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Question of the Month: Unplugging

by Susan Henderson on October 14, 2015

Talk to me about your experience with social media, the good and the bad.

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I’m just back from California, where I worked on my book with some truly brilliant people. (Special thanks to David Ulin, the best line-editor I know.)

I have been unplugged from social media since April of this year. It’s been good for me in ways I’d hoped and in ways I never expected. My goal when I made this decision was to take back the time I frittered away online and apply it to my novel-in-progress.

What I didn’t expect was to find out that social media did not steal my time so much as it clogged my head.

Let me explain what I mean.

Whenever I signed on to FaceBook or Twitter, I would scroll through feed. What I liked about this was a quick sense of catching up with friends and writers and the world. What I didn’t realize until I let it go of this habit was how much it affected my thinking and my mood.

Every time I checked in, I would absorb the daily happenings, medical scares, triumphs, political rants, looming deadlines, vacation photos, linked articles, world news, and so on of the roughly 5,000 people posting in my feed. And I would respond as best I could, hopping between congratulations to a friend who’d won an award and sympathy to a friend who’d hospitalized a family member. I fretted about my responses. They always felt rushed, but I had to move along. That list would grow hour by hour and never stop.

When I moved from the online world to my novel, my head was so full I could no longer find the thoughts and feelings that were mine before I’d opened the computer. I didn’t even realize the effect of this until I stepped away from it.

And so, when I unplugged, it was not so much that I gained time but that my thoughts and feelings were uncluttered. More accessible. I could be more present with my work, and more importantly, with the people sitting across from me in real life.

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So just quickly, for those of you wondering how I’ve been… Mr. H and I are feeling all the newness of our now-empty nest. We miss the boys and their friends and the noise and the chaos of a much busier life. We eat on the front porch more, where there’s only room for two, and watch storms and walk through museums and see cheap afternoon movies and plan trips to visit the boys. Right now we’re all dealing long-distance with the deep grief of losing one of our beloved pets. Something that doesn’t feel real yet and still catches me by the throat. I’m relieved we’re seeing both boys this month. I want to hold them so badly.

I know many of you are also curious how the book’s going. I want to talk at length about the writing process, and the process of writing this particular book, but not now, not while I’m still in it. All I can say is I’m working deeply on it. I’m allowing the process to be what it is, one of discovery, of digging, of circling back to early pages after I know more. While I keep loose deadlines in mind, my real goal is not to finish at a certain speed but rather to make this book the best it can be.

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Before I go, I’ll share with you the books I read since going off-line:

Connie Mayo, The Island of Worthy Boys (I blurbed this beautiful book!)

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Sara Gruen, At the Water’s Edge

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Annie Jacobsen, The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA

Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise

Harold Michael Harvey, Justice in the Round

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, March: Book One and March: Book Two

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

David L. Ulin, Sidewalking

Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End

Saeeda Hafiz, The Healing: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Yoga

Jen Grow, My Life as a Mermaid

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

Monica Wesolowska, Holding Silvan

Therese Anne Fowler, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho

F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

And I re-read these books:

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories 

So that’s a little about my world. Would love it if you’d catch me up on your life and your writing and your experience with social media before I disappear again.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Henderson October 14, 2015 at 6:45 pm

I want to give a more specific shout out to Connie Mayo, whose beautiful debut novel has just launched. Here’s the amazon link: http://amzn.to/1K6ubc2 And a link to the book trailer: https://youtu.be/IdWz1EOW_b8

And here’s my blurb: Set in gritty 19th century Boston, Connie Mayo tells a story of have-nots trying to navigate a world of violence, prejudice, disease, and bleak prospects. Through a series of misfortunes and lies, two young boys—a thief and his lookout—wind up in the care of a man who can change their fate, for better or for worse. An extraordinary tale of tested friendships and tested hearts. A great gamble of believing in the value of those society has forsaken. A story of the past that is just as relevant today.

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Christopher Lincoln October 22, 2015 at 12:24 am

So glad to see you back (at least for a bit).

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 10:56 am

You too! I’ve missed you.

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Jessica Keener October 22, 2015 at 12:34 am

Welcome back, Susan. I think it’s wonderful that you allowed yourself this substantial amount of time to step away and truly experience the change. Six months is enough time to feel a different rhythm to your life and for your brain to shift to other patterns. I think it’s like traveling. When you travel, you have to reach back to your center for directions. Anyway, I am glad to hear that you are focusing on making your book the best it can and wants to be, rather than worrying about a deadline. Carry on. I also read Connie Mayo’s lovely and assured debut. As for your starter question about social media? I post a picture a day, about five times a week. That seems to work for me. I’ll jump around to see what friends are up to and I like to visit a page that posts pictures of birds. I rarely engage in political discussions and that sort of thing because of the energy drain. When I’m writing, I do my best to get the writing done first and then reward myself with fooling around on FB or going for a walk. Ten years later social media is not the ultimate everything, but I’m okay with it as long as I do the directing and not the other way around.

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 11:02 am

So true about the different rhythm. Honestly, I prefer the clear head, both feet in the world out my door. The trick is the people I miss who don’t live right outside my door, which is why I decided to touch base with my blog.

The book feels good. It took me a long time to feel like it was mine, to feel like I could trust my own process and get all the voices out of my head telling me to hurry or make it simpler or make it line up with someone else’s expectations. That took a really long time. But once the book was mine again, it’s been so unbelievably fulfilling. I was at a movie recently and there was this ad before the trailers started about all the passions and impulses and dreams people give up on, and I felt good that I hadn’t done that.

I love that you visit a page full of bird pictures! And I’m so looking forward to you sharing your own book news!!

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Stefanie A. Shilling October 22, 2015 at 12:47 am

Susan, this post could not have come at a better time! What you wrote resonates with me so much. I am at the end of a three month solo art show and so Facebook was helpful as a tool of marketing and connecting and learning during that process. I learned SO MUCH during these last several months preparing for the show, the opening and closing receptions, and now preparing for the show to end. But I have desperately missed writing since my painting side of my life took off so now felt like a good time to get back to my roots of writing. I will be “participating” in NaNoWriMo starting November 1st (really just using NaNoWriMo as a way of getting back into the writing routine. I am using it as a discipline, not as a blind activity in which I’m naively thinking I’ll have a completed ready-to-go novel at the end of November. It is a tool that I will use to get the ol’ writing muscles back in shape.) I am so excited to return to my beloved novel that I started years ago and had to put aside while the kids were little. I’ve missed spending time with my characters and deeply thinking about the story. Your post was the last reminder I needed that November will be a good time to step away from FB as I work on my novel to reduce the outside noise. I will miss Jessica Keener’s photos (:-) ) but I know they will be there when I return. So thank you for saying just the words I needed to hear just when I needed to hear them. I’m even more excited for November now!

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 11:06 am

Stefanie! How exciting about your solo art show. I think you’ll find, when you turn back to your novel, that spending time in the visual arts and in parenthood will only enrich the story you had begun. I look forward to hearing how it goes. I’m a big fan of NaNoWriMo and how it engages your sense of discipline. Good luck! Two more weeks!

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Billie Hinton October 22, 2015 at 2:01 am

So glad for the update. I was thinking of you earlier today! I feel like I need to unplug in a similar way as you have. I know exactly what you mean by the fragmented thought thing that comes after checking the feed. And yet there are friends I only encounter on FB so I have to balance that. I am so sorry that hear about the loss of your beloved animal family member. Big hugs.

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 11:07 am

Thank you about our beautiful little family member. I know you understand that deep connection. Any updates with your kids? Where did your daughter choose to go to school? And tell me about horses and donkeys and wide open space!

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billie hinton October 22, 2015 at 12:52 pm

A little more about what’s going on here: our cat Dickens disappeared in August. We put the word out all over the county but no sign. Coyotes have come closer to our property recently and we think he might have met with them in the larger forest behind our farm. It has been hard not knowing, but he was a barn cat through and through, so it would have been harder to keep him in. Thankfully the other four are reasonably happy to be brought in before sunset and we close up the cat/Corgi door until morning.

Son received a 5k space grant award to do his own research this past summer – so we didn’t see much of him. He moved into an apt. (a great and funky place, very old, close to campus) with two other physics/math majors – two of them went on a road trip up your way visiting grad schools in August – MIT, Harvard, Cornell, a couple of others. Son could technically graduate this year but has since decided to stay put for his senior year next year. Highlight for me was them coming here for a couple of days to visit before going back to school – we had good meals and great conversation. Although hard to see him move out into the world I’m now seeing the wonder of watching him claim his place. It’s exciting.

Daughter experienced increasing anxiety through the acceptance process that continued to build even after she made her decision – to the degree that it became debilitating – a consult with our ND and testing revealed a severe deficiency in both zinc and B6. She decided to defer her enrollment and stay here to give the supplement cocktail time to kick in. She is doing great now and having a bit of a do-over. I’m so glad we figured it out and that she has the chance now to go through the process without that intensity coloring every step!

I am riding and editing and doing lots of reading (including a daily morning reading of physics!) and have just signed on to go to SF in April to work with Tom Jenks in his 4-day intensive with 11 other writers. The novel I had with 2 agents under consideration is now with 1, who asked for extra time. I’m eager to do some focused work on craft.

And finally, I have to say that your hiatus from social media – longer than I’ve done myself over the past few years – is so inspiring. I am always torn about taking the breaks b/c there are so many friends I don’t interact with except in that social media space. This is the time of year I usually take a few months away and I’m going to do it and consider letting it run longer – I have a writing retreat set in February and then the intensive in April, and I am thinking how wonderful it would be to just unplug from now until May and really sink in with family and face-to-face friends and my writing process. And of course riding. Horses and donkeys all good!!

It is so good to hear how things have been and I’ll check back here regularly to see if you are touching base. The reading list is a great resource too! I am always happy to get emails – they don’t have the same effect as the social media feeds do. I wish we would all have a huge throwback to U.S. postal service letters. Think of the books of correspondence between fascinating people that won’t ever get published! But then there is the instantaneous ability to connect in such a huge way on the internet. Balance is the key but the complete break for periods of time does seem like a necessary thing for sustained creative contemplation.

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 1:09 pm

I’m so, so sorry about Dickens. These little guys are family in the best way.

Wow, is your son ever growing up! So much fabulous news, like he’s digging deeper in the direction you always sensed he’d go in. Yay for him hanging on to his senior year. He won’t regret that. My oldest had his own apartment this summer too. I miss seeing more of him but love how his going off to college has made him so much more the author of his own story. So much better than having others write the story for you as if they know the direction things should take.

And how lucky that you figured out the zinc/B cocktail and gave space for your daughter’s need for transition time. She will learn the lesson earlier than most of us did about listening to her body and her gut.

I saw Tom Jenks read once and I can only imagine how much he’ll impact your work after 4 days. And you said you were going to read physics and went and did it–good for you! I feel like the physics side of my brain has atrophied after so long without engagement. Thank you for catching me up!

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billie hinton October 22, 2015 at 1:21 pm

Love the being the author of their own story line – I had a great conversation with my mom yesterday about how it feels to not see my son as much but at the same time feel so excited for him and when we do visit it is magical. It’s almost like that stage of development when they are toddlers where they venture away from mom and then come back for refueling and security. I love what you wrote in the larger thread here about being that person they come to when they need mom and home. That’s exactly it.

Lynette Eklund October 22, 2015 at 3:15 am

I envy you. Being a free-lancer, social media is part of the way I network professionally, so I can’t log out for months–at least not right now in my career. But it does sound lovely. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about your writing process. Much of what you’ve said in the past has been helpful to me, so I can only assume you’ll offer more helpful hints in the future. Don’t take to long, please!

And thanks for the reading list. Some of the list I’ve already read; other titles, I just may check out …when I get the chance….

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 11:12 am

I’d stayed online longer than I wanted because I felt required to, career-wise, but I’d been craving the quiet for a while. I know what you mean, though, you can’t do work that requires networking in isolation. I’m still learning how to balance it all, and I’m sure I will want more and less online time at different points in my life.

About books, if you haven’t already read All the Light We Cannot See, it was absolutely extraordinary. And the DARPA book was a fun, two-day read for me because it is the world of my childhood, and there were so many people and projects I knew, and so much the author didn’t seem to know anything about that kind of hovered there in between the lines.

How is the young chef?

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Cathrine October 22, 2015 at 4:43 am

Which ever world we focus on expands. I spent a year and a month offline in 2012-13 and was amazed at how life opened up.
Missed you 🙂 !

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 11:14 am

What a perfect way to describe it… life opening up! Missed you, too, Cathrine! Thinking about your kids and your yoga and your beautiful retreat.

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Marilyn Cole October 22, 2015 at 4:52 am

Hi, Sue! So happy to hear from you, and the progress of your book, and how you’ve been spending your time!…all except the news of the loss of your pet. I am so sorry about that. (And I did bug your Mr. H to deliver an emphatic request for a prompt return!) : ) In other news, Facebook is still a lifeline at times…and a source of inspiration via some very talented friends’ posts and encouraging words…but, I’ve been missing a very, very special one. (Ugh! Keith is being so annoying taking pictures of me with his Hipstamatic as I write this–he’s done some quite incredibly artistic photos…I don’t mean of me, of other things…he’s working on a long term project for exhibit and dragging me in to join him and to try out that style, but I’m sticking to my Holgas.) I’ve been writing stories in poem form, not quite narrative, but close. Still handling short writing better, and I do keep in mind your advice and suggestions. I’m also painting sporadically. And even if this is a flyby, thanks!…it’s so good to hear from you!!

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 11:18 am

Ooh, how exciting about the artistic photos, the exhibits, the painting. I still feel like you’re working on something so expansive and possibly multi-media that what you see as dabbling and moving from one art form to another will all reveal itself in time. Just keep trusting your instinct to reach for a pen or a paintbrush or a camera (or a pancake)! Glad you’re here, Marilyn!

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Marilyn Cole October 23, 2015 at 12:47 am

Especially a pancake! Thanks, Sue…I missed so much the way you turn my creative chaos into a big picture that makes sense. (I needed that.) 🙂

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Susan Henderson October 23, 2015 at 11:32 am

I mean that. Trust your gut. You’ve seen and felt a lot in this world and you have a mind that is both artistic and scientific (more bilingualism!). Let the story you have to tell come out in its own unique way and time.

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Sarah Bain October 22, 2015 at 9:04 am

Funny timing. I just went to your FB page two days ago to see if you’d come back yet. I have a love/hate relationship with FB. It’s my rabbit’s hole. I went offline this summer (though I have to ask Terry to change my password because I have that kind of personality) and I loved it. I’ve just gone off again but I worry early on I will miss something. But what I really miss is what you said so well: my uncluttered thoughts.

I went to my first ALA conference in the spring. I met Monica, I read Holding Silvan. I still miss Grace. Carver is a senior and I’m terrified of what you and David have–the house without the boys. He sent in his first college application and my throat catches and tears fall way too often. I don’t think I’m cut out for this part of parenting. We published a chapter together this spring in an academic journal on grief and death–Carver, Terry and I. I’m confused by these growing up years. I love my kids’ minds as they grow up. I love who they are becoming. I hate the thought of them leaving. They all leave. Far away I fear.

All of that. And so much more.

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 11:25 am

That’s what tugged at me, too. Will I miss something? Will someone feel I’m not there for them?

I loved Monica’s book and am so glad you two met in real life.

I know so well the loss and the fear of empty cribs and empty nests. What eases the fear of children moving out is to see how it opens up their passion, the true and internal sense of direction, and how they become more the people they’ve wanted to become. But that little person holding their stuffed animal and crawling into bed with you because they’ve had a nightmare, I will always miss that sense of maternal closeness. They stop needing it but I still feel hard-wired to be that person for them.

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GC Smith October 22, 2015 at 1:20 pm

Good that you’re back. Now go away. Go write.

I just threw away a 6,500 word beginning of a new novel that wasn’t shaping up. Perhaps I should stop wasting time on social media.

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 4:18 pm

I’m only popping in for a day or two. Don’t worry!

Good luck with that novel. I know so well what it feels like to throw away weeks or months of work. Though sometimes that discarded work brought you closer to the characters and insights you needed in the end.

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Rob Fields October 22, 2015 at 1:49 pm

Welcome back, Sue! More and more, I think we’re all going to need to build in time for a regular digital detox. We’re all so connected to our devices. Fear of missing out is too real for many. And all of that information really does block the clarity you need to create. Brava to you for so boldly taking back your own headspace!

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Digital detox – what a great expression! I plan to get to one of your readings very soon. I’m not free on the 25th, but hopefully I’ll see you in November.

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Jim Nichols October 22, 2015 at 5:47 pm

Hope I got in in time! Great to hear that you’re deep into the novel, I’m looking forward to exploring its ultimate shape. Btw, I’m there with you, trying to get the voice right so I can move deep into mine. Four chapters into the rewrite and as expected, slow going while I look for that voice (because progressing voice-wise means going back to the beginning each time). A lot of your reading list looks familiar, for example I’m into East of Eden (again.)

I’ve slowed down now social networking now that communicating readings/signings isn’t as pressing…maybe I should follow your lead! Anyway, best hugs and wishes for success…

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Jim Nichols October 22, 2015 at 6:14 pm

Sue, I neglected to offer my condolences…but I know just how you feel. We lost our pup on Easter Sunday and we’re still having Brady moments every day. And I sure understand about the suddenly-a-bit-hollow home, too. More hugs!

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 8:00 pm

Thank you. That’s the feeling exactly.

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Susan Henderson October 22, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Isn’t East of Eden marvelous? I’m so happy to hear you’re digging into the new work, finding your voice, finding your story. I don’t know why we expect this process to be quick or easy. Whoever put that idea in our heads must not have written a book.

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Jim Nichols October 24, 2015 at 2:45 am

It’s ALWAYS a slog. It just is.

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Mary Akers October 23, 2015 at 6:47 pm

Hey, Sue!

I just popped in to visit the virtual world, too, after taking time away and not feeling a bit guilty about it. How affirming to see your blog post. I feel like I’m pulling back for sanity’s sake (and for who knows how long). Happy to say my Real World is flourishing. I’m also an empty nester (second year, the heavy grieving hit again, surprising me, but the duration was shorter, thankfully), finishing a novel I’ve been working on for 12 years, loved All the Light We Cannot See beyond sense, and am planning to go back to my quiet offline existence. Oh, I am also remodeling the room of my oldest (who has been on her own for six years now) and making it a guest room. So bittersweet. I’ve picked pottery back up and opened a studio with two other women, and I have a crazy newfound passion for hermit crabs after being asked to take one from a friend who bought it for her daughter. I loved them in the wild when I lived and worked in the TCI, and now I know so much more about them. They are social, live in packs of 100, can live up to forty years, and unfortunately all the ones for sale are wild-caught. So I’ve rescued ten and set up a big 55 gallon “crabitat” that gives me a crazy amount of little-kid type pleasure.

XOXO,

Mary

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Susan Henderson October 25, 2015 at 11:01 pm

So excited about your novel!! When you’re ready, I’d love to know the title and anything you want to share about it. I love your hermit crab story and how you’re experiencing the empty nest. I just got back from a weekend with my son in Boston. Was so, so good to spend time with him. And my other son will be home next weekend. Big smiles here.

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Angelia Megahan October 26, 2015 at 5:07 pm

This is such goodness. I thought about you last week while discussing books with my daughter (17). I shared your book, among many others, with her and told her how we were FB-connected. Then I remembered your post about unplugging and I mused, “I hope she’s doing well and her writing is coming around.” So glad to read that the mental musing is so close to real life happenings, and I really needed some inspiration to get back to my LONG OVERDUE reading list. Thanks for that.

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Susan Henderson October 26, 2015 at 5:47 pm

Aww, how sweet you shared my book with your daughter. Tell her I said hello. Is she taking SATs and filling out college applications right now? It’s such a time of too-much-on-the-plate for juniors and seniors. And today’s kids have so many more hoops to jump through than we did. I don’t know how they do it.

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Lance Reynald October 27, 2015 at 2:51 am

ah……I pulled the plug on facebook some time ago.
I’m a visual animal so tend to lurk about instagram.
and pinterest…they’re less political thus don’t get under my skin with my disappointments in the human race….i.e…those on the far-right that I happen to share vague genetics with.

Naturally, most modern correspondents seem to believe I’ve vanished off the face of the earth in some form of digital Salingerism.

I’m not convinced I’ve been missed terribly. People still get random things in the mail when I feel like I might have something amusingly relevant to blurt out.

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Lance Reynald October 27, 2015 at 2:54 am

and….
wasn’t the Lidia Yuknavitch brilliant? so glad you picked it up. She was a bright spot during my last days in PDX.

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Susan Henderson October 27, 2015 at 10:53 am

Wonder Twin!!!!!! Holy man, I’ve missed you!

Yes about disappointments in the human race. And Lidia Yuknavitch. I love how she just tossed the rule book and wrote like she was on fire.

How smart to know you need the visual stimulation and leave all of what you don’t need behind. If you ever want to send me some writing to blurb or a postcard…

xoxo

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RIc Marion October 27, 2015 at 4:39 pm

Wow! You did return – glad you were able to accomplish things. I don’t do facebook, never have, though I do lurk on my son’s facebook page, I continue to blog although no one seems to be doing that anymore, either.

Have reached a point where the kids are all doing fabulously well – the youngest has ventured to Silicon Valley and, while homesick, has fallen in love with San Francisco. Adventures await. The wife and I are enjoying the empty nest.

Lance!! You surfaced! Drop a line, would be great to catch up with you.

Sue, some mornings, when I’ve played way too much mahjong and spider solitaire, I begin to wonder if I could get more done by curling up in my favorite all night restaurant with pen and pad, like in the old days. Maybe that’s what I should do to get the ball rolling a little faster…..

As you noted, there are too many distractions, playing games, reading email, blogging, 7000 television channels, and a million other things. Unhooking might be just the ticket. So glad to hear of your experiences and the lessons it taught you.

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Susan Henderson October 27, 2015 at 6:55 pm

How great to hear about your kids! Tell me some of the ways you enjoy your empty nest. And how about you buy yourself the perfect pen and notebook (for me, that’s a Bic and a legal pad… never managed to get expensive taste). That way, if you make the goal to write for an hour in the next week, you’ll have all you need.

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Patry Francis November 11, 2015 at 1:42 am

What a great description of the way social media undermines the creative process for some of us! Even when I’m not writing, the subconscious needs time and space to work out its dilemmas, and the monkey mind nature of FB, as alluring as it is, disrupts that for me. Thanks for the inspiration and for proving that it CAN be done…Can’t wait to read your new novel.

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Susan Henderson November 11, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Patry, I’m so glad you’re here and that you understand. I’m looking forward to sharing my new novel with you –it’s getting there!– and seeing what you’re writing now. The Orphans of Race Point is still with me.

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