Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing, Twitter Anxiety, and the Myth of Production

This past fall, I became much more active in the SF/F writing community on Twitter. Almost immediately, I fell into one of the deepest and toughest bouts of anxiety I’ve ever faced.

Anxiety is treacherous and terrifying, and it is much more than just normal, day-to-day stress. And my anxiety wasn’t just caused by Twitter; it was also caused by an aggressive and demanding schedule at work, and my own tendency to equate my self-worth with my ability to produce writing in my spare time. But Twitter certainly exacerbated it.

Why did I join Twitter in the first place? I wanted to follow writers I admired, to get a glimpse of what they were doing that I could imitate. It was as if writing was learning how to knit or fix a tire, and I just had to follow the steps to success. So I followed several up-and-coming writers and started to take mental notes on where they were submitting, who they were following, what conversations were dominating the field.

I was quickly overwhelmed by how much competition I felt. Before, I’d been writing mostly in a vacuum. Now I had the freedom to compare myself to other writers 24/7. They were selling more than me, writing more than me. How were they writing so much when they were on Twitter all the time?

I didn’t feel as charming or as interesting as everyone else I followed. Outside, I was all “jokes jokes jokes” and inside I felt lonely and afraid and worthless. I was afraid I’d be pushed out of the community before I really got a chance to be in it. I was afraid that I’d do something wrong or bad or stupid online; I couldn’t really tell how I was being received, and it was intimidating. I felt pressure to produce, pressure to be funny and clever and to have something to say about the movie I was watching, book I was reading, music I was listening to, burrito I was eating.

Beyond that, I felt anxious about the platform itself. I wanted to get retweets, likes, comments, and follows. Was it okay if I commented in a friendly manner on someone’s Tweet, or was I annoying them by crawling up in their mentions? If I said the wrong thing, would I be made an example of?

In comparison to the anxiety and tension I felt on Twitter, Facebook suddenly felt like a warm bath.

This all coincided with my feeling of rejection in general. I had been writing fiction for a year and a half. I wasn’t having much success selling my stories, but I was generally optimistic about the outlook. For most of that time, when I got a rejection, I told myself that my story was just one step closer to finding a home. I imagined myself as an awkward but friendly duck, and the rejection as one tiny drop of water, rolling off my back. But soon after I became active on Twitter, I didn’t see rejection as a tiny drop anymore, but as the giant lake surrounding me.

I developed shoulder pain, an eye twitch, and an ulcer, all before I had my first panic attack in November.

Once I realized that my interactions on Twitter were a source of stress, I managed it. I only let myself have three Twitter check-ins per day, and I wasn’t allowed to check in at all before I wrote my words in the morning. I also unfollowed people—some of them the very people I had come on Twitter to follow, people I liked and respected—because they were stressing me out by being so good at their jobs.

A reasonable person probably would have quit Twitter at this point. But I hung on for dear life, knowing that it can be a useful tool to writers. Twitter is where I hear about calls for stories, get notifications from journals about when their reading periods open, find out about current SF events and topics of conversation. I went to a workshop I heard about on Twitter, one of the best choices I’ve made for my writing. And I met people to share my work with, creating a network for smart, plugged-in beta-readers.

Ultimately, the problem is with me, not with Twitter.

When I approach it the right way, Twitter is a great support system, a really kind and loving place. I’ve seen strangers give each other virtual hugs, tell each other that they’re wonderful, to keep writing and fighting in the face of sadness and fear and the crawling ooze of mortality. @posisailor tells her followers every day that they are worthwhile and that they can achieve their dreams. @gaileyfrey asks her followers to tell her about their successes, and then tweets affirmations. @matthaig1 writes kindly and transparently about struggles with depression. In short, I’ve seen love there.

And I want to be a more loving person. More loving to myself and more loving to others. I want to be a champion for others’ successes, and for my own.

But even with these guidelines and good intentions, Twitter can push my buttons. And the reason why comes down to the myth of productivity.

Let me give you an example. I posted a story of mine a couple weeks ago, and got some retweets by some authors who I *seriously* admire. And I was euphoric about it. Nothing feels quite as good as getting a compliment from someone who doesn’t know you in person. They only know you through what you produce and, in a way, these are the most powerful compliments of all—entirely merit-based (or so it feels).

But this is a trap I fall into too easily. Equating myself with what I produce. I’m only as valuable as what I’ve managed to accomplish in a given day—and not even that! Going to the grocery store, or a doctor’s visit, or taking a walk with my dog? None of these entirely-necessary duties contribute to my sense of productivity. Only writing-related work—writing, revising, editing, or submitting—matters to this mentality.

This is my bad mental habit. And it is contributing to making me sick.

I know I’m not alone here. I see this mentality on Twitter, among my friends who post their word-counts on good days and lament when they haven’t written anything on bad days.

But we are more than what we produce. I feel shitty when I don’t write, when I don’t have things out in submission, when I haven’t updated my blog in a while because those are measurable levels of “how I’m doing” as a writer. But regardless of how I'm doing as a writer, I have worth. I matter ... WE matter ... no matter what.

1 comment:

Marion said...

Kate, I think this is really insightful. Periodically I remind myself that for most people, a tweet only takes a few minutes, and these folks really aren't cranking out excellent books and short fiction, selling them, writing blogs, attending conferences and producing clever, profound tweets all at the same time... even if it does seem that way.

It's so hard to recognize that all the other things we do in life are productive, and that the word isn't limited to just writing.

Thank you for sharing this.