Facebook Gave Me Writers’ Block

This article originally appeared on the Guardian website.

Facebook Gave Me Writers’ Block

by Tom Cox

For Tom Cox, the creative isolation of living in the country was punctured by a constant babble from social networking. So in 2012, he’s decided to go cold turkey

For Tom Cox, the creative isolation of living in the country was punctured by a constant babble from social networking. So in 2012, he's decided to go cold turkey (photo courtesy of Tom Cox)

To see in this year, I did two things I’ve been meaning to do for a long time: I challenged myself to put on as many coats as possible at the same time during a lull in a New Year’s Eve party, and I deactivated my Facebook account. The coats challenge didn’t work out quite as well as I’d hoped: I ran out of arm space when I got to six, and I’m not sure one – a pinstriped, Yardbirds-style blazer owned by my friend Pat – strictly counted. The Facebook experiment, however, has so far been a success. Ten days in, I no longer reach for the Facebook icon on my iPhone in the night as one might reach across the bed for a departed partner, and, as I approach two weeks of cold turkey, the “virtual phantom limb” feeling that kicked in around day three is dissipating.

I was far from the most active Facebook user I know, but my decision to quit came from a long cold look at just how many hours I’ve devoted to it in the last couple of years, and a strong accompanying feeling that, were I to devote the same amount over the next couple, I would want to put on some spiked gloves and repeatedly punch myself in the nose really hard. No matter how positive you feel about Facebook or Twitter and the ways in which they’ve enhanced your life, it is unlikely that anyone will ever lie on their deathbed and say, “You know what? I’m really glad I spent all that time social networking!” Additionally, I’m starting to write a new book, and attempting to feel more focussed.

It’s easy to picture a country writing retreat and imagine that its sheer remoteness naturally leads to the kind of mental peace that breeds creativity, but these days that’s not the whole story. I live in Norfolk with lots of greenery around me but in 2012 rural life doesn’t mean “isolated life”. One of the hardest things about writing for a living is being at your keyboard and feeling that everyone else is out having a party. Facebook and Twitter make that party non-stop and put it constantly in your house, in your face, in your bag, in your pocket. I can convince myself that the two of them are friends in the background, gently egging me on through my creative hermitry, but by doing so I’m being too easy on myself. I already spend far too much time going for coffees and beers with my real friends when I should be writing.

A sensible way to combat such interference would be to switch my router off for a few hours or download one of the increasing range of software packages that lock you out of Facebook and Twitter – or, like Sean French, one half of the bestselling crime writing novelist duo Nicci French — build a writing shed just out of broadband range. But I’m not sensible, and, after a bout of pre-Christmas creative block, I decided to take more extreme measures. Last week, in addition to deactivating Facebook, I drove from my own rural writing retreat to another, even more rural writing retreat, 360 miles away: an almost impossibly idyllic fire-warmed one-bedroom cottage called The Bothy, half a mile down a muddy track just north of Dartmoor, with no internet and only intermittent phone signal.

With a “new year, new start” mentality, I got down straight to business, and held my laptop up against the bedroom window in an attempt to piggyback onto the wi-fi from the main house where the owners of The Bothy live. Having failed in this mission, and fielded some text messages from friends asking why I wasn’t on Facebook any more, which soon extended into conversations I would have previously had with them on Facebook, I read a book about witches and fell asleep, hoping that the witches would get together in the night with the half-formed witches in my own book and make them more vivid.

The next morning I felt more motivated, but I was also a bit hungry, so before working I drove out to the nearest supermarket, ten miles away. This being rain-sodden rural Devon, and the roads being narrow and flooded, the journey took me the best part of 45 minutes each way, and Richard, one of the Bothy’s owners, very kindly accompanied me in his four by four for the first stretch, to make sure my ailing Toyota Yaris got through the floods.

These are the factors the author seldom accounts for when buying into the myth of “getting away from the world”: the two hours that it might take to find an interesting sandwich, the potential hour waiting on a dark roadside for the RAC. Back at the start of the last decade, when I lived in Finsbury Park, in London, traffic noise and nextdoor’s Stereophonics albums were problems, but a carless existence and plenty of nearby conveniences contributed to a simpler working life in a way I took for granted. Also, the pet cats in London were mostly cynical loners, while Bertie, one of the happy, gregarious ones living next to The Bothy, wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to stop laying in front of the fire with him on my chest.

When people talk romantically about dreams of rustic artistry, nobody warns you about this stuff: just like when I moved into my house nobody warned me that a man would come to the shore of the nearby lake and shout “COME ON THEN, LET’S BE ‘AVIN YOU!” at the ducks every morning, just as I tried to write the day’s most difficult sentence.

There could probably be no better place to write than The Bothy, if you were a perfect writer, disciplined in his solitude. I, however, am an imperfect modern one, struggling with an attention span that has been torn into strips by the internet and who likes being around people a bit too much.

I managed to work there in the end, but will probably remember it less for what I achieved and more as the place where I found the discipline to almost properly start my seventh book, and finally faced up to the fact that the true distractions stopping me from doing so at home were not external, but internal: that the rabbit hole universe available to us online is far more of a distraction than any physical “bustle” could ever be and the authors really getting down to the best work aren’t the ones telling you about it on the internet.

In fact, I have an impulse to tweet that right now, but I’ll probably leave it.

Tom Cox’s latest book, Talk To The Tail, is published in paperback by Simon And Schuster this month

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