This is My Brain on the Internet

Social media is killing me. It’s rotting my brain from the inside. Not just social media, actually, but the entire internet.

That may seem like hyperbole, but right now I’m feeling pretty damned overwhelmed by the vast rabbit-hole-ness of what’s flying around on invisible waves of data and crashing into my consciousness every time I turn on my computer. Right now I have the following tabs open on my toolbar: Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, The Washington Post, ESPN, my publisher’s AuthorConnect page, the US Census, a search for hot air balloon shows, and an obituary for David Bowie. Down at the bottom, the Mail icon beckons.

It’s fabulous, terrifying, interesting, and depressing. Fabulous because I can look up the population of Lovelock, Nevada, where my next novel is set, without leaving my chair. Terrifying because I just spent an hour reading tweets about Steph Curry when I was supposed to be writing this blog. Interesting because I learned Donald Trump is skipping the Republican debate on Thursday (hmmm, why is that?). Depressing because nobody has added my book to their to-read lists on Goodreads in days.

Fabulous + terrifying + interesting + depressing = overwhelming.

Not just overwhelming. Addicting. A few weeks ago I read “Addicted to Distraction,” an article in the New York Times Sunday Review by Tony Schwartz. In it he confronts his own internet obsession, and quotes this from Nicholas Carr’s book, THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS: “The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

I recognized myself as if he’d held up a mirror. Like him, I’m unable to concentrate for long periods of time when the internet is around. Like him, I leap from tab to tab on my computer, feeding my brain all the useless information it craves. Lovelock has 1,519 people living in it. How many people live in the town where my father grew up? Let’s check. How many people lived there in 1963, the year he left? Let’s find out. How many people lived in the United States that year? What about in 1863? What about during the late Paleolithic period, when humans first reached North America? Click, click, click, click: rabbit hole. An interesting rabbit hole, to be sure, but 45 minutes later I still hadn’t written a word of this blog post.

I wasn’t like this until very recently. In fact, I attribute a big part of my current mental disarray to the stage of my career I’m in — i.e., the Pre-Book Launch Stage. When I was writing THE LOST GIRLS, I spent entire mornings or afternoons on my computer immersed in my story, and only paused briefly to check email or the news every couple of hours. I never tweeted, rarely used Facebook, and didn’t even have an account on Goodreads. Now I’m caught up in publicity and marketing, an exciting but frenzied process in which authors feel they have to do everything imaginable to build buzz around their books. It’s what’s expected of us. My publisher sent me lengthy guides to how to use Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. The rest of the Debs are getting the same message: get out there on the internet! Build buzz! Sell the book! It’s really, really fun, I’m not going to lie. Goodreads may be the best thing ever Twitter makes me laugh out loud at least twice a day. The Binders subgroups on Facebook are full of all sorts of interesting information for women authors.

Stlll, it’s immensely time consuming. For someone who didn’t have much of an internet footprint before, the learning curve for all these platforms is both steep and long. So now, instead of reading novels by other people, I read how-to books on marketing and articles by Jane Friedman, Writers Digest, Women Writers, and others on how to promote novels. Instead of writing my next book, I’m tweeting and posting on Facebook and setting up my author profiles on Amazon and Goodreads. This is necessary if I’m to make myself into a career author and not a one-and-done writer, and like I said, it’s pretty great. But I’ve reached the point where I, like Tony Schwartz, have shorted out my brain synapses, and there are still six months to go before THE LOST GIRLS sees the light of day.

The answer, I know, is to find a healthy balance. I need to step away from the internet for hours at a time, so I can become lost in another story of my own making without wandering over to see if anybody’s posted anything interesting in the Binders groups. I need to read novels, long and luxuriously, without my phone by my side distracting me with the buzzes of incoming texts and emails. Only if I do these things will I feel the choppy, shallow waves in my mind settle once more into the gentle pitch and roll of a deep sea, fecund with life and mystery, from which stories evolve.

I can do these things. I can.

Wish me luck. You can do it in the comments, right here on the internet.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 5 Comments

  1. Dear Heather, I am laughing reading your post …why?….because I think I am coming down with that thing you mentioned…”Addicted to Distraction” ! Good grief! I do love my Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, e-mail (not so much) and am not even a writer, just a reader who loves to keep up with all the new authors and new books and write reviews, and oh I am so far behind…but my TBR list keeps on getting higher. Now here is the thing, if I ever did write a book, it would be one and done, because I could not add any more distractions at my age, it could be dangerous to my brain… and here is the teaser for you…I am going over to Goodreads now and look for your book, THE LOST GIRLS and mark it To Be Read….so did she or didn’t she….? Good Luck. I simply love your post !

  2. Dear Heather,
    Thank goodness I’m not the only one out there who has this problem! I quit my Facebook last year because all the distraction was keeping me from what I want to do, write! I even told friends I was no longer going to be email pen pals composing lengthy “catching up” emails. But I was told if you want to be an author, you have to be “out there” on social media building a platform. So, here I am on Twitter.. trying not to get too distracted but finding myself down the “rabbit hole” more often than I would like. Thanks for the post. I certainly do wish you luck!

    1. You too! It’s a terrible trap for us, isn’t it? Having to be both hyper-connected to sell our books and totally unconnected to write them? You sound like you’ve done a better job striking the balance than I have, though, that’s for sure!

  3. Oh dear, this is me in a nutshell too 🙁 Considering how my phone is now pretty much attached to my arm, even writing in my notebook isn’t much a reprieve. There’ll always be a notification coming in at one point or another to distract. The opposite of this digital distraction, though, is a digital detox. And that sounds even more terrifying! I wonder how much writers of a century from now will see our current internal conflicts as a normal state of the writer’s life 🙂

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