Jane Austen's Writing Table

Social Media: The New Common Sitting Room

In 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote in her extended essay “A Room of One’s Own” of the conditions common to nineteenth-century novelists:

“If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightingale was so vehemently to complain,—’women never have an half hour . . . that they can call their own’— she was always interrupted. Still it would be easier to write prose and fiction there than to write poetry or a play. Less concentration is required. Jane Austen wrote like that to the end of her days. ‘How she was able to effect all this’, her nephew writes in his Memoir, ‘is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.”

Jane Austen's Writing Table
Jane Austen’s Writing Table (Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the last house in which Jane Austen wrote. Her writing table (which is featured on the DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphic) was in the middle of a dining parlor, and although Jane did have more time and space and family support to write than we might presume, it is easy to imagine how easily and often she was interrupted whenever anyone visited or simply moved through the house.

Writers still search for that half hour to call our own and for the private space—both physical and psychological—where we can both work on and leave our works in progress.

However, we face an additional source of “casual interruptions” unknown to Ms. Austen and Ms. Woolf, one over which we have complete control: online connectivity and social media. In this new virtual common sitting room, as soon as we step foot inside, there is a nearly endless supply of people to keep us company.

When I can remember to think of social media as a social space, similar to a physical gathering or sitting room, I can more easily compartmentalize and save it for non-writing blocks of time, allowing me to focus more effectively on the work of writing. When I mistakenly think I can keep one eye on tweets and status updates and other people’s photos—as enjoyable and interesting as they are—and write effectively, I nearly always feel disappointed in myself.

This summer, I’m experimenting with the best way to stay on social media while also upping my writing game. The past two summers I deactivated Facebook and, for 30 days last summer, Twitter (Twitter can be deactivated for only a month until it is permanently deleted)—something I highly recommend once in a while—but right now, for a variety of reasons, I don’t want to disengage for more than a few days at a time.

After giving it some thought, I plan tomorrow to set aside schedule social media time twice during the day, probably morning and late afternoon, about 10 minutes each, during which time I’m deliberately focusing on online socializing rather than stepping in and out of the virtual sitting room continually throughout the day. Will that be enough? Will I be able to stick to my plan? I’ll let you know.

Do you have any tips for balancing online social networks and writing? Does social media ever feel like a virtual sitting room?


DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

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