This post originally appeared in my Mindfulness Monday column on the Vermont College of Fine Arts WCYA blog.
I’ve known for ages that social media is a black hole of death that is killing the artist’s soul.
I will go to my grave saying that. You can carve it on my tombstone.
Just to get it out of the way, and because many of us have been academics who are good at acknowledging all sides of an argument: yes, I recognize the myriad ways in which social media has created a global community, fostered social justice movements, created safe spaces for marginalized groups—it is still a black hole of death that is killing the artist’s soul.
I had the privilege of hearing Eckhart Tolle speak and, all hobbitness aside, he is the real deal, with mind-blowing insights (many culled from Buddhism) that strike true. I’m paraphrasing, but he had this to say about our over-use of social media: It’s an incredible loss, not being able to look around, and just be being. There’s no space in you, only clutter. You’re now not only dealing with your cluttered mind, but everyone else’s clutter, as well. Probably the greatest addiction is useless thinking. We need to create space inside ourselves.
How can you make art when you’re cluttered inside?
The problem, of course, is that it has become rather a cornerstone of our social structure and one of the primary forms of both communication and marketing. So, when one has written a piece of writing—or, say, a book—that one wants others to read…it’s once more into the breach.
As an author committed to a mindfulness practice, it will come as no surprise that I’ve given this topic a lot of thought. I wrestle with it. I think I rumble most with my fear of annihilation, which any foray into Buddhism will force you to face head on. For me personally (and I know, from conversations and observations, that many of you share this feeling), fear is at the heart of it all, and desire. Makings of a great story, that. Fear that we are invisible and that this will have a direct effect on our career. Fear that we don’t matter, and neither do our words. Desire to matter. To succeed. To get likes and therefore book deals. The two are not connected. But they are. Sort of. Yes. Maybe. No. Yes.
For many of us, writing is performative: we’d write no matter what because we have to, because it’s the air we breathe, but we really want others to read what we write, too. And so, social media is there, promising readers, potentially hundreds of thousands of millions of them. And it’s so tempting to go down that path, further and further.
Social media is the witch’s cottage in the wood. All that candy.
One of the things I work with my writers and students on a lot is to really home in on our guts, to listen to what’s not feeling right, and to create as much space as possible for not just the work itself, but for filling the well. This means trimming the fat in our lives, which social media, arguably, is. I often tell them to get really comfortable using the phrase “non-negotiable” with their writing time, and I just came across another one I’m going to add into my lexicon from now on: “I have wasted my life.” Let me explain.
I recently read an essay by the writer David Mitchell called “Neglect Everything Else” (another good phrase to add to your butt-in-chair motivational phrases) and he shares a snippet of a poem by James Wright (“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”) that, when I read it, was like sunlight suddenly flooding into a very gray, dismal room.
I lean back as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
I read that and I thought, with such heartbreaking truth: I AM WASTING MY LIFE.
Oh, yes, on the outside it seems I’m taking life by the horns—living abroad, writing books, teaching meditation courses I love. And all of those things are amazing. But the majority of my headspace is taken up with worrying: about deadlines, and keeping tabs on all my side hustles as a coach, and career, and livelihood, and a LOT of my brain thinks about social media: what to post, when to post it, how to post it, how people did or did not respond and is that a reflection on the future of my career / business and does the fact that no one liked that post mean I should hang it all and quit this thing entirely—stop writing, stop teaching, stop trying to have a brand and a presence and just go back to working at Starbucks and pretend all of this was a dream? Because maybe it is. Just a dream. And I feel fake posting and is this fake, am I fake, god I can’t write, I can’t think—
I am wasting my life.
I’ve come to realize that social media—though a seemingly necessary evil in the author’s life—cannot be “necessary” for me right now. Not if I want to actually write any books. Or dream up new ones. Or be grounded and mentally stable at all.
This is the big one. This is the thing that is really stealing my life force. Stealing my life. I had to get honest with myself, as embarrassing as it was, how “I’m just gonna post this real quick” would turn into an hour of my perfectionism going haywire, and my self-hatred meter rising dangerously high, and then, of course, there was the inevitable comparison-fest and then the fraud police gremlins coming for tea and staying awhile. I had to be real with myself that it all just feels gross and that, let’s be honest, my book sales suggest none of it’s working anyway. So why the hell am I doing this?
I’ve recently moved abroad, embarking on a grand adventure around the world, and it occurred to me that I’d miss out on the whole darn thing if I only saw it through the lens of how I would post it, package it, and, ultimately, sell it. And I saw that I was in the black hole of death and that, curiously enough, THERE ARE NO BOOKS DOWN THERE.
So I’m going on a major hiatus. I’m not sure how long, but I’m thinking at least a year, maybe forever. I will no longer be using social media for personal reasons (my husband is taking over everything to do with our adventure abroad—Insta, blog, newsletter). I’ll jump on when I have a new book out to spread the word to do right by the book and all I’ve done to birth it, and I’ll tweet the link for a new blog (Just once! No more hustling for my worth) and when registration is open for a new class I’m teaching, but I won’t be sharing anything else. (Ha! Hyperlinks – can’t get away from ‘em). All my accounts will be purely for professional purposes and even then, the use of them will be slim. There will be no constant blasts of “read this!” “take this course!” “buy this!” “do this!” I’ll dutifully make sure the info is out there, and then I will retreat. My spaces to share will be blogs and newsletters—personal, occasional, and more real connections. Epistolary flares into the night, if you will. And the shift is that I’m writing them for me, but you are welcome to join if you wish.
It’s so interesting, the resulting panic I felt at not being able to share things or be in the loop, or the fear of being forgotten or losing things I’d built up…it’s crazy, the strangle-hold social media has on us, especially creatives who are charged with sharing their work with the world in this way. (If your curious about your own relationship to social media, I—of course—created a worksheet to explore this for my writers quite some time ago. You can access it on my Inspiration Portal).
Hear me: when I read that Wright poem, I felt a quickening. Then I did walking meditation, and by the end of that meditation, I knew: I’m out. I’m done. I have wasted my life and I only get this one. I want it back. I want to be present for my life. To be here. To live it.
Come what may. Whatever is lost will be worth it. But I suspect what is gained will be far greater.
It’s hard to make some of these creative decisions for ourselves. I’m a bit scared, to be honest. Of isolation, of being out of the loop, and of seeing things I’ve built maybe fall apart (or maybe realize that all that hard work of social media stress was for nothing!). I took a picture the other day of this beautiful field near the house I’m staying at in England and it was SO WEIRD knowing I wasn’t going to be posting it on Instagram. You could probably write an entire doctoral thesis on that feeling alone. Do you get this feeling too? Might be a good time to have a look at it, if you do.
What magic can happen if we stop wasting our lives?
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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