Why I had to Unplug through this Summer of Static

The information age is both a blessing and a curse for writers.

The tools we use to find our audiences can also drain our creative energy. The twin punch combo of the 24-hour news cycle and social media can knock us out. It’s part of the reason I took a break from blogging, posting on Facebook, and tweeting.

If the internet is a series of tubes it felt like they were all carrying, to quote W.P. Mayhew from Barton Fink, a “raging river of manure.”

This election cycle has dialed the national discussion up to eleven. Everyone is pounding on their keyboards with the caps lock on, but let’s put a pin in that politically polarizing conversation and acknowledge how draining the news can be even when Trump isn’t stealing headlines.

I Heard the News Today, Oh Boy…

Tragedies happen with such frequency they seem like they’re competing for coverage. They say if it bleeds it leads, but the paper can only fit so much red on the page. It’s gotten to the point where we hope the headline is more information on yesterday’s tragedy and not a new one that broke while we were sleeping.

24-hour news stations have to pick which terrorist attack will engage their demographic,  which riot will play best in the sticks, and which spree-shooting will get better ratings.

When a coworker asks, “Did you hear about the shooting?”

I shrug, “Which one?”

The American flag flies at half staff so often it’s hard to trace the reason.

When we login online we see bodies float down our news streams. We share snuff films in gif form and react with frowny face emojis. We’re getting used to the view from police dashboard cams, desensitized to the sound of screaming widows, and the sight of dead men armed only with their open arms.

It seems like the only way to will ourselves out of this funk is to stay willfully uniformed. Taking a mental health day means ignoring current events, and taking a breather means sticking our heads in the sand.

The State of Discourse 

We become shut ins in our own minds, walking the halls of narrow world views, framing events the way we want to see them, curating the reality we want to see. We stick our fingers in our ears and dig our heels into our opinions. We’re so sheltered we only go out when our bias needs confirmation.

We fight our tribal disputes on social media, shooting flaming arrows from the safety of our armchairs, copying and pasting talking points to avoid having to make our own arguments. We perpetuate debunked claims to keep our favorite roleplaying games going. We defer to officials whose only claim to authority is their brazen personality.

We heckle when we have nothing to add to the conversation. Our every post is an excerpt from a comedy roast. Our comebacks are pre-rendered memes, cartoon characters with connotations, and captioned stills from films. We dust off jokes from the same stockpile and wonder why no one has a sense of humor anymore.

Outrage is our default setting. We jump at headlines, without so much as skimming the article on our way down to comment. We have hair trigger warnings. We’re so on edge we mistake satire with extremism, celebration with self-congratulation, and pet peeves with personal attacks.

We Talk in Code

The dictionary is our armory. We keep adding to it, stock piling cutting edge jargon in case we need to take someone down. Ours is the generation of hyper-categorization, and if they don’t understand why, we block our parents.

We argue semantics. We lash out over lingo. We get stuck in irony loops mansplaining the definition of “mansplaining” to women who know we’re musing the term.

We speak with so much nuance we’ve lost the ability to communicate with those we agree with. If the like-minded question our logic we accuse them of aiding the opposition. We ask friends to cite their sources so we can scrutinize them, because we know all articles are editorials and everyone is quoting fiction.

We trust no one. We dismiss allies as white knights, and rebuttals as trolls. We can’t hear the chorus for the voices. We can’t separate the signal from the noise, because it’s all starting to sound the same.

Closing Thoughts

If writing is a form of telepathy, skimming social media can be a psychic fire storm. We writers need to be mindful of how much of that we can afford to have knocking around our noggins. Me, personally, I needed the space for other things.

I want to get back to sharing short stories and writing advice. I’ve written a novella in my time away. I’ll be sharing more from that too.

10 thoughts on “Why I had to Unplug through this Summer of Static”

  1. I know what you mean. It seems like, a few years ago, I ran into this same problem and shut out all the news, too. Then something happened and I felt like I “woke up,” and I started slowly paying attention again. Reacquainting myself with the world and trying to respond. But it’s draining, trying to keep up with everything. Especially right now, with the election cycle and so many moments when you just want to shake the person on the radio by the collar and shout “Don’t you see what’s wrong?”

    So yeah, timely post. I need to see if I can figure out how to strain through the news and not go back into “head in the sand” mode.

    But I hope your summer unplugged did you good, and that your novella writing went well. Welcome back. Watch out for the super twin punch combos you mentioned. 🙂

    1. It seems like authors absolutely have to try to build their brands online if they’re serious about writing, but I think we shouldn’t devote half our creative energy to interacting or worse putting out twitter fires and stuff like that. I think we should reserve the right to do social media on our own terms.

      1. Agreed. I’ve heard several authors also talking about just selecting a few social media options that really seem to work for you, rather than trying to manage a bunch that you might not like using.

  2. This is so scarily close to the truth. I’ve recently got i to mindfulness meditation. I think I should be spending more time in that mode than the default facebook theme.

    1. Too many of my friends of Facebook feel like every issue under the son is the hill the want to die on. Sometimes just looking is enough to put me out. I’ve had so much fun writing a novella in the few months I’ve been gone. Now that I’m back maybe I ought to give mindfulness meditation a try.

  3. All too true.

    And, at the risk of proving your point, I have a link on the subject– but it’s a good link, from Seth Godin and just posted today. (In fact, it’s a post he says he wrote months ago and put off posting because it always seemed too topical… until he realized was the point.)

    His question is, does the modern news cycle capture or just plain create the modern sense of desperation: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/10/cable-news.html

    1. Funny you should mention that he put off posting that article until today. I’d put off posting mine for a month too and sadly it’s still just as relevant. Thanks for sharing the link.

  4. Brilliant article Drew. And I agree completely, I recently did a stint away from Fb particularly to avoid all the noise and hate (from both sides) around brexit in the UK. I decided some time ago to just share writing related stuff, and the things I want to write about, not posting for the sake of posting..

  5. I’ve been tempted to unplug, but so far I’ve not managed to do it for more than about twelve hours at a time. I have to keep writing, and social media is a necessary tool. What I try not to do is get involved in the firestorms.

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