Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
In today’s post, I wanted to continue the theme of last week’s entry, and talk a bit about another aspect of self-care: boredom. Firstly, I want to recognize that I’m not breaking any new ground here. Though our aversion to boredom may have something to do with being unable to block out the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that attempt to constantly bombard us, it’s well-accepted that that same lack of distractions can also spur creativity. What I did want to talk about though was my own personal recent experience with the relationship between boredom and creativity.
I’m generally fairly inseparable from my phone. Not to the point where I might be constantly texting all day, but at the height of Pokemon Go I did fall down the stairs once, and the less said about that, the better. Waiting rooms, walks to and from the bus stop, and washroom breaks have historically been accompanied by either my Reddit feed, or whatever flavor-of-the-month mobile game I’m playing at the time. Too many hours have been spent playing Disney Emoji Blitz, as my Disney obsession is well-documented.
I am very well aware of the fact that the hours spent on my phone are, by and large, “wasted time”, in the sense that while they’re entertaining (and I think time spent enjoying yourself is not technically wasted time) there are no long-term benefits derived from it whatsoever. It’s similar to eating cookies – it’s not “wasted” food but a lot of the time you should probably eat something other than a cookie. Same with mobile games; I acknowledge that I can be doing something more useful but boredom is unpleasant and games are just so darn fun. There, I said it. I know some of you are probably more disciplined than me, but for many, this should sound familiar.
Over the last couple of weeks I found myself in a lull between games – nothing spoke to me enough that it made micromanaging inventories and daily tasks worth it. Of course, there were no shortage of Reddit updates to get into as that front page is theoretically infinite, so I will give myself some credit for consciously choosing not to pull out my phone and actually enjoy the scenery of the beautiful campus I work on.
This will sound stupid in both how obvious and cheesy it is, but boy does it feel good to lift your head and just walk for a change. It helps that it’s summer and therefore not raining here every day to the point where you’d sooner drown yourself in the nearest puddle. What I found though, is that even if we only took the walking part of my commute, which is about ten minutes each way from the bus loop to my office, I had twenty extra minutes in my day to allow my mind to wander. And, being the kind of mind that I have, it invariably wandered to my writing.
It’s no coincidence that it was last week that I finally finished the first draft of Chapter 2 of Drops of the Black Sun, which had been slow going since spring. The first sketches of Chapter 3 are already populating my Moleskine notebook, along with notes for the current draft of Wake the Drowned, and bits of dialogue for the bedtime story I’ve been telling my kids since January. In fact, that same notebook that I’ve had since December and was only half-full a month ago is now almost complete. I don’t remember the last time I had such a burst of creativity on multiple projects. I’ve even managed to take this week to design a flag for the Human Interstellar Dominion in Drops of the Black Sun, just because my brain happened to have had some extra capacity to work on it.
I have gone at length about all the different ways you can deal with writer’s block and one of the obvious solutions was staring right in the face the whole time … literally. That said, I’m not going to pretend that I will reduce all my phone use to a minimum, or that I won’t at some point, for however long, slip into another game that gets me with its dopamine microdosing. Nor do I want to make the argument that writers that do shun technology to that extent necessarily make better writers. Quite the contrary, I think a writer impoverishes themselves by deliberately shunning anything that is enjoyed by a large number of people. I don’t believe in the artist as a creature unto themselves and I strive to see how people tick.
What I do want to acknowledge is the benefit of boredom. Even for a few minutes a day. Make an effort to spend time away from your desk, to let your brain breathe without being subjected to the myriad of stimulations tossed at it like slop to hogs. Take a moment to listen to what your brain has to say, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
In May, the family and I had taken a two-week vacation together, our first such break after we’ve had kids, so about six years since the last one. We were on Oahu in Hawaii, in a hotel with Wi-Fi, so we weren’t exactly off the grid, but because of the hectic days, the relaxed evenings, and a couple of thousand miles separating me from my work computer, I generally stayed off the internet.
This felt unsettling at first, like I was missing out on something big that everyone was a part of, but as the weeks progressed, the silence that filled the space of constant news, and Reddit and Twitter updates felt refreshing. It’s as if a stormy sea had calmed and I could now relax on the gently rolling waves. And this is when it hit me: news was slowly poisoning me.
There’s been some general consensus that tuning into the news cycle is closely associated with feelings of stress and anxiety, and even general fatigue and sleep deprivation, and this seems like a fairly common sense conclusion. Yet it’s one thing to nod along to an intuitive concept, and another thing entirely to experience it as acutely as I had towards the end of my vacation.
I can’t emphasize enough the benefits of vacation, especially where you can leave work behind, or when you get to spend precious time with your family. In this case, there was also the added benefit of allowing myself to detox just enough to actually feel the difference from not exposing myself to the news on a consistent basis. Imagine that every time you read a bit of negative news, you activate your normal stress responses. Now take a moment to consider how many snippets of negative media coverage you consume a day, and think about how that puts your body in a near-constant state of stress. Think that’s doing you any good?
So why do we do it then? Personally, I want to refer again to that feeling of unease; the sense that I’m being excluded from a very large and important conversation. I enjoying being an informed individual. So many things are happening in the world that I can’t submit myself to ignorance, whether it be ignorance of international politics or pop culture. “Ignorance is bliss” is simply not an option, and I’m sure many others feel the same way too; that “ignorance” is the salient point here, and “bliss” is just appended there tongue-in-cheek. Maybe it’s actually the reverse.
Firstly, I took a critical look at the “ignorance” I was actually risking subjecting myself to. It’s useful for me to know that there is a trade war between us and our closest neighbour, and that it involves steel and dairy and other products. But do I need to consume every article on the matter? Do I need to know every product, the actual numbers, what the trade ministers have said, and what Joe and Jane Doe think about the situation in the comments section? I know the world is filled with noxious politicians, but what am I doing to myself by perusing all their vile tweets and comments, every ignorant decision, and every racist or sexist bleat of support in their favour?
And then there’s the ceaseless social media debates between not the most level-headed individuals on either side. Tell me, how often do you engage in, or witness, vitriolic partisan discussion in real life versus online? Social media is particularly effective at polarizing discussions and probably helps us hold unwarranted beliefs that we’re surrounded by people with such different thinking that they might as well be members of a different species. This all falls as sediment in our subconscious minds, and we carry the weight with us through our waking and sleeping hours.
There is an epidemic of stress-inducing media coverage: news articles about the latest evidence supporting climate change, or the recent erosions of democracy, refugees crises, natural disasters, housing prices, local murders. Some have compared news to being the sugar of the mind: easy to digest, mildly addictive, and absolutely horrible for you.
I think what we’re experiencing is the inevitable fallout of the Information Revolution. In the same way that the byproduct of the Industrial Revolution choked cities in black smog, so does the Information Revolution choke our minds with information that slowly poisons us. How many articles about the negative mental health effects of social media do we need before we accept that this bombardment has stark similarities with the ubiquitous smog and microplastics that we’ve accepted as being immensely harmful to us?
Now let’s take a moment to talk about the “bliss” part of the “ignorance is bliss” adage. What I felt towards the end of that two-week sabbatical from news and social media was similar to the lifting of a weight. Before leaving town, I was going through one of my lengthy episodes of negative affect. It dissipated sometime during my break and hasn’t reared its ugly head since. Of course, the conclusions I can make from this are far from scientific – there’s no way to separate this particular aspect of my vacation from any of its other benefits. That said, the clarity I experienced is difficult to ascribe to anything else.
By plugging into the world on a regular basis, I allowed it to take up more of my headspace than my immediate surroundings. By constantly worrying about the thoughts and opinions of others, strangers the likes of which I would unlikely ever encounter in real life, I allowed them to dominate my thinking instead of people with who I interact on a daily or even occasional basis. The great conversation I was worried about missing out on had actually been squeezing me out of the present moment, and the moment I embraced the present, my mood, my energy levels, my joie de vivre had also seemed to reach levels I hadn’t felt in years.
I’m not advocating shutting our minds off to the tumult entirely. Disengaging completely from issues that don’t immediately affect us only serves to exacerbate the problems that don’t go away just because we stopped hearing about them. But perhaps it would be smarter to take a more measured approach: to sip the news rather than open our gullets to the deluge and quickly drown.
This is why ever since I came back from our trip, I’ve reduced my news consumption without unplugging completely. For many articles now, I read the first few paragraphs to get the general gist, without weighing myself down with details. Other articles, which just depict heavy news, I contend with just reading the headlines. There’s an immense amount of tragedy in the world. And while we shouldn’t ignore the plight of others, what mind can withstand the weight of all their unfathomable human suffering?
The filter I actively try to apply to selecting what I read is this: 1) what benefit is this information to me, and 2) how will this help me create a more positive effect on the world. You’d be surprised at the volume of information you consume that does pretty poorly on these two criteria.
And then that leaves the comment sections, which if you’re going to extend the pollution metaphor, is the equivalent of sucking on a car’s exhaust pipe, so I’ve tried to shut my eyes to these almost entirely. Again, I’m not recommending the extreme opposite here – surrounding yourself only with like-minded individuals who won’t trouble your world view. What I want though, is to interact with real people, who are far less likely to resort to childish name-calling or death threats during a disagreement.
The internet has done incredible things in terms of connecting us and letting individuals reach into the far corners of the world. But if we reach too far, we risk getting pulled apart at the centre and losing the core of who we are. Pull out the IV drip of poisonous news, and enjoy breathing easier.
Recently I’d tweeted something about the fact that one of my most satisfying moments in editing are deletions. This has stuck with me since then, and I’ve been taking a more critical approach to phrases, sentences and passages that I’m editing and I feel like I’m onto something here, so I thought I would expand on this.
I’ve previously talked about writer’s block and the various ways I deal what that stubborn bit of writing that just won’t let me be. But what if making it perfect isn’t the answer? What if making it disappear is what makes your writing stronger?
At first, this sounds like a quitting attitude, and I do agree that a deletion decision needs to be critically assessed. It’s tempting to interrogate yourself and ask whether you’re just giving up on something and whether a better writer would be able to write their way out of this one. But good writers delete, and you should too.
Secondly, I acknowledge that deleting your own writing hurts. This is your baby, come from within the depths of your creative process, and now you’re expected to unceremoniously sever it and discard it? As traumatic as the experience might be for you, there’s a reason why “kill your darlings” is a bit of writing advice that’s been driven into the ground. Sometimes, no matter how attached you are to the smaller piece, its removal might be an overall benefit to the whole. And if you really do think it’s a good line that just happens to be in the wrong place in the wrong time, save it somewhere else. I have a whole file with deleted sentences and paragraphs to use to inspire myself later. It may find a home a yet.
So let’s look at this in the context of the actual deletion I made last week. This was in Wake the Drowned, the novel I’m currently editing, and the protagonist, Charlie, is struggling about whether or not to enter a room and help another character, but then this character says something completely inappropriate, and the protagonist leaves instead. The immediate next sentence after the protagonist makes his decision and is described as leaving the room is as follows: “There was no need for Charlie there.” While there is nothing wrong with that sentence by itself, something didn’t feel quite right.
My first suspicion was that it didn’t show my character’s motivation or decision making enough. After all, the preceding sentence never explicitly states that Charlie couldn’t or wouldn’t help this other character or why. So I fiddled with the following alternatives: “There was nothing Charlie could do then” or “Charlie realized there was nothing he could have done” or “There was nothing Charlie could do for [character] now.” While about as short and punchy as the original sentences, all of these options didn’t sound right. So I went with a more complicated structure to the tune of the following: “Despite what twisted Charlie on the inside, if he’d cross the room then, he would soon discover that [character] had now sunken out of reach of his help.” This seemed to somehow make things much worse.
So I stared it for a few minutes, wondering why this little sentence, with its expression of hopelessness in a hopeless situation, was bothering me so much. And then I just put a fat red line through it, and read the paragraph again.
Now the scene ended with Charlie leaving the room, without any epilogue-type commentary. That’s it. Here he is contemplating helping, the character saying something inappropriate, then Charlie leaving. Sure, I can add extra details about what Charlie felt at the moment, but what would that accomplish? He left. The reader understands what the decision implies, and if Charlie’s exact train of thought isn’t set out, what’s the big deal? So I figured out what was wrong with the sentence. The sentence couldn’t be editing or improved, because the problem was that it should never have been there in the first place.
I’ve always struggled with the mother of all writing advice: “show, don’t tell”. I don’t pretend that I truly know what it means but I caught a glimpse of it at that moment. “There was no need for Charlie there” was doing precisely that – telling us what Charlie felt, instead of showing us that he left.
There is, of course, the lingering possibility that I made the wrong choice. Perhaps some beta readers will feel like something is missing from this paragraph. And if that happens, I would need to rethink my choices. At this point, I found the red strikethrough to be liberating. I liked the sentence and how it sounded and how it capped off a previous much longer sentence. But ultimately I decided that it detracted from the work, and out it went. I’ll move past whatever pain that causes, because the next sentence calls.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.