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The Wired Writer

They say that the first step in overcoming a problem is to admit you have a problem in the first place. So…here goes.

My name is Tammy, and I am digitally overloaded.

Anyone who was fortunate enough to hear Nora Roberts’ keynote at 2010 RWA National heard her talk about some of the ways in which being a writer now is different than it was when she started her career: Using word processors instead of typewriters, carbon paper, and Wite-Out. The ability to do research in your pajamas, without leaving the house, instead of tromping to the library and roaming the stacks. Querying agents and editors by e-mail, and sending electronic manuscripts rather than lugging a box of paper to the post office. Copy editing a manuscript using Microsoft Word’s Comments and Track Changes features rather than wading through a crime scene’s worth of blood-red ink.

What do all of these things have in common? Digital technology.

The ability to transcend geographic barriers and connect with friends, family, and people who share your interests without leaving your seat is a true wonder of living at this specific time in history, but digital technology can also have a dark side. The sheer volume of incoming material can be daunting, and the pace at which we’re expected to read, consider, analyze and respond to these communications has increased exponentially, resulting in less time for deep thought, to think and consider. Multitasking has become the norm rather than the exception, but unfortunately emerging research suggests that not only do people overestimate their own ability to multitask effectively (ever see someone try to text and drive? Sweet zombie Jesus), but that our interaction with digital devices may actually be changing our brain physiology. We sometimes pay as much – or more – attention to our digital devices than we do to the people and the world around us.

As a writer, this concerns me greatly. As a human being, it scares me to death.

Maybe I’ve worked in technology too long, and have been an early adopter for too many years. Maybe I’ve seen too many technologies, tools and trends come and go. Maybe I’m a natural mono-tasker, and not coping very well with juggling two demanding careers. But for whatever reason, last year my brain choked on the deluge of data I was trying to shove down its throat. The result was a whopping case of burnout. The frequent context shifts had turned my brain to primordial ooze. BUFFER_OVERFLOW, dudes.

The burnout turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as these things often do, because I was forced to assess how I use technology. And guess what? I discovered that somewhere long the line, I’d become a sucker for irrelevancy, unable to triage or prioritize. My brain skittered fron data point to data point, handling a link to that cute BatPug video with the same degree of urgency as my Director’s request for some on-the-fly process analysis, or my editor’s request for input. I had fallen into the trap of mindlessly responding to every blip, cheep and ping like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

I wasn’t using my tools; my tools were using me.

Tough love time. I made some difficult – and yes, ruthless – changes. While a certain amount of multitasking is inescapable with a demanding day job and a new writing career – and yeah, I admit that I fall off the wagon occasionally (damn that Twitter!) – I now spend less time per day sitting in front of a glowing monitor. I spend less time online, visiting fewer websites, wikis and blogs, and reading fewer articles. I unsubscribed from a number of newsletters and a half-dozen Yahoo loops, and set the rest to Digest. I turned off all of my PC’s audible blips, cheeps and pings. I continue to be a firm Facebook holdout. I write fewer emails, and respond to fewer yet.

After six months, this wired writer has definitely noticed a difference. My focus is better. My attention to detail and nuance has improved. My stress level is down because there’s less digital shrapnel coming in. I don’t have to hop in a canoe with my neuroscientist homies to know MY brain is functioning better since I shored up my digital boundaries, and stopped being technology’s bitch.

How about you? How has technology helped and/or hindered you as a writer? As a person? As a family? Any thoughts about the linked articles, or the role of technology in our lives?

P.S. Here’s a great audio piece from the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival that might be worth your time: “Writing in the Age of the Internet”.

Tamara Hogan’s debut urban fantasy, TASTE ME, will be published in March 2011 by Sourcebooks Casablanca.

54 responses to “The Wired Writer”

  1. Technology’s bitch? LOL

    Being a self-confessed techno-dud, I often feel utterly stupid because I refrain from Tweeting (Taught I taw a puddy tat–sorry, but that’s where my mind goes) and iPhones with 3 & 4G networks (Hello? It’s a phone!) and texting. I’ll call if I have something that needs be said (and pull over to do it if I’m driving,) and if you can’t pick up, I’ll leave a voice mail. Heck, I remember when answering machines (aka maids) were the province of the wealthy. People actually had to call back

    All these electronic leashes make me crazy. Want five minutes to call your own? Leave that danged phone behind! If that’s more than your addiction can bear, then turn it off. I know you might miss the thrilling exploits of the hydra-headed or lizard-tongued baby (surely the result of a nuclear accident–according to unnamed sources,) but you’ll survive.

    Okay, done ranting.

    Years ago, I read that we, as a species, will be the authors of our own demise. I didn’t believe it then. Now, I’m wondering.

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    • Don’t feel bad on the Twitter thing, hon. I’m not much of a Twitter person either. Now facebook is a different story. Sigh…

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      • Cate Rowan says:

        I dip my toes into Twitter every now and then, but for some reason Facebook is more my style. Tweetdeck and Nutshell Mail help me post and keep up with both of them, but I still prefer FB. Even so, between email, blogs, FB, Twitter, Goodreads, etc. etc… Definitely tech overload!

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      The thing that cracks me up about 3 and 4G cell phones is that some of them can still barely perform the task they were originally designed to perform – the ability to have a conversation with someone – without the darned call dropping. But look! It plays music! And, pictures! (eyeroll)

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  2. P.S. But the thought of returning to writing on my IBM Selectric (or, worse, the old hand-return Royal) is enough to make me quiver with dread. Techno-dud, yes. Masochistic? Nah.

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  3. I’m awful, Tammy. I’ve thought about asking for an intervention. Seriously, I have a book due in less than six weeks and I STILL check my email every 15 minutes. Why???? It’s crazy. OH! And of course, every time I check my email, I am sidetracked by some juicy tidbit on the web, a baby dancing to Beyonce, a teacher faking a fall down a flight of stairs to avoid a performance review, a riveting article on sinkholes, which I find morbidly fascinating. And that’s just today!

    I’m going to have to force myself to follow in your footsteps, sister. I simply must get off so many loops. I belong to something like 7 RWA chapters. And then I’m also on loops that aren’t RWA but are writer related. So they are important, right? NO!

    Okay, I’m kind of venting now, but I seriously needed this kick in the butt, T. No one is stopping me from getting this book done but me. Time to cut back and focus. Period.

    And don’t even get me started on facebook. Oy!

    Love you for this!
    ~D~

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    • Ooh, the sinkhole in Guatemala? That was fascinating!

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      While I’m acutely aware of the irony of linking to so many other things on the Internet in a post about digital overload, by happy coincidence NPR’s Terri Gross interviewed journalist Matt Richtel, the writer of the article at the second link, on Fresh Air last night. He described the dopamine squirt that this type of behavior provides us with – highly pleasurable/addictive – and also talked about how time spent online can provide us with a sense of faux-productivity because our cultural association with computers is that they’re productivity tools.

      “Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets” was worth every minute of my time.

      Richtel won a Pulitzer last year for his reporting on texting and driving, is a novelist, and…is also unplugging. Anyone who heard me mention at a RWA 10 PAN session that a backlash is coming… this is what I was talking about.

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      • I can completely understand that. When I am not reading every tidbit out there, I feel behind, like I’m missing out on something that is happening in our world. The DH or a friend will say, “Did you read about that girl in NY?” or whatever, and when I can’t say yes, I feel like I am once again lost in my own little world, completely disconnected. This way, I feel like I’m learning stuff, staying connected, but 90% of it is fluff.

        I have the perfect excuse to NOT stay connected and I’m going to take advantage of it. When the DH says, “Did you read that JFK had a secret love child?” I am going to say, “No, I have a book to finish.”

        I can do this.

        I’m going to check out that link now.
        Thanks, Tammy!!!
        ~D~

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Yes, but coming to visit the RSS blog every morning is such a wonderful way of avoiding that scene that I really don’t need to write–you know the one with all the emotions that you really don’t want to tackle for all kinds of reasons.

      Yeah, the whole book is due in six weeks thing–I so totally get that. And yet, here I am . . .

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      • Hope Ramsay says:

        Darn, I wish I could edit my comments….(another annoying thing about technology — the premature post syndrome) Anyway the first line of my comments should say ….”the scene I need to write.”

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      • Well, I’ve decided to come up with a schedule. First thing in the morning, check email, FB and the RSS. Then get off and stay off.

        We’ll see if I can do this. 🙂

        Wish me luck!
        ~D~

        And super congrats again on the blurb, Hope!

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        • No! Don’t do this. I tried and failed miserably. Write first–atleast half of your daily goal. And then, only then, allow yourself twenty minutes. Set that timer of yours.

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  4. Good on you for shedding some of your cyber commitments, Tammy. I’ve started doing the same. There was a time when I couldn’t miss visiting certain sites (um, like I Can Has Cheezburger) or loops, but now I’m clawing bits and bytes of my real life back and it’s wonderful!

    That said, I still think the internet is one of the greatest inventions ever! With my immediate family scattered all over the world, it’s really precious to be able to share a little joke or pictures with them instantly.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I agree, the internet is a fabulous technological advance. So much information at our fingertips – but that’s part of the problem. 😉

      Last night on Fresh Air, Richtel used a food analogy that I thought was apt: that food is good – and essential for life. It provides nutrition, and pleasure. But eat too much of it, and it can become a problem, resulting in obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, etc.

      In the same way that I could eat my body weight in bacon but don’t, I am striving for moderation with my technology use – in my personal life, anyway. I get hundreds of emails a day from work, most of them requiring some sort of analysis and response, but on my own time, I can exercise some control about what goes down the gullet.

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  5. liz talley says:

    Yes. I am addicted to my email. Love my iphone, but I spend way too much time on it. And at home, I don’t go to youtube, I gave up twitter, and I limit my “visiting” in the morning to here, the Super blog on eHarlequin, and my regular blog. Drop in Divas once and a while. That’s it. Had to do it. Only go to other blogs when a friend is guesting. Otherwise, I’d have no time to write.

    Now I’m dashing off to do the very human thing of feeding my kidlets and carpooling. 🙂

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  6. Tamara Hogan says:

    Hi folks – I need to drop for awhile to drive to, and then sit with, a gravely ill relative. I’ll check back in a while, because – yes! – the hospital’s family room has wireless. 😉

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  7. Elise Hayes says:

    Mostly, I’m techno phobic. I figure when my daughter is old enough to get into it, she’ll push me into the “real” world online. But in the meantime, I’m happy to avoid Facebook, twitter, the works. Believe it or not, until the Ruby blog came along, I had only ever read three or four blog posts (not *blogs,* but actual postings).

    That said, I’m addicted to my email (check it waaaay to often) and I can’t imagine writing without a computer (I, too, remember the bad old days of typewriters and hand-written drafts). Guess we all have our vices 🙂

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    • Tina Joyce says:

      Elise, I’m the same way. I barely knew anything about blogging until the Ruby Sisters started one. I still don’t visit many others with any regularity.

      Email, on the other hand, is so hard for me to ignore. I should disable the little thing that flashes at the bottom of my screen…the one that tells me there’s something in my inbox. But I can’t seem to find the willpower…

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  8. I have a love/hate relationship with technology. Without a computer, I wouldn’t be a writer. I hated whiteout and carbon paper. And I love to rearrange my scenes and paragraphs, so if I didn’t have the cut and paste feature on my computer, I would have to do it manually. UGH!

    On the other hand, I hate what technology is doing to our society. I refuse to pay for text messaging. If you want to communicate with me, TALK or e-mail me. That’s why everyone has voice mail and e-mail accounts.

    Way too much of my life is taken up with technology. But it’s also allowed me to connect with so many wonderful friends I wouldn’t have without it.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I think the issue I’ve become aware of is to use technology consciously. What info do I need, and when do I need it? Where are the communities that provide value (right here!), and which sites are timesucks?

      And I’m rather odd in that I’d rather text someone than talk to them real-time on the phone. I text someone a message when it’s convenient for me, and the recipient picks it up when it’s convenient for them. It also allows me to communicate with someone without impacting others with my noise or conversation (for example, Darynda and I pinged each other a couple of times when we were in sessions at RWA 2010.)

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  9. rita says:

    Whew! I thought I was the only one having problems. A while back I decided I HAD to start limiting net access. Facebook became the first causality. Only go there once or twice a week. At least for now. There are blogs I LOVE to read. But now I cruise them once a week.
    Some days I limit email to first thing in the morning and in the evening. Some days I check every hour. But I log on and off. No audio or visual mail announcement in between. I filtered a lot of mail to a separate folder to be checked when there is time. Funny, but if I check email on my phone I spend way less time there. Maybe because the lettering is so dang small I can hardly read it.
    My granddaughter recently got her first phone. I waited until I knew what her texting limits were and began texting her. After the third text she texted back “ummmm who is this?” I responded “your G-ma.” She responded “OMG you txt!!!” Like old people don’t do stuff like that! So being a little tech savvy does have it’s perks. I’m the only G-ma in her circle of friends that texts.
    Look at this group. We are creative and curious. Having access to information at our finger tips is seductive. We want to explore where no man has gone before in that galaxy far far away. I believe it is all about managing our time. That is if we want to write and so other things

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  10. Hope Ramsay says:

    Well, I guess on balance I’m a technology lover.

    I love my iPod. The idea that I can carry around my entire music library in the palm of my hand is so awesome.

    I love Satellite radio, too. Especially the Folk Channel. It’s amazing to me that I can ride in my car and listen to Wood Guthrie and Pete Seeger on commerical radio. Think about the choices we have today.

    I was just watching MSNBC this morning where they were talking about how this is the golden age of television — I can get my TV in so many different ways, and the content is amazing.

    I write on a computer, and it’s way better than writing on a typewriter. I know this because I wrote my first book on a typewriter. Believe me I killed entire forests with my drafts.

    And don’t get me started on my Kindle, I will bore you all with my enthusiasm…

    But…

    I don’t text. I don’t tweet. I only use Facebook for promotion of my books. I still go to work each day and make a TO DO list on paper. I don’t visit many blogs. My kids laugh at me because I never answer either the land line or the cell phone when it rings. I let voice mail do it’s thing and then I decide who to call back. This annoys my children and keeps my clients an arm’s length away. I heartily encourage all of you to use voice mail. Learn not to answer the phone — it’s liberating.

    There are times — like right now when I’m working on a book AND a big webpage development project (yes I do programming for a living) where I really feel like I spend too much time in front of the computer screen. That’s when I pick up my guitar and go out to the deck and get away from it all.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      —> I heartily encourage all of you to use voice mail. Learn not to answer the phone — it’s liberating.

      YES. If I’m doing something else when the phone rings, I don’t pick it up. I have my work phone silenced, and it rolls automatically to email, which lets me know I have a voice mail. (Sounds circuitous, but it’s quite effective if you’re hip-deep in some gnarley analysis and don’t want to be disturbed.)

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  11. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    Technology is a beautiful, beautiful thing. I wish I understood it better. Can’t imagine having to peck out a manuscript on a typewriter, not with my spelling. A forest would have to give its life for my art. But I feel like I spend more time on the techno stuff because I’m doing it the long way or the wrong way or not at all. I’d rather be writing.

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  12. I think one of my problems is my agent or editor will email me out of the blue in the middle of the day with some little thing they need a yes or no on asap, and I have this dire need to check my email constantly now so I don’t miss anything.

    Just yesterday I got an email asking if I wanted to accept a foreign rights off for Second Grave in Russian. Now, could that have waited until I was able to check it in the evening? Most likely yes, but I always feel guilty when I don’t get to these things immediately.

    It’s like a gambling addiction. “If I open this email, will I have a letter from my editor or agent? Come oooooooon, email!” If you think about it, it’s the same kind of reward schedule that gets gambling addicts addicted in the first place. It is also the hardest kind of addiction to break.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Ah, intermittent validation. 😉 Gambling is a good analogy. Think about slot machines, which are programemd to pay off only x% of the time. People play for hours, content with a few piddling credits here and there, on the offchance that they’ll hit the jackpot.

      With email, you never know what goodies might have hit your in-pan since you checked it last.

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  13. Nan Dixon says:

    WIth 5 kids, I’m fascinated by the difference their ages makes on the use of electronic tools. The youngest are linked the tightest with their tools. When the kids are here for dinner – I have to strictly enforce the no phones at the dinner table. My 20 year old son is always looking at his lap at the table – hmmm. (Heavens forbid they might miss a text message.)
    I’m pretty disciplined about not looking at my email – and then I find I have 400 unopened emails. That’s downright depressing and keeps me from return to email.

    Well back to work!!

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      My sisters, niece and I went to see Adam Lambert earlier this summer, and during the show my niece was texting like a fiend. My sister (her mother) told her to stop it; “these tickets were too expensive for you not to be paying attention!” But part of my niece’s enjoyment of the event was sharing things real-time with her friends. She looked at me like I had 8 heads when I suggested to her that she was missing half the show because of her multitasking.

      This is something I don’t understand about folks who liveblog or tweet while they’re at, for example, a conference. The attendees must be missing some of the content they paid to acquire?

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  14. Deciding what to keep and what to leave is the hardest. I have also been unplugging more and more. If I don’t, the next book will never get written. Thanks for a great blog.

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  15. Dara says:

    I think I need to cut back. Sitting in front of the computer all day at work and then coming home and doing more of it later has been affecting my eyesight already. I come home with headaches all the time from staring at the screen all day, even though I make sure I take a few minutes break every hour to look away from the screen.

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  16. Loved your post. I was always checking email, following links, reading blogs. Now I write on an old computer with no internet; it crashes if I ask too much:)

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  17. Shoshana Brown says:

    I’ve limited the time I spend reading blogs by subscribing to the ones that are most relevant to me (agents, editors, etc) via google reader. I let myself check blogs via google reader several times a day, but don’t look at other blogs. I usually have my email opened while I’m in front of the computer working, but at night, I try to stay away. And I still have an old cell phone–really old–so old it doesn’t even have a camera, much less internet access–so I can’t check my email on the go. My husband keeps bugging me to take his old iPhone, but when I’m, say, at the beach, I really don’t want to know I’ve just gotten an email.

    It can be tough to find a balance, but I wouldn’t trade it for the days before google and MS word.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Hi Shoshana – it sounds like you have a great handle on how to make technology work for you instead of the other way around.

      I’m old enough to remember writing college papers using a typewriter. How in the world did novelists do this before word processors?

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  18. Elisa Beatty says:

    I was going to say I felt guilty for getting here so late today….but given the post, maybe I shouldn’t. I was writing and editing like mad to get another hundred or so pages polished up and off to my agent. I think I went on Facebook briefly b/c my husband said my uncle had sent him a Friend request on Facebook, and I guess I checked email a couple of times. But no Cakewrecks, no romance blogs…. And I got a lot of work done.

    I admire those who manage to control time squandered online. Oh, the writing I could get done if I just stayed the heck away from the nonsense!

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  19. Shea Berkley says:

    I am so not a techie. Until I joined this blog, I’d never even commented on a blog before. I didn’t know nada, and it was bliss. I’m currently building a website because my agent thinks it’s a great idea to network. I’m being dragged into all this stuff I’d rather not do, but it seems the norm these days, and they made quite a big deal out of networking at conference. I don’t know how people find the time to tweet and FB and go to all the blogs and websites. I need an assistant and I’m not even published yet. Dang. This does not bode well for me in the future.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Shea, I think the dirty little secret about all of this online author presence stuff “they” say you “have” to do is that no one knows which of these techniques actually result in sales. There’s no data, and as a technologist this drives me crazy. I agree that a website is essential, but the rest of it? (shrug) Who knows. My recommendation is to focus on the writing first, then supplement with online activities that you actually enjoy and have time for.

      For example, I don’t have a personal blog and don’t intend to start one. (I’ll out myself here and admit that I rarely read individual author blogs. Too many blogs, too little time; if I visited the blogs of only authors I KNOW, the count would be in the hundreds and I’d never have time for anything else.) I’ll continue to blog here, and will join the Sourcebooks Casablanca author blog. The monthly schedule works for me, and doesn’t cut hideously into my writing time – which has to be my primary consideration.

      I don’t use Facebook for primarily tech/philosophical reasons, but given my digital overload I knew it would be stupid in the extreme for me to even consider it.

      I tweet, but (for the most part) with purpose. I get support and community from other early morning writers via the #amwriting hashtag, and there’s a group of urban fantasy writers who gather weekly for ‘conversation’ via the #ufchat hash. To me, this isn’t promo, it’s community, support and networking. It’s conversation with the people in your tribe. (We had a fabulous metaphor brainstorm last week.) It feels like a violation to me when someone uses these hashes for promo. I’m pretty ruthless about Unfollowing.

      I guess my point is that I think we’re going to be hearing more and more about this digital overload phenomenon in the years to come – especially as the brain research emerges and matures. In tech, the reason early adopters are called early adopters is that they tend to be on the leading edge of the Bell curve. When your most wired early adopters are saying “Enough” and are logging off, are disabling accounts, are choosing to receive fewer things in their email in-pan, ARE UNPLUGGING — there’s probably a lot more people who haven’t yet reached that saturation point… but will.

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  20. Diana Layne says:

    speaking of being digitally dependent, my internet and/or computer was totally freaky yesterday and I couldn’t get online more than five seconds at a time which put me in a very bad mood. Amazing how dependent we have become.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Dependent is a good word, Diana. I live in a rural area about 50 miles south of the Twin Cities metro and telecommute for my day job. During planting and harvest season, it’s not unusual for farm machinery or Bobcats to slice through the fiberoptic cables. During the time repairs are being made, we’re all dead in the water. OTOH, it’s amazing how much work I can get done when no one is IMing or emailing me.

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  21. Vivi Andrews says:

    Oh wow, I have definitely fallen into this trap. I actually didn’t see this yesterday because I had decided I needed an “unplugged” night to recharge my failing brain. Setting digital boundaries is something I’m currently wrestling with. I go through cycles. Right now a tropical island with internet only available a couple hours a day sounds pretty ideal.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Vivi, good for you for recognizing you needed some unplugged time. I think awareness that technology might be something that benefits from boundaries is half the battle.

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  22. I spend way too much time online, especially playing games like Bejeweled on Facebook. Twitter is both boon, allowing me to keep up with friends and agents, and bane, sucking away a big chunk of time.

    I couldn’t get along without technology, though … I’d much rather e-query than submit via snail-mail.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I’m a lot more comfortable pitching in writing (email) than verbally, too, Arlene. I like being able to choose my words very carefully. when I’m writing, I can revise. 😉

      I think I’ve verbally pitched once, which resulted in a request for a partial and ultimately a rejection. I sold my trilogy to Sourcebooks via e-query.

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  23. Donnell Bell says:

    Love, love, love this post. When you seek help, please seek help for me, Tamara. The great news is we’re aware of it, and we decide if we control these devices or they control us.

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  24. […] Tammy blogged about digital overload at the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood. And TASTE ME copy edits have been turned […]

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  25. […] privacy, near-zero socialization needs, am massively introverted, and have an ongoing challenge with digital overload…add growing up Scandanavian and Lutheran in Minnesota, where, as Garrison Keillor says about Lake […]

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