The Whispers

It started with small, subtle whispers of emotion.

The sharp jab in my gut when a colleague achieves recognition, status, or hype that I have not. Jealous.

The tightness in my chest when I’m tagged in a 3-star review by a longtime fan. Because no matter how many times readers have told me, “a 3-star isn’t bad!” I can assure you, it sure does hit the heart differently than a 5-star rating. Deflated.

The realization, after an hour of research, that Instagram doesn’t allow you the ability to turn off direct messages, or even set up an “auto responder” to let people know when you’re on vacation, or that you don’t check that inbox. Nor can you prevent being tagged in posts without your approval (unless you're a private account, which is pointless for us authors). Instead, you must manually remove yourself from every single spammy or hurtful post in which your profile is attached. Alarmed.

The person whose humblebraggy posts make me feel really icky, but who I’m irrationally too chicken to unfollow because of how it will "look." Disgusted.

The stab of panic when my number of followers goes down instead of up, when a certain post doesn’t get as many likes as I expected, when a book gets an underwhelming response from readers. Rejected.

The rapid accumulation of stuff. “The “bra you’ll never want to take off!” The “it pants fashion editors can’t stop talking about!” The “world’s most comfortable flats.” All bras, pants, and shoes I had absolutely no requirement for until I saw the expertly targeted, skillfully compelling ads curated just for me convincing me I needed them. Chagrinned.

The daily messages from people asking me why they can’t get all my books in paperback, or when my next release date is, or why Huge Deal isn’t available on Nook when I’ve taken great care to make all that information easily available on my website. Frustrated.

The fabulous travel photos that cause a panicked, flustered feeling that I haven’t properly prepped for my upcoming trip to Paris because my plan was to just “wing it and have fun,” but what if I miss out on all the best ‘gram-worthy places?!?! Inadequate.

The ever-accumulating comments and direct messages that I can’t keep up on, no matter how hard I try, and the stark realization that merely staying “caught up” would take 2+ hours out of every.single.day. Stressed.

Jealousy. Deflation. Sadness. Distaste. Alarm. Chagrin. Exasperation. Frustration. Inadequacy. Resentment. Stress.

As I said, they’re mere whispers of emotion. Nothing crippling, and more than half of them completely irrational. A handful are just downright petty.

But it doesn’t make these whisper emotions any less real.

The victim? Me.

The perpetrator? Also me.

The scene of the crime? Instagram.

The realization that Instagram has turned on me, or perhaps, that I’ve merely started seeing the platform differently is not a welcome one.

As some of you know, I broke up with Facebook and Twitter in May of 2018. Nearly a year later, I’ve never been more convinced that I made the right decision.

And yet, part of the comfort I offered both myself and my followers when I left those platforms was that I wasn’t going away completely. I would just be changing venues! I can’t tell you how many times since then uttered the phrase, “...but you can still find me on Instagram!”

That will remain true. You can still find me on Instagram. I’m not abandoning the platform.

However, Instagram is not quite the safe haven I thought it was going to be. Part of this is because I’ve been noticing that some of the very trends I was trying to escape on Facebook have spilled over onto Instagram (inevitable, perhaps, given that Instagram is a Facebook product).

And there is still plenty of good stuff on Instagram! In fact, the vast majority of comments and messages I receive are positive and supportive, and I appreciate that. I truly do.

But whereas Instagram used to be a way for me to get my fix of “pretty pictures” from people who took the time and made the effort to share pretty things with the world, it’s shifted, slightly. Or again, perhaps it’s merely the lens I'm viewing it through has changed colors.

Because whether the whispers are justified or nonsense, silly or legit, petty or on-point, the fact is, Instagram, as I've been using it, is not bringing out the best version of myself, or helping me live my best life.

I used to leave my time scrolling though Instagram feeling inspired and refreshed. Now, I feel drained, and to borrow a phrase from my friend Jessica Lemmon when we were chatting about this very issue, I feel strangely, unsettlingly numb.

But believe it or not, this post isn’t actually about Instagram. I’m not picking on the platform, which is still my favorites of The Socials. And you’ll still see me posting on there. In fact, I posted there just this morning (with an epic typo, for the win!) I truly love the process of putting together my Instagram feed and sharing a little glimpse of my world and the things in life that I find lovely.

I’m not here to hate on Instagram.

This post is a self-reflection on what it means to be an artist in 2019 (yes, I maintain fiction writers are artists), as well as a reality check on the impact social media has the happiness levels of all of us.

As I recently put it in an email to a friend:

When I imagined being a writer, I pictured it being all about the output. Write a book, put it out in the world, write another book. Repeat.

But in reality, given that I entered the publishing industry in 2013 instead of 1993, there are so many more of input. There is feedback coming in constantly. Direct Messages. Comments on posts. Emails. Being tagged in posts/reviews/photos. Editorial letters. Agent input. Copyeditors worrying our sex scenes are a #metoo trigger. Even our own attention to our number of likes, our number of followers, ensuring we like and reply to as many comments as possible, even when it takes hours out of every single day.

And we cope. We let it all in. We even encourage it, all in the name of engagement, which we try to spin as a modern form of networking and relationship-building. And it certainly can be that.

But something is fishy. I worry that sheer constancy of input coming at us from social media, combined with our constantly clamoring to acknowledge all of those various inputs, might not be engagement so much as static.

Static that interferes with us creating what we are most meant to create. And I'm not just talking about creating something--a book, a product, an artpiece. You don't need to be an artist to need mental and emotional space to create your best life. To live rather than to consume.

In other words, even as I try frantically to be as responsive and active on Instagram as possible in the name of engagement and "connecting," I can’t shake the nagging sense that it's all backwards. That the harder I try to save my career and "connect with readers," the more I slip away from my reasons for entering this career in the first place.

The clarity of my thoughts, the purity of my ideas, my enthusiasm for the telling my stories feels little muddier every day as I try to filter out everything else.

The more information I consume, even "the good stuff," the further away I get away from my heart’s fondest desire: to create.

When I try to talk to people in the industry about this, I’m generally met with the following reaction: “Ugh, lol, I don’t like having to worry about the business side of writing either, nobody does, it’s just a necessary evil ...”

... Maybe.

Maybe it is.

But what if it’s not? What if it’s not necessary? What if this “necessary” engagement and constant public presence is really just us justifying our own addiction to our screens?

What if we pulled back from social media and realized that lost followers doesn’t necessarily mean lost sales, but merely more writing?

More alarmingly, what if we realized losing sales is a hell of a lot better than losing our own souls.

I don’t have answers, but I do know it’s time for a change, at least for me.

I miss solitude. And I don’t mean solitude in the typical introvert craving for alone time (though I love that too).

I mean that I miss mental and emotional solitude. I miss freedom from the constant thoughts and input of others. Not altogether. I still relish fan emails--a lot. Heck, I send fan emails to other authors. A lot. But there's something a little different about email from social media. With social media, everything is NOW NOW NOW, there's an urgency to it, a compulsion to not blink, or you'll miss the good stuff.

As I write this, I realize ... maybe email is the new snail mail. Maybe our inboxes are our new PO boxes.

I don't want freedom from all my readers. I just want freedome from the static. The constant buzz in my ears, in my head, every time I pick up my iPhone and click one of the social media apps.

And so, for now:

I'm pulling back on Instagram and my digital life in general, and will be leaving my cell phone in my desk drawer for most of the workday and all of the nonwork night.

For those of you who use Instagram to stay up-to-date on my books, I’ll still post there using Planoly, but I’ll be upfront that my active engagement on the platform will be decreasing a bit.

For now, I’m done with the mindless scrolling, the frantic need to stay on top of every single piece of input that comes in. I’m tired of my kneejerk reaction to check Instagram first thing in the morning, and everything time after I post to check the number of likes. I’m tired of the guilt I feel when I haven’t posted for a week, I’m tied of the panic I feel when I don’t reply, like every signle comment, or acknowledge all the things.

And I know someone out there will read this, and go blow a whistle on me. “Lauren Layne doesn’t care about connecting with her readers and making time for all the people who’ve supported her over the years!”

You’re wrong. I care. I care a lot.

But I am realizing that there’s a difference between being gratefully humbled by the support, and being beholden to likes, to followers, to opinions, to noise.

Am I terrified? Am I scared that not being on Facebook or Twitter, and now also pulling back on Instagram I'm sabatoging my career? Absolutely. These days, it's pretty unheard of to encounter an author not active on social media.

But I have faith in readers, I have faith in people. I have faith that the people who enjoy my books will continue to enjoy my books, and will respect my decision to leave my iPhone at home when I go on a picnic in Central Park, who will understand that I need to be writing my next book, not replying to Instagram messages, who will welcome my decision to declutter my online life.

It’s time to silence the whispers, and live my life the way I want to live it. No static.

We are doing ourselves no favors when we look to the crowd to tell us where we are.
— Erin Loechner, Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path

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Author LifeLauren Layne