Feel Like the Internet Ate Your Creativity? Here’s How These Artists Got It Back

From a Wall Street Journal story by Julie Jargon headlined “Feel Like the Internet Ate Your Creativity? Here’s How These Famous Artists Got It Back”:

Humans have built the perfect machine for keeping our brains busy, if not productive.

The internet, with social networks, endless games and media, fills the moments we once spent sitting silently with our thoughts, leafing through a book—or just staring into space during a TV commercial break.

Sure, we all feel the need to just veg out with some tapping and scrolling, but the constant feed of information has eaten into our mental breathing room.

The best ideas often come during a shower or a walk, and science explains why. Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Michigan, has famously described the brain as having two modes of thinking: focused and diffuse. It’s in the latter mode that your mind is relaxed and creative thoughts emerge.

I talked with several authors and artists to find out how they manage digital distractions and allow creativity to flow. All acknowledged that doing so is tough, then shared the strategies they’ve developed for quieting the noise.

Gary Shteyngart, author of “Our Country Friends” and other novels

“Social media is the biggest problem interfering with solitude, and by extension, the consumption and production of literature,” Mr. Shteyngart says.

A habitual Twitter user, the author says he pries himself away from screens by showering, swimming and taking daily 6-mile walks. We spoke last week by phone while he was walking in Manhattan along the East River.

“I’ve found showering to be so productive that I sometimes take more showers than necessary,” he says, noting that his novel “Super Sad True Love Story” was written in the shower. “I was living in Italy at this writer’s retreat, taking long showers and all these ideas came rushing through.”

Mr. Shteyngart, 50 years old, says his least creative moments come during his designated writing period. He sets aside three hours a day to write in bed—knowing that a good portion of that will be spent scrolling and posting on Twitter.

Twitter can be useful for mining ideas, he’s found. As part of his research for a tech-bro character he’s developing for his next novel, he posted a tweet critical of Elon Musk. His intent was to watch Mr. Musk’s supporters react, to understand the mind-set of what he calls “Tesla bros.”

As unproductive as his more mindless Twitter scrolling can be, he’s able to write because by the time he gets to his laptop, “most of the ideas and turns of phrase have already happened during my walk or swim or shower,” he says. He uses his iPhone’s Notes app to catch ideas as they come.

Eric Hart, Jr., photographer who has shot celebrities including Spike Lee, Baz Luhrmann  and Latto

Mr. Hart says he wrestles with the double-edged sword that TikTok and Instagram represent for many visual artists.

“You end up comparing yourself and seeing what you don’t have and how you’re not producing enough,” he says.

He booked some of his first jobs through his Instagram account but says the pressure to maximize engagement and post frequently—especially now on TikTok—has a stifling effect. “I think one of the key components of creativity is being able to play and draft and have fun with your work, and we lose that through social media,” he says.

Mr. Hart, 22, says he often builds a playlist around the themes he visualizes for a project. Once he’s on a photo shoot, he says he’s in full focus mode. He sets his phone to Do Not Disturb and jots his thoughts in a paper notebook.

He set a goal this year to read at least 50 books, to inspire new thinking. Now, he’s working on a book of his own, a series of photos exploring masculinity.

Nic Stone, author of youug-adult novels, including ‘Dear Martin”

A daily mindfulness practice helps Ms. Stone, 37, get into a creative mind-set. She listens to guided meditations on the Headspace app. Occasionally, she does a “body scan” while driving,  focusing on things like how her hands feel on the wheel and how the air feels on her face. “After a couple of minutes of that, my heart rate decreases and my muscles relax,” she says.

When she writes, she puts her phone in another room and turns off her Wi-Fi so she can’t browse on her computer. She writes in sprints, setting a timer on her Apple Watch for 30 minutes and writing without interruption.

In May, feeling overwhelmed by world news and struggling to concentrate and write, she took a month-long sabbatical from work calls, emails and social media.

“It forced me to slow down,” she says. “Sometimes you have to go to extremes. Going dark was the way I found my mojo again.”

She now plans to take a month-long digital hiatus two or three times a year, with the next one planned for December.

Peter Clines, author of “The Broken Room” and other novels

In the spring of 2020, when the world was reeling from the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, Mr. Clines, 53, says he lost two months of writing because he was doomscrolling on Twitter instead.

He usually writes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. After hours of looking at the news and checking the Covid cases in his area, he’d realize it was 4 p.m. and he’d hardly written a thing.

He decided to take breaks that didn’t involve an information fire hose. He got back into his hobby of collecting action figures. He also began building with Lego bricks. “It lets my brain go from solving word problems to solving color and shape issues—it’s using my brain in a different way and it gets me away from my desk.”

To curb his Twitter compulsion, he logs out of the app after using it, and keeps his phone on airplane mode when he doesn’t need the internet.

The biggest takeaway from his two-month internet-induced writer’s block was the realization that Twitter’s never-ending updates don’t yield new information in the short term.

“We get this constant stream of information now and it’s designed to keep our eyes on it,” Mr. Clines says. “But you need to step away and you can step away.”

Julie Jargon is the Family & Tech columnist at The Wall Street Journal, writing weekly about the impact of technology on family life.

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