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.
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.
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.