Ten things I've learnt about Instagram

10 things I’ve learnt about Instagram and more on my blog, Our Story Time www.ourstorytime.co.uk

This time last year it would be no exaggeration to say I spent most of my time on Instagram. It was not as though I did Stories of making my breakfast or getting changed, but sure, I would be ten minutes late to leave the house because I wanted to get that caption just right before I did. And so on. I’d hazard a guess that I spent… about two hours on Instagram, if not even a tiny bit more, accumulated over the course of a day through scrolling, posting both to my feed and stories, commenting on the posts of others. Two hours!

Something changed towards the start of this year when I posted something or the other about inclusivity and representation. Everywhere I looked on Instagram, everyone was saying the same thing: Why Aren’t You Listening? and I found myself saying the same thing too, until I realised I didn’t want to anymore. It served no one, nothing. I wanted out yet at the same time I was being dragged in. I started setting an alarm to be there for only half an hour each day instead when it hit me that I had better things to do. It was as simple as that.

The hours I spent on Instagram have been replaced with working, reading, not hiding from my kids as much and most importantly writing. It’s no longer that much of a priority for me. It is not that I hate it, or that I have fallen out of love with it, but that actually the less time I spend on it, the more it has become what I imagine it was always supposed to be: a place into which I may dip in and dip out, a place to connect with like-minded souls whom I think I might like to share a cup of tea with one day. A place to share both aesthetics and my thoughts and to appreciate other people’s too. It’s nicer this way, to not let it consume me.

It suits me this way.

Here’s 10 things I’ve learnt about Instagram since stepping back:

1) Your followers will plateau and that’s okay - someone kind mind mention you or tag you and suddenly an influx of followers might arrive but then… nobody new will find you for months. It’s just the way of the world. It doesn’t matter anyway because…

2) …The less you care about your follower numbers, the higher they will go - I remember when I foolishly tried to run an online store using Instagram for marketing (what was I thinking, honestly) that all I wanted was to desperately hit 1000 followers, as if somehow the universe would align when I did. It didn’t. At some point I naturally stopped caring. It wasn’t an active mindset nor was it a conscious choice or mantra that I repeated to myself; it just so followed that the less time I came to spend on Instagram, the less things like follower numbers began to bother me. The irony is not lost on me that the least effort I make, the more people follow me.

3) You don’t have to declare you’re stepping away I see this often, the announcements that it’s all got too much, that we’re shutting Instagram down, that we don’t know when we’ll be back. I understand the need to do this but, well, I guess it’s just not for me. I’m not a world leader; I have no personal statements to the press to make. If I choose to spend less time online, the world does not stop turning. You don’t always owe an explanation to everybody.

4) And, also, it is okay to step away because sometimes Instagram sucks. Sometimes it’s time consuming, sometimes we have commitments, sometimes we have relationships to nurture with people we can actually reach out and touch. So, yes, it’s okay to step away.

5) There’s a difference between solidarity and self-promotion This is the bit that makes me feel most unease. Hashtag inclusivity, diversity, representation matters and all of that. “Instagram is political! Your silence says more about you than you think!” But must we demand it? What is the point of that? As Jia Tolentino points out in her excellent essay “The I In The Internet”: “The internet can make it seem that supporting someone means literally sharing in their experience - that solidarity is a matter of identity rather than politics or morality… This framework, which centers the self in an expression of support for others, is not ideal.” And also: “The audience’s way of shaping a role for the performer can become more elaborate than the performer itself. This is what the online expression of solidarity sometimes feels like - a manner of listening so extreme and performative that it often turns into the show.” (This essay is in her book, Trick Mirror). Something to think about, folks.

6) Instagram is still a friendly place When I needed to talk to some authors about the agony of my book being on submission, I bit the bullet and DM’d some writers whose books I loved because I just needed some advice. They didn’t tell me they were too busy and they didn’t imply that it was beneath them - they were lovely, supportive, encouraging and it blows my mind, really, that I could simply just write to them that way. It’s the day-to-day connections which make Instagram a friendly place for me. It’s all there in our pockets; it’s this that makes it kind of fun.

7) You don’t have to share everything When my little boy was in hospital, I felt like I needed to reference it in some way on Instagram because it was a huge thing happening in my life that I couldn’t magic away. I couldn’t contemplate not acknowledging something so real or pretending like it wasn’t happening. But two things: 1) I didn’t share the horror of it in real time and 2) nor did I ever fully disclose the details. These days I choose not to share images of my children’s faces because of an inexplicable need to keep them anonymous best I can - though this is no judgement on anyone else and comes from simply what feels right for me right now. For me somethings are private and will always be; for others, sharing might feel good. I understand the power of vulnerability and reaching out in hard or lonely times but I also believe in protecting its deepest, most inner and personal part too.

8) It’s just one tiny part of life Even if you’re trying to run a business or a brand, even if that brand or business is you, your success and value doesn’t start or end with Instagram. It took me a while to realise this. Instagram alone won’t make or break you. It might help, but it’s not the only thing. It’s just one little piece in the puzzle. I hold onto this.

9) You don’t have to follow the rules I have overheard people on the tube discussing The Algorithm in very grave ways. I understand some people make extreme amounts of money out of this so it is important. But is it that important? I’m unconvinced. I know there is lots of reasonable and sound advice on how to engage your followers, things like asking questions at the end of your post to draw people in and maybe I’m just incredibly naive but I also think that sometimes…

10) …Just being yourself is enough.

In defiance of a room of one’s own: My writing life

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I am writing this blog post in a café which lets me sit here for hours, writing, paying my dues with cups of tea, coffee, occasionally lunch. It is helpful for me to do this for I have learnt that I cannot write from home even when my children are not there.

There are reminders of them everywhere; toys, little shoes, forever a load of laundry to be done or else clothes upon a radiator still too damp to fold away. But of course, it is not about them; it is about me. These small reminders of motherhood stop me in my tracks and I fail to think of all the other things I might be, namely a writer.

I had always thought that I needed a room of my own in which to write. We were lucky enough to have inherited a glorified shed at the bottom of our garden from the previous owners, a small office with electricity and wifi. Initially I had claimed this as my own, as if this was all I needed to inspire creativity in me. But at the risk of sounding terribly spoilt, it bores me because it yet again serves to remind me of my domesticity. There is a an extra, adult-sized fridge which hums beside the desk, holding all the extra milk and yoghurt and what not the collective appetite of our children requires. Behind the desk: shelves stacked neatly with boxes of hand-me-downs and bags of toys no longer used waiting to be taken to the charity shop. In here, I feel like a small animal in a cage; stuck staring at the walls. This summer I created the set-up you may see above in our bedroom, consisting of a temporary fold-away desk in our bedroom, the idea being that I might write there while my husband took care of the kids. But this too was not quite right; there were little children forever coming in, thumping like heavy-footed bunnies through the floorboards above.

You might argue my immediate surroundings do not matter, that my whole purpose as a writer is to somehow escape my reality. That this is all an excuse, an elaborate design in writer’s procrastination. You might be right and perhaps a better writer than me would not struggle. But it appears my imagination needs freeing in order for it to fly.

And so I’ve become a wandering nomad of sorts. On the days I am lucky enough to spend hours writing, I settle at tables in corners and overhear conversations (today, an older sister advising her younger brother who is no longer in love with his girlfriend that he needs to end it, now) and it is this humdrum soundtrack of the lives of others that takes me into another place. People come to life as I type. I am both alone but not alone. I have never written so productively.

I wrote my first book while pregnant with my first child and have been writing my second book since last year and now I am tentatively weaving a third, I think. None of it has been easy. All of it has been hard. Almost all of it has been on stolen time. Writing is romanticised - all too often I am told that I am lucky to be a writer because I can write around my children, as if it is a lifestyle choice, as easy as that - but of course, it's not like that at all.

I have no room of my own in which to write and even if I did, I am not sure sitting in the same place doing battle with myself would work. So I shall carry on being the nomad I am, sitting in small cafés, observing the world a little so that I might magic my own small ones, conjure them up out of thin air.

I had wanted so badly to beat Cyril Connolly’s aphorism that “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” and while it pains me to quote him, a man passing judgement on the lack of creativity of those of us who happen to be mothers, it occurs to me that possibly, just possibly, he might have been a little bit right. Doris Lessing left her marriage and children in order to write and of course I am hardly suggesting that, but I also think that some distance from our daily lives in order to write productively is not necessarily a bad thing. It works for me, is all.

Why I write: an extract from The Quiet Words

She believed she could so she did: a writer’s manifesto, why I write, some writing advice for aspiring writers and experienced writers too. This and more on my online writing courses on my blog, Our Story Time  https://www.ourstorytime.co.uk/

Tthe excitement of launching The Quiet Words in just a few days is starting to feel real. I believe in this course so much. I have created something that has a big part of me inside it because I feel that sharing stories is what makes us human. It carries the words that I wished someone might have whispered to me, every time I struggled with feeling like I wasn't good enough to write, when objectively I was. The Quiet Words comes from a place of heartfelt trust.

My story of how I became a writer - how it's all I'd ever wanted to do, how I tried to find my writing path, lost it for a while and came back to it - is all here. But why does writing matter to me? Well, because, because, because...

It matters because somehow, for some reason, I seem to be able to put into words how I feel. "You have a way with words" is something people have always told me. For some reason, somehow, I'm told my words move people. First my English teacher told me, then my family and friends. Laters my editors, my agent, my publisher. I don't say this all to be obnoxious or humblebrag. They might have all said these nice things about my writing, but I never believed them (I mean, I'm the girl that told everyone my book really was "no big deal"). Whenever anyone complimented me on the way I strung a sentence together, I always shrugged or looked away or denied it in that annoying self-detrimental way (here's a thought - let's stop doing this to ourselves!). But then somewhere along the line, somewhere not even so long ago, I started to believe it too, in a can-it-really-be-so sort of way. Again, I am not being obnoxious. I simply tell you this to explain that writing matters to me because it has helped me to believe in myself. Because writing can help you to believe in yourself, too.

Writing matters to me because it helps me to step out of the noise. It gives me the space I need to think, to observe, to craft. There are days when the world spins madly on its axis and there's so much to do. Yet the act of writing, the act of simply crafting a thought or an idea together and taking some sweet time to piece the right words together helps me slow down a little, much in the same way I hope my blog posts help you too. 

Writing matters because it brings me clarity, a cup of clear ice water on a hot still day. When I write, whether it's here on my blog or even just my to-do list, then I get a chance to pay attention to what's going on inside. “The blank page on which I read my mind,” Dylan Thomas said. And with that clarity comes opportunity, creativity; the world seems lighter somehow when you've had a chance to write things down, write them through. 

Writing matters to me because that's where my creativity is. It helps me play. An imagination knows no bounds. It's like seeing the world like a child again. Sure I can be me, I can write as me, here in my blog, but I can also be whoever I want to be in my fictional world too.

Most importantly, writing matters to me because when I write, I feel connected. Both to myself, but also to other people. To you, right now. Writing helps us understand each other and that is surely the very essence of what being human is all about. If we share our stories, if we share our loves and our heartaches and all our deepest pain - then we can only understand each other more. And oh, the world needs more understanding. I can't change the world through my writing, but if I hold on to the thought that I can move people in the tiniest of ways, as though my words are nestling in my palm, brushing softly through your hair, if I hold on to the thought that I may indeed have some sort of way with words - then I can hold on to the belief that I might just make a small difference to someone, somewhere. And that, for now, is enough for me.

This is why writing matters to me. This is why I write. This is why I believe we all need to write.

This is an edited version of an introductory module from The Quiet Words, my online writing course on the craft of writing creatively.

The Quiet Words, an eight-week online writing course on the craft of writing creatively, starts this Monday, September 30th.

Read more about it here

Book your place now