Unplugging (or: How many times do you check Facebook or your email in one hour? The truth hurts.)

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Haven Writing Retreats

September 9-13 (FILLING FAST)
September 23-27 (FILLING FAST)
October 7-11
October 21-25

…When you see a * it means I thought about checking FB or email. When you see a *** it means that I fought and lost.

as featured in Huffington Post 50

I do not have ADD or OCD. I’ve always been a highly focused, project-oriented person, and not a big fan of multi-tasking. I like to choose something, give it everything I’ve got, and then move on to the next thing. For the last five years, however, I have been writing four books. I don’t recommend this, unless you have a committed and long-term writing practice. *  I don’t really recommend it even if you do. It’s a fractured way of going about the writing life. But it’s what I had the heart for. Sort of an eeny meeny miney moe. Each one provided different oxygen and I am grateful for the stories they helped me breathe alive. I’ve completed two of these projects and am hoping they will see the light of day before too long. But in that fracture, I allowed something pretty corrosive to leak in: the internet. *

The internet is a writer’s friend and a writer’s enemy. It gives us community and support in an otherwise very solitary profession. Just ask my 4,000+ Facebook friends. (Most of them are writers I’ve never met before, but if they asked me to help get the word out about their writing, my answer would probably be, “of course.”) *  It’s a generous platform, especially for writers. But the internet is also a big problem for writers. We’d be fools not to use its powerful tentacles. Blogs, guest blogs, interviews, videos, podcasts, webinars…makes my brain hurt just thinking about all the ways I haven’t used it, but even the most internet savvy writer out there still lies in bed wondering if they’ve done enough to promote their work and if they’ve given their stories the oxygen they deserve once they have life. I’m fairly sure there isn’t a writer out there who at the end of the day says, “Yup—I did it all. I am fully cyberly self-expressed. Check.” ***

I miss the days when the only buttons I pushed were on my keyboard, writing books and essays. I never had leaks. Maybe the muse would pause for a cup of tea or a walk with the dog, but when I wasn’t mothering, I was pretty much writing. It was heaven. Now, approximately every thirty seconds (I timed myself), I think about the internet. That email I forgot to respond to. *That blog post I should write.  *Oh, and I wonder who’s got an interesting article up on Facebook that might inspire the muse, or how my friend’s new pug is today on Instagram, * or what witty thing that poet I follow is Tweeting about.  * I’ve let the internet fracture what was already a fractured writing practice, divided by four books. I lead writing retreats where people unplug and write for five days. I need to do the same. I need to reclaim my focus and luxuriate in it.

It’s not like I’m not writing. It’s that I’m writing in too many directions. A few weeks ago, I decided that I needed a good old fashioned lock down. Somewhere with no wifi. Somewhere I don’t recognize. In a place I am not responsible for. I needed to remind myself who I am when I’m totally focused on one large project.  * So I chose one of my books which needed to be edited from top to bottom, and drove to a remote town in Montana to a cabin on a country road called Sweathouse Lane. And that’s what I did. Sweat. (Blood and tears included). I brought enough food for a few days, my laptop, my journal, and a change of clothes. That’s it. I made sure my cellphone wouldn’t get service. * I made sure I couldn’t get anywhere near the internet. And I worked. For eighteen solid hours I worked on one…project.

At first it was sort of a Goldie Locks feeling. I found myself pacing around the kitchen. No one to interrupt me. Nothing for me to interrupt. I sat on the living room couch. Too soft. Sat at the kitchen table. Too hard. Sat on the front porch. Too hot. And so, as I often do, I took to the bed. Basically, I didn’t move from that bed except for ablutionary reasons, for eighteen hours. I couldn’t believe how freeing it felt. Without the temptation of the internet, *I was able to hold all 350 pages in my head and heart and balance it all until it felt stable. Whole.

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Whether or not you are a writer, I challenge you to sit down for one hour and write something…something inspiring with a good lesson at the end…even if it’s just for your eyes only…and notice how many times you think about going on the internet. * It might be one of the most powerful exercises of your life, because it might show you something about yourself and how your brain works. Where the leaks are. I’ve learned in this hour that I think about the internet when I’m pausing, or when I’m trying to find the courage to go deeper into my thoughts. That’s scary. Because it means that the internet has become my binkie. And that’s when I’m trying to focus. What would happen if I did this experiment when I wasn’t trying to focus? Say, stuck in gridlocked traffic. Or lying on the beach on a summer day, trying to relax. If we are constantly checking the internet, are we ever totally focused, never mind totally unwinding? Are we ever really taking a day off? Do we have to go to a remote cabin with no wifi in order to remember what it really is to pause? Or sit on a meditation mat? The ultimate challenge would be to see how many times you think about plugging in to the internet on a meditation mat! I’m too chicken to try that one.

When the Hindus are trying to separate from their thoughts and transcend worldly attachments they say “Neti Neti,” which is Sanskrit for not this, not this. In my attempts at meditation, I say “Neti, Neti” as much as I’m showing red asterisks here in this essay. I wonder if there’s an emoji for Neti Neti? *

I have simply got to make my time around computers more yogic. I have got to designate email time and social media time to definitive slots and take vows to observe them. Or my mind is going to become permanently fractured and my writing (and my life) will reflect it. For now, I’m going to take a walk with my dog. No phone. Neti Neti. * Neti.

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”– Thomas Merton

13 Comments

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13 Responses to Unplugging (or: How many times do you check Facebook or your email in one hour? The truth hurts.)

  1. Jan Myhre

    Laura dear, you are on track. Half the battle is recognition of that which distracts you. I’ve faced the dragon (finally) and put internet activity at the beginning of my day only. One
    hour tops. Sounds too simple I know, but seems to be working. Took me three weeks to form the habit. Good luck. I’m sending good thoughts your way. ~Jan from Spokane

  2. Donna Bunten

    You nailed it, Laura. I’ve been struggling with the same push-pull feelings for several weeks. Bouncing between “this really isn’t any different from reading the newspaper or a magazine,” to “I need to find a support group, FB Anonymous, this is a disease, I NEED HELP!!!” I’ve thought about removing the FB app from my phone so I don’t get hijacked, but I haven’t been brave enough to do it yet. And then just now, I remembered Matt Kahn’s advice: “Whatever arises, love that.” Instead of despising myself for being weak and another one of the mindless masses, how about just loving the one that likes to be connected with others, the one that likes to see posts about rescue horses, or silly kitten videos? Maybe with compassion towards that one, I can be curious about what she wants and find healthier ways to give it to her.

    Thank you for such an honest article, and I hope you don’t see this for several days…

    • Donna, I love what you wrote here and can relate! I actually did delete the FB app on my phone and it didn’t help – because my phone conveniently favorites my most frequented sites – and guess which one that is!?! So unless I clear my internet history (which I do on occasion), there it is. Good luck with the battle :)

  3. You nailed it. I was laughing and crying…can so relate.

  4. This may be my favorite thing you’ve written. The internet is a wonderful resource but it makes me sad, too. I never feel as free and grounded as when my phone has lost its charge. Mobile internet is the great leash and collar of the 21st century. Feel blessed to have raised my kids before it pervaded everything and concerned to see us all so dependent now. Sharing this widely. As always, thank you.

  5. Yes, Laura, this is how I feel also! I only recently stepping into the Facebook fray, ironically because of writing (I was the only one not on FB for a private group), but it feels like a black hole that I can’t climb out of. I like your idea of tracking, though it kind of terrifies me :) I know it’s a problem for me, though. Recently, I went on a 2 day retreat and while wifi was available, I made the effort to avoid FB completely. I also made a pact only to respond to email if it was an emergency (and it never was, ha). So that felt GREAT. I felt clear and lighter. I need to do this more often, and not only when away.

    Yet I also love what Donna said above! About having compassion for myself because this all began as a desire for connection, and I’ve made some wonderful ones. But there needs to a be a balance for me :) Because writing makes my heart soar higher than anything else.

  6. I’m with Donna as far as needing a support group for FB because I’m pretty addicted. But also like her, I wonder about being kind to myself as far as the attraction goes because I learn so much on there and have made friends I wouldn’t know otherwise. But I need better boundaries. I too jump on Facebook when the writing is taking me somewhere. I don’t know why I avoid it. I go to it when I’m overwhelmed and come away tired and fragmented. I’m trying to replace it with writing and reading good books.

    Speaking of which I’m very happy to hear that you’ve got two about ready to go. I hope they see the light of day very soon. You have so much wisdom and just plain good writing to offer your readers.

    Thank you so much for being willing to support young writers. Thank you for tweeting about my novel last year.

    Well, Godspeed on your focus and writing work and Haven work too.

  7. Here’s a wonderful essay that you might enjoy by LL Barkat. http://makesyoumom.com/goodbye-facebook/

  8. Donna Naquin

    Laura,
    Thanks for sharing your process. Your awareness and ability to smile at yourself is contagious. Hello, my name is Donna and I am a Facebookaholic. It is my community, my circle, my group. I am amazed at how I hold it. If you removed yourself from Facebook, I would be devastated!
    Really! If I can’t sleep at night, I pick up the iPad next to my bed and look at Facebook. Crazy! yet maybe not. At any rate, I love you and I love your words. Thank you, I am grateful to know you <3 Donna

  9. Laura,
    I’m in Bali. On the internet. :) HA! But yes, yes, yes, I have learned to unplug, and I thank you for the reminder. Love, ANI

  10. I had immediate envy over Sweathouse Lane. Resolution, writing retreat in Montana! :) Actually since I write historical romances set in Montana, I like to visit the state and do research and have tentative plans for an extended stay next summer. But I hadn’t thought of a lockdown writing retreat.

    My retreat is our family cabin in Big Bear Lake, CA, an hour and 45 minutes away from my home. Unfortunately, I have an internet connection there. But I find getting away from the demands of daily life and absorbing myself in the beauty of the lake and the pine trees also stimulates the writing muse. On a deadline last year, I wrote 25,000 words in five days–a fete I haven’t replicated since. The internet came in handy when I sent the manuscript off to my publisher at 11:45 pm on the due date.

  11. Lori Gardull

    “…the internet has become my binkie.” Love the analogy!

  12. Jonathan Kelly

    This definitely resonates with me too! Since I can’t currently escape my urban, wifi-laden locale I actually use a program I came across about 5 years ago called Freedom (https://macfreedom.com). It literally was the best $10 I ever spent because it allows you to set how long you want to be internet-less and there are no ways to get around it. Once the timer is set, you aren’t getting on until it expires.

    Sure it induces a small amount of panic that you may be missing something, but in the end it is liberating. I would recommend it to anyone who, like myself, might need a more interventionesque approach with regards to their internet addiction.

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