requires us to shuck off pre-existing ideals and dig down to the gory and not-so-attractive kernels of self that most of us chose to keep hidden. It’s much easier to do a Google search on others’ search for truth, or tweet about good deals on running shoes than open ourselves up to the very pain that feeds us the urgency, and energy, to write and publish great books, poems and essays.

Saturday afternoon my partner and I hiked up the Mount Marathon Bowl in Seward. It was a perfect day, the sky vast and blue, the snow so white my eyes ached. The sun was warm, the air cool, the trail becoming rougher and rougher the farther we climbed. I had my camera with me and stopped and took a few photos along the way, which I later posted on Facebook. Yet when I look at them, I feel vaguely disappointed. They are beautiful, yes, but they are so distant, so removed from the experience and what I was feeling that they are a different story, a different idea, a different genre.

I think that this is what the Internet and social media is to writers, a necessary yet slightly foreign genre. It's one that we must adopt fully yet cautiously, pausing every so often to assess how much we need to tweet and Facebook, blog and use Google + and Pinintest to successfully promote ourselves and how much we're using it to hide from the difficulties and challenges of our present work.

As writers we sit alone at our desks each day, and no one pings our dopamaine response. No one even cares that we're writing. Maybe in the future there will be an app for writers, one we can press each hour to send a small jolt of happy chemicals to our brains. Until then I advise those who similarly struggle with book promotion and writing to get "naked" and temporarily shut off your computer's wireless for a set amount of hours each day, sit back and let your creativity take you where you need to go.

Cinthia Ritchie is a former journalist and Pushcart Prize nominee who lives and runs mountains in Alaska. She’s a recipient of two Rasmuson Individual Artist Awards, a Connie Boocheever Fellowship, residencies at Hedgebrook, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Hidden River Arts, the Brenda Ueland Prose Award, Memoir Prose Award, Sport Literate Essay Award, Northwest PEN Women Creative Nonfiction Award, Drexel Magazine Creative Nonfiction Award and Once Written Grand Prize Award. Her work can be found in New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Memoir, Under the Sun, Literary Mama, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Sugar Mule, Breadcrumbs and Scabs, Third Wednesday, Writer’s Digest, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Cactus Heart Press and over 30 other literary magazines and small presses. Her debut novel, Dolls Behaving Badly (click here for B&N, here for IndieBound), was released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.



3 comments:

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Thank you Cinthia. You wrote so many things that resonate with me, among them: "It’s much easier to do a Google search on others’ search for truth..." (Yes, I find myself jumping on wikipedia even before I open a book sitting right on my desk, or pause to consider my own memory or thoughts about something). And your mention of the dopamine ping is right on. I think that's why writers are so vulnerable, especially when we're working on long projects, pining for any sort of recognition or feedback (fearing it at the same time, of course). That marathon of uncertainty seems to beg for little Gu-shots (Cinthia the runner will know what I mean by that) every few miles. In truth, the Gu should come from time alone, or with friends, or especially reading another writer's exquisite words, so that we say "ah yes, that's what I'm aiming for; that gave me the pleasure and reassurance I needed, reminding me of the power of both the written word and humanity's connections." The junk food version of is wanting to be reassured by email or FB that yes, we truly exist, we are or will be published and read, people are noticing us. I'm hoping for some "naked time" this spring. Thanks again for all your posts.

Deb Vanasse said...

Beautifully said, Cinthia. I especially like this: "Reality might be the truth, but writing isn’t about truth so much as the quest for the truth." Here's to many naked days ahead.

Tele said...

Thank you for this, Cinthia. You so beautifully nailed what my writing buddies and I seem to continually wrestle with. I deeply enjoy the conversations and relationships that have sprung from my blog - and I do experience those interactions as genuine relationships. But there's no denying the online presence is frequently a distraction or procrastination tool for me, especially when I'm "using it to hide from the difficulties and challenges of present work." I'm definitely guilty.

My solution? I ask my housemate to turn off the internet before she goes to work, and convince my not-very-tech-savvy self that I couldn't possibly figure out how to turn it back on, so don't even try. And then I write. The forced "nakedness" of my commercial fishing summers allows my mind to slow down and recalibrate. Unfortunately, not much writing happens during the season! :)

Many thanks for this. I'm looking forward to reading Dolls!