I’ve always enjoyed writing letters. However, with the advent of modern technology, letter writing has fallen out of fashion. At least, that’s what you’d think. While we may not use the post office to mail letters like we used to, there are modern heirs to the letter, but they’ve been co-opted … by impatience. The main heir would be email. I love email. Well, I love writing a good email letter. I do this with my editor Deborah and proofreader Sarah. They are both great writers, and we enjoy sending each other long, thought-out emails, with great writing and interesting ideas. Same with my writer friend Emma who lives in Germany.
But, like I said, these heirs have been ruined by instant gratification culture.
I was reading the new book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and while I liked 95% of his thoughts, I was appalled by the way he downed email. In a nutshell (and sorry, Cal, I know this doesn’t really do justice to your thoughts), you can’t have real meaningful connection through email or digital interactions. I wanted to throw the book at the wall when he said that email was bad, and then in the next sentence, he said computer coding was an acceptable digital minimalist activity. He’s a computer science professor, so of course his favorite digital activity was okay. But the writer’s favorite computer activity – emailing – was forbidden as junk.
Recent circumstances (okay, maybe in the last couple of years it’s been getting worse), though, have made me rethink Newport’s pronouncement. Maybe he has a point.
99.9% of people don’t write long, letter-like emails like Deborah and I do. While I have never met Deborah in person, and only actually talked to her once on Skype, I count her one of my very good friends. Our relationship is completely digitally written. If I am in trouble, I can count on her to help. Because she has, many times before.
Back when I was in college (you know, in the stone age … I guess … okay, the Ethernet/phone card age), the business standard for responding to business email was 24-48 business hours. It’s what I’ve been working with since I opened my business. If you send me an email at 4 p.m. Friday (which is when I clock out of work for the day), I assume that I have until Monday night/Tuesday morning to respond to you. Some emails can be responded to quickly, and I try to do that. Other ones that require me to look at something take longer.
I’ve been informed that the standard is 12 hours now. And many people expect a reply within 6 hours. Not 12 business hours. Just 12 hours. So, if someone sends me an email at 5 p.m. on Friday, I’m expected to respond by 5 a.m. Saturday. If this is the email that Newport was dismissing, I’m with him. Not only does this need for immediate gratification harm interpersonal relationships, but it also stresses me out. And the rest of America. Why is anxiety at an all-time high? I know politics can play some part. However, since removing the Facebook from my phone, politics doesn’t stress me out anymore. I also made a lot of other changes.
Y’all … I have a family. I have a life. I am not here to answer your emails in an hour whenever you send them. I am not obligated to tell you what I am doing every minute of the day so you know why I’m not responding. I work with anywhere from 5-20 people a week. I cannot send out emails to all of them to say, "I am having a date night with my husband so I will be out of contact for the next 3 hours." Or "It’s my kid’s birthday party today and I won’t be responding to anything for 5 hours." I’m told many freelancers do this. Why?!
If there was one isolated event, I’d call that person a jerk, but it’s gotten so bad that I had to make a lot of changes in the way I do things with regard to email (and a few other digital things, which is why I was reading Digital Minimalism in the first place). First, I hired a personal assistant. Pretty much her sole job is to answer my email. And because I realize she needs to sleep, she still won’t respond to my email within an hour. Secondly, I have set an auto-responder that says, “Thank you for contacting me. My office hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. M-F and my assistant checks and responds to my email at 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. Please allow 12-24 hours for general responses, and up to 48 hours for more in-depth needs.”
Now, I never really deal with emergencies. Once in a while someone will need a project completed within a week, but even that can wait for 24 hours. There is no need for your editor/writing teacher/literary guru to respond in 1 hour every time. Some people who deal with emergencies will put their emergency number in their email. I also took email off my phone. Finally, I started a personal email that only those people to whom I write letters have.
So, I’m sorry I almost threw your book against the wall, Cal Newport. You were right … mostly. I still maintain some people can use email in place of personal letters that have been used for millennia as a way to foster long-distance relationships. I mean, whose grandparents didn’t write long love letters to each other in the war? And then fall madly in love and live happily ever after?
How long do you take to respond to email? How do you deal with the stress of having to be reached 24/7 for work? I’d also be interested in hearing your horror stories in the comments.
The first thing I ask a writer I’m working with is, “Who are your writing inspirations?" and then the second is "Whom are you reading now?” For me, I get inspiration from many different authors and always have a stack of at least 3 books that I’m currently reading. I have inspirations for style, content, character development, action scenes, suspense building … and I try to read from pretty much every genre and topic out there. I’m a writer, so I need to immerse myself in writing. And I expect this from other writers.
For the record, I don’t count those abridged versions from apps like Blinkist. While these types of things are great for learning the content, it’s not the same for learning how to write. Audiobooks are okay, but not for learning the actual art of writing. You can learn about content and structure from audiobooks, but there’s something to be said about looking at the words. The sentence structures. The turns of phrase.
If you can’t tell me your writing inspiration, I’m going to ask you to think about it and get back to me before I will work with you. If you don’t read, I’ll tell you to read. Writers are readers first. And if you tell me you don’t want to read other people's works because you will get them mixed up with your writing, I will run screaming into the night.
Because God forbid you get a little bit of Neil Gaiman mixed up into your book with no discernible plot line. Or Ernest Hemingway comes in to help you with your comma splices and your train of thought going off to Mars.
I cannot work with you if you refuse to read because another author will impede upon your “originality.”
I’m going to let you in on a secret of the writing industry. There is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing left that is an original idea. In fact, there is no such thing as truly original in anything that is creative, whether invention, writing, interior design, or painting, and I’d even go as far as to say in other areas like science and business.
Why? Because everything has already been done.
You can’t pitch a story to me that I haven’t already been pitched. You have an unknown farm boy who saves a princess with the help of a hairy giant and a smelly thief? Well, I just gave you the basic plot of both Star Wars and The Princess Bride.
Everything that we do is based on the work that has been done by people before us.
So, if everything has been done, then how can you be creative? Creativity isn’t about coming up with something entirely new; it’s about taking things that came before and combining them in new, creative ways.
The farm-boy motif has been around for thousands and thousands of years. His storyline started probably around the agricultural revolution. Oral storytelling + agricultural revolution + mom wanting to tell farm-boy son adventure stories at night.
George Lucas knew this storyline and took it. He said, what happens if we mix space travel and Buddhist philosophy into the farm-boy plot? Well, you get a big payday for Disney. I would argue, as would every creative mind I can think of, that the wider you read, or the more input you take in, the more creative you can be.
When you are looking for an agent, the way they ask for new books and authors shows that they understand this idea. They want The Princess Bride but for middle grade and with a farm girl who saves the prince (which, by the way, would be a lot of the books by Tamora Pierce). One of my favorite series that’s getting turned into a movie this fall is Artemis Fowl. It’s the same book that’s been written a billion times: kid finds fairies. But Eoin Colfer asked what no one else ever did. What happens if the kid is a billionaire evil genius? Now, wouldn’t you want to know what an evil genius 12-year-old with a billion dollars to spend and no parents would need fairies for?
So, there you go. Do you want to push your creativity with writing to the next level? Go to the library and ask the librarian what her favorite modern book, kids’ book, and old book are. Read all three and then combine them into a wacky plot line or a short story. Or even some mixed-media art piece.
I’m serious. Go to the library now. Then let me know what you’re reading and any fun ideas that come from it. Some will not work. Some may be fun. And some might spark the greatest novel of the century. But you won’t know until you read and try.
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.