Writing Unplugged: Is it worth it?

"The distinction for writers is that their solitary trade and calling is at odds with the human need to gather in tribes. [...]

"During the decade of misery that I spent writing short stories, the anxiety of writing for others often struck me. [...] I needed my agent to like the novel, and I yearned for an editor to buy it. Then I wanted the reviewers, and the librarians, and the teachers, and the bloggers, and the scholars. [...] This dream is vanity, lust and frailty. This dream is also the belief that whatever a writer discovers in her depthless cave is something she can share with others [...] The dream of an audience is, in short, part of what makes us human in weakness and in strength..."
–Viet Thanh Nguyen, A Writer's Solitude vs. AWP

Writers typically need solitude/quiétude in order to perform to their fullest potential, yet most writers today feel pressure to maintain blogs, social media, and email religiously—pretty much cluster-bombing the quiet space in their heads. 

Q: If you were to unplug, and fully shutdown all campaigning between writing sessions, until final drafts were final, and only then, how much different (or better) do you think your work would be, and how much more often would that different/better work come about? Do you ever unplug for the sake of your work? If not, what holds you back? Is it fear of obscurity or just plain obedience to habit, at this point? Please explain. 

Post book launch, these are timely questions for me. My gut tells me to get the heck out, shut it down. I live in the woods. I have hardly any job, no excuse for not holing up with the next project, the one I think about often (and work on less). Besides, I’m overwhelmed by the world out there—political stunts, lost kids, rapists, shootings. More than I waste minutes online, I often feel too heart-wrenched to work.
        But you’re asking about different/better. While content doesn’t seem to suffer from the distractions, pages produced mount considerably when I unplug. Why don’t I do it more often? I’m not an all or nothing kind of gal. Forays into the virtual swirl feed me—book reviews, author talks, images of glam-campers on Pinterest.
        Lately, because I am teacher’s pet to bad habits, I’ve been trying an alternative to the great UNPLUG. I head to work as soon as I wake and write for four hours. It’s dreamtime to fiction. No Internet shadow. The work has a fighting chance if, by noon, I’m heeled in.
        Obscurity? I do fear it. But what am I building a platform for if the next book isn’t getting written? 
        Here’s what I’m thinking. Keep adding something new to the mix. Last month it was write four hours before anything else. This month, it’s do that, plus, unplug by nine, read a book. Book reading suffers under the tyranny of the time suck, too. Whoops. It’s already past ten. One day at a time. 
        But since you’ve thrown down the question gauntlet, I’ll pick it up. I vow to cut back, put reminders on my phone—breathe, drink water, don’t forget to write—and in August, cold turkey, I’m going for it. Just to see what happens.

Shutting out from society—whether it’s ‘campaigning’ as you phrased it or trying to stay abroad on literary trends—could either help or hurt a writer. It’s all going to depend on the individual writer. Personally, I think it's very important for writers to stay ahead of the trends, or even to be aware of trends in the first place. For example, if someone is writing a retelling of a classic fairy tale, such as Cinderella or Snow White, it would be important to know that many literary agents will not accept these stories without it being significantly different than the original. Otherwise, a writer has created a work of art that isn’t likely to see the light of day.
        As a writer, I always want to create something that is deep, meaningful, and beautiful in its individuality. I want to explore the depth of my imagination and fully immerse myself in a new land and characters. And, if the readers connect with this new world, wonderful! But, in its essence, my writing is for me. My style of writing and the way I view the world are products of my daily writing—a time I pointedly set aside each and every day beyond the reaches of technologies and other people (after which time, I emerge and go to my day job).
        But, in my opinion, shutting oneself out from the world until a manuscript is complete isn’t indicative of better work. The quality of one’s work and the rate of output are two things that are unique to every writer. How you reach the final page and come out with a polished manuscript on the other side is all a part of the journey. And, for me, that journey is always strategic, incorporates industry research, is both highly creative and highly productive, and is done amidst a busy life. 

I'm scared of a lot of things, but obscurity is not one of them. Heights, on the other hand, scare the shit out of me. Since obscurity doesn't cause my bowels to evacuate, it doesn't make the list. As a matter of fact, within the writing community at large, I'm already obscure. Social media hasn't caused me to become anymore forgettable than I already am. At this point in my career, social media can't hinder my progress. I write when I can and promote when I can. Although Mr. Nguyen believes that writing is a very solitary thing, I believe the exact opposite. I think the best writers are those people who are sociable.
        I'm not referring to those guys and gals who show up to any and all parties with a scarf around their neck, brandy in their hands, and despair for their craft on their lips. Those people need to stop all social interactions immediately. I'm referring to those individuals who are able to make the most of their social interactions and actually enrich their lives. 
        To be a top notch writer, you have to be an interesting individual. With more social interaction, it gives you the chance to enrich yourself and, therefore enrich your craft. Some of the greatest writers (like Ernest Hemingway) were fairly social people. Now, don't misunderstand me. I am sure that writers prefer their alone time. But, learning from other people through social interaction can be just as helpful as any of your alone time. For example, a rapper like Kendrick Lamar would be described as a fantastic poet by anyone's standards. But how good would he be at his craft if he never got the chance to interact with the people he is writing about? 
        Social media is simply another tool for social interaction. Like all tools, they are not inherently good or bad. It is up to the user to decide that function. Social media can be very distracting if you click on every ad or post about penis enhancement and relationship improvement. However, if you tailor your media to fit your needs, you'll never have a drawback. 
        So, in summary, social media is great as long as you don't have the attention span of a squirrel with ADHD and an addiction to meth and sugar... which may explain why I can't seem to make progress with any of my stuff...

I could begin by pointing out the irony that we are only in conversation here because we met on twitter!
        Like most creators, I am conflicted by the situation that social media puts me in. It chews up time, irritates me and makes me want to buy a cat. But I can’t ignore it, if I want to reach people.
        An online presence is expected, as is the ability and willingness to shoulder a lot of the burden of marketing. The optimum would seem to be a situation in which I pay others to handle all that noise, while I keep my headspace unsullied on some off-the-grid island.
        Most writers I know favor some solitude to work, and I am of that style too. I have had thirty years as a cartoonist, artist and writer, most of that before social media was a thing. I can vouch for the benefit of developing work in peace and quiet. So I am heavily biased in favor of unplugging from social media because that is what I am used to. I also believe that better work results from the clarity that long periods of focus can bring.
        However, I believe that, had I been able to access social media in my earlier years of cartooning and illustrating for print media, I would have had the advantage of so much more exposure. That smacks of wasted opportunity to me now, as I know how much effort and time it takes to get a web presence.
        Would I unplug for a while for the sake of my work? Yes I would. The only thing that has counted for much in my experience, is putting up the best content I can. There are also cats … they work a treat. 

Staying perpetually plugged into online platforms is a way that a writer solidifies a virtual identity and maintains productive citizenship in the cyber world. The perception is that, by unplugging, a writer risks losing connection with an online audience.  And any prolonged disengagement practically guarantees irrelevancy in the future. Perhaps this is one of several reasons why many writers become consumed with incessant online communication and visibility.
        I’m inclined to believe that the constant barrage of voices, messages, images, and information saturating social media has a negative impact on a writer’s work; however, it largely depends on how inspiration happens for the writer, how ideas germinate for the writer, and how online communication and interaction informs the writer’s work.  
        For me, constant online activity affects my ability to concentrate for an extended period of time on my offline writing; therefore, on occasion, I will temporarily withdraw from daily internet use, recognizing the need to mute the noise and reduce the amount of traffic in my mind. This is probably more indicative of a productivity issue and forcing focus in order to complete projects by a predetermined deadline. But I’m not exactly convinced that my writing would be better by unplugging long-term, perhaps because that seems so subjective.
        I do believe the self-censorship and truncated form of expression that happens with my online writing initially filters over into my offline writing.  It usually takes a few revisions to work through all of that. I also know that my ability to avoid being distracted and lured back into excessive social media activity frees up more time for research and reflection, which helps in providing a little more depth to my work.

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I was a late bloomer to the Internet, having only joined social media eight years ago to stay connected with family and friends when I lived and worked in Japan. Shortly after I arrived in Tokyo, I tried to convince my friend that I didn’t need Facebook, but, eventually, I gave in. In a hotel room, she taught me how to use social media. She encouraged chatting online through Facebook. What a precious gift online chatting was to overcome homesickness. But after I returned home, I deactivated my Facebook account. Reconnected. Disconnected. Reconnected. My relationship with the Internet has always been a love-hate one.
        I sometimes “unplug” for the sake of wholeheartedly focusing on my writing without any outside influences. It’s necessary to have uninterrupted writing time. I carve out this solitude in the early morning hours (thankfully, I’m an early bird!). My family understands and respects this. I also work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet. It’s not unusual for me to send an email to friends telling them that I’m taking a digital sabbatical to recharge my “creative soul” and, thankfully, I have a support network (no pun intended) that understands my need to become a recluse when involved in a draft. During these periods, my writing flows easily and quickly. I feel more connected (oh, darn, those unintentional puns!) with my writing. I become more disciplined and, as a result, I believe my work becomes stronger because I listen to my own heart, to my own voice. At the creating stage, I don’t concentrate on promotion and publishers. I focus on the writing itself. Let characters develop in those solitary writing sessions where nothing comes between me and them. It’s like catching up with a good friend, turning off your mobile, putting it away, and fully paying attention to the person sitting across from you. 
        That focus and development (whether in a story or in a relationship with another human) is important to me. Of course, when the work is ready to share with others, my extroverted side reappears and I embrace the Internet again. As a writer, I need social media to promote, to connect, to share, but only after a draft is completed. It’s a love-hate relationship, but love usually wins in the end, doesn’t it?

I don’t think being a loner, in and of itself, makes you a better writer. But I do remember a time when writing selected for misfits, deep readers, people who spent a lot of time alone as kids. The internet's sort of changed the nature of loner-ism. Writing still demands you spend large chunks of time by yourself, but even life-of-the-party types are doing that with webcams, Netflix, phones. Outcasts don't have the monopoly on solitude anymore.
        So it’s no wonder we’re seeing more outgoing people trying their hand at fiction writing, and some of them are probably very good. I’m just less likely to be interested in reading them. I kinna need you to need it—to be someone who'd be doing this just as doggedly if the internet disappeared yesterday. Not out of some Walt Kowalski type resentment, but because I'm desperate, and so I need my messages to be desperate too. 
        Most writers I know hit a low ceiling when it comes to (meaningful) social media growth. What gets missed often is that social media tends to be a reflection of a person's notoriety, not the engine for it. This is why famous people don't need to build platforms, they open an account and people come. It's Field of Dreams for them. The rest of us are mostly tilling corn. Too bad we're not farmers.   
        I guess you don't till corn. You till soil, right?
        See.

 

Matthew Cook

 Rehearsing for Porn
 

(LIGHTS UP) 

DIRECTOR
Okay, Person A, I want you to put your simile into her metaphor. 

PERSON A
I wasn’t designed to be so clinical. I am situational, I mean God! 

DIRECTOR
Well can you act like you were/aren’t? 

PERSON B
Where do I come in here? 

DIRECTOR
You don’t. You are our beautiful cheerleader. 

PERSON B
What’s my motivation? 

DIRECTOR
You want to cheer. 

PERSON B
Do I have any back character? 

DIRECTOR
Yes. You have some childhood wounds, nothing fatal. 
You yelled Haiku at a human pyramid practice before this scene
and no one understood what you meant. The tea was not Oolong. 
These things upset you. They continue to upset you. 
When you were four you wanted strawberry jam but only got raspberry. 
Let your performance reflect this. 

PERSON A
Well?

DIRECTOR
Think of yourself as a person without the particulars. 
You are a structure that compares the physical to the mental. 
That’s why people like to see you naked. It decorates them, fills them
with capacity. They imagine themselves in the space where nothing
seems beyond exactly what it is. 

PERSON A
Is this going to dissolve my gender and/or decrease my screen
presence? You know I hate being in parentheses. 

PERSON B
You are, like, so out of touch. I, my breasts, I mean, wobble just thinking
about you thinking. 

PERSON A
Oh really? I hear my smile/simile is radiant. 

PERSON B
No, that would be your smile/simile shining
in both opposition and compliment
to my carefully and wisely constructed
metaphysics/metaphor. I made your like
and as work for you. You owe me. 

DIRECTOR
Enough! Time is dissolution, like water
on the brain! Here we go. Person A, 
begin deconstructing Person B. Make it
believable, meaningful. I want everyone
who’s watching to really feel it. 

(LIGHTS DOWN)

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