Falling down a time-wasting rabbit hole, the risks of seeking attention for our creative work & rehabilitating a love for reading in the age of endless scrolling
Vol. 1, Issue 12
I have a confession: since my last newsletter went out, I haven’t spent my time reading books, writing anything substantial, or revising my novel-in-progress. Instead, I’ve used most of my precious post-toddler-bedtime hours doing something I’m ashamed to admit.
I’ve been scrolling through TikTok.
I have a litany of excuses for why I’ve been doing this. My daughter has been sick, and I’ve also been a bit under the weather. I’m curious about what creatives are making and experience on the newest social-media platform. I’m just very tired these days. Etc., etc. But in reality, I let myself fall down the TikTok rabbit hole, because, well, it was easy. Reading and writing require my full, uninterrupted concentration. Scrolling through never-ending one-minute videos requires … no concentration at all. Within seconds, I’ll laugh or groan or gasp, and then I’ll simply move on to the next one. And then the next one, and the next one.
Somehow, all those one-minute videos have added up to whole hours disappearing. And suddenly, I’m no longer on track to meet some of my creative goals for October, and my stalled momentum has made the prospect of revising my new novel feel even more daunting.
I’m admitting this here, to you, because I suspect I’m not alone in struggling to find the right balance between protecting my creative time and trying to stay at least somewhat relevant and up-to-date with new trends in media and technology. But I recognize that right now, for me, the balance has tipped too far into debilitating distraction. I know I need to pull myself out of the rabbit hole. I need to find my way back to a fully present self.
For the last couple of years, I’ve grown increasing aware of—and alarmed by—the effects of social media on my own life. Near the end of my MFA program, I wrote an essay about the complicated science behind social-media addiction and digital detoxing, while also trying to reckon with my own chronic digital overuse. In short, I know I should be wary about letting myself engage even casually with a platform like TikTok.
Frankly, I don’t have an easy answer for how to keep myself in check. But I’m inspired and encouraged by some of the ideas in the resources I’ve included in this week’s issue. If you happen to be struggling with your own attention and focus right now, maybe some of this will help you, too.
If you haven’t watched Bo Burnham’s comedy special on Netflix, I highly, highly recommend it. “Inside” is filled with songs and sketches about social media, pandemic isolation, and the creative process. This one is among my favorites.
Art and Aliveness: Willa Cather on attention as key to creativity, BrainPickings. “Art is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses. Unless you can see the beauty all around you everywhere, and enjoy it, you can never comprehend art.”
Before the internet broke my attention span, I read books compulsively, but now it takes willpower, The Guardian. “I’d totally lost the ability to read novels … I reignited it by going back to ones that I really loved, to be reminded of that feeling.”
A revolution in creativity: On slow writing, LitHub. “I am an impatient person, easily bored and highly distractible—are these traits in accordance with or in opposition to slowness? They are connected. Staying committed to a slow writing process takes determination, as does writing at all, and a continual retrieval of the writer’s intention.”
“Our creativity is becoming more and more of a means to an end—and that end is to get attention … [but] if your creativity is driven by a desire to get attention, you’re never going to be creatively fulfilled.”
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
It’s tempting to promise myself a digital detox this week and invite you to join me. But I know from personal experience (and from the many, many journal articles I read while writing my essay) that brief, cold-turkey tech breaks aren’t especially effective for dealing with digital overuse long-term.
This isn’t the first time I’ve recognized myself to be on a social-media bender. In the past, what helped wasn’t to fixate on denying myself something (no TikTok! no Twitter!) but instead to offer myself something else that would occupy my mind. For me, it’s not productive to try and force myself to trade in breezy scrolling for a brutal session of novel revision, but it is realistic to say, okay, what novel appeals to me to read right now? Or what prestige TV series can I get absorbed in for a few days?
This week, an acquaintance happened to recommend that I read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, a novel about surviving Hurricane Katrina. It feels like the perfect suggestion at the perfect time, and I’m grateful for it. For you, I simply suggest that you take a minute today to consider whether you’re comfortable and satisfied with where you’ve been directing your attention lately. If the answer is no, then perhaps this is a good opportunity to browse Bookshop for something that grabs you.
You can find Sandra on Twitter, Instagram, and at sandrabarnidge.com. As always, thank you for being here.