August 6, 2015 § 14 Comments
A guest post from Gila Lyons:
In our culture of excess, cleanses are the new panacea. Cut out carbs, meat, wheat, plastics, microwaves, gluten, dairy, eggs, and you will glow with radiant health and well-being. There are juice cleanses, raw food cleanses, water fasts, the cabbage soup diet, and now, a media cleanse too.
Media informs, educates, and occasionally enlightens, but it also serve as an escape from one’s own mind, experience, ideas, and creative impulses. A writer’s mind can be refocused and sharpened in the absence of input just like a digestive tract can be reset and rejuvenated by a cleanse or a fast.
For a week this summer, the members of my Artist’s Way class were instructed to deprive ourselves of media – all books, newspapers, magazines, Facebook, and emails were off-limits. I extended the ban to TV, movies, and radio as well. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron explains, “We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it, and we feel, yes, fried.” The idea is we must periodically cleanse from media to refocus our energy, attention, and insights on our own experience and into our own work. Cameron writes that without distractions, “we are once again thrust into the sensory world” of our own experience, and that reading deprivation “casts us into inner silence” in which we might reorient ourselves to our own inventiveness and inspiration.
I teach writing during the academic year, and I’ve designated this summer solely for my own writing. I’ve cleared my calendar of work and most social engagements and responsibilities to leave swaths of unoccupied time. This is a massive blessing and an unwieldy freedom, one that can result in unprecedented productivity and also an uninterrupted descent into overwhelm, doubt, despair, and isolation.
When writing, especially personal essay and memoir as I am, I dig myself into a deep hole. It’s a necessary seclusion, but the urge to distract myself is huge and strong and relentless. A quick Facebook or email break is a welcome respite from writing’s discomfort and loneliness. Scrolling the newsfeed, my mind is blessedly blank of my own thoughts, filled instead with flashy GIFs, witty memes, compelling cat videos, and bright photos of fish tacos and Margaritas on the beach. It’s like a little hit of anesthesia, a shot of whisky. It takes the sting out of the work, calms my pressured ambition and struggle and need. I feel connected to the world outside my mind and anchored to the people who know me. I receive Facebook ‘likes’ as silent encouragements, acknowledging nods. Go on, we’re here, we see you, you’re not alone.
But I dread realizing I’ve squandered my summer on Facebook once September descends and it’s back to the halls of the college where I teach. As we all know, anesthetizing ourselves from our overwhelm and anxiety with Netflix or ice cream or reading or sex rarely satiates for long. What satisfies and fulfills in a deep and lasting way is that which is hard: creating something from nothing, giving expression to that which we didn’t realize we knew, the arduous work of digging up and straightening out thoughts, setting them down still squirming and supple on the page.
Quitting Facebook and TV for a week makes obvious sense. But reading? Cameron writes, “For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” It’s so much easier to read than to write, to consume than to create. Reading can be the prefect procrastination tool for those who need to feel productive. It’s entertaining and it educates, connects, informs, and relates to the craft. It’s an escape hatch, a distraction from the writing process, a numbing agent for intensity and strain. When I read I’m lulled into passive thought by the cadences of someone else’s syntax, they are thinking for me, they’ve done the deep digging, I just have to let my eyes drift across the page and imagine.
In fact, I worried about how I would fall asleep without reading before bed. Reading was my nightcap, my elixir towards oblivion, the transitional activity from lively engagement with the world to being unconscious to it. I can’t just write or create or converse, all my synapses firing, and then close my eyes and drift off. I need a sedative. So I modified the plan, I would allow myself one New Yorker article per night.
After just a day of media deprivation I felt my productivity increasing. Within a few days, pulling back to receive more, creating a vacuum for inspiration to rush into, I had more ideas, finished more essays, and reached out to editors and fellow writers to whom I’d been meaning to respond. I had more energy for my own writing since directing it less towards the work of others. When I needed a break I didn’t scroll down to the bottom of my screen and bring up Gmail or Facebook. I kept going. I read over what I had. I tweaked here and there, or left a chapter alone and worked on another. When I really needed a break, when my mind was overstuffed and sluggishly drunk on its own words, I watered my plants, checked on the progress of my tomatoes and peas, climbed to the top of the hill near my house and ate white mulberries from an old tree.
This is not a habit I want to adopt forever, I don’t think it’s responsible to live in a world in which I avoid books and the newspaper. It’s important to me to be an informed world citizen, and to understand and be moved by the work and experience of others. But I will take something of this week with me, mostly the understanding that consuming media can be used not only to inform and engage with the world, but to ignore and detach from my own.
When this week is over I’m looking forward to delving back into the pile of books next to my bed. I stare at others reading the way a dieter must watch diners sink into a burger – envious and hungry. But sometimes to write well, as to live well, less is more, deprivation leads to abundance, and quitting an addiction, even one as wholesome as reading or as prevalent as Facebook, can untether a blocked mind.
Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Tablet, The Forward, The Berkshire Review, and other publications. She lives in Boston, where she teaches writing and is at work on a memoir. Links to her work can be found at gilalyons.com