I've realised lately that the pull to record things in modern day is actually very similar to the attraction of writing; an exchange of pixels for a shot at perpetuity.
We must record everything, or else it never happened. My run goes on Strava. My holiday on Instagram. My party on Facebook. My CV on Seek. There's an app to log the beers I drink, the to-do lists I sink, and even one to track every step I take. But what – as a human – am I actually getting out of the time-taxing tracking of my life?
Endorphins. Street cred. Proof of life. Friends? Maybe I'm getting noticed. Building a personal brand. Living a recorded life is very much take take take. My personal data (actually of little use to me), is collected, stored or sold to organisations trying to influence the decisions I make. One thing is for sure: all that time I spend recording evaporates into pixels: I will not get it back.
It's natural to feel a flash of achievement when sharing our life, boosted by others liking, sharing or clapping how ON IT we are... but is this constant recording a ticket to madness in the palm of our hands (FOMO, YOLO, TL:DR?!)... Or is it maybe just the modern day equivalent of keeping a journal?
French artist Eugène Delacroix kept a journal. A very strict one – but it took a few stabs at his mental wellbeing. In one of his entries from Spring 1824, when Delacroix was only twenty-five, he expressed major panic over the gaps in his journal, realising his failure to capture every notable aspect of his life:
“I have hurriedly re-read the whole of my Journal. I regret the gaps. I feel as though I were still master of the days I have recorded, even though they are past, whereas those not mentioned in the pages are as though they had never been.”
Weirdly, I am sure we can all relate to this dude's sentiment from 200 years ago in how we publish our own lives on social media... Despite being quite an influential artist, Delacroix considered the horror of his life being summed up only by what was recorded, therefore losing all unrecorded events to blackness:
“The future is all blackness. The past, where I have not recorded it, is the same.”
LIVING AN UNRECORDED LIFE
Consider the alternative: live an unrecorded life. A concept Virginia Woolf shared her concerns about nearly a century ago, drawing attention to the many unpublished and unnoticed women that have existed since we first learnt how to pick up a pen.
Woolf published an incredibly progressive essay in 1929, A Room of One's Own.
There's layers beneath the title to explore, but all you really need to know is that Woolf isn't simply claiming a female writer needs a room to write in, undistrurbed. Her suggestion is grander, more aspirational:
“When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.” (p109).
It is an entirely different thing to be “unrecorded” as a standard, not by choice, which was often the case for female writers in Woolf's time.
Whether we keep tabs on our days publically or not, the fleeting length of a life and its impact on this earth varies widely between individuals. The realistic truth is that most of our lives will not make a patch of difference to the world as we know it. That's not sad – it's normal. But there still remains this powerful urge to record what we do; to build a curated legacy.
CURATING YOUR LEGACY
Recording a valuable, curated version of ourselves, or even our ideas and values, is extremely difficult. This is essentially the writer’s perpetual brief.
When sitting down to concentrate and create it can feel like the world and everything in it are against you – “dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down” explains Woolf. This is why we need a room of our own.
In A Room of One's Own, Woolf draws a silken link between the work of genius and the circumstancess that often surround the successful works borne of suffering individuals. She notes that great writing is often the centre of a web that reveals it is “attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.” (p43)
Woolf goes on to underline that the world does not actually give a shit whether you write or get published. This is one of the greatest inner turmoils I grapple with in my own practice: what's the point in writing without reason, without an audience?
Why is putting random words on the page any different to posting social media updates about avocado brunches or left-wing political rants?
The world cares for neither, as Woolf puts it, the world bears a “notorious indifference” to the poems and novels and histories, “it does not need them”, she says.
But still, we write.
THE INVISIBLE PROBLEM
Unpublished writing by women must be responsible for one of the greatest gaps of knowledge and culture in our history as a species – all those “infinitely obscure lives” that Woolf laments. I wonder if a woman will read my blog in a hundred years and still fear for her own impermanence?
As an unpublished creative writer, there is a dormant fear that I am wasting my time writing (anything) just as I am wasitng my time publishing an album of travel pics on Facebook. Same thing? But I am assuming, like many of us do, that success is overnight and that the people who are at the top of their game didn't spend 10,000 hours training, doing, unnoticed and unpublished.
The pressure of what has gone unrecorded haunts me a little each day. The world is accumulating soooo many unrecorded events, thoughts, achievements and failures. So much unseen content. Just like a suppressed urge to toke a smoke at a party, or slide my finger through fresh cake icing, I feel pushed to take a photo of a beautiful scene, rather than acknowledge it and walk on.
Resisting constant content collection often results in a sense of loss – and this must be why there is a swarm of mental health issues spawning around the use of social media.
POETRY, EQUALITY & REALITY
There is a brilliant comparison made by Woolf, where she points out the paradox between the women of reality, and the idyllic women men describe in books. Just like social media, the female is puffed up, streamlined, simplified or blurred around the edges to become an object of fascination. Her imperfections – removed. A rare space where the woman surpasses men.
“It was certainly an odd monster that one made up by reading the historians first and the poets afterwards… the spirit of life and beauty in a kitchen chopping up suet.” (p44)
I can solidly relate to how recording warps reality, veiling it with poetry: I am a young, eccentric, well-travelled, colourful creative writer... but I am typing in my baggy pyjamas with greasy hair and toast crumbs down my front as I hear another episode of Frasier play in the background.
WOULD YOU RATHER BE ANON?
The main reason I am writing this article is as a kind of mourning for all the lost women of history and literature who never got a word in edgeways. The suspected 'Anon' writers speaking for entire past generations. Woolf grieves with me on this:
“When one reads of a witch being ducked,
of a woman possessed by devils,
of a wise woman selling herbs,
or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother,
then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist,
a suppressed poet,
of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen,
some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.”
(p50, A Room of One's Own, 1929)
Woolf gives pulse to the idea that many anonymous, unsigned authors were potentially stifled women with no room or space or funds of their own to allow time to write:
“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
It feels ungrateful to not marvel at the ease in which we can write and publish words today. Social media is a beautiful beast as it connects as efficiently as it isolates, awards fame as easily as it stigmatises failure. By recording your life you can find validation, but you may also uncover rejection in moments when you most need to belong.
I am not sure that living anonymously is possible anymore. So it's less of a choice – rather ironic after so many women 100 years ago (and beyond) were fighting to be heard. Anon is a time capsule of a space when everyone still had things to say but no platform to say it on.
I need no further incentive to write without reason. I am proud to hold a career working with words and committed to giving voice to slices of my generation. I do need to source myself a writing room of my own though...