Around the beginning of the second week of April, when I was scrambling to publish Issue 16 of Vantage Point Magazine, I received a couple of private messages and emails, more or less at the same time, from different people asking how I was doing and whether everything was all right. You haven’t been showing up on Twitter/App.Net much lately and It’s been a while since you updated your blogs was the gist of the messages, their tone (as I interpreted it) sounding like a mixture of concern and friendly reminder to give people content to chew over.
Normally I welcome such feedback. I don’t receive much of it, and for someone who has been writing online for almost 15 years it’s sometimes disheartening. It’s the phenomenon I generally refer to as Talking to an empty room. You try to update your site, not really on a daily basis, but at least on a meaningful one, you try to avoid shallow link-posts or one-sentence commentary, you try to do your homework in the best possible way before opening your mouth online to say something, and more often than not, you end up face to face with the Talking to an empty room phenomenon. Sometimes you don’t care. You shrug it off and tomorrow is another day. Sometimes you’re low, and you just want to tweet What’s the fucking point!? and delete everything in a fit of rage. And sometimes it’s something in between these extremes.
This time around, those feedback ‘nudges’ involuntarily contributed to a snowball effect that was already in motion behind the scenes. I’m a one-man operation. I maintain two websites (this one and System Folder), plus the Minigrooves project website, plus twice each month I have to come up with enough material to publish two issues of Vantage Point Magazine, plus I write fiction (short stories for the aforementioned Minigrooves project, and the ongoing serialised science fiction novel Low Fidelity I publish as recurring feature of Vantage Point Magazine). Then there’s the occasional translation work (yes, I still translate), and when it comes, it’s almost always a high-priority assignment, which means shutting everything else down and concentrating on that, and that only.
If it sounds like a lot of stuff, it’s because it is. Further, I can’t multitask. I’ve tried in the past, and I soon realised it’s something I want to leave to machines. Everything I do, the things I write about, whether it’s tech-related pieces or other articles, or fiction, all require a minimum of research. Many bloggers insist on the importance of writing, of doing some sort of daily writing exercise to avoid atrophy; there is much insistence on the writing part of the writing process, on the output. But what about the input?, the research, the reading part that hopefully should take place before firing up a word processor and typing away? That is equally important. That, too, is prone to atrophy if neglected. And reading, searching and researching, takes some time. If I’m reading and researching stuff, I can’t write ‘something, anything,’ at the same time.
When those feedback messages came, earlier this month, they made me realise that my absence in certain places (my website, social networks) was felt. I was very busy taking care of something else — my magazine, my novel, and the groundwork for Volume №2 of Minigrooves — and those friendly ‘nudges’ had an unforeseen side effect: they made me overload. Things, for a day, just spiralled out of control. In retrospect, it was a silly moment. Rationally I knew I couldn’t do everything simultaneously, that if I was hard at work on something specific, I couldn’t just start cracking jokes or engaging in conversations on Twitter and App.Net, or throw up a few posts on my blogs, or write a rebuttal of the nth article talking about the Power Mac G4 Cube and the Newton as being the biggest Apple failures, and so on and so forth. Emotionally, however, I felt horribly overwhelmed. I was already spending the better part of my day sitting at the computer, yet for a moment, in a sort of frenzied trance, I wanted to do more, to cover all the bases, etc.
And then, as soon as I hit Publish and pushed Issue 16 of Vantage Point to my readers, a switch went off, and I paused. I went on holiday without really going nowhere. I spent most of this month in a sort of low-tide state. I don’t mean to say that I was feeling low — quite the contrary, in fact. At times, it felt exhilarating. I was actively refusing to be engaged with ‘the Internet’ and the stupid, inhuman pace this ‘always-on’ lifestyle subtly imposes. This is not another of my pieces openly advocating disconnection, and reminiscing about the good old pre-Web times. The aspect worth emphasising here is control more than disconnection. I’ve spent weeks letting Internet dictate my daily routine. I’m interested in technology, and that means keeping up with new things that get introduced, and often with the debate that necessarily follows. The problem is that keeping up with anything related to technology (and everything technology touches in our lives, which is… pretty much everything) is simply not possible, unless you do that for a living and you spend the whole day doing just that.
Some days following the flow online is kind of nice. You feel up to speed on everything. You feel involved. Friends and contacts over Twitter are great, there are jokes, exchanges, banter, sarcasm. You feel in the loop. You feel part of something. You feel relevant.
You also spend ninety percent of your waking hours staring at screens of various sizes, until you go to bed, your eyes strained and teary. And another day goes by, and it’s pretty much like the day before — skimming news on the iPad in the morning while having coffee, taking notes, checking stuff, checking more stuff, taking more notes because the RTWA syndrome kicks in, then my wife gets home from work and it’s time to prepare and have lunch, then the afternoon is spent in the studio, at the computer, with more ‘keeping up with the world’ activities, reading RSS feeds, browsing, taking notes, writing emails, then it’s dinner time, then more writing and checking stuff on the Web and on Twitter and so on and on and on.
Then you snap out of it and realise two weeks of your life have gone, drowned and washed away by this kind of routine. When you’re a teenager, or in your twenties, you don’t care. You feel invincible, full of energy; maybe you’re on your own, or maybe you’re with someone who’s equally full of energy, and staring at screens of various sizes 16 hours per day is fun and not a big deal. When you’re in your thirties and forties, you start to prioritise, and your time and your energies are the first to be prioritised (at least, they should be). When you realise you let two weeks of your time and energy get sucked away like that, it doesn’t feel okay. Even if it felt nice at first. Drinking spirits and tasting fine beverages such as single malt whisky is nice, ending up horribly drunk and vomiting your guts in an alley or hugging a toilet seat… eh, not so much.
So, what happened earlier this month, when I paused?
There was an initial phase of pure internal chaos. Radio silence. Ignoring emails, messages, social networks. Breaking routines. I also spent some time feeling unwell, and that was, as strange as it may sound, a happy coincidence in my unplanned plan of routine disruption. ‘The Pause’ hasn’t just been about keeping Internet at arm’s length and disrupting routines. It has also been an occasion to stop and think, refocus, ask myself “What exactly am I doing” and “Where am I going with this” and “Do I want to keep doing this for how long exactly”… It has been a matter of regaining control, in a way. Over what I do every day in general, but also over the specific processes behind what I do — writing, in all its forms and purposes.
I have never been a fan of routines, and I’ve never been a workaholic. Well, I had to be one if I wanted to survive during a specific period of my life, but what I mean is that, typically, I’m not one of those people who bask in their overworking. Not even with things you like doing? — you ask. No, not even with those. Even when I’m particularly inspired and driven, I know that if I keep at it for too long, the final creative product will be weak tea. A weaker tea than writing the same amount of material by taking more time and writing in more deliberate, inspired bursts when I feel relaxed and not under excessive pressure to produce something at all costs. That doesn’t mean I don’t challenge myself with self-imposed deadlines (like the two issues per month of Vantage Point Magazine or the one/two short stories per week when Cycle 1 and Cycle 2 of Minigrooves were ‘airing’ online). I simply mean that overworking when writing fiction rarely produces good results — at least, that’s what happens with me.
‘Showing up every day’ doesn’t work with me. It’s not laziness. It’s not lack of organisation. I thought it was, and that was the Internet’s fault. Many people’s attention span is progressively shortening. Too much time spent staring at screens of various sizes, in the flow of this constant engagement of the online sphere. Sometimes I picture that flow, it’s like a fluid that quickly spreads and reaches everywhere in one’s personal sphere. So you lose focus, you lose attention and the ability to work on what you do with the needed perseverance and resolution. And maybe a ‘creative routine’ like Shawn Blanc’s is the perfect recipe for you to get back on track. Something like that doesn’t work for me. I know because I tried something very similar during the awful creative block I suffered for about four years around 2006–2010.
During the Pause I’ve been enjoying my time without plans and routines, without news to keep up with, without ‘fear of missing out’; I’ve been researching stuff I’m interested in without feeling the need to take notes about it or share it or act on it in some way. I’ve rested my eyes, and spent days without writing a single word. Contrary to what some writers do or suggest, I’m not afraid I’ll lose my voice, my style and my creative abilities if I don’t write something every day. There are days worth spending erratically absorbing what surrounds you, or engaging in disorganised hunts for information on subjects you love, or just losing yourself in one of your interests without feeling the urge to then write about it.
Put habits to good use to achieve productivity, if you like, if that works for you, but don’t fall prey to this crazy workaholism-driven mentality that’s spreading like wildfire lately. Don’t let habits and routines overload you and define you.
- 1. And judging by the quality of certain articles, even those who do that for a living don’t even have the time to properly do their homework. ↩