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Everything is Infinite
Including ideas, if we can make the space to invite them in.
I’m just going to start by saying it. I have a social media problem, and it’s cyclical. It starts harmlessly enough, by liking what someone posted or sharing something I think would resonate with others, or posting some exciting book news, or celebrating an author friend’s book news. But inevitably, even though I think I’m staying mindful, the mindless scrolling and the numbing out online increases. I start to feel a shift in my thinking that I don’t like: wondering what [person I’ve never met but follow] would say about [insert viral topic of the day here]. Or noticing the breeze in the trees or the bees in my pollinator garden and thinking it would make a good reel. The thing is, the idea of online content—- whether I’m creating it or just passively consuming it— is not great for my writing life or, more importantly, my life-life. Opening Twitter and, even now, Instagram, which seemed so much prettier and less awful for a long time, brings me a sense of dread. I’m recognizing it as burnout (the feeling also reminds me of this ad which is now— gulp— 21 years old!). And I’m now at the part of the cycle where I take a social media break and maybe this time it will be for longer, or forever. I don’t really know yet.
In many books or podcasts I’ve listened to on creativity, the writer/artist/creator who has any kind of longevity 1) finds a way to keep a sense of wonder about the world and 2) is able to keep a sense of play and lightness in their work. Music producer Rick Rubin talked a lot about this in an episode of On Being a few months back. I hope you’ll forgive the very long quote here, but I’m including the whole thing because it’s wonderful and because I want to keep it for myself:
. . . what we take in over the course of our life is all that we’re filled with. So the world is going on and the creative life of the world is always happening. We get to watch it and if we choose to, we could participate. But if we don’t participate, it goes on.
There’s an example in the book of when we have an idea and we don’t execute it’s not unusual — if you have a good novel idea and you’re excited about it, but you don’t act on it, it is not unusual for, you know, six months later to see it come out in the world by someone else. And it’s not because they read your mind or they read your diary of the idea that you wanted to do. It’s because it was time for that thing to happen. And the reason you wanted to do it was the same reason that the other person wanted to do it. It was, the culture set the stage for this to happen. And whichever of us have the best antenna can pick up on what it’s time for.
And I’ll say, I didn’t know this, I still don’t know this, but it has turned out [laughs] that the reason that things that I’ve made have found their way into the world and met with interest is only because it was the right time for those things to happen. But I didn’t act on the feeling, thinking, now was the time to do this. I acted on, it’s like, now this is the time for me.
Rubin’s book, which he mentions above, is The Creative Act: A Way of Being (I haven’t read it yet, but plan to this summer). Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear writes about a similar phenomenon, in which she is struck with an idea for a novel set in the Amazonian jungle. Gilbert loses enthusiasm for the project and lets the idea go, only to find that her idea was “transferred” to writer friend Ann Patchett, who began working on her own Amazonian jungle novel (which ultimately became State of Wonder).
I’ve had this happen. I think most writers have. I’ve had ideas that were wonderful and energizing and, ultimately, fleeting. I’ve seen announcements in Publisher’s Weekly for books that I thought I could or wanted to write but . . . didn’t. Or didn’t write fast enough. Or that tried to write but couldn’t quite figure out. Or that I did write, but not well enough. Those books— those ideas—went to somebody else, the person ready to pursue create them at that time. Sometimes it’s painful. More often than not, though, it’s wonderful. It’s more like—- Oh! That thing made it out into the world despite my brain’s efforts to thwart it. How weird. How cool. I couldn’t make it work, but somebody else could, and now it’s here, in this other form.
I think the intersection between needing a break from social media and creativity is that I want—I need— to be in a place where I am ready to receive and create work from an idea. And an idea is not “content.” Content gets made and posted and then it’s in a feedback loop that’s public and often times a series of satisfying little dopamine hits, but it all passes, and quickly. It moves at a speed that’s not great for the long game of creativity. An idea is different than content. It’s an tiny newborn infant sleepy with milk, a seedling, a sprout, a delicate little thing, and if I post about it or even think about it in terms of content, poof, it’s gone. I need it to be mine first, and that’s true for how I think about it even inside my own brain. It needs time and room— and space, and quiet— to grow.
A social media break is scary, when thinking in terms of book promotion (Make Way came out a little over a month ago) and wanting to be part of a writing community. It sometimes feels like I can’t quit social media. But social media isn’t the only form of community, and it isn’t the point of writing. The writing is. So this summer, I’m going to sit under a tree and watch the breeze through it’s branches. I’m going to weed my pollinator garden and watch the bees bumble through the hollyhocks at magic hour. And I’m not going to post about any of it. I’m going to keep these things just for myself, like secrets, and see where they take me.
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