As writers, one of the most important job requirements is to be a sponge: a sponge for stories, a sponge for places, and a sponge for people and experiences. The stories we read shape our prose and our understanding of narrative structure. The places we visit help us create realistic settings with astounding sensory detail, and the people and experiences we take in help inform our writing.
But being sponges means that we sometimes absorb too much — especially when it comes to the drama of the news.
For years, I lived in an apartment without cable. It was an expense I’d cut to trim down my budget so that I could transition more quickly to full-time writing. I thought I might miss having cable, but I was shocked to find that I didn’t.
I got the majority of my news online, and I binged the shows I loved on Netflix. But when my husband and I moved in together, he wanted the news. He’d been in day trading when we first met, and he needed cable news to stay informed.
In the morning, I would sit down with him for a cup of coffee, and we’d watch the news for a half an hour before I started work. It took several months of this regular new consumption for me to realize what was happening: The news was altering my mood and sapping my creativity.
I would go into my office after that half an hour and find myself drained, though I hadn’t written a word. My brain felt as though it had to wade through molasses to get words on the page, and I wasn’t happy.
When I stopped watching the news and returned to writing first thing when I woke up, I immediately felt better. The words flowed freely. I felt physically lighter and mentally nimble. My stories were better for it. That’s when I realized that cable news is toxic — toxic to my mental health and toxic to my writing.
The Problem With Cable News
I went to school for journalism, and my first job was working for an online publication. Trust me when I say that I am NOT a news hater. Quite the contrary. My beef is only with cable news. Here’s why.
Today news networks run on a 24-hour cycle, which means they are competing for our attention with everything else on television. Reporters are encouraged to focus on the most sensational stories, “breaking news,” and stories that are incomplete at best — wildly inflated half-truths at worst. Networks encourage reporters to highlight the worst aspects of humanity: the most brutal killings, the most tragic accidents, the most ridiculous scandals in government.
To grab viewers, TV news networks will broadcast a sound bite of the most outrageous thing the president said at a press briefing, a clip of a sobbing mother who’s just lost her child, and the most graphic footage of an incident that exists. They’ll assemble the most obnoxious, loud-mouthed panels they find to argue on live TV, and we are supposed to eat it up.
The goal is to create drama — or exploit drama where it already exists.
The problem with cable news is that it creates drama for drama’s sake. As Americans, I think we believe that there is some great virtue in consuming the news — as if by watching, it somehow helps us fulfill our civic duty, even if we don’t take action.
But the drama of cable news doesn’t keep us informed or spur us to action. It tricks us into thinking we’re informed by browbeating us all day long with the same stories and surface-level opinions presented with very little context. We feel as though we have the big picture, but really we’ve only seen the CliffsNotes version.
This daily news summary doesn’t magically transform us into informed voters. It doesn’t cover the small (usually boring) public policy decisions that have a dramatic impact on our daily lives. It doesn’t showcase the people who are actually making a difference in this world. And it doesn’t do anything to highlight what we can do to make our communities better.
When I was watching the news regularly, I noticed that I would come away feeling mentally and emotionally drained. I felt cynical, apathetic, and hopeless. I started to feel that there was something fundamentally wrong with humanity — not in the timeless “there is evil in the world” kind of way, but that somehow people were getting dumber, less capable, and more ruthless.
It made me uneasy, and it made it hard to write.
How the News Affects Creative Health
Apparently, this phenomenon is not unique to me. In the past year, I have heard lots of people say that recent world events have caused them to wake up feeling depressed on a daily basis. Researchers and counselors have noted cases where excessive consumption of negative news has left people feeling anxious and traumatized.
I think it’s safe to say that too much news can be detrimental to our mental health. And when our mental health suffers, so does our creative health.
In her book, The Sound of Paper, Julia Cameron writes about the hazard of drama as it relates to the creative process:
“It is one of the many false myths about creativity that artists thrive on dramatic lives. The truth may be the opposite, that our creative lives are dramatic enough and that we thrive on everyday lives that are dull, routine, and structured.”
The real danger, she says, is when the drama keeps us from doing our work. When this happens, “drama soon seeps into our personalities. We feel ill-tempered and out of sorts. The world goes off-kilter and it tends to stay there until we get back to working.”
I’m not suggesting that writers should move through the world blindly in an effort to stay in a happy little creative bubble — quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that we trade our fast-food diet of sound bites and the World Dumb-Dumb Report for thoughtful, in-depth reporting.
How I Consume News to Support My Creative Process
I rarely watch cable news these days, but I listen to NPR in the car, read my local newspaper, and listen to several news podcasts a week. Something about getting the news in one of these old or “old is new” formats allows me to consume the news without being consumed by it.
In a written news articles — particularly those found in a local newspaper — reporters have to choose their words carefully, and each story is reviewed by an editor. This helps ensure that stories are presented in a logical way and that the issues are easy to understand. But what I like best is that problems are presented in context: how the problem began, what external factors contributed to it, how this issue affects my community, and what is being done to remedy the problem.
In radio format, you get the feeling of connection from hearing people’s voices, but they are limited in how much they can “grab” you with a story. Radio stations like NPR rely less on the most absurd or reactionary sound bites and more on the reporters’ research. Also, since these radio programs don’t play all day long, reporters aren’t forced to rely on the so-called “breaking news” crutch. By the time a story airs, reporters have generally had time to gather all the facts.
In addition to the regular news I consume, I also make sure to get news that’s related to the fiction I write. To stay up-to-date on the latest advancements in technology (to inform my science fiction), I listen to Decrypted, TED Radio Hour, and Hidden Brain. I also like Wired and The Scientific American for more in-depth research on specific topics.
I find that hearing about the news or getting a glimpse into the lives of real change-makers in the world stokes my creativity rather than dampening it. It makes it possible to understand how the world really works, foresee problems as they develop, and turn those problems into writing fuel rather than being beaten down by the aimless misery being exploited by cable news networks.
Opting out of TV news doesn’t mean you have to live under a rock or adopt an “ignorance is bliss” sort of attitude. It just means that the news doesn’t have to take over your life. That vitriol won’t seep into your writing or leave you feeling drained. You can understand what’s going on in the world but stay removed from the chaos.
Photo by Sven Scheuermeier