I used to be the woman who worked a room. If invited, I would’ve gone to the opening of an envelope. Social media didn’t exist in my twenties, so you had to occupy physical spaces. A breathing body was proof of life. Emails wouldn’t suffice since we were suspicious of the kind of communication that could disappear into a black hole. There was no did you get my email when someone’s breathing two feet in front of your face.
Back when I was playing with my abacus and learning how to start fires in my cave, I worked in book publishing. Friends used to introduce me as someone who was good to know. The concept of FOMO was non-existent, but I had a severe case of it. I thought the more I was seen, the more I put myself out there, the more people I accumulated in my contact list, something would happen. Although I wasn’t entirely certain what that something was.
I suppose it worked because when I published my first book in 2008, it was everywhere. Blogs covered it. Podcast hosts and website editors interviewed me. My book was featured in USA Today, Vanity Fair, Elle, and Entertainment Weekly. While the world was smaller back then — we didn’t have the tweet swarm, Pavlovian status updates, fingers habituated to doomsday scrolling and swiping— technology would soon make me feel claustrophobic and alone.
Although my book wasn’t a bestseller, it earned out its advance and was well-received. All that hustling, networking, and work paid off — but at what cost? I was the clown living in a hurt circus, unable to strip the mask from my face. I swallowed all the best parts of me so I could make adults sporting ironic eyewear laugh at my expense. Drinking softened the edges until the room fell too quiet and I could forget I was there.
I knew some people laughed at me behind my back. There was a now-disgraced Paris Review editor who sized me up at a book party and walked away. There was the guy who wrote self-absorbed stories in my Columbia workshop who pretended to not know me. When he published a novel about a self-absorbed guy suffering the tortures of the damned, he experienced some minor celebrity. Every time we were introduced, he would act as if it was the first time we’d met. And then there those who issued barbs that weren’t so thinly-veiled.
Still, I’d smile and show up. Still, I’d ride the subway home in tears.
The mask I’d been wearing became the shape of my face.
In 2009, I torched the joint. Closed shop on my revered literary magazine and resigned from my lucrative book publishing job. I burned all the bridges and devoured the ashes. I took a senior role at a digital media agency and threw myself into my work.
The internet exploded. Everyone was on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Instagram would launch the following year. All the physical spaces morphed into digital ones. We hid behind our shiny devices. Everyone preened for the screen where we became the architects of our personal brands. The new world order dictated if you were nobody if you weren’t online.
It was like a job interview with cocktails only you were stone sober and you knew you were never getting the job. Still, you had to stomach the small talk.
While I signed up for all the accounts, I didn’t know how to be on social media when I realized digital masks had replaced physical ones. Nobody wanted your present-tense sadness. They preferred you not to kick up a fuss or make a scene. Your pain was awkward and uncomfortable and no one wanted to bear the weight of it. You were expected to deliver a life in sepia where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
Otherwise, the motley lot unfollowed, muted, and blocked you. We got good at bleaching our feeds clean of hurt. Of all the things that make us human.
While I build brands for a living, I struggled with mine. My personality is polarizing. I have opinions and they’re almost always unpopular. I write short, clipped emails. Unsolicited advice frustrates me — I must’ve blacked out when I asked for your opinion. Yet, people still give it and I have a hard time hiding my irritation. I’m guarded because I’ve been hurt and used and laughed at and I’ve much to protect. People are rarely pure — they’ll shake you down for what you can give. They’ll dig through your contacts list and virtual pockets. They’ll pick you clean.
I know this because it’s happened time and time and time again. How do I sell congeniality when I’m a walking wound?
But I thought if I endured it, spent enough time online, I would find an agent to replace the one I’d resigned and get that third book off the ground. I’d blow up my consulting business. I’d have million-dollar course launches so I can spend my twilight years wearing muumuus and saving puppies.
Instead, I had an Ativan and Sancerre-fueled public online breakdown where my “friends” issued fatwas and virtual restraining orders. They reported my tweets, blocked and unfollowed me, and dodged my calls. They’re mental health advocates until depression fills the rooms of their house.
Instead of pulling a 2009 and falling out of the frame, I set boundaries and made a plan. I read every book on returning to the life I’d grown up living — the irony of which doesn’t escape me. I devoured Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and saw its plain, simple truths. Here’s what I did.
Evaluate the purpose of every digital platform you use
People are apoplectic when they learn I’m not on every social network. They tell me I’ll never get business leads until I remind them social media has never delivered me clients — my writing has. Don’t listen to the fear-mongering and herd mentality. Most people follow the herd without questioning why they’re moving in the first place and in what direction.
I stepped back and defined how I want to spend my days. I evaluated each platform and defined its value, use, and purpose. This is where you need to get surgical and honest with yourself and perform that old cost-benefit analysis. Facebook and Twitter only made me angry, and I can curate my news sources instead of reacting in the moment. Instagram made me feel like a loser. Pinterest, I never understood. YouTube frightens me. I know I’d snort TikTok like the coke I did at Rodman’s house when I was twenty-six.
I settled on LinkedIn and Medium. I have a tiny, private Instagram account where I mostly look at animal rescue videos when I’m feeling blue. There’s a veneer, a wall to LinkedIn I like, which keeps everything professional and on an even keel. I’ve been on Medium since 2013, and I see it as a place where I can showcase my smarts and experiment with fiction no one reads.
I don’t get caught up in the dramas and politicking because I had enough of that in book publishing, and it’s the same, tired show only a different channel. I don’t care about claps, income, and popularity because I’m allergic to people and I’d rather assemble a tiny, mighty community than get bombarded by the masses. I’ve been writing dark literary fiction for decades — I’m used to being unpopular and not widely read.
Medium is a place where I understand the geography and social order and know where I fit.
Now, I spend time writing and sharing work that means something to me and moves and educates people. I oscillate between my two storytelling worlds — story writing and marketing — and I love the feeling of switching off one side of my brain and firing up another. I buy cookbooks to feel the weight of the paper and binding in my hands and make food without posting pictures of it.
Remember when a room was clouded with flour?
Return to the life I knew as a kid
We took the things we held in our hands for granted. I spend much of my days tethered to a laptop and a phone, so in my off-hours, I strive for balance. My hobbies are tactile and multi-sensory. I walk, hike, run, write longhand, write letters, read books, participate in book exchanges, play the clarinet, and cook. Now that I rarely see people or have the opportunity to hold them close, touching, smelling, and being around that which is real is even more important to me.
I’m a better artist who’s constantly curious because I reach for a world beyond the digital borders we’ve created. I don’t read how-to books on writing, I diagram novels, mark up the pages, and vivisect authors who challenge me. I’m an artist and professional who’s evolving and growing because I exercise my senses beyond a keyboard and a screen.
Every morning, I walk for five miles while listening to podcasts. Sometimes, I walk in quiet, absorbing the streets, smells, and sounds.
I see humans instead of their names on screens
I set up monthly Zoom dates with old peers and friends. There’s no agenda other than to talk to a human. Sometimes, we don’t even use the video because we’re fatigued and have no interest in putting on pants. But it’s good to hear the voices of people I love and respect. I miss that. I miss cues and decoding body language. I miss vibing off of someone’s physical energy and breath. We talk about our careers, lives, and children (my cat’s my kid, so there’s that).
And it’s paying off. Reminding me I can live in a world where social media is a minor player instead of the star of the show. Relegating social media to the role of back-up dancer freed up time and space for me to create. I’ve written my best fiction and tutorials in the near two years since. I’m intentional and proud of the work I put out into the world because I know I have so few spaces to share it, so every word matters. Every post is considered.
My world is slower, contemplative and meaningful instead of rage-filled and reactive.
When it comes to work, I have time. I’m partnering with a major website to design a course. I’m launching brand and storytelling workshops. I’ve overhauled all of my marketing materials (including my fancy edited-for-television portfolio) and stressed-tested my frameworks and methodology. I’m taking on clients that matter to me instead of chasing a paycheck.
Even though this year has been a long, steady climb out of quicksand, I’m healthy, present, and creating the best work I possibly can because I have time.
No one tells you that. No one tells you how many hours of your life you get back when you’re not mindlessly scrolling. No one tells you about the magic you make. No one tells you that you’ll find what you’re chasing when you open your eyes and see.
That’s the something — being able to see.