On learning to do Nothing

The memoirs of a new Jenny Odell fan

Content on the internet is often bite-sized information/entertainment chunks that rushes at us in a continuous, constant deluge, simultaneously urgent and exhausting, each shrieking while vying for our attention. There are think-pieces too, I suppose, which are slower reads, but these too come in a torrent of hot take after hotter take. In one particular arresting part of Jenny Odell’s 2019 book ‘How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy’ she takes us through her own Twitter timeline giving me a shrill headache that I instantly recognize. Odell argues that the internet has a tendency to reduce us to only one version of ourselves, it doesn’t allow for context or nuance and certainly doesn’t allow for a multiplicity of selves. This can be particularly damaging for online activism, since activists are pressured to keep up with a breakneck speed and break down information into chunks that can be consumed passively and without the richness of sit-down discussions and debate. To my mind this is true also of artists who work online. In one sense, the internet has democratized art and opened its doors to anyone who has a creative urge to post a video, write a poem or splash some paint on a canvas. It also makes art accessible to a wide audience, subverts gate-keeping, builds strong communities of artists and demystifies artistic processes, so that the final piece has the context, labor and mistakes that one would miss at say a gallery or in a novel. And anyone who is creative will tell you: creating is much more the process than the final piece. However, in another very real sense, I fear that the internet is too demanding and too many really good artists abide the golden rule of volume in content. You have to be in a perpetual state of creativity especially if the internet ultimately writes your pay cheque. Any slump period has real world costs.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Canadian Youtuber Amanda Rach Lee posted this sad video toward the end of January. In the video titled “I’m taking break,” she breaks down with a sweet and rare vulnerability talking about how the pressure to push herself as an online creator took a toll on her physical and mental health. “So many people doubted me when I started my channel,” she says, “so I worked harder to prove them wrong,” And she has worked hard. She is part of a small but prominent aesthetic bullet journal community online. This community, mostly young women, took the original Bullet journal system created by Ryder Carrol and ran riot with it, forming a genre that Amanda calls ‘Creative Planning.’ While Carrol’s system is spare and no-frills, this bullet journal community puts as much emphasis on the artistic aspect of maintaining a Bullet Journal as it does on the to-do lists. For three years, Amanda consistently drew, filmed and edited her bullet journal videos and slowly gained a loyal and devoted following that call themselves ‘lil doodles’. She put in the work that goes into becoming an ideal online creator and influencer. She got sponsorships, constantly engages with subscribers, built a rock solid personal brand and recently released her own line of merchandise. Her art style is accessible and easy to follow. Amanda’s tutorials have taught me to how to draw a butterfly, a rose bush, a cherry blossom, a page full of potted cacti and several sunflowers and they actually don’t look like a toddler spread his dinner on the page. When I started using a bullet journal, I did scoff at what looked like the pointless exercise of saving time by spending time learning to draw. However, I slowly got addicted to making my bullet journal as pretty as I could just so I could look at it more often and thereby get more done. In a sense, Amanda and others like her found a way to take the sting out of the often aggressive productivity and hustle culture that can be found online. And yet, that very hustle culture that got her to where she is had real and personal costs. For so long, the pressure to build and conform to one particular self, a personal, saleable brand guided by market concerns, locked Amanda in some way into one style and form of Artistic expression. Perhaps she felt a stifling of the multiple selves that Audre Lorde talked about here. I wonder how she might spend her time away from it all? Will she ‘do nothing’ as Jenny Odell advises? Will she decompress and come back guns blazing or will she go in a different direction? The internet gave her a community but it also dictated the direction of her artistic journey. Where will she go from here?

After reading Odell’s book, I find it even more urgent that I nurture an inner life that is rich and complex, in order to serve what the world sees as nothing but a few flawed short stories and medium posts that gain me no fame, no money and serve no identifiable market. Simple acts like walking without my earphones plugged in or looking out of my window and contemplating what colour would best describe the sky, all activities that capitalism deems as useless, has nudged a creative self in me that says “Look at what my ‘nothing’ birthed. A thing that exists outside of me which you can read.” Yet, my work, which I have only recently started putting up online is met by the wild and raucous applause of literally nobody. This begs the question, “Are you a writer if nobody reads you?” I wrote professionally in the magazine industry for four years and then wrote in the academic world for six, but my creative writing has never, until now, seen the light of day and posting seems both brave and silly. I want to eventually get to a place where I can write something meaningful, provoking and thoughtful. Now everything I write, though imperfect, feels true to me and I love it all. The internet with its faceless millions need not be drain on my attention and my resources. Perhaps the corner of it that I claim is mine and mine alone; not a sponge to be squeezed dry but a playground where I can frolic, express myself inadequately and eventually allow for what Jenny calls the silence and space “in which I have something to say.”

Before reading Odell, I didn’t know the name of craggy line of hills that I see in the distance from my bedroom balcony. Nor had I ever bothered learning the names of that flock of birds on my walk that raise a racket that would put Arnab Goswami to shame (They’re Indian grey Babblers and that’s information I like knowing and will probably never ever use.) Somehow, I like that I read this book at a time where I am cultivating a new artistic self. Her book has given me the tools to figure out where I am creatively, if that doesn’t sound too stupid. I spend more time listening now and less time consuming. When I listen actively to the physical place I am in — the rustle of a branch, the agitated flap of a pigeons wing, the crunch of a stray dogs paw on the dry grass flanking the tar road — it is telling me to keep writing and I will. When I look back on this year, I hope to see it filled with a whole lot of blessed nothing.

I write fiction, creative non-fiction and essays. You can find me on Instagram @sheenadlima where I mostly post pictures and reviews of books I’ve read.