At one time, writers were these closeted creatures who – when not getting terribly drunk or engaging in other mid-summer madnesses – stayed put at desks and wrote their pages longhand or pounded a typewriter. Now, of course, there is the constant distraction of social media and Netflix/Hotstar/Amazon Prime lurking right where one works – on the very same laptop. Google is so potent a drug that writers like Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby have gone on record thanking the internet-blocking software that helped them finish their books, North-West and Fever Pitch, respectively.
How then, we wondered aloud, does the millennial writer discipline herself? And how would she characterise her relationship to social media generally? We sent off this question to six writers and told them to be as rambly as they liked, and indicated our preference for dramatic anecdotes. Here’s what they said in response.
Not a millennial (I caught the last two weeks of the 1970s), and you know what, I just realised I don’t know much about how millennial writers work. Most of the millennials I know who write tend to work for social sites and digital video and in standup comedy, where of course the writing process is completely different.
I think for people who still write books, Netflix and Youtube and smartphones don’t make writing significantly more difficult – I’ve been writing for 15 years and I managed to successfully procrastinate even before broadband entered my life. You don’t really need help to not write – the efficient non-writer can not write for years without any help from 21st-century temptations. I think the digital age hasn’t increased procrastination – it has only increased your procrastination options.
It’s actually easier to resist a Netflix show than a movie that only runs in theatres for a specific amount of time. It’ll still be around when you finish, and all you need to do is avoid spoilers on the internet. Writing is difficult in itself, but once you’ve managed to summon writing energy then it doesn’t really matter what else is going on (I say this immediately after binge-watching a Netflix show).
Having said that, I think social media and streaming digital video do significant damage to my reading habit. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to read more books because I noticed last year that I had, thanks largely to social media, achieved the attention span of a small dog. It’s been a long and slow process for my brain to regain any kind of retention capacity, and cutting myself off from Twitter and Facebook for most of the day has been a large part of that.
The best part of that, though, is that after a few days of not really being on social media you don’t miss it at all. It’s like cutting TV out of your life. I haven’t had a TV connection since 2006 and I don’t think I’ve lost anything at all, especially after streaming video meant I could binge-watch all those shows my friends had been obsessed by for years.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
Firstly, very flattered to be called a “millennial writer”. There’s some debate about which years are millennial and which aren’t, but I was born in mid-December of 1981, which is basically 1982, which means I can scrape in by one definition but not another. ANYHOW.
I remember before the internet, of course, and before cellphones were a thing, and before writing came automatically with a blank Word document, keyboards just an extension of your fingers. All this to establish that I am an Old. I wrote stories in notebooks at first, in school I always had a separate “rough” book so I could amuse myself between classes, so I must have seemed very studious, always reading or writing, but never course material, alas. So writing often and regularly was a habit, a form of meditation and a way to sort out my head at the end of the day (especially with my journals).
So, it stands to reason that when I got out of college, dewy-eyed and idealistic, that I wanted a job in writing. I had no other skills, not having cultivated any, so it was either publishing or journalism, and publishing put me off because like Hannah Hovrath, I “firmly believed I was the voice of my generation. Or A voice of A generation.”
I wanted to write and I wanted people to read my writing and think wonderful things about me. I was, am and will probably continue to be, an incorrigible show off. This is true of a lot of writers though, so when social media came along (SEE, I’M TOTALLY MAKING A POINT HERE!) we all flocked to it and witticism-ed like shells from a machine gun, rat-a-tat-tat, behold our genius!
Journalism back in the noughties, before all the newspapers had proper websites, and even if they did, you couldn’t share it on anything except Orkut anyway, and no one used Orkut for that, was very much a word of mouth thing. Did you read that article in that paper? And if the answer was no and a lot of people were talking about it, you asked your mum who subscribed to all the papers to hang on to a copy for you. Which should have kept me disciplined, but then I also had a blog which was giving me instant feedback and instant satisfaction.
(This is very beside the point, poor you! Okay, okay, I’ll rein it in) Right. Discipline is HARD. More so when you work from home and that new episode has just dropped, that new controversy is blazing all over your social media, that new article is begging to be shared. But I have to make a living, and no one is paying me to tweet or instagram just yet. (I live in hope.)
So I’ve divvied up my day into chunks. The first chunk is when I drink my coffee, read my email (I subscribe to at least ten newsletters, so I have a lot of links), reply to messages and so on. The second chunk is a burst of productivity right before lunch – I send out my story pitches, start to begin work on new ideas and so on.
Then after lunch around four, work starts up again, I write till about seven and that’s usually when I wrap up and turn, thankfully, to my many distractions. More than social media, I have old-fashioned time sucks – a cat has knocked over something, groceries need shopping, the maid needs instructions, a big personal thing has happened and we have to discuss it. But maybe thanks to my old-fashioned ways, I’m not as addicted to my phone as I might be. Right now it’s not even in the same room as me and I’m gazing out at a hot Delhi evening, cat by my side as I write this, very old school except for the medium in which I communicate.
So no shocking social media revelations for you. Except maybe this: sometimes when I’m behind on a deadline but I still want to social media, I say in my post “working on a piece BUT blah blah” so that my editors know I’m hard at work should they see it!
Rosalyn D’ Mello
I think it’s very important to limit one’s dependence on social media, either as a form of distraction, or as a medium for reaching out to potential readers. Mainly because social media is often like a bubble, and it’s possible to get caught up in all the ceaseless ranting, debating, and general passive aggressiveness that it generally involves. It’s for this reason that I’m quite inactive on Twitter, most of my posts to that platform go via Instagram.
Although lately, because I’ve been focussing my energies on honing my language, I’ve not been posting a lot of images on Instagram either. I recently deleted the Facebook app from my phone, and even on my browser, I limit my viewing and engagement with it to twice or thrice a day, for a five-minute span. Then I close the page and continue with my work.
Netflix and Amazon are great when you want quick and easy access to television that is stimulating and fabulously written.
I wouldn’t say I’m a terribly disciplined writer. I don’t wake up every morning and write away like I’m on fire. I find my way out of slumber, listen to classical music (I’m currently tripping on Arvo Part) and I flit between reading, writing, watching a TV series like Transparent, which I’m really enjoying, doing household work, cooking, making pickles, chutneys, lunch, hosting people at home over great conversation, going out for my runs in the evening, doing my exercise routine, then winding down with dinner, and many games of scrabble on my iPad as I fall asleep. Increasingly, I’m less inclined to go out and “network”. I’m happy to have become a homebody.
Manu S Pillai
Oddly enough, I felt very much like the first variety of writer you’ve described, in particular when I was doing the final draft of my book – I had turned into this unshaven, scrawny creature (I lost a total of 12 kg in the process!), who sat at his desk all day in striped pyjamas, swallowing chocolate bars and eating cake.
It was a furious, desperate pace of work in those last six months, fuelled by sugar highs, mainly because I had already spent five years on the book and had decided that one way or another I had to finish the manuscript before this became six years. It was also hugely isolating, of course, and my breaks were essentially to curl up on the cold floor and steal power-naps.
I did use one particular social media app quite a lot. Snapchat! Every hour or so I’d take some foolish, predictable photograph and send it to my friends, and it was certainly a welcome distraction between writing and cake. I only paused when someone complained that my Snapchats were always in the same place, at the same desk, with the same laptop, in the same clothes, wearing the same expression. No self-respecting Snapchatter can be accused of being repetitive and boring. In any case, once the book was finished, Snapchat disappeared from my phone – I used it as a diversion and had no more need for it really.
On a more serious note, however, the discipline came because I also began working on my book quite early, at 19. So it began with coming back from college and then writing or sitting in archives. Then, of course, I had to earn a living as I grew older, which in the jobs I did came with many pressures, so life became a case of working during the day and writing by night.
When I needed archives and libraries in India, I found work in India – when I had to return to London, I found jobs there. There wasn’t much time to be distracted, immodest as it might sound, and frankly I didn’t, during this phase, make any lasting friendships that might have required me to invest more time and energy elsewhere. I had, on the contrary, one solid relationship that was a pillar of strength, support, and emotional nourishment.
It wasn’t easy in that I am not an introvert and I like being around people, and being chained to a work-desk all day and then to my laptop at home was hugely frustrating. But in the end, it became a matter of habit entirely. It is only now, six years later, during what I call my “break year”, that I can see how much I seem to have missed out on in terms of popular culture, films, travel, and more, and how much effort those six years demanded.
I don’t regret it at all though – now if I don’t have more than one thing to do at a time, I get restless. I complain that I can’t sleep (and I am sipping Chamomile tea as I write this!) but I’d be a little worried if I were sleeping comfortably.
On a deeper level there is also, I must admit, a degree of awareness about my own background and circumstances – my maternal grandfather was a gentleman with books while my paternal grandfather was an illiterate farmer. So while one side exposed me to a certain kind of world, the other side of my own family showed me poverty, struggle, trauma, and worse.
There is, therefore, a general sense I think I acquired quite early on that I am lucky I am not in such difficult conditions as some of my cousins, and that this means I must not squander the advantages I possess on unserious whims and fancies. It sounds awfully serious, but it is a very real feeling.
I also do believe in that old-fashioned undemonstrative stiffness of the upper lip, and might even get impatient with people who are too easily swayed. This also influences my writing – get to work and don’t complain!
Every conversation that I have with my mother concludes with her telling me to “take care, be careful” and me rolling my eyes. What do I have to be careful about, I grouse. All I do is sit here on this chair, day after day, staring at the screen and only getting up to fetch more coffee and toast (or Nutella-bed, if one were to name bread after its true purpose). Today, I went outside for the first time in three days, squinting like a recently-bedridden mole.
The fact of the matter is, when the home of both my work and much of my entertainment lies inside a laptop, it’s hard to disengage myself from it, and even harder to keep those two aspects of life separate. It’s difficult to resist Facebook and to have my Dropbox and Netflix separated by nothing more than one click of the minimise key, but, over the years, I’ve found this seemingly detrimental co-existence to have strangely productive side effects.
I have always written and never been particularly tech-savvy, and the earliest drafts of my work always had big, gaping holes in the text – things I had to research, events and facts and dates that needed confirmation. Everything got looked up and filled in eventually, of course, but the patchy process slowed things down, and I wasn’t able to get my hands on all the right information more than once. In that sense, the internet and social media are a blessing – there’s hardly anything Google can’t tell you, and reaching out to experts via social media makes verifying things delightfully quick and easy.
This is obviously not to say that random detours into the many fascinating corners of the virtual world don’t happen (did you know that Nabokov had been wishing for a smiley emoji way back in 1969?), but let’s be honest – procrastination is as much a part of writing as frustration and teeny-tiny pay cheques. It’s just that now the main means of procrastination can also be a way to work faster and better. I think that’s a pretty good deal.
Let me state at the very outset that I loathe social media. Almost as much as I loathe bottle gourd. But unlike my hard stand against the latter, I’ve never really been able to be quite as decisive about my social media venom, something I’m going to elaborate on as soon as I’ve watched the 30th anniversary of Billie Jean at Madison Square the twelfth time this week…all my procrastination has led me to rediscover moonwalking…which was first performed by Bill Bailey, FYI, so there’s something you can YouTube the next time you’re avoiding the uncomfortable gaze of a looming deadline.
My dithering with social media began when I, quite accidentally, signed a contract to work for a social media marketing agency. It was my first job and I was willing to “step out of my comfort zone” – a phrase I picked up from “5 Steps to Cracking an Interview” or some such inviting web page, even before I had passed my university final exams. Suddenly I found myself faced with graphs in the back alleys of Facebook.
Until then I hadn’t realised, while posting cake pictures on the wall (not the kind that had Berlin divided, which was rather a pity for them), that there was a whole new planet out there, frequently referred to as Content. And Content was accelerating faster than global warming.
All kinds of things were thrown at me – branding, hashtags, infographics, not to mention various youthisms such as bae. I’m guilty AF about not being on fleek. You know what is on fleek though? @my_aussie_gal or Secret, the Australian Shepherd whose flexibility and dance moves infuriate me against my fat Lab who won’t even Sit and definitely won’t Stay. There are dogs in this world who are pirouetting their way to Instagram fame while mine will reluctantly shake a paw only if I’m hiding a biscuit behind my back.
I digress. Bitterly.
No surprises then that my professional relationship with social media ended with an acrimonious fall-out – there’ll always be baggage between twitter and me – but I keep up a frivolous dalliance with some of the others on the side. No strings attached, I can go off all my accounts without the boss jumping down my throat, but it’s hard, because FOMO has made deactivation a choice for the foolhardy, or the lionhearted, or perhaps the kind of writer who’ll cut her nose to spite her face. Because inspiration now lies in three-minute-dessert videos (don’t try to recreate them if you’re already entrenched in self-loathing; what looks like a perfectly-layered entremet will only resemble the ruins of Harappa in your kitchen).
TBH, Instagram is my favourite; she’s unobtrusive and hasn’t crossed her boundaries yet in the way Facebook has with all the ads on the side leading me to browse floral keds when my shoe rack has already had an extension. #FallingRightIntoTheTrap
I’ll meander back to the point, though, might I add, I’m foggy on what the point really is because I’m distracted by all the listicles on Emmanuel Macron’s wife, who’ll always be Emmanuel Macron’s Old Wife instead of First Lady Brigitte Macron with the Young Husband…The feminist battle continues but no, that’s not the point, not for this piece at least.
Besides, if a writer does happen to take a hard stand and disappear from the virtual world (which is really the only world we inhabit these days, so who needs an invisibility cloak while the Deactivate button still exists?), rest assured, the marketing team at the publishing house will raise the most astounding hue and cry. Your book will sink without a trace, they assure you. Reviewers who won’t be able to stalk your various accounts and judge you, not by the book cover – that’s so Victorian – but by your Instagram-filtered-BeautyPlus-enhanced profile picture, will give up in disgust, your Facebook page must be inundated with not-at-all-creative creatives, and the only thing that will help you sell about one-third your print-run is badgering every one of your friends till they unfriend you.
It’s exhausting. It makes me want to take that Buzzfeed quiz on which Bengali nickname best suits my personality. It’s Potol. Go figure.
I’m going to end this as yet another unfinished, imperfect bit of writing, because there’s just no time to mirror the perfect, forgotten art of longform these days. Because, dammit, it’s hard to compete with the Kadarshian shenanigans, and the squiggles of the vigil idiot crack me up even while besieging me with self-doubt. How did Hanya Yanagihara ever finish writing that book? And we live in a world where Justin Bieber’s blue hand towel deserves a whole article. With pictures, of course. Yes, it’s been shared by multiple people on my timeline. I rest my case.
PS: I would have handed this in a lot sooner if I hadn’t been so amused by Ranveer Singh on the Make My Trip ads.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two-and-a-half books and a so-long-dragged-out-that-it-was-nearly-abandoned doctoral thesis on the Natyashastra. She has a highly conflicted relationship with both social media and discipline.