Last week, the words wouldn’t come. I tried, planting myself in my computer chair and waging blinking contests with the cursor while time ticked away. I tucked a notepad and pen into my gym bag. I took inspiring books along on errands, just in case the orbits of opportunity and creativity finally decided to align while I was out.
It wasn’t that daily life wasn’t providing enough material. On the contrary, my brain was wound so tightly with big decisions, big goals, big feelings, and the big events in loved ones’ lives that I felt like the first scattered trembles of a supernova. Writing is usually how I ward off eminent explosion, but the words wouldn’t come… and to be honest, my break from blogging felt a lot less like spelunking my way to clear-mindedness and a lot more like somersaulting through space.
One of the Big Thoughts I’ve been working through this month has to do with online community. I’ve always hated reading Facebook statuses like “I’m sick of Facebook” or tweets proclaiming “So long, Twitterverse.” Besides the obvious irony of swearing off social media ON SOCIAL MEDIA, those kinds of statuses make me feel personally rebuffed, as if those friends had grown disgusted with the idea of staying in touch.
You can understand then why I cringed so violently a couple of weeks ago when I caught myself telling Dan, “I’m thinking of quitting social networks.” I could not have felt more hypocritical in that moment, but I had just spent twenty minutes reading up on the newest controversy everyone was talking about, and the end result was the same gritty black aura of criticism and outrage that so often descends on me when I click the Facebook logo. Wait, he said WHAT? How can she possibly think that? Oh no you didn’t just go there. Why would they think anyone wants to know THAT? What the hell…? I can’t believe…! Don’t get me started… etc. etc. forever and ever amen.
The truth was, I no longer liked myself on Facebook. I hated my immediate impulse to form judgments about my friends based on a parade of links, likes, and one-sentence status updates, and it stung to realize how much time I could lose in a day chasing down controversy. Beyond that, I realized how much of my self-worth I was hanging on that same haphazard system—tallying up likes, strategizing the best times of day to post links, and even brainstorming blog topics based on how much buzz they might be able to generate. I was basing my online interactions around seeking and withholding approval, and it was poisoning my creativity at its relational heart.
So I told Dan I was considering giving it all up—deleting my accounts, turning off blog comments, disabling social media plug-ins, and just creating in happy isolation. No more crowding my mind with others’ opinions. No more reliance on instant validation. If I were no longer networking, I would be free to publish my writing and then just walk away; the idea sounded glorious and not at all like previous friends’ decisions to swear off social media. After all, I wasn’t going to post about it.
Last week, I quietly stayed offline, alone with my Big Thoughts and the space to write about them without agenda… but the words wouldn’t come. What I’d thought would feel like freedom ended up feeling more like alienation, and it wasn’t validation I was missing; it was interconnectedness. It was Hey, I saw you’re having a hard week; can we bring over dinner? and Don’t worry; my babies went through that stage too, and I promise you’ll survive, and Wow, I never would have thought of things like that. I didn’t miss the controversy, but I keenly felt the lack of others’ worlds, your worlds, broadening and inspiring my own. Say what they will about how friendships conducted online are pale shadows of those lived face-to-face, social media protestors can’t explain away the very real and lasting value it has brought to my life.
In my disillusionment over the negative aspects of social networking, I had lost sight of the positive, and my week of distance sent me sailing straight into this: Encouragement matters, whether it is offered across a coffee table or across a series of IP addresses. If “encouragement” is too churchy a word (is it?), swap it out with “positive connectedness” or “affirming relationships” or simply “friendship.” The point is that what we have here counts, and while stats and retweets need to take on a much less important role in my life, that doesn’t mean the people behind them need to as well.
Author Emily Wieranga’s blogging resolutions ring especially relevant on this side of the to-leave-or-not-to-leave debate, where I know so clearly what I don’t want but so little of what I do:
“never write just for the sake of writing…
never not write out of fear of not having anything to say…
never comment on another person’s blog simply in the hopes of having them read mine…
continue to keep the comments section open, as a way to spark conversation”
(You can read the rest over on her blog.)
I suspect I’m signing myself up for a year-long, if not life-long struggle to find the balance between caring about the people in my community and not letting their opinions—even the validating ones—define me. I want to find that slim ribbon of perspective that lets me value your thoughts and learn from them and even catch ablaze on them without being consumed in the process. On the other end of it, I need to root my purpose for writing in something far deeper and more fundamental to my identity than what kind of reaction it will generate while still being sensitive to all of you who read it. Basically, my mindset needs to work on its fine motor skills.
Back in the early days of blogging (I started eleven years ago, which now seems positively prehistoric), I don’t remember any debate over authenticity vs. boundaries, apart from Dooce losing her job and advising the rest of us to “BE YE NOT SO STUPID.” In fact, I don’t remember any drama at all over post content; my blogging friends and I wrote 1) to flex our creative muscles, and 2) to be a community. We would get together at coffee shops and read our favorite entries out loud, then go back to our dorm rooms and blog about it. Some of us sported Blogger t-shirts. It was pretty awesome.
Today, blogging has the potential to be so much more—income, book-fodder, recognition—and it’s easy to absorb the idea that those outcomes are the reason we’re here. The pressure is on to come up with exceptionally written, SEO-friendly posts in our signature styles for our chosen niches with enough punch to go viral and enough relatability to attract loyal followers (ideally those in the publishing industry). Blog traffic isn’t just a perk, it’s the point, and though all our efforts are focused on readership, we miss out on community.
That’s both why I decided to quit social networking and why I came right back again. Here, as in my face-to-face world, relationships mean nothing without authenticity, and authenticity has no strength apart from relationships. Blogging simply doesn’t work for me without both factors. As appealing and praiseworthy as the life of a technological hermit may seem at times, it isn’t the route I’m meant to go, and now that I’m acknowledging that, now, finally, the words are coming back.
How do you feel about social networking? Do you think it’s necessary for a successful creative life?