How Writers Can Keep Time From Slipping Away

1. Hour Glass

The Real Reason Joss Whedon Left Twitter Should Make Sense to Writers

Writer/director Joss Whedon just left twitter for reasons that should concern every writer. Reasons, as it turns out, that have nothing to do with the social justice warrior blame game twitter’s been playing. In an article titled Joss Whedon Calls “Horsesh*t” On Reports He Left Twitter Because Of Militant Feminists he told Buzzfeed:

“I just thought, Wait a minute, if I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place,” Whedon explained. “And this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life… It’s like taking the bar exam at Coachella. It’s like, Um, I really need to concentrate on this! Guys! Can you all just… I have to… It’s super important for my law!”

Of all the reasons angry twitter users have given for Whedon’s disappearance this one makes the most sense. Whedon is following Stephen King’s advice and writing behind a closed door, something those of us building our brands online have a hard time doing.

This week’s article is about time management, the burden of social media, the fallacy that distractions serve our creativity, and the virtue of delayed gratification.

Managing Time in the Era of Social Media

According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar the average person can maintain up to 150 stable social relationships at once. Technology allows us to spread our relationships further than ever before. While most of our connections online are casual, many of them require maintenance. For writers looking to build an audience that can be a challenge.

Whedon’s decision to leave twitter illustrates how much of a burden a large following can be. It’s hard to acknowledge criticism and launch a new project at the same time. It’s hard to clammer for relevance and do relevant work. It’s hard to participate in the larger conversation when you need to listen to the thoughts in your own mind.

For those of us who develop our stories while interacting with the community we need to find a balance. If we’re compulsively counting connections we won’t be able to give our own characters the same attention. If we check every notification, every phantom vibration, we’ll interrupt the flow of our writing. Stat addicts, with restless reloading syndrome, will be watching their blogs’ numbers at the expense of their word count.

Twitter sends notifications to say two users I’m following are talking about the same film. Facebook sends notifications to see if I know someone who hadn’t even sent me a friend request. Sometimes it just wants to let me know my friends are in the same neighborhood. I don’t have time to wish strangers happy birthdays, to congratulate them for their work anniversaries, and ‘Like’ their pottery zines.

Some authors use extensions like StayFocusd to help them temporarily block social media websites while they’re working. I use Hootsuite to schedule some of my tweets, especially during the hours I know I’m going to be writing. I tweet so often that I’ve turned abstaining from social media into a game. I use it as a reward for getting a page written. I let myself indulge in it more on Mondays. That’s when people spend the most time reading blogs.

2. Hour Glass

How Our Minds Trick Us into Thinking Our Distractions Are a Type of Training

In Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus, he tells the story of how the 5 day work week forced people to manage something they never had to manage before: free time. This gave way to generations raised on television. We started managing our free time differently when new technologies made creating and sharing almost as easy as consuming.

This could be why we’re living in a new golden age of television. Showrunners know they have to work a lot harder to compete for their audience’s attention. For those of us who want to create more than we consume we have to learn to resist the temptation of watching. Especially when we trick ourselves into thinking that consuming will serve as a springboard for creation.

Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote about this phenomenon in his book Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life Through an Addiction to Film. Between the summers of 1995 and 1999, Patton watched 3 to 4 movies a day. He rationalized this by thinking an education in the history of film would improve his screenwriting.

The theater owner kept asking, “When am I going to see your screenplay?”

Patton would’ve had something to show had he not been spending so many nights watching all these films.

Smart people are good at justifying bad behaviors. Even I have written about how replaying movies takes writers behind the scenes, but there’s only so many times writers need to learn the same lesson before they should get going.

We’re told the best way to become a better writer is to read more. Writers can get an education in storytelling by reading as many stories as we can, but at a certain point all that consummation becomes a distraction. We end up sublimating our creative drive, absolving ourselves of the self doubt that comes with fleshing out a new idea. By occupying our minds we let our own creativity off the hook.

Our heads can be overflowing with other people’s stories, but that doesn’t mean a fresh one will ever spill out of our own.

Binge reading can teach us style and structure, but those lessons come at the expense of our work ethic. We’re not going to learn everything we need to know about writing before we commit pen to paper. We need to be willing to learn while doing. We need to be willing to fail.

Books give our imaginations a workout, but our diligence will weaken if we abandon our writing routine for too long.

3. Hour Glass

How to Delay Your Gratification and Get Your Writing Done

In the late 60s and early 70s psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a study at Stanford University. Children were offered the choice between a single marshmallow or two if they waited 15 minutes. In follow-up studies, the researchers found the kids who held out for what they really wanted tended to have better lives. They had higher SAT scores, higher levels of education, and better paying careers.

What does this marshmallow study have to do with writing?

Let’s say you have an hour lunch break at the office. You could spend it streaming an episode of something, or working on your writing. The TV show promises to give you a complete experience in one viewing, your writing will take many more sessions before its done, but will ultimately feel much more rewarding.

For writers sometimes marshmallows take the form of smaller pieces. I get instant gratification whenever I share a short story online. I don’t get ‘likes’ and comments when I’m fleshing out long form writing, but while my short stories are forgotten my novel has the potential to resonate for a longer time.

If you’re serious about writing you need to think about how many marshmallows you really want. I used to blog 2 to 3 times a week. I’ve cut that down to once a week. Why?I’m working on a novel and I’ve got my eyes on a whole hill of marshmallows.

The best piece of advice you’ll ever get on writing is: sit your ass in the chair and do the work. You can wait until your blog accumulates comments and respond to them all at once. Your @ replies will be there when you check them later. Wait until the end of the day to count all of your new followers.

If you want to make writing your profession take a close look at your free time. Think about what little rewards you can stave off now in favor of the bigger one down the line.

13 thoughts on “How Writers Can Keep Time From Slipping Away”

  1. Another great entry, Drew, one which is currently relevant in my own life.

    I cut back massively on social media in order to draft a novel, as Joss Whedon has done. I want to engage fully on social media, too, but shifting mental gears between social writing and novel writing is very hard and takes time. I have to choose between them as other life demands–work, family, chores–can’t be ignored. Even trying to come up with a compelling blog entry of my own or reading-and-commenting the many fantastic blogs I subscribe to (like this one) while I’m drafting or re-drafting is difficult.

    I’m nearly ready to put my project aside to refresh my eyes and mind between drafts. I look forward to returning to active social engagement. Maybe during that time, I will come up with the magic writer’s ratio–the alchemical secret to balancing it all perfectly in a day.

    Thanks again, Drew, and happy noveling! I can’t wait to hear more about your novel progress.

    1. I’m still struggling to find that balance. I’m thinking that when I start editing I may have to go into radio silence and give my manuscript my full attention, or else I’ll be editing for year.

      Thanks so much for reading.

  2. I’ll be honest, the era of social media for me has been mixed. I was one of the AOL chat room dweebs back in ’95, met various people on BBS sites shortly thereafter, cowrote a few personal sites with friends in 2002, and joined LiveJournal in ’04. That was fine; back then my worst distraction was actually my multiple games of FreeCell! It really wasn’t until the Great LJ Exodus in ’07 (?) that everyone I knew was joining Facebook Twitter, and the distraction expanded exponentially from there.

    I went from screwing around for maybe an hour or so reading people’s LJ entries a constant, never-ending hitting of the refresh button on Twitter. Sure, there’s also the rise in subject noise as well–the politics, the trolling, the smartassery, the pedantry, the jokes, the memes, the cat GIFs, whatever–but in the end, I had to accept that the onus was really on myself to stop them from distracting me. Which is why I quit Facebook, did a massive cleanup of my Twitter feed, and trained myself to think “do I *really* need to say this?” whenever I feel the urge to comment on something. Because really, I don’t.

    All this was pretty much tandem with seriously tightening up my daily writing habits. Making sure I write in my daily journal (however mundane the subject may be), at least one full page of longhand on the new project, and if there’s time for other projects that day, by all means go for it. Happy to say, it’s working good so far. 🙂

    1. I need to keep asking myself, “Do I really need to say this?” I have a lot of anger and I really ought not to make a record of it. I don’t want to add to the noise myself.

      With Twitter, I swear by the list featured. You can sort the people you’re following into lists of smaller groups, based on interests or how you know them. It makes it easier to follow conversations.

      Thanks so much for reading.

  3. Great post. In fact, I probably should’ve been writing instead of reading it 🙂 I spent several years reading book after book on the craft of writing until I finally figured out that I had a lot of head knowledge, but nothing to show for it. I finally stopped reading so many books on the subject of writing and started writing.

    It’s impressive that someone like Whedon, who has a lot of people following him, would realize the need to disconnect focus on creating the best story he can.

    I definitely could use more evaluation of my free time because I know I could be producing more writing output than I currently am.

    1. Me too. I’m just now forcing myself to micromanage the time I spend blogging so I can have at least 4 days to work on my long form writing.

      Good luck to you. Hopefully you can make the most of your free time. Thanks a lot for reading.

  4. Great post. In fact, I probably should’ve been writing instead of reading it 🙂 I spent several years reading book after book on the craft of writing until I finally figured out that I had a lot of head knowledge, but nothing to show for it. I finally stopped reading so many books on the subject of writing and started writing.

    It’s impressive that someone like Whedon, who has a lot of people following him, would realize the need to disconnect focus on creating the best story he can.

    I definitely could use more evaluation of my free time because I know I could be producing more writing output than I currently am.

  5. Ah, the ever-elusive thing called “balance.” Life is not static, so balance is never standing on some perfectly graded ground, but more like standing on the center hinge of a seesaw.

    I totally agree, however, that social media and engagement are like standing on that seesaw while also trying to juggle cats.

    I love the connections available through social media. I’m here reading and typing and using time on your blog, because I believe in artists collaborating and sharing thoughts, learning and having an “at-a-boy” from someone who’s speaking our language. But, yes … that balance can be tricky.

    One blog I read this week was extolling the benefits of Instagram for your brand. Another Pinterest. I don’t have either. I added it to my to-do list, to set up these accounts. But what to do? There is focus and discipline toward actual writing. And then there is staying relevant and promoting your brand, which is necessary if anyone is going to even know who we are in order to read all of that great stuff we’re spending all that time writing.

    Josh Whedon is a special case. He already has enormous fame and following, and he will even if he drops off the social media scene altogether. Even when he QUITS Twitter, he gets press. For most of us, that just isn’t so. If we quit it altogether, we lose our primary means of reaching our audience.

    One thing I love about your blog, Drew (and why I am consistent in reading it), is that I feel it actually adds value and opens discussion. I don’t know what I will change due to reading this article, but I know I will THINK about what I may need to change. And that is worthwhile.

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