I’ve just finished an excellent book and really wanted to write about it but wasn’t sure how or where—yes, review it, I suppose, but more just share my thoughts about it with friends and acquaintances, because it’s something that has been on my mind for a long time. Years even. And then I thought: Aha! What about my website and its badly neglected blog? So here we are.
How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell is an analysis, of sorts, of our internet culture, which is all-pervasive and practically inescapable.
There were many reasons this book appealed to me before I’d even read it. Well, to be honest, just one reason. I struggle with the attention economy. I want to be involved—I love the fast paced environment, the connection with so many people, the often brilliant humour of the internet. And I love chatting with people and enjoying what they post, and of course, I enjoy that they respond to the things I post. It’s a good feeling to be validated. It makes me feel important and worthwhile and part of something bigger.
I know it’s not a great environment. It can be toxic and cruel and dismissive. I know that sometimes I’m scrolling through posts because I am bored or tired, not because I’m really looking for connection. I know I catch myself wondering why certain posts of mine don’t get very many ‘likes’ or comments, even though the rational side of me realises that that’s not an indictment on me, or even on what I posted. I know that the more time I spend online, the more likely I am to feel lonely and disengaged with the people around me: my family, my friends, even my pets or my garden. When I realise this is happening, I make a concerted effort to reconnect with those around me, because I know from experience that this is what I need. When I’m spending too much time online and it is sapping my joy and feeding my anxiety, the antidote is deeper, more personal (and in person) relationships, whether that’s with people or with nature. All of a sudden my world is less chaotic and loud. I can breathe again. Thank goodness.
Odell also acknowledges that it’s a connection with the natural world which helps her feel balanced. She became an avid bird watcher and started to appreciate the birds’ relationships with each other and with nature. She was also able to then see past the urban environment so many of us live in, to the contours of the land, to the way the seasons change and how geographical difference affect the plants and animals (and us too!) in those climates.
Compare this, then, to the frenetic pace of the internet. Odell describes the way our attention spans have shortened, and the way we become overwhelmed with information in our social media feeds by giving examples of her Twitter feed one morning. She lists the tweets which range from links to political articles, to birthday greetings, to photos of wildfires, to someone selling tshirts.
She writes that we need spatial and temporal context for the information we receive and that ‘the bits of information we’re assailed with on Facebook and Twitter feeds are missing both of these kinds of contexts. Scrolling through the feed, I can’t help but wonder: What am I supposed to think of all this? How am I supposed to think of all this?’ (p 159).
I wonder that too. I remember one day experiencing that emotional whiplash one seems to only get on social media after giggling aloud at a funny video in one post, only to well up with tears reading the next about a young father who’d recently lost his son to cancer.
How am I supposed to think of all this?
The answer, some might argue, is to leave the platforms altogether, and there have definitely been times when I’ve done just that: thrown my hands up and logged out, tired of the constant everything. But the truth is, I miss it.
Odell doesn’t believe that it’s necessary or even advisable to disengage from social media completely, rather she argues for a reassessment of our relationship with it. In the last six months, it could be argued that social media has done something to save us, allowing individuals and groups to share important messages, as well as art and music and images which have helped us to feel less alone. But as Odell points out, it’s imperative we understand that the lasting relationships must surely be ones we foster through more intimate contact. That doesn’t always have to be face to face, but it does need to be more meaningful than simply scrolling and ‘liking’—or on the other hand, allowing ourselves to be embroiled in the outrage which is the speciality of social media.
Odell also suggests it’s important to understand that social media has a role to play in connecting people, but that that role is limited. While the book was published in 2017 and so before the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Odell still gives examples of how people have used social media to increase awareness of issues. But that for the movement to gain real momentum—real world momentum—it had to make the leap from the virtual space to a personal one. A hashtag might get picked up and boosted, but it’s people meeting people which have resulted in the cognitive shift to put institutional racism, inequality and injustice into the mainstream focus.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to the same conclusions as Odell in terms of finding solace and quiet in the natural world that I really enjoyed this book. The subtitle ‘resisting the attention economy’ is something she comes back to as well, arguing that our attention is something that social media companies are vying for, precisely because they understand how valuable it is. It’s something we need to begin valuing too. How much are we giving away, in return for empty platitudes… not to mention that our attention (and our information) is being monetised and sold for profit. While I don’t believe that something must be worth money to be valuable, perhaps if we were to think about how much money they’re making from our desire to connect with other human beings, we might think twice about how much of our attention we’re willingly giving away to them.
Several events this year have reinforced the precarity of life. None of us has unlimited time, and in the scheme of things, life is short. It’s up to us to consider how we’re spending our attention, to invest time and energy in fewer relationships, rather than chasing elusive and fleeting popularity, as tempting as that may be. Given the way that our online presence is monitored, I find the idea of resisting attractively subversive! Wresting control of my time and my attention to immerse myself in people I love and the world around me? Count me in.
I want to tell you a story about stories.
When I was little, my parents went to church every Sunday. After church, there would be tea and cakes and biscuits, and the congregation members and the priest would chat together. There were rarely more than a dozen people there. Often, I was the only child present, and most of the adults were older even than my parents. I'd usually get bored being around the adults, and I'd go and play outside in the gardens or the grounds of the church until it was time to go.
Some Sundays, church would be in the evening, around 7, if I remember rightly. During winter, it was too dark and cold to play out by then, so I'd be stuck in with the adults. One evening, the grandfather of one of my schoolmates began to talk to me. He was telling me a story about something, and I realised that I also had a story about the same topic. We stood there and held a conversation, and it hit me: This is how you talk to people. This is how people connect. They tell stories to each other.
I was a bit lonely as a child. Not tragically lonely - I had parents who love(d) me and siblings, although they are much older and went to boarding school, so I didn't see them a lot when I was young. And I had my imagination, and I enjoyed school, and sometimes I got to play with friends on their farms and they came to play on mine. And we had sheepdogs and some pet lambs, my two cats, and once, a pet kangaroo. Still. A bit lonely.
But I had stories. I loved stories. I loved writing them and reading them. I loved hearing them and watching them. In my made-up games, I imagined scenarios featuring treehouses and smugglers (I was big into Enid Blyton, and later, Arthur Ransome) and I pretended by myself for hours. When I was deep in the stories, I wasn't bored, and I wasn't lonely.
So talking to this granddad, who I barely knew, and with whose grandson I didn't really have that much in common, I understood for the first time, how stories could help me around other people, too.
And it has been my saving grace for my entire life. Stories have been the way I talk to people. Stories are my way to win job interviews and find common ground with potential friends and acquaintances. In a more literal (and literary) sense, they're how I make my living and how I spend my spare time. When you think about it, everyone relates using stories, we just don't think about it that much. We human beings are naturally curious to find out the what, the who, the how, why and where. We are, as one of my favourite English teachers said to me, 'story-telling creatures'.
If I hadn't found a way to connect with other people through stories, I'm not sure how I would have managed up until this point. For many of my peers, it seemed so easy to just converse, to know how to behave. I've never found that very easy, and I've always had to consciously think about it. But lucky for me, I had stories to see me through.
I met with a client recently to discuss her novel—we meet every week, and go over it, chapter by chapter. It's a thoroughly enjoyable experience, not just because it's a very well written manuscript and I enjoy talking about it with the author, but also because I meet so few of my clients in person! The face-to-face contact is definitely a welcome change.
When I arrived, she lamented the fact that she'd not done much work on the book since we'd last met. There were many reasons, all of them completely valid, but it bothered her.
"I love it so much," she said. "It's so important to me, and I really want to get it done, but it just ends up being pushed aside."
I told her I absolutely understood, and could fully identify with the sentiment.
"I have to work—we need to eat and pay bills!" I laughed. "And then there are the children and my studies. And when I get back to my own work, I feel the same way: I love it, but it has to come last."
Most writers go into writing knowing that it's going to be something they do on the side, or after hours. Or if they don't begin that way, they soon realise it! It's the rare individual who can be paid in advance for their first novel, and these days, it's even rarer to receive an advance you can live on. Unless you are in a position where you're independently wealthy, or you're supported financially in some other way, you'll have to work to pay the bills and write in your spare time. Even those of us who are lucky enough to write for a living are usually still writing for other people, and such jobs bring with them their own constraints and limitations. And that's not to say that money worries are the only thing that draws us away from our writing. Many of us have other responsibilities such as family or community commitments, and writing has to fit around them. It's a lot easier to say 'no' to your manuscript than it is to a demanding toddler or to the soccer team you're supposed to be coaching!
And so writing comes last, and when it does, that might feel like we're failing. But perhaps it helps to think about writing in terms of a race—any race, be it swimming or cycling or running or sailing—and think about those teams or individuals who come last. They might not win medals or the prize money, but remember: the ones who come last still finish the race. They might not be the quickest, but they don't give up, even though there are so many reasons to do so.
Even if you're struggling to write only a few pages a week, and you feel like nobody in the world could understand how hard it is to fit writing into your busy life, know that there are many, many others in the same position. They're putting their writing last because they have to, but they're not giving up, and they know that eventually they'll finish the race. And unlike an athlete, nobody who reads your work is going to mind that it came last. Who knows what prizes you'll get, if you just keep going to the end?
As is my wont, I've been thinking about death a bit lately. Not specifically, but rather in terms of what endures over the ages. In other words, what lasts after our death. Part of this is due to a recent birthday. Part of it is due to my re-reading of Frankenstein. Can you believe that this book - written by a very young Mary Shelley - is having its 200th birthday this year? Just imagine. Not only is it still being read, it's still being printed. How incredible!
Do you ever wonder whether any of what you write will still be read, years into the future? I don't have any illusions of writing a modern classic, but I do think about how writing is a legacy - not necessarily for other people, but definitely for ourselves. I have journals stretching back decades, now, and they chronicle the day-to-day events and special occasions. But my fiction goes deeper. It gives an insight to emotions or concerns which might not even have been obvious to me at the time. When I re-read my fiction, I can see the flaws in my writing and what I was trying to achieve (whether I did or not is another matter)! But I can also see what was important to me. Fiction lays us bare, perhaps more than we think it will. I remember when I realised this a few years ago, it was slightly terrifying! But now I see it as part of my evolution as a writer, and also as a person. My writing from my teens is, of course, very different from my writing in my 20s. And again, after having children. I expect in the next decades for it to develop in new and different directions, possibly in ways that I can't yet know. The thought is both thrilling and daunting, and it spurs me on. I wonder what my current words will tell my future self about how I feel, what I want, what I need?
How about you? Do you keep your old writing, and revisit it sometimes?
I often begin the new year brimming over with excited anticipation of all that the next twelve months has to offer. Perhaps it's just the relief that the maelstrom of Christmas is over! (Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas and the lead up to it, but somehow I always end up too busy and sleep-deprived.) But this new year, this 2018, promises to be very interesting indeed.
To start with, I'm looking forward to the publication of work that I edited last year: a novella called Survival by Rachel Watts. Set in 'a post-climate change world' it's speculative fiction at its best, and it's right up my alley. I thoroughly enjoyed working on it, and I'm excited to see it in print.
I'm also doing edits to my own novella, which may or may not be novel-length by the time I finish, with the view to publishing it this year. I can't wait to share more news about that as it comes to hand.
On another personal note, I'm diving right into research for my PhD novel and exegesis (that's a fancy name for a dissertation) and it's so, so interesting. I'll definitely write more about that in the months to come.
And finally, this new website! I suppose given that this is my first blog post, I should have listed the website first. Oops. Anyway. I'm looking forward to writing more on here, and having a place where I can share my editing and writing endeavours. I'd love for you to follow along.