Author Laura Harrington on Anna Karenina and the seductive wonderland of social media

Novelist/playwright Laura Harrington, author of the lovely Alice Bliss stops by with some thoughts on "How re-reading Anna Karenina – and a vacation – brought me back to writing and helped put the seductive wonderland of social media in perspective", as part of her continuing ponder: Why read?

I’ve just returned from my vacation. A real vacation. Two weeks in my favorite foreign country. Where we chose to have no phone, no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no media or media devices of any kind. The one hotel where we found a TV in our room we unplugged it and turned its face to the wall.

Why did I need to take such extreme measures?

A little background: My debut novel launched on June 2nd. My publisher encouraged me to get in the game with Twitter and Facebook. I knew so little about either that they might as well have been speaking a foreign language. I gathered my courage and asked a few writers what they had done that was useful during their book launch. The lovely Beth Hoffman not only sat me down and told me, yes, you have to use Twitter, but she was kind enough to tell me how to get started and introduced me to some other writers. So round about May 1st I started to impersonate an extrovert and began to learn how to use both Twitter and Facebook.

From May 1st to September 3rd when I left on vacation, I felt like I was taking several self-directed graduate level courses on social media. I found wonderful teachers in the blogosphere, I read every how-to list out there. It was fascinating for the most part, all consuming all the time, and I started to feel like I just might be getting the hang of it by mid-summer. I was making friends, connecting with other writers, reading several blogs, getting to know the wonderful world of book bloggers, and basically just falling down the rabbit hole of social media all day every day.

My publisher seemed happy with me; my book seemed to be doing reasonably well, (who can tell?) I was having fun. Great, right? Then I started to notice that I wasn’t spending as much time outside as I usually do during the summer. How was it possible I was feeling the pull of the computer more strongly than the pull of the beach or my bike? My reading was falling off; it was hard for a book to hold my attention. I was becoming forgetful; I was often doing so many tasks at once that I would forget what it was that I had initially set out to do. I was distracted and distractible. I was beginning to feel a little lost.

At first I had been upset about leaving my 2nd book behind while I helped promote my 1st book. Now I wasn’t even thinking about my 2nd book. This was troubling if I stopped to think about it, but at that point I was so fully engaged with my fast-twitch world, that I wasn’t thinking about it.

I decided that my vacation, the first time we’d taken two weeks in more than a decade, would be the turning point. Pre-vacation would be the waning days of my social media free for all. Post-vacation, my 2nd book would be my priority, social media and book promotion would be relegated to the 5 – 6 pm time slot, managed and scheduled, just like the pros advise.

So what does all of this have to do with reading?

I spent less time thinking about what clothes I would need than what books I would bring. I packed the new translation of Anna Karenina, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth. My husband had Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and William Trevor’s Death in Summer, just in case I ran out of things to read.

How would my mind, which had begun to feel a little dumb and slow and at the same time twitchy and impatient, respond to this cold turkey approach? Could I actually settle down and pay attention? Would I secretly be looking for internet cafes, scheming to check in and make sure I wasn’t missing anything?

We were on the Atlantic Coast of France, on the Arcachon Basin and the Ile de Re. Both of these places have beautiful bays full of oysters and long, long stretches of bold Atlantic beach. We parked our car at the hotel and got on bikes, books and beach towels in our baskets, and headed out for each day’s adventure. It was a wonderfully physical vacation, as different as possible from sitting indoors in front of a computer. Biking, especially on the Ile de Re, was often a peak experience as we cycled through the center of the island, surrounded by bird sanctuaries, vineyards, salt farms, horses, sheep, goats, and views to the ocean and the bay. The air was perfumed with herbs: lavender and rosemary and fennel, as well as late blooming broom, ripening grapes, newly mown hay, pine, and the wrack from the edge of the sea.

We took our books everywhere: to breakfast in the morning, to the beach, to whichever café we would choose for our mid-morning coffee or our late afternoon aperitif. And reading picked me up and challenged me and enchanted me and slowed me down and brought me back to myself. We were living almost entirely outdoors and at the pace of someone walking or riding a 3-speed bike. I was no longer racing, no longer juggling multiple tasks. I was alive and present to the current physical moment and activity of my day as well as the unfolding story of Anna Karenina. And what a book to choose to slow me down and bring me back to thinking; a book that is so stuffed full of ideas, one marvels at Tolstoy’s ability to embody them all. A book that wrestles with all of the big questions: how to live, how to be useful, how to love, what is love, what is marriage, what is a soul, what does my soul require of me?

I would be pedaling along thinking of Anna and Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Stiva, so alive to his appetites. The world of the book was deep enough to captivate my mind and my imagination, so that I rode and mused, and mused and swam, and lived inside this book for all of its 819 pages.

I was living in Tolstoy’s world and at the same time, living deeply inside my own mind for the first time in a long time. There was a constant sense of deepening: of characters, of story, of questions. Is this, after all, what great literature has the potential to do? To bring us back to our own minds, to allow us to rediscover our true selves, to ask us to think more slowly and more fully, to remind us of the larger questions that our lives and our stories can wrestle with and embody?

I was changed by Anna Karenina, I was changed by the simple act of reading, changed by a new environment, a different way of life. But it was reading that truly brought me back home to myself: as a reader, as a writer, and reconnected me to my soul’s purpose.

Will I be able to hold on to this new state of mind? Will I be able to balance the quiet demands of writing with the livelier demands of social media? Can the two states of mind co-exist, or do they have to be separated by a firewall?

How do you balance your writing and social media life? How do you carve out the time to keep the quiet places quiet, to honor the need to live and listen and write inside those silences?

Keep up with Laura Harrington and follow Alice's adventures via the Where's Alice Bliss blog and on twitter.


Serena said…
Keeping balance with social media and the real world is a tough thing, and I'm glad you were able to take some time off. Beth Hoffman, by the way, is a doll, and I can't wait to read her next book. She's become a regular reader of my blog and I just love her enthusiasm for that reason alone, but she's got so many other great attributes.
This is brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing this wake-up call, Laura and Joni. It should be required reading for every author, because we're all faced with the danger of falling down the rabbit hole and never coming back.
Girl Parker said…
Gorgeous post, Laura. Just beautiful. I felt I was riding a bike along with you, borrowing your books. As for social media, I avoid FB, but Twitter I loooove, so I'm trying for the scheduled time as well. Otherwise, nothing else happens and I wind up feeling robbed.
Hi, Colleen, Thank you for your very kind comments. I'm so curious about how other writers are finding or creating balance between writing and social media. I find it very very challenging.
Hi, Serena,
Time off was key -- sort of like pressing the re-set button.
And you're so right, Beth Hoffman is amazing -- so gracious and kind and such a role model. I am learning things from her all the time.
Girl Parker --
Thanks for this great comment. You would have loved those bike rides, I'm sure.
And I'm intrigued that you're off FB but using Twitter. It reminds me that it's probably a good idea to choose the platform you feel most comfortable with, or enjoy the most.
As with so much of American life, we're drowning in choices: FB, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, blogs, etc, all of them slightly different "communities."
You are reminding me that trying to do it all is a crazy idea.
Thank you!
Virginia said…
Ann Napolitano tweeted about this post of yours. The fact that you'd been reading Anna Karenina caught my eye. I'm grappling with that book right now, and I'm into the home stretch with roughly 100 pages to go. We readers of that book need our own secret society, don't you think? As for balance between social media and other needs, I'm still learning about that myself. :)
Virgina, Great idea about a secret society of those of us reading and re-reading Anna Karenina. Please share any and all wisdom with me about whatever balance you manage to create.
Becca said…
It's slightly ironic that I found my way to this wonderful post via a re-tweet :)

But I love everything you're saying Laura, and understand it perfectly. For those of us who grew up in prehistoric times (aka before social media or even computers) the constant barrage of information is daunting. That doesn't mean I'm not susceptible to its charms - far from it. I struggle with balancing my time online with the time I should spend writing, reading, practicing music, or simply being still for a while.

I like your idea of a digital-free vacation. I'm about to leave for four days away, and I'm very tempted to try it. Convincing my husband will be a different story, however!
Yes, here I am talking about dis-connecting on occasion in order to find some balance, and yet we would never have a chance to share these thoughts if it weren't for social media. Ironic indeed.
I hope your 4 days away are just the kind of time that you need. Let me know how it goes.
Lovely post, Laura. I know exactly what you mean about how hard it is to escape from the trap of social media, and this sense that there's always something more to do, some other message that needs a reply. It does create this odd, altered mental state. One that's not particularly conducive to either reading or writing books. Good for you, taking a vacation from it all. I need to make more time in my life to do the same. Thanks for the reminder.
Pat, Thanks for this lovely comment. I still need the reminder myself. Met a friend at the Boston Book Festival -- works full time and is writing a novel as well. I asked her how she did it all. She limits her Twitter and Facebook time to 3 days a week. Now why didn't I think of that?
Neil said…
To be honest, I don't even remember exactly how I found this post, but it was through Twitter, and this blog is just one of the many places social media has brought me tonight. I love the connections and the randomness of the internet and social media, but after reading this post, I am confronted by the less attractive side of the story. I am getting used to the chaos of jumping from site to site, to reading a never-ending Twitter stream. I am losing my concentration, and finding it more difficult to finish reading a novel without jumping up to check my email. This will be my last internet reading tonight. I'm going to shut off my computer and read a book. Thanks.

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