Balancing work, social media and, yes, writing

We all know how distracting social media can be. Sometimes I’ll sit down to work on a chapter of my book, turn to Twitter or Facebook or my blog just for a minute, and when I finally look up, it’s two hours later.

It’s not that I’m wasting time on these networks. I’m not playing Farmville or poking friends or throwing pigs at tweeps (if only that were possible). There’s simply so much information out there that I want to click on and read and share. So many interesting people to talk to. So much to learn.

I’ve been pretty good at balancing writing and social media for the last couple of years. I multitask efficiently and use tools like Hootsuite and Google Reader to make my online time as productive as possible.

You know you're not working on your manuscript enough when... your dog sleeps on it. Thank you, Cooper.

But ever since I made social media my job, balancing has become a problem. I’m spending more and more time on social networks, and less time writing. This makes sense in some ways, since helping small businesses with social media is how I’m now making money. I’m starting a business. Of course it’s filling more of my time.

But I’ve been neglecting my revisions, and those are important to me, too. A big part of the reason why I think it’s a good idea to work for myself is because it gives me the flexibility and the time to write. I can build up Socialexis and work on my book. Allegedly.

Here’s my problem. With social media, work is never done. There’s always more I can do. Know how you always want to push out one last tweet or connect with one more interesting person on She Writes? How you’re sure you can improve your online community and influence if you just put in one more hour? I’m now feeling that pressure not only for my personal networks, but also for my clients’ accounts. I want to do the best job I can for each client, and I’m always thinking of one more person to follow or a cool way to reach out on Facebook or a new networking tool we should use.

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Do Twitter & Facebook help or hinder your writing?

The Los Angeles Times book blog ran a post last week about a writer who went off Facebook and Twitter for the first three months of this year to focus on her project. Edan Lepucki blogged about the detox, concluding that she didn’t miss the sites as much as she thought she would.

Which begs the question: Do social-networking sites help or hinder writers?

I think the answer lies largely in how you use Facebook and Twitter. Sure, they can be fun. But they can also be incredibly useful. And I can’t help but think that people who only see them as a distraction aren’t using them in a useful way.

For me, Facebook is not a time suck. (If it is for you, maybe you should seriously consider a detox.) I use it to keep in touch with people, so much that the messages feature serves as a second e-mail. It helps me keep up with old colleagues and classmates, as well as new friends. And right now it’s helping me network for jobs.

Twitter is a different story. It offers so much information that I could easily spend my entire day refreshing my stream. But while it has the potential to be more distracting than Facebook, it also has the potential to be more useful. My stream serves as a sort of classroom, offering links to stories and blog posts, tutorials, you name it.

Then there are the people I’ve met: writers who’ve helped me with my manuscript, journalists who’ve been instrumental in my job search, and more. Twitter is not just about tweeting at these people online; it’s about bringing those connections off-line. (Credit Penelope Trunk for that insight.)

I could go on and on about how great Twitter can be when it’s used properly. But the truth is, sometimes Twitter is a distraction. Particularly for those of us who write at home all day. It takes a lot of self-discipline to focus on writing.

Unless, of course, you don’t have a connection. I was forced to experiment with this for five weeks this fall, when I was a resident at an artist’s colony in Georgia. My studio was not wired with Internet. It also didn’t have a television, cell phone service or even a phone we could use to call home. (There was a land-line for emergencies — and thank God for that, since I was in the middle of the woods by myself.) Every distraction I might’ve had at home was removed for me in this setting. In the evenings, the artists met for dinner in a common building that was about half a mile from my studio, and there we had access to Internet, so I could check my e-mail, Facebook page and whatever else was begging for my attention.

At the end of my time there, I was asked to fill out an evaluation form. (Hambidge got all high marks from me.) The board that oversaw the place was thinking of installing Internet in the studios. Did I think that was a good idea?

Before arriving at Hambidge, I was terrified of going without Internet and cell-phone service. So what I suggested on that evaluation form was unexpected: I wrote that they should leave the cabins without a connection. Not having those distractions created a silence, both around me and inside my head. It made room to think about things I didn’t have space for before, like, well, my manuscript. Without the Internet muddling my thoughts, my story arc became clearer. And perhaps more importantly, my life became clearer, too.

What I’m saying here is this: social networking has a place in my world. It’s not just fun; it’s essential to my growth personally and professionally. But I see the value in detoxing for a period of time, in stepping away not only from Twitter and Facebook but from other distractions in life that keep me from producing my best work.

What do you think? Would you consider a long-term social-media detox? Or a break from all Internet? Or is that online connection too vital to what you do every day?

It’s okay to be between things

Dani Shapiro wrote a blog post this week about being between things. Her latest book Devotion (it has my recommendation) hit the shelves recently, and since she’s just starting to write something new, she’s uncomfortable when people ask what she’s working on. She writes:

It’s hard to promote a book and work on a new one at the same time. Hard — but not impossible. Just the other day, I had a glimmer of an idea for a new novel. And a non-fiction book I plan to tackle too… But I also have to allow my interior life to settle. A writer who has finished a book is a bit like a snow globe all shaken up. It needs to float back down again, to allow for the possibility of clarity.

It’s okay to be between things. To rest… To take walks. To read, read, read. To trust that there will be another book, and another, and another. To have faith in the process by which the imagination asserts itself — in its own way, in its own time.

This resonated with me because I’m between things, too. I recently completed my manuscript. I’m far from bored; I’m looking for both a job and a literary agent. But while I have hopes and dreams for the future, I don’t know exactly what will come next.

Being between things is not something I’m good at. For most of my life, I’ve known what would come next. I’ve jumped from college to graduate school, from grad school to a job, from a job to traveling in Africa. I’ve always planned out my next step. Coming home from Africa was the first time I didn’t know what was next, and even then I quickly decided to write my book.

Now, as much as I’ve positioned myself to succeed in this next phase, I don’t know exactly what it will be. And that makes me feel anxious. Like, as Dani says, a globe all shaken up.

I know I’m in the process of floating down again, of waiting to land. When I do, I’ll probably look back at this and think, that wasn’t so bad. Things turned out how I hoped — or perhaps in another way, for good reason. Isn’t that how life always looks in retrospect?

Until then, I need to remind myself that it’s okay to be between things. I’m resting. Resting up for what’s next.

Tips for blogging from developing countries

I don’t usually repost pieces that I write for other publications, but this one is particularly useful to travel writers:

10 Tips for Blogging from Developing Countries

It’s about how to keep your blog alive and healthy when your Internet connection isn’t. Posted at the Matador Network. Check out additional hints in the comments, too.

The dilemma of the lucky dog, Cooper

I’m an accidental dog owner. Cooper found me six months ago in the woods of my writer’s residency in Georgia, when he was a starving, matted stray. I didn’t adopt him because I wanted a dog. I adopted him because he needed a home, and I knew what would happen to him if I didn’t. The other artists called him Lucky.

Cooper's first winter

Now, six months later, I love him. Well, really I loved him as soon as we started driving home to New York from Georgia, when he stuck his head out the back window of the car and let the cold wind hit his face for so long that his eyes watered. Cooper’s a sweet dog.

But I’m preparing to move to D.C. And I can’t decide whether to bring him with me.

Do I want to bring him? Yes. But this problem is more complicated than what I want. Having Cooper in a city, while I’m working a full-time job and living (hopefully) by myself, would seriously cramp my lifestyle and my bank account. It might cramp Cooper’s, too. (His lifestyle, not his bank account — I haven’t become that kind of dog owner.)

My parents have offered to keep Cooper here in upstate New York. (I’ve been living with them for the last year while writing my book.) Their offer is mostly to help me, and I’d feel somewhat guilty leaving my responsibility with them, but that’s another story. Here, Cooper would have a big yard to play in, a house that he’s grown accustomed to and my parents, who love him almost as much as I do. This was my original plan when I brought Cooper home; I was hoping he’d become my parents’ dog, since their golden had died a few years earlier.

Coop in his favorite spot.

But Cooper hasn’t grown attached to my parents. He’s attached to me. He’s been at my hip since the day I first fed him at the artists’ residency. Apparently this is normal for rescued dogs, especially ones as old as Cooper; the vet guessed he’s at least 10. I’ve tried repeatedly to get him to bond with my parents. When I’m out, they try to lure him into the family room to watch television with them. But he just sleeps in my room, waiting for me to come home.

This dog has already been ditched (at least) once. I don’t want him to feel ditched again! Even if I leave him in my parents’ loving home. I keep imagining him waiting in my room for me after I’ve moved. Waiting… and waiting… and waiting…

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Restless writing with Mary Morris, travel memoirist

I have this fantasy of writing not just one travel memoir, but many. Of traveling and writing for a living. Of making this journey into a lifestyle.

So I was thrilled to interview a woman who has done just that. Mary Morris has written four travel memoirs. Four! And she’s done it without becoming a complete nomad; she teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and also writes novels. Her most recent book is The River Queen. And her most well-known: Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone (1988), which, in my mind, is one of the premiere memoirs written by a woman traveling alone. Mary also has a fabulous blog.

Mary, thanks for being with us today.

Author Mary Morris

On your Web site you write, “Somebody once told me that my travel writing isn’t really travel writing, it’s a story that takes place during a journey.” Can you talk about the difference? Why does the latter work better for you?

That comment was said to me in Japan by a Japanese writer and it has stayed with me. I think that first and foremost I am a storyteller. And by that I mean anything I write involves some kind of a story. Something with an arc. Some kind of beginning, middle and end. I began by writing short stories and I still write them all the time. But many of my stories happen during journeys.

For example, my family and I have done house swaps for years and I have a whole series of stories that involve house exchanges. Travel and narrative for me go hand in hand. I am always thinking about how one thing leads to another. You go on a journey and get a flat tire. You take a wrong turn. You miss a flight. And things unfold that were not anticipated. To me real travel writing is predominately about place. But in my travel writing it seems to be more about people (and often I’d have to admit myself) as some story is unfolding.

I so admire the writers who write eloquently about place. Henry Miller and Pico Iyre come to mind. I am just rereading The Colossus of Marousi and I am dumbstruck by certain passages when Miller speaks of how he sees Greece. My writing is more restless. It’s more about what’s happening than where it is happening. Or as I once told someone, you won’t learn how to get from San Cristobal de las Cases to Panajachel in my travel writing.

When you begin a travel memoir, how do you approach it? Is your theme clear from the start, or does it emerge as you write? How long does it take you to write each book?

Mary Morris' latest book.

All my work begins in journals and, when I travel, I am constantly writing things down, recording, making notes. Often I travel with a main journal, which usually has good paper because I also do watercolors, and lots of small notepads. During the days I might wander around with my notepads. Then at night or in the early morning I write things down in a more elaborate way. Or some days I just sit dreamily in cafes, writing in my journal, drawings, painting. Days can go by like this. I never know what the theme is going to be and it always emerges from the writing itself.

In my earlier work everything was in the journals and I didn’t even know if it would become a travel memoir or not. But with the last memoir, The River Queen, well, I needed a contract for that book  because I couldn’t afford to go down the Mississippi in a houseboat without some financial assistance so I had to at least put the theme down on paper, but the final book  in fact has little to do with the proposal that got me the contract. But that’s another story.

The theme always really emerges in the writing. I almost never know what I’m writing about until I am writing it. So it takes me a long time to write a book. Often three-four years. Or, in the case of Nothing To Declare, I thought about that book for a very long time and then it wrote itself very quickly. This is also true of a novel of mine that I particularly like called Revenge.  I thought about that story for a decade, but wrote it in six months.

How has your writing process changed since Nothing To Declare came out more than twenty years ago? What have you learned since then?

When I lived in Mexico, I didn’t know that it was going to become a book one day. I just kept me diary and when I got home, I had all the notes in journals, and Nothing To Declare emerged from those notes. I had no idea it was going to become a book. And I didn’t actually sit down and write it until a decade after living in Mexico. But that’s another long story. I have to say that perhaps of all my travel memoirs it is the one I like the best because it didn’t know what it was going to be while it was happening to me. I was just living my life south of the border.

I’d love to be able to return to that innocence again. I wish writers didn’t need time or money. I wish we could all just take off and do whatever we want. But, of course, we can’t. Very few people can. But I think if I’ve learned anything it is this: writing isn’t a premeditated act. Rather it should be a crime of passion. Something that bursts out of us; nothing we’ve planned. And we should be surprised by its ferocity. This is the most honest kind of writing I know.

You write both fiction and nonfiction. What skills do you use to approach each genre? Which do you prefer?

As I said above, I see myself primarily as a storyteller. In a sense it doesn’t matter if I am writing fiction or nonfiction. I’m always looking for the story. And the voice. Writing has to have a voice. Whatever I write has to have these elements – as well as good scenes, dialogue, a sense of place. The same skills apply to both, I believe.

In terms of fiction versus nonfiction I suppose I’d have to say that I prefer writing fiction because I can give my imagination full rein. And I don’t have to be accurate. On the other hand, many thoughts and ideas lend themselves to one genre or the other. A couple years ago I broke my leg and I wanted to write an essay about it, entitled Disability, which is about traveling with a wheelchair. I knew that was going to be nonfiction, but I had a lot of fun with it.

Can you share a few pieces of writing advice that you give your students?

The main piece of advice I give my students until I am blue in the face (or they are sick of me) is write in scene. I make my students really learn what a scene is (my definition: a single action that moves the story forward). I know it’s so boring to hear, but showing does work better than telling. And I make them practice writing scenes. You get up in the morning, you take a walk, the path diverges, and so on. There are certainly moments to step back from your narrative and reflect, but first, get me into your story.

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How do writers support themselves?

A reader found my blog this weekend by typing into Google: How do writers support themselves?

I often wonder about this myself. I know there are authors out there who make a living off their books. (In fact, I met some this weekend at the fabulous Woodstock Writers Festival. You should go next year.) And I know how to make a living as a journalist because I’ve done it. What I don’t know is how people who don’t fall into those categories manage to pay their rent, afford car insurance and go out to eat once in a while.

How can I afford to write this book full time? I live with my parents. That’s right: I’m 29, and after nearly a decade on my own, I moved back home. I’m so lucky my parents are willing to have me. Living at home allows me to write instead of working a paying job. (I also have had savings from my job with the Houston Chronicle and I freelance occasionally.)

There are as many ways to support the writing life as there are writers. And I think we can all learn from one another by sharing how we do it. So…

How do you support yourself and your family? Do you hold down a non-writing full-time job and carve out time to write on weekends? Are you one of the coveted authors who makes enough money through books and speaking gigs? Are you putting most of your energy into a writing project and working a part-time job on the side to make ends meet? How would you like to support yourself financially?

Don’t forget you can write anywhere

One of the great things about writing is that it can be done anywhere.

My family vacationed last week in the middle of nowhere, Virginia. No, I didn’t write while lounging on the dock or sunbathing on our pontoon boat. I took this week off! The only book work I allowed was thinking, since I can’t really stop myself from doing that anyhow. I reflected on my story arc, how the book is developing and where I want it to go from here.

Now I feel refreshed, more level-headed than before, ready to jump back into writing.

But back to writing from anywhere. As we prepared to drive north from Virginia, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to write at home. After all, that’s where I found myself in a bit of a rut before vacation. So on our way home to Albany, NY, I jumped ship in New York City. My best friend lives here, so I’ll stay with her for a few days, writing at coffee shops while she’s at work.

That should make for a good change of scenery. And in two weeks, I’m off to Georgia for a five-week artist residency!

I’m guessing some of you might benefit from a similar change. Writers, don’t forget you can work anywhere! Is there a quiet bookshop down the street calling your name? Do you have a friend who’s willing to house you so you can get away for a few days? Or maybe your change of scenery is as simple as moving from your home office to your back porch for a few hours.

Share with us what works for you.

Writers need health care, too

When I tell friends I’m writing a book instead of working full time, they often inquire, “What do you do about health insurance?”

Usually part of the reason they bother to ask is because they, too, have thought about leaving their job to pursue a bucket-list project. And most people who leave full-time employment are forced to navigate the mess that is American health insurance.

When I left the Houston Chronicle and lost my benefits, I declined COBRA coverage because it was so expensive. Instead, I enrolled in a New York State program called Healthy New York. (While overseas, I also had additional travel and emergency evacuation insurance.)

For $230 a month, Healthy New York covers most doctor’s visits and daily medications. Thankfully, it also covered my recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The program doesn’t include vision or dental benefits, but I figure those parts of my body can deal with a little neglect until I return to full-time work in the next year or so.

My dad, however, thinks otherwise. He attended a benefit auction recently, where guests bid on baseball tickets, vacations and  fancy jewelry, and what did he bring home? A gift certificate for me to visit a dentist.

This week I used that gift, and for the first time, going to the dentist felt like a treat. I was actually happy to sit in that reclined chair — until the doctor said my teeth needed more than $1,000 of work (mostly to replace fillings that apparently weren’t done properly the first time).

So I offer this advice to go-getters who want to embark on adventures that don’t include health coverage: Marry someone with insurance.