Tendril Theory

Autism, Neurodiversity

I came up with “Tendril Theory” when someone in a support group asked for a good way to explain executive function, specifically the challenge of being interrupted or having to switch tasks suddenly, to a neurotypical person. The image and words came to me all at once. It took me a few weeks to sit down and draw it.

I think the reason this resonates with so many people is that a lot of different kinds of brains work in a similar way – not only for autistic people, but also people with ADHD, and neurotypical introverts. So if this doesn’t describe you, it probably describes someone you know.

TendrilTheory

*Image is a comic titled “Why it’s hard to switch tasks (Let’s call it Tendril Theory).” Simple line drawings illustrate the following text:

When I’m focused on something / My mind sends out a million tendrils of thought / Expands into all of the thoughts & feelings / When I need to switch tasks / I must retract all of the tendrils of my mind / This takes some time / Eventually I can shift to the new task / But when I am interrupted or must switch abruptly / It feels like all of the tendrils are being ripped out / That’s why I don’t react well / Please just give me time / To switch tasks when I’m ready.

What Are You Reading? A Little of This, A Little of That

Books

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I last did a book post – apparently my last one was in February, so now I’m playing catch-up.

(This post contains affiliate links: book titles are linked to my Amazon Affiliate ID.)

papertowns

* This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. A series of short stories centered around the life of Yunior, a Dominican American young man living in Jersey – a womanizer, a cheat, a lover and a fighter, an asshole with a tender core. I found it irresistible the way Diaz played with my sympathy and my revulsion for Yunior, as he loved and lost and lost and lost. The juxtaposition of his depth and insight and loneliness with his shallowness and frequent contempt for women felt honest and real. Of course now I have to go find and read the rest of his work, including the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

* A Girl Is a Half-formed Thingby Eimear McBride. A very strange book whose stream of consciousness narration begins in the womb, with a fragmented and grammatically chaotic writing style, following the thoughts of a girl through her terrifying childhood, and through her tumultuous and heartbreaking adolescence. I was not surprised to read that the book was inspired by a reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I haven’t actually read myself but I’m familiar with its style. A lot of people find A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing completely unreadable, and I understand why, though I was compelled to see it through and in the end I did find its story to be haunting and provocative. But I am still pretty baffled by the style of it – MY thoughts aren’t that disjointed and chaotic even at the worst of times, so I am not sure why this was the way to tell this tale, except maybe to distance us a bit from the horror and pain of it. Does that sound like a recommendation? I think few people would enjoy this one, but give it a try if you’re looking for something wildly experimental.

* Paper Townsby John Green. This YA novel is very John Green, so if you like John Green, you’ll like Paper Towns. What I enjoy about Green’s books is how well he captures that particular way that adolescence beautifully straddles self-centered, banal fixations and worries, and the biggest deepest questions about humanity and the meaning of life. I agree with the criticism some have made that all of his male narrators are kind of the same, but I’m not too bothered by that as I see the character as a teenage everyman and that works for me. In relation to his other books – THIS MIGHT BE MILDLY SPOILERY – I liked that Paper Towns did not employ the use of a dramatic tragedy to make its point; it was a little anticlimactic but still satisfying.

*Mud Seasonby Ellen Stimson. A memoir about city-slickers from St. Louis who move to small town Vermont and make themselves over as country folks, with mostly disastrous results. Stimson has a folksy sense of humor that sometimes made my teeth hurt, but she dropped enough F bombs into her tale to keep me going. Though she was self-deprecating and played her many failures for laughs, I couldn’t help cringing at how much she and her family behaved like bulls in a china shop in their new hometown – disrupting their peace with their fancy home renovations, buying the general store and running it into the ground (!!!), taking in farm animals with no clue how to care for them, and all the while looking down her nose at the locals. As a girl raised in a small tourist town myself, I often wanted to shake her silly. But I think it’s a fun read for New Englanders and others who can relate in one way or another.

* The Perks of Being a Wallflowerby Stephen Chbosky. This is an older YA novel, published in 1999 by MTV Books (?! who knew) and later made into a movie, which I haven’t seen but now would like to. I have to say I was deeply confused by this book and did not know what I was meant to make of Charlie, the teenaged narrator. He’s not just a wallflower, he’s extremely quirky at the very least – at times astoundingly immature and clueless, at other times implausibly insightful and mature. I could not decide whether Chbosky was writing a wildly out of tune version of what an adult thinks a high school freshman is like, or perhaps a dead on first person view as an autistic teenager??, though autism was never once mentioned. Near the end, an intimate conversation between Sam and Charlie nearly redeemed the entire book for me. I might have to reread sometime.

Neurodivergent

Autism, Identity, Neurodiversity

ananswerYou may or may not remember that I made a passing mention, in a This & That post last fall, of reading and relating to a post on the blog Musings of an Aspie. What I didn’t mention after that was that I continued to read Musings of an Aspie, and I continued to see myself in Cynthia Kim’s blog, and it didn’t take me long to begin to really wonder, was I on the autistic spectrum after all?

Meanwhile, I was struggling to understand why I was feeling the way I was. Tired all the time, flaring up with a hot temper at the littlest things. It didn’t make sense to me that I was so exhausted and edgy and irritable even when I was getting enough sleep, even once I pared down my lifestyle to something very manageable and slow paced, even when I scaled back my workload, even as unschooling took a lot of pressure off my parenting, even though I basically love my life and have a great husband and good friends and adore my kids. Why did things still not feel right? And that dissonance was not a new feeling, as in postpartum depression, but something that I’d always felt to some degree, but gradually became too intense to ignore anymore.

In the months between then and now, I read and researched and learned a LOT about autism in women and how that looks different from what most people think autism looks like (for complicated reasons – I can explain more another time). I formed a support group for autistic women and women who, like me, were thinking they might be autistic, where we could share experiences and ask questions and sort everything out in a safe and supportive space. Those new friends of mine have been invaluable – I appreciate them so much.

Finally, I found a local psychologist who specializes in seeing autistic women, and I went to her for an assessment. It’s worth pointing out that this process can be very expensive and I wouldn’t have been able to do it if we hadn’t had the good health insurance that we do – I wish that more people had access to the psychiatric care they need, but it’s not always so easy.

I was incredibly nervous about the assessment – I felt vulnerable and even a little humiliated just by undergoing a psych eval – and was honestly scared that I would not get diagnosed with autism. Why? The idea of being autistic was like a missing piece in my life that suddenly made everything make sense. I was terrified that if it was taken back out of the picture, I would be left with the same old confusing mess as before.

But I did, in fact, receive a diagnosis of autism last week. It’s official. On the long drive home from my final evaluation appointment, I cried tears of relief and release.

I think I also cried a little for all the me’s I’d ever been – the shy little girl, the misfit teen, the lonely young adult – and what could have been if only I’d known then what I know now.

The psychologist also told me that my results showed chronic dysthemia, a low level depression that’s always been with me and explains a lot of why my energy level tends to run so low. In her view, the difference between neurotypical and how neurodivergent a person is tends to get “colored in” by depression and/or anxiety. This made a lot of sense to me as basically my efforts to meet the neurotypical world on its terms every day result in fatigue and vague sense of never being “enough.”

I know this will be surprising to a lot of people, and I understand why – I was surprised when I first realized that I might be autistic. I think this is largely due to the fact that very few people, besides people who are actually autistic, know much about autism – which several people have told me since hearing my news. But I can tell you that for me, it just means a huge weight has lifted off my shoulders. Knowing that I am, in fact, a perfectly normal autistic person, makes everything just slide into place. It’s an answer to a question I didn’t even know I was asking for the first 36 years of my life.

On Conquering Creative Fear

Creativity, Writing

Erin5two

When I was a little kid, probably only five or six as I was just beginning to be ready to sleep over at a friend’s house (and for sure there were some midnight calls home to my parents to come get me), the prospect of a sleepover with my best friend and next door neighbor Bethany was pretty much the most exciting thing I could think of. Whenever Beth or I would come up with the plan to have another sleepover, the very idea of it was so thrilling it was almost too painfully awesome to contemplate (even though we spent almost every day together and lived about 40 yards away from each other).

But sometimes our parents said no, for reasons incomprehensible to our kindergarten minds. Then, the disappointment was too devastating to bear (even though we spent almost every day together etc). So I came up with a plan: we would always just assume the answer was going to be no and start feeling sad about it before we even asked our parents. That way if they said yes, we’d be super happy, and if they said no, we’d feel pretty much the same. I felt that this plan was BRILLIANT. It’s etched so vividly in my mind as a stroke of utter genius that I can even remember exactly where I was standing when I revealed my amazing idea to Bethany – right on the border between our yards, near the tree that was shaped like a W.

As a Sleepover Disappointment Coping Strategy, it was pretty decent, but as an approach to life in general, I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty lousy.

All too often in my life I have followed this protocol of protecting myself from disappointment, rejection, and failure by assuming things are not going to work out. I am probably in the running for an Olympic gold medal in Emotionally Dealing With Bad Things That Haven’t Even Happened Yet. Focus too much on what will go wrong, and eventually you don’t try so much. Don’t try so hard. Don’t dare.

What does all of this have to do with creativity? Well, it all comes down to fear. Fear of failure is something that lots of people deal with, probably all people at some point in life. I think fear of risk is something slightly different, and it’s even worse. Fear of failure means being afraid of the moment you crash to the ground. Fear of risk means being afraid to even leap. It’s a fear of being vulnerable at all. An addiction to safety. Unfortunately for safety junkies like me, being creative is ALL ABOUT being vulnerable. It’s taking something that you made and putting out into the world – it’s inherently risky. Giving form to your ideas is like exposing parts of your innermost self. Even if no one ever sees the things that you create, I feel that there is a risk in just bringing them into being.

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Today is the last day of my 12 week course on “creative recovery” with The Artist’s Way, and in a bit of synchronicity it will be the last of my posts on creativity for the month of March (though I’m sure it’s a topic I will return to now and again). When I started the process of reading the book and writing the journal, I was skeptical of the idea that I was a blocked artist. I thought, I am an artist, I just happen to be TOO BUSY right now to create the things I want to create. Uh huh.

Much of The Artist’s Way for me was about admitting to myself that I really am afraid to make the things I want to make. It’s much safer for me to keep them inside and just keep telling myself I don’t have time for them, yet. Sure I have time to write a couple of blogs and moderate a few Facebook pages and do commission work as an illustrator and raise and homeschool two kids and start a co-op, but write a memoir? Nawwww. Draw a comic book? If only!

Though I did, through the exercises in the book, trace some of my personal insecurities back to comments that influential people have made to me along the way, ultimately I know that the buck stops with me. My fear can’t be placed at anyone else’s feet. I know that it scares me to be vulnerable and I’ve always been that way. But I am beginning to let myself set fear aside long enough to taste that excitement of doing the things I really want to do, as thrilling as letting myself anticipate a sleepover with my best friend when I was five.

On Doing Things Badly

Creativity, Writing

A lot of people talk about “failing well,” and I do love the concept. But, maybe this is just a linguistic quirk of mine, the word failure does not resonate with me a whole lot when it comes to creativity.

I see failure as a binary possibility – pass/fail, success/failure. You fail a test, fail a class. It’s a kind of non-doing. You did not meet the criteria or measurement of success. You failed.

What happens in the creative process seems less black and white, and definitely involves doing. Doing it badly perhaps. When you write a poem that just isn’t working, make a painting that doesn’t feel right, when your rhythm is off, when the solution isn’t coming to you, this may feel like failure. But it’s actually part of the creative process. It’s discouraging and frustrating, sure, but those clunky bits still have value.

Going back to the Facebook conversation I had with my friends and family and again back to my brother’s advice – he said that he believes the more you fail, the more you learn, though it may not feel that way at the time. He used the phrase “hidden knowledge,” which I love, to describe the learning that may go on beneath the surface when you are doing something badly or feel like you are failing. My brother Ryan is younger than me but I look up to him as an artist. I don’t know anyone more hardworking and creative when it comes to following their passion (you should check out his solo work as well as the duo Kodacrome).

Doing things badly is, in fact, an essential and inescapable part of the creative process. As much as I wish it were, it is not possible to be excellent the first or second or tenth time you try something. It’s a cliche, because it’s true, but think of a child learning to walk and how many times they fall as they learn. Most people are able to do some invisible work – mental problem solving, visualization, imagining – to help develop their skills, but there is always going to be some hands-on practice, and you know what they say about practice. That it makes perfect means you will spend a lot of time being imperfect first.

You absolutely have to be willing to do it badly for a while if you want to do something well, or do it at all really. It’s the doing that must be your focus, not your skill level or successes. In November, I set about writing a novel for NaNoWriMo knowing that it would not be good – why? I had never written a novel before. Hell, I’d only written a handful of short stories, back in college! I had almost no practice writing fiction so there was no reason I should expect to magically be great at it. I told myself I surely had at least one bad novel in me that I’d have to get out in order to find a good one. So that’s how I moved forward.

That doesn’t mean you don’t push yourself to do your best, but if you aren’t willing to make mistakes, you won’t even be able to begin. Failures will paralyze you. The pressure will stunt your growth.

I’ve not read any Malcolm Gladwell yet but I know that he is famous for writing that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any skill. This intuitively sounds right, though I don’t think we should be TOO literal about the numbers.

I do think of two problems with this theory. What are the two things that first come to mind, free association style, when you hear that 10,000 hours concept? Mine are Tiger Woods and piano. One problem with the 10,000 hours idea is that it makes us – or at least me – think primarily of technical skills. I don’t think of writing or drawing or singing or acting – things that, I suspect, we tend to think people are either born “good” at, or not. But in fact everyone needs to practice their skill to achieve mastery (or anything close to mastery).

The other problem is that the number 10,000 is overwhelming. If you do something one hour a day, it will take you 27 years to get to 10,000. I’m not so great at math, but I think that means that if you manage to practice your skill for four hours a day, you’re still looking at almost 7 years of practice. If you are, let’s say, a busy mom unschooling two kids and working at home and just beginning to work on your passion, you might think, EGADS, I have decades ahead of me to actually become good at this!

Here’s an antidote to that toxic thought spiral, from The Artist’s Way:

Do you know how old I’ll be time the time I learn to ______ ?
The same age you will be if you don’t.

On Working Through Dry Spells

Creativity, Writing

Last month I got super excited about writing about creativity all through March, and sketched out a posting schedule and topics I wanted to write about, but then, life happens. My flow was interrupted by the anxiety of waiting for my grandmother’s passing, by making travel plans, by traveling and being with family and all of the swirling thoughts and feelings that that entails, and by the busy schedule that awaited me when I came home. (I’m not always so busy, but busyness happens from time to time.) Before all of that, I was talking on Facebook with various people, including my brother Ryan and cousin Tricia, about the creative process and how to tap into that flow of authenticity and what to do when you can’t. Tricia reminded me of the Pablo Picasso quote, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Ryan compared being an artist to being an athlete – you have to practice a lot and stay in shape.

There have been plenty of times when I’ve considered chucking this blog. It’s not REAL writing (whatever that is). I’ve worried that it’s distracted me from REAL writing (whatever that is). Or sometimes just having all of these thoughts of mine preserved in internet amber gives me the heebie jeebies and I want to somehow bury them and run away. But ultimately I think I keep blogging because this is my practice. This is how I stay fit and active, creatively. I just keep writing, and sometimes it’s just writing for the sake of writing and other times I get to tap into that Source and write something that feels real and whole. I try never to publish anything that feels totally wrong. But it doesn’t all have to be great, and having a low pressure outlet like this is an essential tool in my process. I have other outlets – I have been keeping a journal for a few months, hand written, where I write ANYTHING that comes to mind, good, bad, silly, anything. I’ve been dabbling in very loose memoir comics, keeping them super casual and just for fun. I think it’s also good to have outlets that are NOT directly related to your creative pursuits, though that’s something I’ve not been keeping up during the winter very well. Getting your body moving and/or doing physical work with your hands can get your creativity flowing in surprising ways. I enjoy doing yoga, tidying or reorganizing the house (spring cleaning is my JAM), taking walks with the kids when it’s nice out. I’m a pretty indoorsy and sedentary person but I do appreciate the way getting out of my head for a while can refresh and reset my mind.

Ultimately it’s about maintaining forward momentum when you hit a dry spell in your work. Don’t get paralyzed. Believe that you’ll hit your stride again and until then you have to just keep going in whatever clunky way you can manage.

A Month on Creativity

Creativity, Identity, Writing

Erin5four

Drawings I made at age five.

I believe that all people are creative. I know many disagree with that – often it’s the people who think they themselves are not creative. But creating simply means bringing something into the world that was not there before – it might be a drawing or a song, or a mathematical proof, or the execution of a football play, or just a solution to a problem.  Creativity is part of being human. The idea that we are “not very creative” is a story we tell ourselves, and it is false.

I do believe that everyone possesses this well of creative energy. It doesn’t mean that everyone is a genius or a master of something. It doesn’t even mean that everyone has to “do what they love” as a job. It just means that everyone is born with the ability to make something out of nothing. People themselves are works of creation, of course – a baby is a new person who never existed before.

I’ve always taken a special interest in children’s drawings – not just my own or my children’s. Nearly all children begin to draw at some point in their development; it’s a preliterate form of expression that has been with our species since before we invented an alphabet. Before adults begin to interfere with the process, all children – not just the “artists” among them – have a natural sense of composition and form. Ironically, it’s when formal instruction is introduced that children tend to lose that innate sensibility, and trying to get their drawings “right” is something that cuts them off from their own creative powers.

Erin5one

Another of my drawings from when I was five years old.

Last month I was at the local art museum with Mike and the kids and we went to visit the water fountain at the same time that a school group was there drawing the fountain – I would guess they were about second or third graders. I was surreptitiously watching them draw for a few minutes, though it seemed most of them had finished their pictures by the time we arrived. The students whose drawings I loved the most had a kind of confidence and immediacy to them – some done quickly, some undertaken with more care and time, but the best ones to me all possess a sense of freedom and uninhibitedness that can’t be faked.

I saw one girl, on the other hand, who had drawn a few timid lines, looked around at her neighbors, caught me watching her, and began to furiously erase her work until she literally ripped a role in the paper. Past a certain age – maybe kindergarten age? – I think there are always a few of these types of kids in any group. Sometimes they are in fact the Artists of the group who have been singled out by parents or teachers as being “good at drawing,” but sometimes they are at the other end of the ability scale, the ones who have noticed or had pointed out that their drawings don’t look as good as the other kids’.

Later that day when we were in the kids’ art space at the museum, I gestured to the wall of children’s drawings, things that had been done there in the museum and pinned up, and asked Mike to guess which one I liked the best. It wasn’t the most realistic, the painstakingly “shaded” close up of a flower, the most technically advanced, the one that probably 9 out of 10 kids or adults walking by would instantly pick out as best. It was a delightful still life, done in a simple line drawing style, terrifically out of proportion, the perspective nothing close to reality, but it was alive, and made perfect sense in its own little world on the page.

That drawing had the sort of energy that most adult artists try to tap back into for the rest of their lives. When I was a freshman at RISD, my first semester drawing teacher had us sit and scribble in large newsprint pads for the first 20 minutes of every class. We were not to draw anything representational or try to make it look “good,” whatever that might mean. When I was 18, frankly, that exercise was baffling and frustrating to me – I was there to make “good” drawings, why was I scribbling? – but now I totally understand it. To make something good, it must be real, and to make it real, you must let go of making it good. It’s at the heart of why early childhood drawings are so fantastic. They are not focused on making Art, they are purely making.

I’ve decided to write on the theme of creativity in this blog for the month of March. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. Right now I am still reading and doing the 12 week course for The Artist’s Way and at the same time have also been reading Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. There is considerable overlap between the two books so it’s been fascinating to read them simultaneously. At the heart of them is the idea that tapping into your passion – whatever form your personal expression of creativity takes – is to tap into your authentic self.

What Are You Reading? Offbeat Memoirs Edition

Books

Sometimes themes crop up in my reading list without being consciously planted there – I suppose I get on a jag of being into a thing for a while and sometimes don’t even realize I’m doing it. This bunch of book reviews are creative nonfiction works I read in the last couple of months (there were some novels too, but I’ll save those for another post), all a little different from your straight up memoir. I am sure that these found their way to me because I have been thinking a lot about how I would write my own memoir or autobiographical… something.

(This post contains affiliate links, which is to say, if you want to buy any of these books, click over to Amazon and I’ll get a few cents or whatever.)

* Brown Girl Dreaming (Newbery Honor Book)by Jacqueline Woodson. A memoir written in free verse poetry about growing up African American in South Carolina and New York City in the 60s and 70s; somehow I missed that this was a book of poems when I was reading about it. I tend to read fast and it was uncomfortable at first for me to slow down enough to appreciate the free verse form and the lyricism of Woodson’s writing, but like a long and beautiful ballad it slowly moved me. This is a masterful interweaving of the personal and the cultural, stories across generations and geography; even if you never read poetry (as I never do), you should give it a try.

* The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Storiesby Marina Keegan. The story behind this book is that Marina Keegan was a Yale college student who wrote for the Yale Daily News, had a job lined up at the New Yorker, and graduated Yale magna cum laude. Five days later she died in a car accident. The titular essay was written for the Yale paper and ironically speaks of how Keegan is ready to begin the adventure of rest of her life. I was worried that the circumstances of her death and almost too exquisite poignancy of her final essay would spoil my appreciation for her work, specifically that I would find it was only published because of the tragedy. But there’s no doubt that her talent shines through the backstory here – the mix of creative non fiction and fiction in this collection is vibrantly alive, pulsing with the intense feeling of late adolescence in a way that is beguiling and wistfully nostalgic (for an old fart like me).

* Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate: A User Guide to an Asperger Lifeby Cynthia Kim. I have enjoyed Kim’s blog Musings of an Aspie for a few months now, so I picked up this memoir of her life as an autistic person who went undiagnosed until she was 42 years old – and, as it says on the tin, this is also something of an instruction manual for people seeking to understand autism better. Though it is undoubtedly useful as a “user manual,” I think it’s also an excellent resource for non-autistic people to learn about and better understand the autistic experience. With somewhere around 2% of the general population being autistic, that’s probably useful information for just about anybody – you could have an autistic family member, friend, or coworker and not even realize it. Kim has a way of explaining autism with clarity and simplicity without grossly oversimplifying things that I think is quite well done.

* Blanketsby Craig Thompson. I don’t even know where to begin with Blankets. If I could translate incoherent fangirl squealing into text, that is what I would put down as my book review. This is a graphic memoir, hundreds of pages thick but since it is image heavy it’s a quick read, about a boy who grows up in an emotionally barren family, falls in love at church camp with another lonely and romantic teenager, loses his religion, and – well, there’s no way to sum up the story that does any justice to the delicate beauty of this book. It’s heartbreaking and wonderful and I almost couldn’t stand it because I loved it so much I wished I’d written it.

* Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professorby Lynda Barry. Not exactly a memoir but certainly offbeat, this is a kind of published diary from a college professor who teaches creativity classes. Printed in the form of an embellished Composition Notebook (which her students use for their own journals), it includes her own doodles, some drawings from her students, copies of the various exercises and assigned readings, and is a kind of weird, semi-private musing slash course in how to draw and how to think and how to observe and remember. In a nice bit of serendipity in my life, she specifically recommends one of the short stories in…

* The Boys of My Youthby Jo Ann Beard. Yes, Lynda Barry recommended “The Fourth State of Matter” from this Beard book of stories that I was actually reading at the same time. Highly recommended (and also lent to me) by my friend KristineThe Boys of My Youth is series of short creative non fiction pieces. Her writing is a bit hard to describe, but there is a review blurb on the back that says something like ‘now when people ask what creative non fiction is, I can show them this book,’ which I think is the perfect description! Like the poetry form of Woodson’s novel, Beard’s work grew on me slowly until eventually it took me over. Carefully crafted, often languorous and almost dreamlike, somehow she conveys the immediacy of experience, the richness of emotion, and the fog of memory all at once.

What I Learned From A Week Without Media

Identity

My media brownout is over – one day short, but I’m done. If you missed it the first time or want the full refresher on what the terms of my brownout were, the original post is here. In a nutshell, I avoided watching TV or reading anything – that included books, magazines, blogs, articles, anything – and I kept my Facebook and Twitter use to a bare minimum. I tweeted but did not read my timeline. I updated my Facebook Pages and checked my notifications just to make sure I wasn’t ignoring anyone who needed me but I avoided responding to anything non-essential and did not read my newsfeed.

The purpose of all of this was to stop consuming other people’s words and ideas and focus on producing my own. Perhaps to turn my attention to some things I’ve been wanting to do but haven’t gotten around to.

What I Liked

There were some things I liked about the brownout. I did notice that I felt less distracted, less forgetful, less disorganized, and even in some ways less anxious and depressed – at least for the first few days. I organized the pantry, scrubbed the shower, baked bread, cleaned out some jpegs off the old digital camera.

I played with the kids more, and they definitely liked that – though I think I also snapped at them more because I didn’t get many restorative breaks from playing. I noticed that THEY spent a little less of their time on screen time, which made me realize how subtly my habits affect them, even though I always thought I was just sneaking away to Facebook when they were otherwise occupied.

I did some more writing and drawing than I usually do, though that was partly out of sheer boredom and lack of anything else to do. I got around to some little creative projects I’d wanted to do, like 4 minute daily diaries inspired by Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor.

What I Disliked

On the other hand, there was a lot about this experiment that I disliked. I felt like I was working all the time, because when I wasn’t taking care of other people or the house or my chores, I was writing and drawing. And even though I like writing and drawing, it feels like work. Work that I enjoy, but still work. None of the usual “treats” that I give myself for a hard day’s work were available, I was bored a lot, I ate more, and eventually the daily stress with no outlets really wore on me.

It felt wrong to be totally disengaged from the rest of the world. It seemed selfish and ridiculous to just shout my thoughts into the void without engaging in conversations online. I missed out on things that were actually important even if they were “just” on Facebook – sometimes when stopping in to check notifications I would see a friend having a problem and feel so guilty for not answering their call for support. If I hadn’t cheated I would have missed a pregnancy announcement, a marriage engagement, my brother’s girlfriend’s birthday, and who knows what else!

The thing about social media is it’s called social for a reason. I hated turning my back on it completely. My friends on Facebook and in the blogs I read are not just noise, they’re real people that I care about.

Jonesing

The Hardest Part

I think the hardest part of the day for me was the very end of the day when the kids were asleep and I sat down to relax with Mike. There was no pot of gold waiting for me at 10pm – just more writing, or bed. I did try going to bed earlier, but that didn’t mean I slept better.

Not reading at all was just sad and depressing. I missed my books. Friends would talk about books, Instagram pictures of books, even LEND me books, and I felt like an alcoholic trying to drink a soda water at the bar. It was just terrible. If I am addicted to reading, that’s an addiction I can live with. If anything, taking a break from reading made me appreciate reading even more. A life without words is no life for me.

What did I learn?

I did not feel like the brownout enhanced my creativity directly. Already by the end of the third day I felt like my well was running dry. To me, taking in other people’s ideas is part of the creative process. Other people’s writing stirs up memories and ideas; without them, I stagnated. The brownout did, however, free up time for me to write and draw more, and I think that having a more organized space indirectly made me feel more creative.

I noticed, by not being on my phone for all the little boring waiting-around moments of the day, how much everyone else is on their phones. I felt a little smug and annoyed but also very aware that I was partly just jealous and would be doing the same if I could – like being a pregnant lady or designed driver at a drunken party. I think a lot of people fantasize about disconnecting from the internet, but it hit me that in 2015 that means disconnecting from the world we live in, and that’s pretty unavoidable.

I learned that being on Facebook for much of the day definitely has negative effects for me. It makes me more distracted and spacey, I get less done, I have less energy, and I think that being connected to other people’s problems for too many hours a day made me feel depressed. I liked how it felt to be off Facebook all day – but I didn’t like NEVER being there. So I think I will just go on Facebook at night from now on.

My New Plan

In a general sense, I found a media rhythm to my days that felt natural. When my options were severely limited, I could think more clearly about how I really wanted to spend my time. Here’s what I came up with:

In the morning I think it’s good to be available as much as I can. Of course I check email every morning just in case there is something time sensitive and/or work related. I have breakfast with the kids, play with them, and write when they don’t need me, since I tend to have the most creative energy before noon. I putter around the house a bit, do some chores and some little projects if I have any. We go out if we have somewhere to go or something to do.

In late afternoon when the kids are usually vegging out by themselves, I need downtime. I’ll stay off Facebook still, but it would be a good time to read blogs and books.

I figure after 6pm going on social media is fine. Sometimes I like to write, or read blogs, or if I’m just beat I can look at Facebook.

There always comes a point just before bedtime when I am done with everything and the only thing I want to do, until the kids are ready to actually get in bed, is read a book. And that is what I will do, just as I always used to. This time sucked during my brownout – I usually just sat and stared into space, not thinking about anything.

After the kids are in bed, it’s my time with Mike. That can include TV time, since I did not feel like we had an awesome time without it! We are usually too tired to have scintillating conversations at 10pm, and you can’t do that other thing every single night (well, we can’t). It’s fun to enjoy TV together.

My time after that, if I’m not quite ready to sleep, is mine. Facebook, reading, TV, mine mine mine. I don’t feel bad about that one bit. Going to bed listening to white noise was sad and dreary. I didn’t sleep better and I hated it!

Youwantme

Would I recommend a brownout?

Do I think you should try this? Yes, with caveats. I definitely did not think I needed a FULL week to get what I needed to get out of the experiment. I started writing this wrap-up post on Day 4 and finished it on Day 5. On Day 6 I was really starting to reach my limits, and cheating more and more. I cheated to watch the Superbowl with Mike, which was fun, and after that it was over for me.

I don’t think that I got much out of not reading books. I guess it probably would have been less effective if I had simply filled up my day with MORE reading than I normally do, and continued to exist in a state of semi-distraction all day and night long. So if you can avoid doing that, I see no need to stop reading. It did not give me more creative ideas or energy and if anything did the opposite.

I think it’s worthwhile to give up Facebook and Twitter entirely for a short period of time, maybe a few days. It gives you a better sense of how much time you do want to spend on them, which almost certainly won’t be NEVER, but probably not as much as you were before.

As for TV, meh… that depends on your TV habits. If you feel you watch too much, try giving it up for a few days. I didn’t think I watched too much before and I still don’t.

If you do try this, please holler at me in some way – on Facebook or Twitter or in comments here – to let me know how it goes! I would love to hear about what you got out of your media brownout.

Media Brownout?

Books, Identity

I’m reading a classic book about unlocking your creativity – it’s called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The format is a 12 week long course with some reading from the book and a number of exercises that are supposed to help you “unblock” your artistic ability. Since starting the course, I have been writing three longhand pages of free writing each morning, taking myself on one “artist date” a week (if I can manage it) (the “date” just means going out ALONE and treating myself to a nice time), and doing many of the thinking/writing exercises.

For week four, Julia has asked me to take a break from consuming media. Her book predates the Internet, so she doesn’t mention it, but I think it’s safe to say she would include that in her prescription, in addition to taking a week off from watching TV, and also…

Reading.

She knows that the break from reading is shocking. She claims that blocked artists tend to be addicted to reading because it helps them stuff down their own creativity. I don’t know about that. If that’s true, I’ve been a blocked artist since I learned to read. I LOVE reading. I love books. Reading is like breathing to me. I MIGHT DIE.

Also, I’m kind of resentful slash dubious about the idea of a media break for myself, because without Internet, TV, or books, what kind of downtime am I going to get? That’s pretty much all I’ve got going on as far as relaxation and me time. Julia thinks that if we aren’t reading and watching the tubes we’re finally going to get to all those hobbies we’ve been meaning to try. Uhhhh, look, Julia. I am not running out to taking surfing lessons any time soon.

I’m a little unsure about the whole Artist’s Way endeavor, really, because I’m not so convinced that I AM a blocked artist. I feel pretty in touch with my creativity. What is preventing me from creating more than I do is a little thing called parenting. And I’m not about to give that up.

Still, I’m trying out the course, albeit slightly tailored to the demands of my current lifestyle. I have to admit that I have noticed an eerie synchronicity between some of the stages she talks about and things that are actually happening to me. The emotional phases, the vivid dreams, etc.

media

My weeks for the course run from Tuesday to Tuesday, so I started yesterday. Here are the terms of my brownout, tentatively so far. I put a question mark in my post title because I am not at all certain I’m going to stick with this for a week. Also, sad but true: if I can’t read OR watch TV on my phone, I really have no idea how I’m going to fall asleep. I haven’t done that probably since I was a toddler.

Facebook. I’m off my personal Facebook feed for the week. I can still get messages to my Messenger app, and I have the Pages app to monitor the Pages for my blogs and other projects (uhhh I have a few!). I’m permitting myself to scan my notifications just to make sure I am not tagged in anything urgent – but no responding unless it’s truly urgent!

Twitter. I’m tweeting here and there and responding to tweets (again, I count this as necessary blogger presence). I’m not reading my feed. I don’t look at Twitter all that much anyway so it’s no big sacrifice.

Blogs. I am writing blog posts (obviously), since I think that can be counted as creative work! I am going to take the week off reading blogs. I feel a little guilty about it, seems selfish of me to ask people to read mine when I’m not reading theirs, but I’ll catch up at week’s end.

Instagram. I haven’t been using Instagram that much and I don’t spend much time on it when I do, so I’m keeping it on my okay list. If only to record the events of the week.

Pinterest. I use Pinterest so seldom that I almost forgot to put it in the list. Meh.

TV. I am giving myself a husband loophole here. We usually watch ONE show together after the kids are asleep. I know there are other things we could do, but we are usually pretty fried by 10 pm. If we don’t watch any shows all week, what’s going to happen is he is going to surf social media while I stare at the walls, or… take up knitting in silence? Maybe I could sit and write. Hm. That might work.

Music. Julia does not forbid music, which gets the side eye from me, because what if I were a blocked musician? I’m not, though, so music stays.

Books. I… guess I will try this. I’m not happy about it. I might quit. I’m mostly just curious to see if I can do it and if I will magically start writing a novel if I don’t have any stories coming in to my brain for a week. It might even be good timing since I am not currently reading any library books, BUT I just had a hold come in on a book I’ve been waiting for for months. I might be able to read it in a week after my brownout is over. I won’t give up reading to the kids.

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