phone showing social media apps

Photo by Jason Howie

I am a writer who recently noticed I spend more time reading articles about writing, absorbing Top Ten lists of famous authors’ work practices, and laughing at clever memes than doing any writing. That space where your hands pause, your mind deepens, and your lips slightly part in anticipation was being filled with links to the latest insight from Junot Diaz or a must read command on Facebook because my name was tagged in a post. The time I was supposed to be working was filled with sending a few dollars to an activist whose rent-and-grocery bank account was low, reading breakthrough essays from emerging writers, and passing on information about independent films, memoirs about Caribbean girlhood, and petitions to Free Marissa.

When I noticed my attention span was getting shorter — and that perhaps Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, GoodReads, and Google+ were contributing to frenzied jumps from link to link — I booted myself off social media. Still, there were animated videos about the political situation in Syria and applications for studio time, grants, and artist residencies to fill the small space I’d regained. My attention span was like a connect-the-dots page, but there were no lines drawn to make a picture.

My inability to focus became shamefully apparent during an embarrassing moment the other day. I raced upstairs to get directions on my computer before going out with my family, but found a stray, open tab when I sat in front of the screen. I quickly sunk into an article about postpartum depression, then read about the origin of the magazine in which the article was published, then moved to the bio of the magazine’s founder, then on to one of the zines she’d once written, then … Click. Click. Pause to read. Click.

Nearly twenty minutes had passed when I heard my husband’s voice from downstairs, “Did you get the directions?” Although no one could see my face, I blushed. Have I no sense of time, respect for others, and self-discipline to focus on just one thing?

I thought about the struggle I have with digital distractions. I pondered how my love of things smart and wordy might be balanced with being an essayist and a mother. For writers, the Internet can be a portal to resources, networks, new knowledge, and communities that encourage creativity, but it can also bring the temptation to observe rather than create. While there is a safety in observation, and an allure to continual learning, the deepest gains a writer can make is in the act of writing.

Social media is an infinite playground for intellectual stimulation. It is an unhinged door with no threat of being closed. And its endless void often leads to a blank screen. I want the buzz and the quiet, but the duality remains illusive to me.

Last week my publicist reminded me that I need to “get out there,” and encouraged me to use social media to establish a public voice. I know it’s good advice, but I fear the tightrope walk. Can I effectively balance entertainment and social meandering with prolifically producing creative work?

Over the last several days, I snuggled with my son without wondering if I should take a picture of how cute he looked to post on Instagram. I texted love poems to my partner. I started a morning prayer routine for the billionth time with the hope that this time it will be sustained. I was more present with others, and I was more present with myself.

It felt authentic. I felt authentic. That cannot be downloaded.

I finally returned to Twitter and Facebook today, and the pace felt dangerously hurried. It also felt wonderful. The tide begin to tug at me as I waded in, and its pull shifted the ground under my feet. Afraid again, I take a deep breath and wonder if I will finally learn how to swim.

Lisa Factora-Borchers is a Filipino American writer and editor of Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. She writes about writing, justice, and transformative feminist practice.

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