Reclaiming Our Attention from the Distortion Machine

This is a reprint of a guest post I wrote for the Fratres Dei blog. Be sure to pay some love forward and check out Rachel’s amazing blog about embodied spirituality and contemplation in the material world!

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Social media is kind of my thing. I met my future spouse through Tumblr, I’m an author who promotes her work on Twitter, and, as some of you may know, I’m the digital communications manager for Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction & Ministries.

Thoroughly a product of the digital age, I’ve been privileged to witness the best social media has to offer. I’ve seen friendships forged, beautiful art created, valuable information exchanged, and online spaces for religious expression blossom. However, I’ve also lost weeks of my life to mindless scrolling, been “dragged” and “cancelled”, participated in unwarranted digital pile-ons I still regret, and woken up in a cold sweat from nightmares about being doxxed.

Sometimes, friends, the internet is bad.

At the start of 2019, I knew that something about my relationship to social media had to change. As an increasingly public figure, I was placing too much of my worth in my public persona. My attention was becoming more and more fragmented, and time on social media was the only “leisure” time I was allowing myself away from my day job and writing, even though I viewed social as just another form of work. I had no inner life I didn’t perform for the internet. My prayer life was nonexistent, because I couldn’t sit still that long, much less devote intentional time to something that didn’t have an immediate material benefit or reward.

But what do you do when the internet feels like an increasingly essential, increasingly centralized feature of the human experience, and if, as for many of us, being active on the web is part of your job?

Common sense advises moderation, but I’ve never been good at finding balance. As I started listening to podcasts about the effects of social media and reading Cal Newport’s phenomenal Digital Minimalism, I realized this isn’t a Sarah-specific compulsion. The majority of Americans have a disordered relationship with social media. Like a gaslighting lover, social demands a glance at our phones every spare moment, yet convinces us to consistently underestimate how many hours a day we devote to the tryst. And as we uncover more about how social media is configured to work on our brains the same way slot machines do, keeping eyes on screens for as many minutes as possible to turn the highest profits for companies, whether or not those minutes wreck our sense of self, warp our view of our political reality, or urge us to throw money down the drain on products we would never otherwise want…The straits get a bit more dire.

As this year’s Lenten season commenced, I felt that gentle nudge, that divine voice in the back of my head saying here’s your chance. A chance to pull the plug on social for forty days and re-set my inner schema. It wouldn’t be a total fast, since I do spend a handful of hours a week managing the Fratres Dei social, but there would be no more browsing, posting, or scrolling from my own accounts for the rest of Lent.

By and large, I’ve taken God up on the offer, and the results have been quietly astounding. First of all, the jittery fear of missing out (on what? Malicious gossip and highlight reel announcements of rivals’ successes and the thousandth click-bait headline heralding society’s demise?) faded in about a week. What followed was overwhelming relief that I didn’t have to care about it all. Human empathy is a divine gift, and social media constantly exhausts it. We swing wildly from outrage to apathy, which makes it hard for us to be attentive and compassionate towards the real needs that surround us. Secondly, I got time back I didn’t even know I had lost. I started finding hours to cook big, wholesome meals while listening to audiobooks, and since I didn’t have the illusion of connection from seeing friend’s Instagram posts all the time, I started calling them a lot more. But most of all, I got my focus back.

The fragmented attention created by the noise of social media is really no attention at all. Conversation with a friend, playing with a child, reading a book, and especially listening for the stirrings of God in our lives require real, sustained attention. Constantly flipping from platform to platform, or article to article, trains our brains to make only the most cursory skim of information. Re-training the brain takes time, but we can start by setting aside hours of our day where we leave our phones on the charger, whether we’re out for a run, meeting someone for coffee, or scribbling idea in a notebook. It’s only in these moments of receptivity that God can press in with soft revelations, interesting food for thought, or divine encouragement.

I observe both the church calendar and the wheel of the year, a cycle of seasonal holidays used by Wiccans and other earthy types. The wheel’s holidays usually involve baking, candle-lighting, handicraft, and other things I love to do but never seem to have time for. But when the spring equinox rolled around during Lent, I suddenly had the time, and without the pressure to post aesthetically pleasing pictures and a description of my practice online for the edification of the masses, I didn’t experience the usual sense of poor planning or inadequacy. So, I pulled out the yellow candles, put a bit of soda bread and calendula tea out on my altar, and said some prayers praising God for light, and for new life. The ritual existed for no one except me and God, and that, I found, was empowering. For the first time in a long time I didn’t worry about how I looked or if I was doing “enough”. I just followed my intuition and listened for God.

Like chocolate, long naps, sex, and whisky sours, social media is good, if used in intentional moderation that doesn’t throw off the balance of the rest of our lives. It should be a tool that we use, not a corporate-run outrage machine that uses us for clicks and buys. Philippians calls the faithful to turn their thoughts towards “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable”. Personally, I find that hard to do when I spend hours a day being fed an inane stream of war crime, advertisement, callout post, wedding pictures, advertisement, human rights violation, cat picture, bad faith political meme, advertisement through my smart phone.

Now, I haven’t jumped off the social media bandwagon entirely. In a move I hope my audience will find charmingly meta I’m currently denouncing social media in a social media post, after all. But for now, I’m enjoying being time-rich and having the space to simply notice my emotions, my relationship to space, and my own breath. I’ve been noticing God a lot more too, not because God wasn’t there when I was scrolling or posting, but simply because I was too tapped in to digital white noise to notice.

Yearning to take better notice of the divine already in your midst? Learn to listen with a spiritual direction session with Fratres Dei.

ODD SPIRITS is on 99¢ sale through the month of October!

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This novella will be on sale for the ghoulishly low price of $5.99 for paperbacks and 99¢ for e-copies until All Hallows Eve. You’ll never see it at a lower price, so grab your ticket to flirty tarot readings, folk religion, and mysterious hauntings today! 

It takes a lot of commitment to make a marriage between a modern ceremonial magician and a chaos witch work, but when a malevolent entity takes up residence in Rhys and Moira’s home, their love will be pushed to the limits. Brewing up a solution is easier said than done when your magical styles are polar opposites; throw a psychic ex and a secret society in the mix, and things are bound to get messy.

This diverse paranormal romance novella is perfect for fans of The Raven Cycle and The Haunting of Hill House!

“Like a lovingly-prepared home-cooked meal, Odd Spirits compels its reader to both devour and savor…Gibson’s background as a poet allows her to deftly create richly-drawn little moments.” –Rouges Portal

See what people are saying about the novella on Goodreads!

Ten Things They Don’t Teach You in Your Undergrad Writing Workshop

After getting asked a couple times this week for my advice to early career writers, I decided to throw everything I didn’t learn from my BA in creative writing into one handy reference. Many of these lessons have to do with emotional resilience, self discipline, and self care. Some of this advice is more pertinent to career writers than hobby or intermittent writers, so feel free to select what is helpful to you. And it’s okay if you’re in one category one day and another the next; identity is nebulous.

  1. Talent is only 30% responsible for success. During my time in my program, I saw incandescently talented writers languish in obscurity because they didn’t make the time to work on their writing, or because they didn’t think they were “good enough” to submit their work for publication (we call this self-rejection, which is another name for the devil). Other writers, objectively less talented and less experienced, ended up getting the grades and the acceptances because they wrote and submitted relentlessly. By my senior year, a colleague who I had written off as mediocre had won the departmental fiction award and had been published in a literary magazine with an acceptance rate lower than Harvard. That sobered me up real quick.
  2. There’s nothing you can’t fix in post-production. Okay, there are some things you can’t fix in revision, and some projects do require you to rip out the seams and start again from an entirely new pattern, but that’s rare. Your first draft should be you putting color on the canvas, or chipping a rough form out of marble. I used to be a habitual edit-as-I-went type and it became crippling. I could never finish a first draft, and would spend ages re-writing the first 17 pages. Don’t be me. Lean into the discomfort of not-perfect and keep pushing through.
  3. Don’t spend eons working on the same project. At least not without working on other things too. True, some writers spend ten years agonizing over their debut novel which is published to much acclaim, but they are outliers. Allow yourself to try new forms, tell new stories, to play and grow. This will build up your portfolio and give you more things to submit while you chip away at that magnum opus. It will also making getting said magnum opus published 500% easier since you won’t have emerged from the vapor, unheard of and unproven.
  4. Listen to criticism, but don’t write by committee. In order to graduate from my program, we had to write 50 pages of a novel and commit to working them over with twenty people weighing in on our progress every week. It was incredibly easy to become a slave to other people’s advice (which would inevitably conflict) and lose yourself rushing to appease every opinion. We refer to this phenomenon as “writing by committee”. Know who your trusted critique partners are and be vulnerable to them, but don’t invite everyone in. You can’t be all things to all people.
  5. In order for some to love your work, others have to hate it. Not everyone is going to love what you have to bring to the table (ex: I recognize Brandon Sanderson is an excellent writer and I adore listening to him talk writing, but I don’t enjoy his books) but having people divided on your stories is far preferable to having everyone shrug and say “they’re alright I guess”. Nothing to write home about”. A few bad reviews are always worth making the statement, taking the artistic risk, or being honest to the story you want to tell. An exception to this rule is being belligerently dismissive of other people’s constructive critique, especially if that critique sounds a little like “you’re being an ass”.
  6. Routine is God’s gift to writers. If you want this life to pay you like a job, you have to treat it like a job. That means carving our regular time in your schedule to write, setting project goals with deadlines, and seeking out critique partners and beta readers who will support your journey and keep you accountable. For the last few years, I drifted from project to project, only submitting when I felt like it, and I had not been published for years. In October of 2017 I made myself a promise to start treating my writing like the career I always wanted it to be. I set daily word goals, wrote down submission dates on my calendar, researched marketing and self publishing, and spruced up my social media. It is now September of 2018 and I have self-published my first novella and had a short story published in a traditional anthology. Attitude makes a world of difference.
  7. Read where you submit, and then read their guidelines twice. I’m sure you’ve heard this one but it bears repeating. Take the time to get a real feel for the magazine or publisher you’re swinging for, then tailor your cover letter/query letter to their tone and specs.
  8. We’re literally all faking it. Neil Gaiman? Lied about his experience to get his first publication. F. Scott Fitzgerald? An absolute disaster who couldn’t spell. Donna Tartt? Committed to her authorial brand before anyone knew her name. The only thing that makes someone a writer is their decision to do the work and call themselves a writer. You do that long enough, and soon other people start calling you a writer too. When I first started posting my writing on Tumblr way back in ye olde 2012, I posted my poems in quotations with my pen-name at the bottom like a ~real~ author That created the social proof I needed for people to search for my name, ask my questions about my work, and encourage me to keep going.
  9. Imposter syndrome does not go away when you get a byline. If not being published is eating up at you, so will not being published in the “right” magazines, or not getting a high enough advance, or not being invited to conventions, or not selling enough copies of your first print run. The earlier in your career you can get a handle on that little demon called Not-A-Real-Writer that lives in your chest, the better.
  10. You will need to rest. This is a tough lesson for us go-go-types, but you can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t create when you’re burnt out, poorly fed, badly rested, or stressed to the max. There are seasons for pushing through the exhaustion to the accomplishment on the other side, but this can’t be your normal. Don’t forget to check in with your body for captured tension (in grinding teeth, tight shoulders, shallow breaths) and please nourish your flesh vessel with brisks walks, cold water, long baths, snooze buttons, and comforting fresh-from-the-oven goodies.

We’re out here together hustling and trying to pull words together into stories worth sharing, so no matter where you are in your writing career, I believe in you!

What are some lessons about writing you wish someone had shared with you sooner? Leave them in the comments section below; I’m curious to know!