Compassion Fatigue: or Why I Didn’t Share Your Post

 

TW/CW for sad things tugging on your heartstrings.

 

 

 

The other day during work I got an email from an acquaintance. A shelter in the neighboring county had posted an urgent notice: they’d been inundated with puppies during the past week and if they didn’t find homes for them by the end of business hours that day, they would have to euthanize them.

Did I know of anyone who wanted a puppy? Like right now? Immediately.

I wracked my brains but couldn’t come up with anyone on the fly.

“Send me the link and I’ll share it when I can,” I offered as a stopgap before delving back into work.

But ultimately, I didn’t share the link. Let me tell you why.

You see, something about that urgent request to spend compassion currency that I have in dwindling supply broke me just a little.

I have to reiterate: it was puppies. Puppies that needed homes right away or they would die. But for the first time ever, getting hit with such a request rang the resentment buzzer instead of the compassion bell.

Whoa. Hold up there. Resenting an impassioned plea to help save at least one or two puppies? Doesn’t that make me some kind of Cruella de Vil?

Sure, I couldn’t do anything directly to save the puppies. But I could share the link, right? How much energy could that possibly take? How could I refuse to put out the word?

Well, there are a couple of reasons. For starters, there was the link itself, which felt very “click-baity” when I read it. “Help us! Puppies will die if you don’t come TODAY!”

Believe me, I know there is probably someone on the other end of that post, hoping against hope that they don’t have to perform the soul-destroying task of euthanizing healthy puppies because some irresponsible person let their dog have them without any intention of raising them and finding homes for them. And my heart breaks for that shelter worker. I know their pain is real, even if they couched their request like so many other posts begging for help.

But practically speaking, by the time I’d put out the half-a dozen or so fires at my job, which also requires a great deal of compassion, it was so late in the day that my sharing the post would have been too late for that litter of puppies. Perhaps it could have raised awareness for someone else out there looking for a puppy that they should check out the shelter, but the puppies in question? Too late.

And that’s when I realized that my compassion bank account was dangerously low.

Because every day we’re hit up with thousands of similar requests. GoFundMe accounts for medical or funeral expenses shared by our friends. Political organizations playing off our justifiable outrage over some restrictive measure that’s just been enacted, and if we don’t donate NOW, warning of the Bad Things coming our way. Just causes demanding we take action. Global catastrophes begging for our financial support. Legal funds for kids in cages, ripped from their families. Egregious acts of racism that deserve investigation and some kind of response. Missing children on milk cartons needing to be identified. And so on.

And yes, I realize that I’m speaking from a place of great privilege because I’m not the one begging for help paying my bills or needing someone to rescue me from having to perform a heartbreaking task.

I think of myself as a compassionate person. Professions that demand compassion tend to attract empathetic people, and I chose my career path years ago because I had compassion to spare. I donate generously to things I believe in because I usually don’t have the time to volunteer in person. I spent years serving as a caretaker to my father because it was my mother’s wish that he be able to stay at home rather than enter an advanced care facility. I trap, neuter, and vaccinate the stray cats that show up around my house on my own dime, finding homes for those that can be tamed and going to ridiculous lengths to take care of the remaining ones (see the expensive catio that I built for these furry freeloaders). I cried when the annoying trash panda, whom I caught three times before trapping the mean tom (who hisses and spits at me every day, despite being nursed back to health), got hit by a car.

I share things. The post about the homeless trans teen who needs help. The post from an internet acquaintance who needs help paying for her cat’s surgery. The posts about fundraisers, many of which I contribute to myself. The posts about organizations raising money to deal with the aftermaths of flooding, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The posts where some mother is asking for likes to show her son or daughter how beautiful they are. I comment with sympathy on the posts of total strangers who have experienced a great loss.

My lack of willingness to share the post about the puppies, and the resentment the request generated, tells me I must draw the line somewhere. None of us are designed with endless wells of compassion. To mix metaphors, we can’t keep overdrawing our compassion accounts to spend on things out of our control. The constant withdrawal of coins to spend on people we don’t know will bankrupt us.

I’m not Cruella de Vil.

I have compassion fatigue.

Put another way, if I’d found a box of puppies myself, I would have taken them into my home. I would have had them vaccinated and dewormed, and tried my best to find homes for them all, while at the same time, trying to socialize them and instill some manners in order to make them the best possible candidates for adoption.

If the local shelter had a fundraiser, I’d volunteer my time, donate some money, and if I couldn’t do either of the above, I’d share the post about it. I’d probably share the post regardless, but in terms of doing something, sharing is the last on the list. I’ve said it before, but sharing posts without taking action is little more than virtue-signaling. It might make you feel good, but for the most part it accomplishes very little.

I wrote a bit about my struggles with social media in general a few weeks ago, and how I think SM breaks are necessary for our mental health. In that post, I mentioned this metafilter thread that my husband had shared with me: What’s Mine to care about and what’s NOT MINE to care about. The original post cited, as well as the discussion thread it generated, is well-worth reading. In the OP, If You Can’t Take In Anymore, There’s a Reason, the poster refers to the need for an emotional circuit breaker because our minds and hearts aren’t wired to care about everything that’s on fire all over the world at the same time, and if we don’t flip that breaker, our whole house will burn down.

I couldn’t agree more. So like the OP, I recommend you pick one fire to put out at a time, and you concentrate on the fire that threatens the things you care about the most. Battle that fire with all your heart and resources. Fight the fire you think you have the best chance of helping to contain, or the one that is the most pressing to you because it’s in your backyard. You can help fight a fire halfway across the world, if that’s the fire that’s important to you, but you can’t squander your limited resources on trying to fight them all.

Because if 101 Dalmatians show up at your doorstep looking for a ride home, you want to have enough compassion in the bank to get them there.

And perhaps if I wasn’t staring down at a compassion overdraft notice, I would have shared the post about the puppies after all. Because that is the sort of thing I care about.

Is it Time to kiss Social Media Goodbye?

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

More and more people I know are discussing leaving social media altogether. Divorcing themselves from Facebook, Twitter, and even the relatively happy place, Instagram.

I’m not surprised, to be honest. Social media has become a toxic swamp, weaponized by those forces wishing to polarize populations and bring countries to their knees. Think I’m exaggerating? Remember the huge hate the latest trilogy of Star Wars movies received from supposed fanboys who hated the fact none of the leads were young, white men?

Welp, a post by Wired in 2018 revealed that as much as half the negative tweets about the film were politically motivated or generated by bots (a storyline worthy of the franchise itself, if you ask me).

It’s not just polarizing people over issues such as diversity and inclusiveness. Social media has become the place most people get their information these days, and the amount of disinformation out there, aimed at creating divisiveness at best and destroying nations at worst, is scary. I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but when I see well-educated people in the medical profession or education supporting unverified, crazy theories over statistically-backed scientific reports, I’m concerned, let me tell you.

On a personal level, I find the damage it causes something else altogether. We’ve become addicted to doomscrolling, and because clicks are king, media outlets are creating provocative headlines designed to keep us in a perpetual state of outrage. My husband and I had a conversation about this the other day, and I think for many of us, we share these anger-inducing posts because it’s the bare minimum we can do. Most of us don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do anything other than share the outrage because we think people should be angry and upset over these important issues.

(Don’t get me started on the data mining these platforms do… how creepy is it that my husband and I talk about buying a new mattress and shortly thereafter, our feeds get flooded with mattress adverts??)

But the truth of the matter is not only is sharing bad news (and OMG, there’s SO much of it these days) completely worthless in terms of doing something about it, there may be great harm in doing so as well. It fosters a sense of hopelessness about our ability to change anything: from the impending climate disasters, to voter suppression and the march to invalidate any election results the opposition doesn’t like, from politicians who get vaccinated themselves, but tell their constituents Covid-19 is nothing to worry about, so don’t bother with vaccines and oh, by the way, get back to work, please. And when we get sucked into a state of despair and cynicism, then we stop trying to make a difference where we can.

My husband shared this great metafilter discussion thread with me, and I’m sharing it here with you: What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT MINE to care about. It has some great things to say about limiting your anxiety over the things for which you have no control and what to do about the things you can affect. That you can’t fight all the battles in the world, but you can’t opt out of fighting any. And if all you’re doing is sharing outrage posts, how is that different from virtue signaling? The metafilter discussion was in reference to this post here, which points out we are not designed to handle all the suffering in the world, and that circuit breakers exist for a reason: to prevent electrical systems from overloading.

My friends, the majority of whom I met online, are moving off social media and onto other, smaller platforms, such as WhatsApp and Discord. The main reason? To keep up with each other during the day but avoid getting sucked into the mire of disinformation and ugly rhetoric out there. I can’t say as I blame them. I’ve taken Facebook off my phone. I’m considering eliminating Twitter next. Some of my friends have taken things one step further: they’ve deleted their accounts.

I confess, the idea of doing that fills me with a sense of dread. I’m a writer. I’ve been told over and over again that I must have a presence on social media. And without the backing of a Big Name Publisher, I suspect this is true. I need to keep hustling to remind people my stories exist, to build a newsletter following, to manage groups, to post regularly to all my platforms, to stand on the deck of the Ark amidst limitless seas, releasing doves again and again in the hopes of one of them eventually bringing back signs of dry land out there.

To consider eliminating my social media presence feels a bit like giving up. Like accepting that I’ll never be more than a small potatoes writer releasing a handful of French fries once a year. So maybe I won’t delete my accounts.

But I can be a better steward of them.

You want fries with that?

Photo by Dzenina Lukac from Pexels

Ooops! I Accidentally Published a Book!

You may have heard that owing to a blunder on my part while trying to upload my first cozy mystery for pre-order, I accidentally launched it instead!

My mistake is your gift, however! An Embarrassment of Itches, (Ginny Reese Mysteries Book 1) is now available for only 99 cents and also on Kindle Unlimited for a limited time.

Ginny Reese returned home to her “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small town” of Greenbrier, VA to help take care of her dying father. She’s used to seeing her share of the weird and wacky as a house-call vet, but nothing in her experience has prepared her for finding the dead body of a client floating in her pool. When she’s named the deceased’s heir, Ginny becomes the number one suspect–and must prove her innocence to the newly elected sheriff–who just happens to be her old high school boyfriend.

At least she can rely on her trusty German Shepherd, Remington!

Creating a new pen name posed some challenges for me, and I’m currently in the process of rebranding the site. My Twitter and Instagram accounts will share both information from McKenna Dean and M.K. Dean, as will my newsletter, but if you’d like to follow M.K. Dean on Amazon, Goodreads, M.K’s Facebook page, and BookBub, here are the links.

I would appreciate any follows–my new pages are so empty! 🙂

Ten Ways to Cope with Toxic News Cycles

I went back and forth over how to title this post.

“Unsettling” seemed too anemic a term to describe the insurrection that took place in the Capitol just four days ago. I rejected “apocalyptic” because while it may be true, it felt like hyperbole. “Revolutionary”, while also accurate, is a term most often used to describe the good guys.

But “toxic” fit the bill.

I’ve written about distraction before. A lot, actually. And inability to focus or to find the energy to be creative is nothing new for me. I’ve been struggling with these issues for the last several years–the last four years, to be exact. But the stark reality is this:

Nothing is going to change.

You read that right. I don’t mean that everything is going to remain static; that things will neither get better nor worse. Given our current trajectory, things are probably going to get much worse before they get better, if indeed, they still can. What I mean by this harsh statement is that things are always going to be in turmoil, the news is almost always going to be terrifying, the year that we look forward to with hope as being better than the last is almost certainly to disappoint.

We’re going to have to adapt if we want to live our best lives.

I saw a question making the rounds on Twitter this morning asking if those over 30 could remember so much crammed into a single news cycle. After all, this week brought us both Bean Dad and a violent takeover (at the instigation of the current president and others) of the Capitol while Congress was preparing to certify Biden as the next President of the United States. Yes, both these events happened in the same week. I mention Bean Dad because that already seems like months ago. Life comes at you fast these days.

The response of the over-30 crowd on Twitter was interesting: it’s not just that the news cycles have become shorter with more horrific events. It’s that we can never get completely away from them either.

So the real question is what are we going to do about it?

I took this quote from a post I wrote last February

But I’m noticing a greater tendency on my part not to want to do anything but mess around online. Stay home in front of the laptop or with the phone in hand. If I could order my groceries and do all my banking online, I’d never leave the house on my days off. It’s an effort to put the dogs in the car and take them out for a run in the national forest or go horseback riding–things I used to love doing. I keep looking at my watch and thinking, “I have this block of time I need to use for writing!” only I pick up the phone, and four hours later, I haven’t typed a single word in the WIP.

A few days after posting that, because of the pandemic, my husband and I made the decision to split our households into those who could WFH and those who could not. And now I do order my groceries and do all my banking online. I’ve stopped riding because I didn’t feel comfortable going to a public boarding barn where I was leasing a horse. And while I can still take the dogs out for a run in the woods, I don’t do that nearly as often as I could.

I waste my precious available time doomscrolling.

And again, rather than stating the obvious, the question is what am I (and you) going to do about it?

I snagged this bit of advice (that I should have taken!) from the previous post:

Just in time for this post, I came across this old Twitter thread from former CIA personnel, Cindy Otis. (I know, right? The irony…) In it the OP talks about toxic news cycles and how to cope. She doesn’t advocate ignoring the news–and she’s right, it won’t go away. But she outlines positive steps to take to make yourself feel better. You can check out the link or follow the tips here:

  1. Take Action: Volunteer. A hard one for me, I admit because I’m already on compassion burnout as it is. But that’s why I give money when I can’t give time, and why I focus on local rather than national or international efforts. You need to see the benefits of your kindness. Do it. (I should add here that I participated in a small way in Romancing the Runoff this year, which generated over $400,000 to support getting the vote out in Georgia, and helped flip the Senate–so even small efforts can make a difference!)
  2. Accept Your Limits: The flip side of the first, true. But critical. Remember, if the O2 mask drops down on the plane, you have to put YOUR mask on first before attempting to help others. You can’t do anything if you’ve passed out from lack of air.
  3. Research before Panicking: particularly important in this age of disinformation. Check your facts before sharing that post. For all you know, the crisis you’re sharing may have already been resolved by the time you hit ‘send’. Or it may not even be true.
  4. Get up and Move: that’s right. Unplug. Turn off the phone, go outside, play with the dog, call a friend. Your body and brain needs a break from stressful content but also you need to release that negative energy. Even if you don’t feel like taking a walk, do it. You’ll feel better afterward.
  5. Set Rules: I like this one. No Social Media after a certain time. Only fiction reading at home. Whatever works best for you. Shut out the negative so you can recharge.
  6. Avoid Dark Holes: Don’t go down the rabbit hole of one bad news story after another. Don’t succumb to clickbait. Deal with one thing at a time. Don’t get yourself wound up about the coronavirus and then leap to climate change and then hyperventilate about how unprepared we are for all of this and how the next thirty years is going to break us as a society and species… Ooops. That was kind of specific, I see. You see what I mean, though.
  7. Have Fun, Darn it: Another tough one. It’s hard not to feel guilty having dinner with friends or enjoying a movie when the world is on fire. But the thing is, enjoying those little things is what life is all about. And sharing our fandom squee, or a beautiful photograph, or the joy of bringing home a new puppy or kitten doesn’t mean we’re shallow, terrible people because the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we’re not screaming about it. It’s all part of recharging. It’s all part of making sure we’re rested for the next fight.
  8. I added this one myself: Celebrate Your Wins: No matter how big or small. Because that’s what life is about too. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for sharing about your new book or your concert tickets or pictures from that awesome vacation (pre-pandemic). Because that’s what life’s about too. The things that make us happy.
  9. Adding this one today: Treat doomscrolling like any other addiction.  Because that’s what it is. And believe me, it’s hard to cut yourself off from your phone when you’re supposed to be staying at home because of the pandemic. But if you find yourself unable to stop bingeing on potato chips, perhaps the answer is to stop buying chips. My life seems full of mostly bad habits right now. I’m trying to cope any way I can, and most days I feel like the character from Airplane! You know, “This was the wrong week to give up <insert escalating vice here>. But the only one who can stop me from indulging is me.
  10. Adding this one too: JUST START. If you want to write, knit, paint, do a puzzle, regain fitness, journal, learn a second language, get a degree, whatever. Just. Start. A word after a word after a word is a sentence. If you are stalled out creatively by the endless toxic news cycles, throw out the idea that it must be perfect or that you must complete it by such-and-such date. You may have heard the advice you can’t edit a blank page (Jodi Picoult) or that the water doesn’t flow until the faucet is turned on (Louis L’Amour). Well, it’s true. And if that faucet has been off a long time, at first the water will be tinged with rust and may only trickle out, but given enough time, it will run clear again. But only if you turn the valve.

Now excuse me while I go walk the dogs. I said that in February 2020. I’m saying it again today. Because it’s always the right answer.

Stop The Information Overload Bus: I Want to Get Off

Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

This morning, as I was checking my inbox over breakfast, I told my husband I finally understood why some people ghosted their own lives, walking away from everything. There are days when it all seems like Too Much. Those days come with increasingly frequency lately. I’m sure it has something to do with the greater degree of responsibility I have in my life now compared to even ten years ago, but there’s a reason I chose ten years as my marker and not fifteen or twenty. See, it was about ten years ago that I began publishing my original stories.

Prior to that, my online presence was relatively small. I had a list of friends I kept in touch with via email. I had a livejournal account where I interacted with another handful of friends. I posted fanfic to some of the big archives. I had a Blackberry, the primary use of which was to make phone calls.

But with becoming a published author, I had to have a social media presence, and there followed Facebook pages, Twitter, a website, Tumblr, and eventually, reluctantly (and then embraced with more enthusiasm as it became my happy place), Instagram. I created livejournal accounts for my pen names, switched to Dreamwidth when livejournal got taken over by the Russians, and then deleted my accounts on that platform because hardly anyone was there. I made pages on Bookbub, Amazon, and Goodreads. I maintain a ghostly presence on Tumblr because the platform just doesn’t appeal to me very much but I have friends who use it. I belong to groups on Discord I forget to visit. I snagged real estate on other sites I thought I might use/need at some point–does anyone remember Ello? Just this morning I got a reminder to respond to a friend request on MeWe, a site which I’ve never fully utilized, in part because the name reminds me of PeeWee Herman and that just makes me shudder. But as an alternative to the invasive and amoral Facebook, it’s starting to have more appeal.

And because I have different email accounts (personal, professional, fandom, and pen names, current and retired) on any given day, I have over 600 emails in my combined inboxes. In part, because I sign up for courses on craft and marketing with the assumption that I need the information (mostly I do) and in the hopes that this One Thing will make the difference and that This Time the latest book release will be a smashing success and I can finally step down from a job that no longer brings me joy or satisfaction and I can write FT. Only the backlog of coursework, much of which are daily videos averaging 40-50 minutes in length, weighs on me. As does the money I’ve wasted on courses I haven’t made the time to finish.

It’s also due to the email lists I’m on. Because, as every author is told, your email lists are gold. You must have one, you must provide entertaining information, value for the following. Don’t worry about boring your followers or overwhelming them with posts because they are just sitting at their computers waiting for your newsletter to brighten their day.

Um, I can tell you I’m not doing that. I belong to dozens of email lists that I never open. I signed up as part of something else, or to support someone, or even because they are a favorite author and I want to know the moment they drop a new release… and I have to tell you, if I can’t manage to open a newsletter from a favorite Big Name Author then I have less hope for someone opening one of mine.

On any given day, I have blog posts (like this one) to write, marketing/craft videos to watch, I need to make the rounds on social media (and yes, I do schedule things in advance, but like meal planning, that in and of itself can swallow an entire afternoon to get a month’s worth of posts), submit review requests, answer emails (why is it my friends and family always come in last on this list?), reply to comments, and yes, write. You’d think the writing would come first, wouldn’t you? But it hasn’t been. I’m in a writing slump. Some days I’m enthusiastic and I pound out a few words. More often I open the document and stare at the blinking cursor. Writing these past few years has been like pulling teeth with a pair of rusty pliers and no anesthesia. I know it can be done, but I don’t look forward to it and I doubt it’s my best work.

Scarcely a day goes by when I’m not invited to join this group or that platform or I’m advised to have a presence on x-y-z, particularly the newer sites like storyorigin which are designed to help you network with other authors. But it all feels like a catch-22, you know? Managing my time and presence on all these sites is a full-time job and I already have a FT job. I’m like the solo business owner who recognizes that the workload is too much for one person but it won’t quite support a second salary yet. Do you keep growing or pull back? Work yourself to death or hire PT help you can’t afford?

These days a big part of the problem is an inability to focus. I start a video but pause it to throw a load of laundry in the washer. I come back to the video, but decide I really should be writing. The words won’t flow so I decide to schedule blog posts instead. A few hours later I come back to the story but the words still aren’t there. Is it the story itself? Is it me as a writer? Is my brain simply turning to mush?

I honestly believe it’s because there is too much noise. Not literally, although there’s a lot of that too. I think collectively our brains are on overdrive with too much information to process every day. In the past, this feeling would have been my cue to get up from the keyboard and take the dogs for a run, or unplug from social media for a few days and immerse myself in my characters’ universe. But the problem is this time, I don’t want to do those things either. I can’t settle. I can’t focus.

I said to my husband this morning that we were in limbo, and that’s true. That’s what this feels like, this everlasting holding of one’s breath. Ten years ago, I was a much happier person. Uninformed, living in my own little bubble of privilege, but happier. I need to stay informed so I can take action on the things I can do something about–but there are a lot of things going on in the world right now that I have no control over–and perhaps I need to take a break from updates on those things. I strongly suspect one day we’ll learn that doomscrolling also provides some weird sort of feedback, a negative version of the dopamine hits you get when someone likes or comments on your posts.

So if you’re having trouble focusing on whatever is important to you right now: your NaNo project, your WIP, your book launch, a family issue, some work-related thing, something you’ve committed to but feel is getting away from you, take a little advice here. Unless it relates to whatever it is you need to get done, turn off the news. Stop checking out social media. Oh, you’re an author with a big launch coming up and you MUST make your presence known/felt? Schedule what you can in advance and go back to what’s really important. There are far bigger and scarier things threatening to end the world than lack of your social media presence.

Ruthlessly purge your email lists. If you’re not opening it, you’re just deadweight on someone’s list. Clean out your inbox. Those emails you’ve been saving to read at some future date? If they’re more than 6 months old and didn’t come from friends or family, purge it. Not using Discord, or Snapchat, or Twitter or Tumblr? Delete the apps from your phone. Trust me, you’ll feel so much relief from taking these steps.

Pick three sites to maintain a presence on. For me, it’s currently Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I have some real issues with Facebook’s policies and information mining, and I suspect it’s worse than we know, but for authors, a Facebook presence is considered necessary. I crosspost to as many things as possible to save time. For the time being, I intend to stay off SM as much as possible, using something like Hootsuite to manage my posts. I know, I know, interacting on these sites is The Key to building your audience organically and growing your brand (yikes, I typed that as “your bland” initially–Freudian much?) but so is writing your next bloody story!! For me, the only way to deal with the “squirrel brain” I have right now is to dam up the information overflow pipe and let that crap stream on without me.

I hate scheduling stuff because my life is so rigidly scheduled all the time, but using a daily planner helps me find blocks of time I didn’t know I had, while at the same time keeps me from spinning my wheels too long in one space without traction. If I block off 30-40 minutes for a task–like watching a craft/marketing video or working on a book trailer, etc–and that time runs out, I can decide if I will use the next block of time to complete it or move on. Sometimes the answer is MOVE ON. Just like cleaning your house, writing a book, or climbing a mountain–depending on the size of the project– some things are meant to be tackled a piece at a time. A piece plus a piece plus a piece becomes a whole.

The world is a scary place. Always has been for many, but these days we all have more information about just how scary it is and how directly that frightening thing can impact us. We need to learn how to utilize that information without letting it freeze us into inactivity. Time to calm that limbic system down again. Take a deep breath and put your phone down.

 

The Internet is Killing Me but My Support is on the Internet

The modern dilemma, eh?

About 15 years ago, I started a new job, moving to a new town, where I didn’t know anyone. I’d just finished a five year run as my father’s caretaker, and I was looking to start fresh with a new life–new everything. After years of working a full time job and then spending 6 pm to midnight caring for my father with dementia, I was looking for friendships, hobbies, and hoping to meet the love of my life. All those things happened, but not the way I expected.

See, at first, I looked into joining organizations that I thought would be fun and challenging, as well as a way of meeting new people. I was still competing my horse then, so I made a few friends at the new boarding barn. I tried inviting people over for movie nights or making plans to go out together, but we all were on such different schedules that trying to coordinate a get-together was as fraught with difficulty as scheduling a Middle Eastern Peace Summit. 

I tried joining a few clubs and activities around my new town, but found it nearly impossible to attend on a regular basis. As a former actress, there was great appeal in the notion of auditioning for a play with the local theater, but again, my schedule prohibited me from committing to something like that. I began writing again, which filled my creative void, but didn’t provide the social interaction I craved, until I began posting my stories online.

All of the sudden, I had friends.

I was invited by one of them to join Live Journal, and before I knew it, I’d gotten sucked into fandom. I’d always been a geeky girl, a Trekkie and sci-fi fan, so this new and improved world of fanfiction archives and story fests was right up my alley. Even better was the fact I could participate on my own time, on my own schedule, be it 5:30 am before a 2 hour commute to work or at 1 am when I’d just finished a new story and couldn’t wait to share. Everything I learned about computers I learned from fandom, by the way: how to code html, how to embed images, how to make graphics…

Fandom expanded my horizons in other ways too. I made international friends, had attitudes adjusted, learned a greater degree of tolerance than I had growing up in my small rural towns. I found the courage to travel to meet up with my fandom friends–people who knew more about what was going on in my life than the people I saw in person every day. I was surrounded by acquaintances and coworkers in real life. My friends were mostly online. I even met my husband online through a dating service–something that I’d never have done had it not been for my time on the Internet.

But these days, the Internet is a bigger source of anxiety than it is a place of fun. Social media has become a huge part of everyone’s lives, to the extent that when you walk into a restaurant, more often then not, you see people sitting at tables across from each other with their eyes glued to their phones. I used to read a book when waiting for the bus (or waiting for anything, for that matter). Now I scroll my social media feeds. Around and around I go, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to What’s App and so on.

And they aren’t making me happy. The news is horrific–and most of the time, there is nothing I can do about it. Pandemics. Wildfires. Global Fascism on the rise. Ice caps melting. Species going extinct. The end of Medicare and Social Security as we know it. The impending crash of the economy. People in cages. And if it isn’t some bit of terrifying news, it’s the unconscious competition to show that your life is more exciting and successful than those around you, or the drive, drive, drive to get your book (your art, your music) noticed.

Whenever I feel this way, I’m tempted into doing a social media blackout, but I never manage it very well. After a day or two of self-imposed going off the grid, I’m back because I couldn’t help but check out my Twitter feed, or I’d committed to doing something that required my online presence.

And then there’s the fact that my support group is still largely online. There’s the rub. Because I know I can share my fears and within seconds, someone will chime in with offers of support. It might only be a virtual hug or a funny gif, but those are the kinds of things that can get you through a bad day, especially if you work in a hostile environment and virtual support is the only kind you can get.

But I’m noticing a greater tendency on my part not to want to do anything but mess around online. Stay home in front of the laptop or with the phone in hand. If I could order my groceries and do all my banking online, I’d never leave the house on my days off. It’s an effort to put the dogs in the car and take them out for a run in the national forest or go horseback riding–things I used to love doing. I keep looking at my watch and thinking, “I have this block of time I need to use for writing!” only I pick up the phone, and four hours later, I haven’t typed a single word in the WIP.

And it’s not making me happy. So when I’m done with my current commitments for the month of February, I’m going dark for a while. Taking the apps off my phone. Unplugging from the internet and tuning back into the real world around me. I doubt seriously this will hurt my writing career in the slightest. We worry about losing followers or not keeping fans happy, but honestly, I don’t think most people will even notice. Like me, they’re busy doing the rat race of running in circles on the social media wheel. If anything, I strongly suspect the time off from social media will help my writing process immensely as I find the ability to daydream and brainstorm again. But the real value will be in becoming connected to the things that matter to me.

Just in time for this post, I came across this old Twitter thread from former CIA personnel, Cindy Otis. (I know, right? The irony…) In in the OP talks about toxic news cycles and how to cope. She doesn’t advocate ignoring the news–and she’s right, it won’t go away. But she outlines positive steps to take to make yourself feel better. You can check out the link or follow the tips here:

  1. Take Action: Volunteer. A hard one for me, I admit because I’m already on compassion burnout as it is. But that’s why I give money when I can’t give time, and why I focus on local rather than national or international efforts. You need to see the benefits of your kindness. Do it.
  2. Accept Your Limits: The flip side of the first, true. But critical. Remember, if the O2 mask drops down on the plane, you have to put YOUR mask on first before attempting to help others. You can’t do anything if you’ve passed out from lack of air.
  3. Research before Panicking: particularly important in this age of disinformation. Check your facts before sharing that post. For all you know, the crisis you’re sharing may have already been resolved by the time you hit ‘send’. Or it may not even be true.
  4. Get up and Move: that’s right. Unplug. Turn off the phone, go outside, play with the dog, call a friend. Your body and brain needs a break from stressful content but also you need to release that negative energy. Even if you don’t feel like taking a walk, do it. You’ll feel better afterward.
  5. Set Rules: I like this one. No Social Media after a certain time. Only fiction reading at home. Whatever works best for you. Shut out the negative so you can recharge.
  6. Avoid Dark Holes: Don’t go down the rabbit hole of one bad news story after another. Don’t succumb to clickbait. Deal with one thing at a time. Don’t get yourself wound up about the coronavirus and then leap to climate change and then hyperventilate about how unprepared we are for all of this and how the next thirty years is going to break us as a society and species… Ooops. That was kind of specific, I see. You see what I mean, though.
  7. Have Fun, Darn it: Another tough one. It’s hard not to feel guilty having dinner with friends or enjoying a movie when the world is on fire. But the thing is, enjoying those little things is what life is all about. And sharing our fandom squee, or a beautiful photograph, or the joy of bringing home a new puppy or kitten doesn’t mean we’re shallow, terrible people because the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we’re not screaming about it. It’s all part of recharging. It’s all part of making sure we’re rested for the next fight.
  8. I added this one myself: Celebrate Your Wins: No matter how big or small. Because that’s what life is about too. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for sharing about your new book or your concert tickets or pictures from that awesome vacation. Because that’s what life’s about too. The things that make us happy.

Now excuse me while I go walk the dogs. 

Social Media Do’s and Don’ts: Sometimes You Should Just Shut Up

This past weekend, I made a bone-headed move.

A Big Name Author I follow on Twitter bravely shared the fact she was starting new medication and that she had a lot of anxiety about doing so.

With all the best intentions in the world, I jumped into her Twitter stream to share my experiences with the same medication. My hope was to prepare her for potential side effects. See, a few years back, before I figured out that even a small amount of caffeine would send my blood pressure skyrocketing into the stratosphere, an urgent care doctor decided I was having panic attacks and put me on Ativan.

Unfamiliar with the medication, I asked if there were any restrictions taking it. I was told it might make me sleepy and it may be better to take it at night. On Wednesday evening, I took my first dose. On Thursday, I went to work as usual, taking another dose that night. On Friday, one of my co-workers called me at home–highly unusual. She called because she thought I seemed strange and out of it at work the day before. We talked on the phone for a half hour.

To this day, I don’t remember any of the conversation we had.

Also on Friday, I drove through a red light. When I realized what I’d done, I merely shrugged. And took the next dose.

Saturday evening, my husband and I watched a movie with a slightly sad scene in it. I burst into hiccupping, stuttering sobs, and punched him in the shoulder as I told him he was never allowed to pick the movies again. I also took the next dose. On Sunday, I could not find the barrettes I used to pull back my hair, and I came THIS CLOSE to chopping off all my hair with a pair of pinking shears. I’m not joking. A few minutes later, the young cat picked a fight with the old cat and I came THIS CLOSE to booting him outside–and we lived close to a busy interstate at the time.

My desire to kick my 100% indoor cat that I’d raised from a kitten out of the house into traffic finally brought me up short. Only then did it occur to me to wonder if the medication could possibly be affecting me. I stopped taking it, and the next day contacted my regular doctor, who had a fit when she heard the milligram strength of the dose I’d been taking. 

“That’s four times the starting dose I would have put you on!”

Needless to say, not only did I stop taking the Ativan, but I also figured out that caffeine was the culprit, and though cutting out coffee and soda cold turkey was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, my BP went back to normal when I did.

I still refer to that time as my “Britney Spears Weekend,” and I don’t mean that unkindly. Medications can have powerful, unforeseen effects.

Recently, due to a ridiculous series of tragic events, the subject of putting me back on Ativan came up again. Naturally, I resisted the idea. But it turned out that a quarter of the original dose works quite well for me when I occasionally need it.

And that was the point I’d intended to make to the Big Name Author, namely, work with your doctor, make sure you get the dose right, and trust your gut if something seems wrong. So, while I’m out walking the dogs, I typed in a shortened version of what I shared here. When I finished the third tweet, I suddenly realized what an awful thing I’d done. For someone anxious about trying a new medication, my story was the WORST thing they could possibly hear! Dope slapping myself all the while, I deleted my thread.

Sometimes you just have to know when to shut up.

I think that’s harder these days than it used to be. We’re so connected now via social media, and so many sites request our input I believe we’ve all been groomed to think our opinions are of paramount value, right or wrong. From Amazon to Yelp, from our dentists to the local hardware store, we’re constantly bombarded with messages reminding us to leave a comment, a review, our input. I don’t think this is a bad thing overall, but I  do think it makes it hard to remember sometimes we haven’t been asked. That our experience isn’t necessarily the end-all and be-all of someone else’s existence.

I’ve been trying to keep this in mind as I interact online these days. Sometimes I get it wrong. What helps is if I keep my mouth shut and listen for a change.

But hey, when I ask you for your opinion at the end of this post here, I mean it. I really want to hear what your experience has been!

 

Surviving the Daily News: Comfort Reads

At this year’s Romance Writer’s Association conference, keynote speaker Jennifer L. Armentrout made a powerful statement regarding our work as storytellers with an emphasis on happy endings: “Your stories save lives.”

On the surface, that may seem to some like a bit of an exaggeration, but I don’t think so. I can look back at cycles in my life where things were so bad, where every day was a struggle to get out of bed and go to work, where I found little joy in the things I cared about most, and I needed help to get through my day–again and again I can point to certain books that got me through those dark times. I tend to plunge into a series during these times, devouring at least a book a day. The story must engage and MUST end well. Surprisingly, mysteries often fit this bill, as long as they aren’t too grim or realistic. Mysteries that come to a satisfying conclusion can be just as good as romances for pulling me out of a dark news cycle or a life full of stress. The most important thing is that this form of entertainment not stress me further. That’s why romances reliably deliver the HEA I need when the world is a dumpster fire.

When things are really bad, I reach even farther back. I pull out the books of my youth: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, or The Blue Castle. I dig out the horse (or dog) books I read as a child: Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty, or the Black Stallion by Walter Farley, or Silver Chief: Dog of the North by Jack O’Brien.

Most of the time, I’m looking to recapture that joy experienced when I first read these books–the total immersion into another world. I can look to how many times I’ve re-read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters and recall the happiness it brings me instead of the circumstances which made me read it again.

So when I woke to another news cycle of horror, of people spouting useless platitudes instead of taking definitive action to end a cycle of unspeakable violence in our country, like many people, I furiously made my opinion known. I lent my voice to others saying ENOUGH. I magnified the voices of others calling for change. I wasn’t the only one.

But as the day went on, I noticed other voices quietly begging for recommendations for comfort reads and shows to watch to shut off the anxiety and depression these news cycles bring. I saw fellow authors express guilt for announcing new releases or cover art and heard other creators beg the collective community to keep celebrating their works. It’s not wrong to want relief from horrific world events, especially when we’re all more connected than ever, especially when it feels as though we’re hurtling toward a battlefield from which we can’t turn back.

We have a long battle in front of us. That doesn’t mean we can’t stop and rest along the way. That we shouldn’t eat or sleep until we win the war. That path leads to madness and a level of grief and depression we can’t overcome. It’s okay to curl up with a book and shut out the world for a while. To turn off social media and watch four or five episodes of Due South. To remember what it was like to immerse yourself in the Secret Garden or journey to Narnia.

It’s also okay for us as creators to keep creating. More than okay–it’s vital. Not only to our own mental health but to anyone who reads our story (or hangs our paintings, listens to our music, watches our films) and finds a measure of peace there.

So if you as an artist are feeling despair right now, remember, someone needs your work. And if you feel guilty for promoting your latest work, it’s okay to take pleasure in something positive we’ve created. There’s a lot of negative energy in this world. It’s not only okay to put back some pleasure, it’s part of the battle.

So tell me, what are your comfort reads/comfort watches? I want to know.

A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

Lately, I’ve been battling the fear that I’m becoming–I don’t want to say stupid.  Let’s say cognitively impaired. That I’m losing my ability to process a reasonable amount of information. I find myself having difficulty reading a lengthy article, or wading through a basic legal document. Most books fail to hold my attention, and I lay them down never to pick them up again, something that never used to happen to me. When I do read, it’s usually on my Kindle, and I find myself skimming, in part because it’s just so easy to tap, tap, tap and turn the pages.

I’ve been writing the same scene for weeks. I’m lucky if I peck out 300 words in a writing session. I wouldn’t mind if they were 300 fabulous words, but they aren’t. I look at my WIP and think it’s stilted and cliched. Most writers cringe when they look back on their earlier works. I do too, but it’s because part of me believes my earlier work showed more promise. I should be getting better and this, right?

Instead of hashing out the scene and moving on, I find myself picking up my phone and cycling through my various social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When I’m done with that, I scroll through my email, read forum digests, and check out my lists. And when I’m done, I start at the beginning and go through them all again.

My inbox is filled with links to articles on marketing and publishing that I never read. I sign up for online seminars and coursework I never take. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, I delete them all just to whittle my emails down to something less than 400 notifications.

I could blame this on being exhausted most of the time–I am. I work long, hard hours. Chronic pain makes sleeping problematic. Healthy food choices and exercise is always on tomorrow’s To Do list. I can’t keep running on fumes and expect to remember the lyrics to a song I didn’t particularly like that I haven’t heard in twenty years or the name of my next-door neighbor whom I only know to wave to. (I know his dog’s name. I have my priorities right) But I don’t think that’s the biggest factor in my inability to focus.

I think our cell phones are to blame. 

I no longer know anyone’s phone number–I don’t have to–all my contacts are in my phone. Wikipedia is at my fingertips. Google will find me those song lyrics, direct me to that business I went to last year, remind me who said that clever quotation, and more. I don’t have to remember anything.

I’m never without entertainment, either. I can a read one of nearly a thousand books on my TBR list, watch a TV show, see the latest Avengers trailer, laugh over a viral cat video, or check out the latest drama in my writer’s forum. It used to be if I was out walking the dogs or tending to the horses, I used that time brainstorming for my stories. I’d come back from my activity on fire ready to write. Now I check Twitter.

It used to be if I had a few minutes to spare while waiting to do something, I’d open a book. Now I pick up the phone–and it’s not unusual for me and my husband to be sitting across from each other, phones or tablets in hand, concentrating on our screens instead of each other. We’re both introverted, so there was a time when that felt comfortable.

Now it feels like an addiction.

Our attention spans are getting shorter because we are being bombarded with information constantly. We bring it with us wherever we go. Work can reach us 24/7 (that’s another post for another day) and so can any friend or member of our family. Gone is the time when going for a walk meant you were temporarily out of contact. Sure, there are benefits to this–the most important of which is safety–but we’re never unplugged now. It means we can feed the streaming monster: be it TV shows, news feeds, or our Twitter timeline.

And if I struggle to put my phone down–picking it up first thing in the morning, sneaking glances at it at stoplights, opening social media at work when I want a break–if I struggle with the addiction of scrolling, having come to it late in life, what about the generation of people who grew up with a cell phone in their hands from day one? You have to wonder if the plasticity of young minds are being modeled to be incapable of concentrating on anything longer than a three minute video.

I’m sure when television first came into people’s homes, there were a lot of people who bemoaned the loss of family activities such as puzzle solving or reading aloud. I’m certain there were people who decried the bad influence TV had on young minds then, too. They were probably right to a certain degree, though not all the dire predictions came true. But now we have our TVs with us all the time.

When I was serving as one of my dad’s caretakers, I temporarily developed aphasia. I’d be in the middle of a conversation and start snapping my fingers, unable to think of the word I wanted to say. For someone who’s been an avid reader with a massive vocabulary most of her life, this was kind of terrifying. It didn’t occur to me I was worn out from working 12 hour days and then caring for my dad from six pm to midnight every night. Since he was struggling with dementia, it was no great stretch to fear I was developing serious cognitive dysfunction as well.

Back then, I ran across one of those ‘assess your memory’ tests in a magazine that asked you to look at a list of ten unrelated words for one minute, and then read the rest of the article. At the end of the article, you were unexpectedly asked to list as many of the ten words as you could remember. I could remember all ten because I’d made up a little story about them.

Years later, I still remember eight of those words. So I don’t really think the problem is memory loss or cognitive dysfunction. The aphasia resolved when my life stress improved. I’m under a tremendous amount of stress right now, so that’s probably the reason my eyes glaze over when I try to read something meant to enlighten and educate, right?

But maybe not. Maybe I need to spend less time scrolling on the phone and more time making up stories.

I came across this great post How to Focus on Writing Right Now by Rachel Thompson of BadRedHead Media, and I’m taking it to heart. 

If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on a specific task or simply in general, consider cutting yourself off. Unplug. Put the phone in a drawer or lock out your social media apps while you’re working. Take a walk without talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or playing a game. Put your brain on an information diet.

Your creative side will thank you.

Getting the Most out of NaNoWriMo for Non-Participants

I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo. I’ve tried in the past, and found the pressure of writing a set amount daily intimidating. Even though you were allowed to have “makeup days” and nothing mattered as long as you met the end goal: 50 K in 30 days, that constant questioning as to whether or not I’d made my daily word count was so unnerving, it sent me into a tailspin of paralysis on the very first day from which I never recovered. And it left me with a lasting case of writer’s block it took me months to get over. Even now, watching the vast proportion of my social media interactions center around this fact can make me hyperventilate a bit.

Then there’s the fact that the NaNo guidelines are the antithesis of how I normally write. Not that I could find any specific guidelines when I searched this morning. So perhaps it’s my own understanding of NaNo that is flawed. For the most part, it seems people planning to participate may or may not make a sketchy outline in September, then sign up and begin tracking their word counts while they bang out their story in 30 days. No editing. No going back and changing things. Just write.

While this appeals to the pantser in me, I’m a big fan of going back and re-reading my WIP, editing as I go. Yes, on some levels this slows me down (and I’ve been known to bog down polishing the same scene over and over again) but this process works for me. Typically when I do this, I can see underlying themes I want to expand upon and weave into future scenes–something that’s far easier for me to do the first time than to go back and add later.

There’s also the fact that I don’t really need the act of completing NaNo to validate my ability to write a complete story in 30 days. When I was heavily invested in fandom, I wrote the equivalent of a novella every month. For four years straight. No, the mechanics of NaNo aren’t beyond me.

I suspect that one of the reasons I find NaNo so stressful is that when I was a child, we used to have timed multiplication tests in school. The teacher would put a recording on, and a flat voice would drone, “Eight times four is—beep!” A tone would sound, and the speaker would move on to the next problem. I’d begin hyperventilating at the sound of the incessant, relentless beeping, and the fact the test was progressing on without me being able to keep up.

NaNo feels a bit like that to me.

So why am I writing this post, then?

Because there is still a lot to be gained from unofficially participating in NaNo. 

For starters, there is the accountability factor. Though you may not be trying to get to that daily word count, perhaps you have other goals. The plethora of articles on writing, on making the best use of your time, and the number of groups outside of NaNo itself, can all be used to your advantage during the month of November. On any given day, you can Google “NaNo” or some variation of such, and come up with a wealth of useful information. Not to mention the Twitter hashtags and chats–some fun, some inspiring, most supportive.

The fact so many people out there are buckling down to their keyboards and making a hard push to complete a novel (or at least a novella) in 30 days means there’s a lot of support out there. Can’t find a group that welcomes non-participants? Start your own! There’s a wealth of collective creative energy out there. Don’t cut yourself off from it.

Maybe you aren’t officially participating–but there’s no reason you can’t set your own goals. Challenge yourself to read a set number of articles on marketing, or take a course on improving your craft. The principles are the same: if you tell yourself you don’t have the time, you’ll never make the time.

My plans for NaNo are to finish a stalled WIP. It was going like gangbusters until my mother died last year, and it has been languishing ever since. I want to push through to the end now–and a NaNo-style approach seems to be the best way to break through this block. I’m hoping to get it into a semi-decent form for a December submission.

Which means, I need to go get cracking on it. What are you doing for November?