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Posts Tagged ‘conversation’

“Loneliness is the endemic disease of our time.”

My husband broke out this sentence last weekend, and of course, my response was, “Where’s my laptop? I need to write that down.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence: at its most basic, the state of being lonely and all it entails, the idea of loneliness as a disease (and a widespread systemic one at that), and whether loneliness is more prevalent now than it has been in the past.

And once I add in the context of the conversation, which was about social media, there’s even more to think about. How does social media (Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, forums, online dating, etc.) affect loneliness? Does it make us feel more connected and satisfied on the whole, or does it, by diluting our pool of friends and sometimes encouraging quantity over quality and surface over depth, make us feel even more lonely?

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. Even if I examine my own personal experience, I’ve had both positive and negative reactions to social media.

The Bad:

1. Hearing about a party that all your friends went to, to which you were not invited, is not so fun. On the plus side, this means that when the party comes up later in in-person conversation (which it inevitably will), at least you’re not blindsided and can respond with the appropriate blasé remark.
2. Reading the never-ending stream of advice and opinions about writing and the publishing industry can be draining and kill my own inspiration and ability to work. I imagine this is true in other fields as well.
3. Time sink. Enough said.
4. Having a lot of Facebook friends is not the same as having friends who form my support network, with whom I have a private and personal relationship. And yet, sometimes Facebook distracts from the need to maintain those deeper relationships.
5. Friends’ internet time is not equal, so I will end up with more interaction with those friends who check their social networks frequently, as opposed to those friends with whom I have the closest in-person connections.
6. Social media makes me feel like I know what’s going on for people, and it makes people feel like they know what’s going on for me. Which is great, until I start to think about all the things I never say because they are too private for public consumption.

The Good:

1. One of the reasons I love blogging so much is because it allows me to use social media in a very content-heavy way, helping me balance the whole breadth vs. depth issue. Plus it gives me the chance to be a conversation-starter or to respond in depth to interesting conversations begun by others.
2. I am able to keep myself very informed and up-to-date on any of my interests or career concerns.
3. Social media makes it easier to reach out and create or find a community of like-minded individuals.
4. I can stay in at least nominal touch with a lot more people than I could have even ten years ago. Contacting someone out of the blue is also a lot less weird than it used to be.
5. Getting multiple birthday wishes (and having an easier time remembering and acknowledging others’ birthdays) makes me happy. Yes, I love birthdays.
6. Sometimes social media is great entertainment, pure and simple. And I love the way it lets people share content.

On the whole, social media makes me feel more connected, as long as I remember that it’s not a substitute for in-person time (or e-mail for those of my friends who aren’t local). What has your experience been with different forms of social media? Does it make you feel more or less isolated?

On Thursday, I’ll be exploring the idea of how loneliness fits into modern American society, and why it might be on the rise.

UPDATE: An interesting recent article on how Facebook helps people overcome shyness. It ends with the insight that some users become more lonely because of Facebook.

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A Year of Meaning

When I started this blog six months ago, I made a private deal with myself.  “Self,” I said, “it might be very difficult to get a blog started.  Maybe no one will read it for a long time, plus I might run out of things to write about.  Plus I won’t want to write essays when I’m having a bad day.  I’d better make a commitment so that I don’t wimp out on myself.”  I decided not to give up for at least six months.  Any less than that didn’t seem like a real attempt.

Writers are often encouraged to start blogs.  Publicity (blah blah blah) promotion (murph) building a fan base/tribe (blah blah) building discipline (blah de blah) marketing (gack).  Okay, I actually think all those things can be pretty interesting at times, but the truth is that none of them provided the motivation for starting this blog.  They’re just a whole lot of cherries on top.

What I realized back in the spring, when I was first conceptualizing this blog and what I wanted it to be, was that for me, being a writer meant having something to say.  I say “for me” because I’m not sure if this is true for all writers (feel free to chime in and tell me!)   And I realized that with internet technology at the stage it’s in, not being published yet was no excuse for me to be silent.  If I was a real writer, I thought, I’d say what I felt was important to say, publishing contract or no.

Photo by Robin Ducker

Working on this blog has been a transformative experience for me.  It reminds me twice a week that, yes, I want to be the kind of person who has something to say.  It makes me stretch myself in directions I wouldn’t expect because some days I sit down to write and I have to force myself to say something, anything, and I don’t even have an inkling of where to start. And some days I get a comment from one of my readers that makes me realize what I said made a difference to someone, and I feel full to bursting.

Ultimately this blog has turned me into a writer by my definition of the word, and that’s what matters most to me.

So I will be continuing this little experiment for another six-month period.  In conversation, a few people have called this a writer’s blog, and my immediate reaction has been, “What?  No, it’s not a writer’s blog.  I don’t talk a lot about craft (only a little, I swear!) or promote my projects or give you word counts.”  But of course, I’m completely wrong.  This is a writer’s blog by definition because I am a writer, and that fact shapes the conversation here.

I’ve also spent some time worrying about writing on theme.  If you’ve ever read any blogs about blogging, you will have noticed that they always suggest finding a theme and writing to that.  For instance, I could write about creativity and the processes that surround that.  Or I could write about parenting, or I could write about training show dogs.  Or whatever.  Writing on theme gives your audience some idea what to expect from you; it also narrows down your writing options to more manageable proportions and gives you a frame for whatever you decide to talk about.

But since I’m embracing the fact that this is a writer’s blog, I can also play fast and loose with my theme.  So what is this blog about?  It’s about the things that are so important that I want to write about them.  It’s about creativity and art, sure, and it’s about how to live a dream, and it’s about optimism and how to be happier, and it’s about trying to pull together patterns to make the world coalesce in a different way.  Because this is what writers do.  We take a character’s life, full of random chance and mundane moments, and we polish it until it says something.  We create meaning.

So that is what I’m wishing: for 2011 to be, for me and for you, a year in which we can create meaning together.

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Tomorrow I head off into the great beyond of Los Angeles to attend SCBWI’s annual summer conference and inundate myself in all things kidlit.  To my knowledge, I know one other person attending.  Happily, this lack of acquaintance doesn’t bother me because I can rest assured in the knowledge that as a group, kidlit writers have to be some of the warmest and supportive people in existence.  I also have the happy past experience of the winter conference to bolster me.  In my experience, starting a conversation with someone with a shared and consuming interest like writing is not generally a difficult accomplishment.

However, this leads me to one of my recent subjects of interest: namely, the art of conversation.  I’m not talking about the skill of small talk, which while useful, isn’t that thrilling for me.  I’m also not talking about the art of debate, which can be interesting, but only if the debaters (or at the very least, me as their audience) aren’t completely and finally wedded to every last detail of their opinions.  No, I’m thinking about the art of interesting conversation.  You know, when you’re talking to someone and you feel you could just keep talking for hours?  Or when someone says something and it actually requires you to (gasp) stop and think?  That kind of conversation.

One of the main barriers I notice to achieving such a level of worded bliss is the question problem, which goes both ways. First and most simply, it’s been my observation that a lot of people don’t ask enough questions.  Questions have interest built-in because they include the supposition that there is more than one possible answer (otherwise, why are you asking?)  They also show a pleasing desire to get to know the conversational partner and place value on said partner’s opinions, which develops rapport.  A well-asked question can be the instigator of a lively discussion in which the people involved might actually learn something, help each other come up with new ideas, or be exposed to a different point of view.  Alternately, questions can encourage a friend to talk about something challenging or exciting in their lives that they might not otherwise have felt comfortable discussing.

On the other side of the equation, people don’t always encourage good questions with their responses.  If I offer an opening question or two and receive only monosyllables or replies designed to shut me down, I am left high and dry without any hooks to continue the conversation or discover what that hidden gem of a question might be.  In the same way, if the answers to questions aren’t approached in a thoughtful manner, it is much less likely that there will be any part of the answer worth pursuing.  And don’t even get me started on the monologue problem.

The ideal conversation requires all people involved to do some heavy lifting.  Without mutual questioning, the talk turns into a parody of an interview.  Without actively listening to your conversational partner’s points, it is difficult to be affected by the conversation or to respond in a genuine and engaged way.  Without the willingness to realize your own knowledge may be limited (or even wrong!) or another point of view might offer valuable ideas and perspectives, what’s going on isn’t a conversation so much as a two-sided internal monologue spoken aloud.

The point of conversation is to both entertain and engage (and possibly to educate, although this one is dangerous as it can lead to pomposity).  This means, among other things, making an effort to keep track of who you’ve told what funny stories in the past.  Or at the very least, for those with poor memories, you can ask your potential audience if you’ve already told them about that time in Cairo, thereby allowing them a graceful exit.  It means asking others for their opinions instead of merely expounding on your own.  It means choosing conversational topics that include all people participating – so for example, maybe you shouldn’t speak too long about a role-playing game with a group that includes one or two people who didn’t play the game, or maybe you shouldn’t have deep technical-speak shop talk with a group that includes someone who isn’t part of your field.  (Yes, I live in Silicon Valley, can you tell?)  This is not to say that you can’t talk about subjects relating to your career and/or passions (my husband and I talk about various writing, scientific, music, and computer-related topics all the time), but it does help to gear them towards a non-specialist audience when appropriate.

I firmly believe that good conversation is an art, and an art that I need to continually consider and practice.  So tell me, dear readers, what do you look for in a satisfying conversation?  What are your favorite conversational moments or pet peeves?  Let’s talk about talking, shall we?

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