I never seriously used Twitter until about… I want to say late October, 2017. I can’t be bothered to check, but I think it was just before NaNoWriMo 2017. The earliest real interaction with another writer (Jon del Arroz) that I can remember was related to buddying up for the event. It took me awhile to get up to full steam on Twitter, so figure it was January 2018 before I was fully engaged on the platform. My time on Twitter lasted almost a year, and then I stopped using it halfway through December 2018. I haven’t logged into my main account since then.
The thing about Twitter is if I walk away from it, I don’t miss it. All I miss is being able to talk to certain people who I really only see on Twitter or Discord (which I don’t like to use). If those people were available elsewhere I would have no reason to be on the platform at all.
The interesting thing is my time on Twitter neatly coincided with a period of severe writing drought. I don’t just mean I stopped writing fiction. I mean I stopped writing anything. I couldn’t sit down and stay focused enough to write so much as a blog post for most of the year. And I think I know why.
Before I explain, I should say that the writing drought has only been a problem at home. When I spend time at the family cabin I can write just fine. In fact the only complete stories I produced this year, I wrote at the cabin over the summer. Because of that I’ve been assuming all along that the problem is the internet. I don’t have internet access at the cabin, and have to drive about five miles to get it on my cell phone. It seemed logical enough that as the only significant difference between being at home and being at the cabin is internet access, something about the internet was causing me to be too distracted to write. The surfeit of entertainment and avenues of exploration, perhaps. I hypothesized that my mind switched to a different mode of operation (what I dubbed “exploration mode”) with the internet at my fingertips, and it was just enough of a block to make it very difficult to write. I thought with the internet unavailable at the cabin, my mind reallocated its resources so that writing became easier*. I thought of that as “production mode”. The fact that it usually took a day or so to get into production mode once I got to my cabin seemed to support my hypothesis. It was like a detox period.
But how to solve the problem? I can’t move to the cabin and I can’t just turn the internet off at home. I need it for my work, for one thing—I constantly look things up when I’m programming—and I’m not the only person in this house who uses it. I experimented with limiting my internet access artificially, tried writing on a laptop that has a nonfunctional wireless card, blocked websites in my hosts file during work time, and so on. Nothing helped.
Then, starting a week before Christmas, I walked away from Twitter. Within days I could feel the urge to write welling up, and a week or so after quitting Twitter I wrote and published a 700 word blog post as easy as you like. And as you can see from the last few days, I’ve had little trouble keeping the writing going.
Now if I’m not writing it’s because I just don’t have anything to say, or because I’m focused on something else. It’s not because I can’t write.
So what happened? Why did I just snap out of a year-long writing drought?
I think Twitter has been serving as a metaphorical bleed-off valve for my creativity, and has also served to disrupt my focus through a combination of the dopamine hit of near-instant feedback from my friends and the continuous stream of new things to read. Bored for a minute? Check Twitter! Hell, I used to jump over to Twitter for a few seconds while waiting for webpages to load.
The focus issue speaks for itself, but I should explain the bleed-off aspect a bit. In general, I’m not struck by seeds of inspiration that send me into a frenzy, banging away at a project until it’s done. I’m not the type to write a book in a weekend after seeing something in the clouds on my way home from the beach or whatever. Rather, I tend to get an idea and sock it away for awhile, thinking about it off and on, letting my subconscious chew on it, until one day there’s enough built-up pressure behind that idea that I feel like I need to let it out. The buildup can take days or weeks to fully develop. Then I write the post or story and it’s done.
Twitter, though, gives me a place to throw my ideas out to the public as soon as I get them. As I’m limited to 280 characters, I don’t feel the desire to let the idea simmer for awhile until I can give it proper treatment in a blog post. And because I’m limited to 280 characters, it’s not unusual for me to take some time crafting an effective tweet, which gives my writing muscles a bit of a workout. Then, once the idea is out, I feel like the idea has already been presented. Even if I keep thinking about it I’m likely to just throw the new thoughts out in tweets as well instead of making a long form post. Thus, the buildup of creative pressure never happens, and the writing never happens.
I usually don’t talk about fiction ideas on Twitter (unless as part of a discussion), but I draw on the same well of creative energy to write my fiction as I do to write blog posts. It doesn’t really matter where the energy comes from, and it also doesn’t really matter what I spend it on. That’s why when I’m focused on writing fiction I never write for my blog until I’ve done my fiction writing for the day. And if I’m constantly bleeding off creative energy on Twitter to the point where I can’t even write blog posts, I’m definitely not writing fiction.
It’s fair to suggest it might just be a coincidence that I can suddenly write freely after leaving Twitter behind, and I suppose it could be. But I doubt it. I’ve never before gone through a period where I couldn’t even write blog posts and the timing is too neatly aligned. Back in February when the drought was really kicking in I put it down to meddling with my writing method—which doesn’t stand up to logic, because the change I blamed was exactly what let me successfully complete NaNoWriMo 2017 just months before. I knew early on that something was bleeding off my creative energy, but I couldn’t see the real problem.
As well, I suspect (but cannot prove) that Twitter was designed to be addictive. As I’m not willing to go back to using Twitter heavily just to see if my ability to write disappears again, and because I think the focus-damaging effect is bad enough to warrant caution, I’ll just say if I do go back on Twitter eventually it will be in a very limited fashion, possibly through a third party app with heavy filtering, and solely for business purposes.
To summarize, I’ve been sabotaging myself with what amounts to mental poison for almost a whole year. I only realized what I was doing when I took a long break from Twitter that didn’t involve going to my cabin, a break that was entirely whimsical on my part. And I tend to doubt I’m the only person Twitter negatively affects this way. I hope anyone who reads this takes a look at their own social media habit to see if it is dragging them down the way mine was.
I can only be thankful that I’m given to introspection or else I might never have made the connection between Twitter and my writing problem. But now that I see the danger, and see the fruits of avoiding the poison, I think I’ll be able to get my writing back on track.
* I don’t know why, exactly, but writing in general—and writing fiction especially—is a huge cognitive load for me. It’s the most mentally exhausting thing I do. I find programming substantially easier than writing, even when figuring out things I’ve never done before in code, and I can program for much longer periods of time than I can write. Like, I can string together 14 hour programming days no problem but I’m lucky if I can string together two 5 hour writing days in a row. I think I just try to keep too much in my head when I write. E.g. when I write a scene, especially an action scene where character locations and time to perform actions matter, I can see the whole thing in my head at once and step through it like it’s a simulation. That takes some processing power. The upside is my drafts are pretty clean; I rarely make the “Charlie lost his gun last chapter but magically has it again this chapter” kind of mistake.
If I was actually writing 4 hours a day every day I would be putting out over a million words a year, so I’m not too worried about my mental endurance problem. I’ll worry about that when I actually go a few months hitting my limit most days. As it is, my production bottleneck is discipline, not mental stamina.