It used to be that after a writer felt the spark of inspiration, she refined her idea in a period of incubation and reflection. She sat alone wrestling with her mind, wrangling phrases and plotlines and insight out of a chaos of ideas until she had something coherent, meaningful, beautiful, evocative, or affecting to share. She edited her work, and then others did, before it went out to the public.
Now, almost as soon as an experience is had or insight flickers half-grasped, the impulse is to post a photo on social media, particularly Instagram, with a mini-essay caption to make quick wisdom and insta-meaning in service of clicks, likes, followers, and a steady online presence applauded by agents and publishers. What once might have been given weeks or years to develop into an essay or book can now be shared after five to ten minutes of photo editing and punchy writing. An agonizing process of deep work in isolation can be eschewed by posting a musing, a question, a little zygote of an essay on social media; within minutes the writer receives praise, shares, reinterpretations, questions, and—significantly—the flood of dopamine that comes from the approval of colleagues, family, friends, and strangers.
Is this disruption from the solitary musing that has for so long characterized a writer’s life bad for literature, attention spans, and depth of inquiry, as some writers, such as Zadie Smith and Steve Almond, have argued? Or is this spontaneous, unedited expression a boon for the creative process, a further and inevitable evolution of literature as it has always grown and changed? And what of the platform it provides to writers who might not otherwise find one? Social media has democratized whose voices get heard, as young people, people of color, and writers in disabled and LGBTQ communities who may have been previously shut out of the traditional publishing world can now reach millions.
Bemoaning changes in our technology as being bad for literature, attention, and writing is nothing new. In a 2008 article for the Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” writer and professor of sociology Nicholas Carr reminded us that people once feared that writing itself would destroy intelligence and erode critical thinking skills; Socrates lamented its weakening of memory and worried that reading engendered a false sense of mastery of information. Many hundreds of years later, in 1882, when Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter to save him the migraines and muscle pains caused from writing by hand, one of his friends noticed his writing style had changed. “You are right,” Nietzsche wrote to his friend, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” According to Carr, media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler described that Nietzsche’s writing had changed from “arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” Sounds familiar.
While Instagram may threaten writers’ and readers’ sustained attention, proffering shallow truisms that lack nuance by design, in some ways maintaining a social media account can also help us pay more granular attention to our lives the way writing does, inspiring us to strive to capture the light falling just so on our green juice, or steam rising from the subway grates, as if we were Emily Dickinson gazing at a fly bumbling around her room. It can encourage us to give voice to the flashes of insight that alight in the grocery line—insights perhaps not meaty enough for a full essay (or that we might lack the time or stamina to develop into such) but plenty substantial for a post.
A friend told me that only minutes after her other-worldly and completely immersive experience giving birth, while holding her brand-new daughter, her mind began to wander to how and when she’d compose the social media post describing the experience. Hours after her child was born, she was on Instagram. But, if not for Instagram, perhaps the experience would have gone undescribed, lost to the chaos of hospital visitors, leaking breasts, the first exhausting days, then weeks, then months of parenthood.
Constructing the narrative of our lives through an Instagram account can help us to savor the beautiful mundanity of the quotidian and make meaning of the ceaseless flow of events, perceptions, and people that make up our lives. Less committal than a blog, quicker than an e-mail, and farther reaching than a newsletter, social media offers people who never wrote before a medium and incentive to pause, reflect, describe, and analyze, at least a little. Even if it’s dictating into a notes app on the phone rather than writing with paper and pencil, isn’t the act of stopping, of viewing life from a slightly removed perspective, of taking the time to translate something private and nascent for the public, the same no matter the medium or form or length? It’s a hard question to answer, as Instagram invites more of us to tell stories about our lives but can siphon our storytelling energies, creating a leak in the creative reservoir that used to build up enough pressure inside a writer to compel them to write.
Social media can also narrow down our perspective to a screen six inches by three inches, causing us to miss the very things we as writers hope to capture. With our heads perpetually bent over our phones on the bus, in waiting rooms, in lines, we miss out on observing what’s around us, connecting with others, indulging in our own daydreams where boredom used to spark creativity. When we fill up previously empty time by scrolling the content of others, we escape our own anxieties, imaginings, desires, and heartaches, all of which are the fodder for writing.
Recent studies have shown the value in boredom and daydreaming, when the brain, in the absence of external stimuli, digs through its own reserves. In William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life (Ig Publishing, 2019), author Steve Almond argues that “the abrupt proliferation of technological devices has offered us the illusion of a mass confessional. But our phones and laptops more often represent a refuge from the tribulation of our internal experience. We turn to them in moments of anguish, rewiring our brains to seek diversionary stimulations. The frantic beckoning of our feeds has thus become another market for distraction, an array of ‘platforms’ upon which we perform a market-ready version of our lives.”
Another way social media can cause us to technologically bypass potentially rich thoughts and emotions is by encouraging us to view our experiences, notions, and feelings and even loved ones as “content,” branding our musings and inner truths rather than challenging or deepening them. In the stories of people I follow on Instagram, E brings her phone to an anniversary dinner and records her husband ordering his food. M videos guests at her son’s birthday party singing “Happy Birthday” to him as he leans over a strawberry with a candle in it (he doesn’t eat sugar). W stands in her bedroom in matching black underwear during her “me” time and shows her four hundred sixty-seven thousand followers how she dry-brushes her body to promote lymphatic drainage. I see these photos (in my own erstwhile “dead time,” now used for peering into the lives of others) and try to determine: Is capitalizing on every Instagram-able moment eroding our ability to engage deeply with our lives, which is so essential to good writing? But then I also know that we writers are already in the business of selling our inner experience, commodifying our inner lives by publishing work culled from private passions, bitterest disappointments, stealing away from wedding receptions, child-rearing, and hospital bedsides to compose our stories.
I certainly didn’t start writing for money, or public recognition, or anyone else. I started keeping a diary when I was eight years old because it was how I talked to myself, understood my life and the world. Later it was how I slogged through existential anguish, sorted out what had meaning to me and what didn’t, and constructed a self I loved and whose perceptions I trusted.
But when I started making money on my writing as a personal essayist, a shift in how I experienced my life began. A horrible case of poison oak had value if it would make a good essay, a devastating breakup could be turned into exposure and a few hundred dollars if I spun it right. Life’s blows were buffered by the creation of narrative. As Isak Dinesen said, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.” As a writing teacher once said, “Bad for life, good for writing.”
In my experience as a nonfiction writer, ideas and creative impulses are now divided between fodder for in-depth reflective essays and posts to social media, which my agent encourages since we are shopping my memoir to publishers. Right now posts are easier than essays, especially as we’ve been quarantined without childcare for our one-year-old for the past several months. Last week I posted some photos of walking my baby into a lake for the first time and wrote about how much it meant to me to have the respite of that natural place. If not for the existence of social media, that might have been an essay, perhaps more deeply explored, more keenly observed, more fully thought through. But since Instagram was an option, I used it. I took six pictures, jotted some thoughts while my baby was playing next to me with a yellow ball, and posted it before he got tired of throwing and chasing the ball across our living room. Maybe it would have been a better piece, with more revelation, nuance, detail, and plot as an essay. Something aspiring toward Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “High Tide in Tucson.” Or maybe it wouldn’t have been anything at all, lost to reheating black beans for dinner, moving the load of cloth diapers from washer to dryer, napping on the couch at the end of an exhausting day.
Whether good or bad for writing—and the answer, for me, is likely a “both and”—social media isn’t going anywhere, and most writers aren’t staying off of it, especially now that we’re physically distancing. In fact almost no one is staying away, and perhaps because of that, more people are writing, are noticing, are observing and documenting than ever before. Now not just writers but entrepreneurs, high school students, sneaker influencers, exercise enthusiasts, cake artists, and empowerment coaches are telling their stories, and sharing theories and dreams, in their profiles online.
Whether this changes literature as did the typewriter, printing press, and personal computer, or spurs a new genre of caption literature—micro essays that smack of an influencer’s intention to sell, the character development and plotline arcing toward a perfect solution that happens to be the thing being sold by that Instagram account—remains to be seen. Already we’ve encountered stories written in one-hundred-forty-character installments on Twitter (David Mitchell’s The Right Sort, published in two hundred eighty tweets over the course of a week in 2014) and novels written in daily text messages designed to be read on a cell phone (popularized in Japan, keitai shousetsu, Japanese for “cell phone novel,” are characterized by daily or weekly chapters of sometimes no more than fifty words of minimalist yet emotion-laden haiku-like prose). And still, books are being published on paper and becoming best-sellers, essays are opening minds, and poems are restoring souls.
The medium evolves. Styles change. But the impetus behind writing, behind literature, stays the same. Day after day, as people log on to their social media accounts composing little treatises as tweets and captions and status updates, they are trying to explain, as every writer is at their core: This is who I am; this is what I’ve seen; this is what I think and feel; this is what has made me me.
Gila Lyons’s writing about health and social justice has appeared in the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; Cosmopolitan; Health; Salon; and other publications.