Suspend Your Disbelief

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Facebook: Friend or Foe?

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Facebook: it’s the bane of every writer’s existence–at least, every writer I know. You sit down at your computer to work. Maybe you even get started on your latest story. Then you need to look something up. You open up your browser. And it calls to you.

Come on. Just check me quickly. Don’t you want to know what your friends are up to? What are you waiting for? NEWS IS HAPPENING AND YOU ARE MISSING IT!

Yet Facebook can provide huge benefits to writers as well. In the Michigan Quarterly Review, author (and FWR contributor) Preeta Samarasan explains why writers actually need Facebook:

The real reason, the profound reason I’m on Facebook is because it reminds me every day that our world is chaotic and complex, that everything is happening at once, all of it, the revolutions and the recipe-testing, the marathons and the strikes and the potty-training and the assassinations, the people who believe X to be unquestionably true/divinely revealed and the people who believe just as fervently in an opposite truth, all of these things intertwined in some ineffable way that used to be the exclusive domain of religion and/or spirituality. Yes, I am arguing that Facebook has revealed the Oneness of the universe to me. Before Facebook, I knew on an abstract level that all these things were happening at once. When I went to a mall, attended a poetry reading, and talked to my mother on the phone on the same day, I was certainly aware that my own world was irreducibly complex, each component of my life impossible to convey to all the other components, yet I was still living within my own small corner of a Bruegel canvas. When I read multiple newspapers from different parts of the world or surfed TV channels, I caught glimpses of the big picture. But there’s a vast difference between viewing disparate events from a distance, filtered through the perspective of an intermediary whose job it is to filter, and being actually immersed in all those disparate points of view. To be sure, neither one approximates direct experience, but I’m going to assume that even if that were the fiction writer’s goal — which I’m not sure it is, because I, at least, am more interested in how other people respond to events than in the events themselves — it would be impossible in most cases.

Meanwhile, author Colson Whitehead argues that if you can’t close your browser, Facebook isn’t your writing problem:

I say, yes, you can rent out a hostage pit. You can also close your browser. It’s called willpower. If you can’t muster the will to lay off Gawker, how are you going to write a book? I can’t blame modern technology for my predilection for distraction, not after all the hours I’ve spent watching lost balloons disappear into the clouds. I did it before the Internet, and I’ll do it after the apocalypse, assuming we still have helium and weak-gripped children.

There are those who moan, oh, Shakespeare wouldn’t have written all those wonderful plays for us to “modern update” if he’d had Angry Birds and Is it so terrible, here in the 21st century? A sonnet is perfect Tumblr-length, and given the persistent debates over the authorship of his work, the bard would have benefited from modern, cutting-edge identity theft protection. The old masters didn’t even have freaking penicillin. I think Nietzsche would have endured non-BCC’d e-mail dispatches in exchange for pills to de-spongify his syphilitic brain, and we can all agree Virginia Woolf could’ve used a scrip for serotonin reuptake inhibitors. I digress. The Internet is not to blame for your unfinished novel: you are. People write novels in prison, for chrissakes.

What about you? How is Facebook a help to you as a writer, and how is it a hindrance?

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  • I think Whitehead’s argument about will-power would be more compelling if he didn’t seem to be saying that all forms of happiness are of equal value. There is the satisfaction of having nice friends, and being able to sit in the sun without getting a migraine; there is the satisfaction of writing one great work of philosophy after another. No one who laments the distraction-heavy nature of modern life thinks people in the past had it “nicer” than we do. Clearly we have it nicer than in Shakespeare’s time. But the lamenting-types are arguing, I think, that the niceness of modern life makes it harder to do the grand things, the sublime stuff. The sublime stuff isn’t really “happiness” in the same sense, but it must be meaningful, otherwise we artists wouldn’t struggle for it.

    The best theory of these two forms of happiness that I’ve ever found is William Blake’s. He argues the mind has at least two sides–an “imagination” and a “self-hood” (an entity much like Freud’s ego). The imagination cares about creating eternal work; the self-hood cares whether anyone has “liked” my profile picture today. One’s will-power sometimes aids the imagination, and sometimes aids the self-hood–it is a constant battle.

    The problem with so much (though obviously not all) of modern technology is it seems suited towards strengthening and flattering the self-hood–it makes it harder and harder to “die to the self”, as Christian thinkers put it. Many would-be creative people, whether they are business execs or fiction writers, sense this, and don’t like it–though, on the other hand, I know many people who seem much less bothered by modern distractions, who thrive on them. It’s tricky.

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