Fake News and the Writer’s Mind

Fake News

The 2016 election brought about the recognition that there is a lot a fake news out in the world that people believe is true. Fake News on websites, television and newspapers report on rumor or hearsay without checking if the sources are reliable. Some venues report outright lies about politicians, policy, current events and history. News anchors state their opinions as fact, and even their opinions aren’t based on fact.

Our Bubbles

People follow fake news because it supports their view of the world. In President Obama’s farewell speech, he said, “For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. . . And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”

Curating Our News Feeds

On social media, we cultivate a feed of fake news that supports our narrative of the world with tweets or posts with outrageous headlines such as: Watch this – So-and-so “annihilated” So-and so. The headlines become less true, until they’re outright lies. Even if we don’t click on the link, it sticks with us and our worldview is confirmed through inflammatory headline click bait. Our emotions keep churning and our bodies keep reacting as if we’re under threat. We don’t stop and question it. This exposure affects our mood; we grow angry or hopeless. We may not even be aware that we hate the world as a result of what we are reading on our social media, but it’s there eating away at our brains and our time.

The Writer’s News Feed

What is surprising is that we do this same thing to ourselves. We create our own bubbles, our own fake news feed about us and our writing. As we sit down to work, these thoughts come to the forefront of our minds. They are familiar, so familiar that there is a sense of comfort in their presence. Ah, yes, I know this thought pattern. It’s like a song you loved in high school, perhaps one you listened to while marinating a painful heartbreak. As writers, the lyrics go something like: What am I doing? This really sucks. Why do I bother? No one is ever going to read this. It’s all been written before, and better. I should be a bike messenger.

We become comfortable with that familiar negative loop and we reinforce it by looking for all the threads of information that support it. The deeper the mind gets into this fake newsfeed, the more and more untrue it becomes. We do not stop, we do not investigate, we do not challenge. We spend a lot of time questioning whether we should write, whether we have the ability to write. Sometimes this fake news goes through our brain without us even noticing it, which is dangerous because it is from this place we make decisions, it is from this place we create.

Stop, Breathe, and Write

This is where mindfulness can help. If we pause for a moment, take a breath and look at what our mind is doing, we can stop this before we go spiraling down that fake news feed about ourselves and our abilities. We need to question. We need to challenge, before we start to believe the worst about ourselves. Because when we believe these negative things about ourselves, we become stuck. We make bad choices. We limit ourselves and our world. The more attuned we become to the generation of fake news, the quicker we can catch ourselves. The quicker we can say – That’s not true. I see what you are doing and I’m stopping it right here. I’m not getting on that fake news ride. I’m writing, now shush.

The Real Work

I admit I wasn’t of much use last Wednesday, the day after the election. I took the day to sit with my anger, my disappointment, and really my grief. In practicing mindfulness, you bring your awareness in the present moment. I tried to do that by not creating lists of the things that could have been done differently, not wishing that Trump supporters voted differently, not fantasizing about what could have been or projecting the worst that could be. Instead, I tried just sitting with the fact that Trump was the President Elect. It was difficult, but I sat with my emotions, giving them space, feeling them in my body and releasing them.

My friend author JoeAnn Hart, who writes with intelligence and wit about climate change in her fiction, posted on her Facebook page this poem by Wendell Berry:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

It was the next morning; I had decided to get back to work. My thinking was that what I needed and what the country needed was the same. Compassion and understanding. I write about love and loss and mindfulness. When I no longer knew what to do, that became my journey. And that is what I needed to do to move forward.

I am not alone in my feelings of bewilderment, in my difficulty in getting back to the page. A lot of writers have expressed their inability to write in the aftermath of the election. They are overwhelmed with fear and grief and surprise that so many in our nation would vote for a man who spouted racist, sexist, hurtful and hateful things during his campaign. There are others who feel they are being unfairly labeled as racists and sexist, etc., because they voted for Trump believing that he could affect change for them.

But Berry speaks to us of our real work coming to us at times like this. As a result of this election, many of us will write about our experiences now and during the next four years, others will be called to action and become activists for those causes we believe in, and others still will run for public office in the hope of affecting change. I recommend that we first breathe, sit with our anger, feel it, and release it. We can write through our anger, until we find a place of kindness, compassion and purpose. As writers, our job is to tell our stories with truth, so that readers gain insight as to what it is like to be us, to be our subjects, our characters. A communication of our shared humanity. Words—fiction, non-fiction, poetry and songs—can change hearts. This election should not shut us down, but raise us up. Give us motivation to take action by picking up the pen, sitting at the laptop, or strumming the guitar until the words come and the real work begins.

Discovering Mindfulness

Several years ago, I read a blog by a writer I was unfamiliar with at the time and it changed my life. The writer was Dani Shapiro, her blog is called On Being. In her post “On Beginning Again,” she writes about how writing and meditation are similar in that with each we must continually begin again. Each time we face the page or come to our mat is a new beginning, which can be daunting, but “We remain willing to feel our way through the darkness, to stop, take stock, breathe in, breathe out, begin again.  And again, and again.”

I wasn’t writing much at the time. My husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I had put aside writing and teaching to take care of him and my children. What appealed to me was this idea of beginning again. Being able to reboot throughout the day. I bought her memoir, Devotion, and read books by her teachers, Jack Kornfield in particular. When I took up meditating, it was frustrating. I became aware of how much my mind wandered into the past and into fantasy. I watched my thoughts try to take over again and again. Each time I would say to myself, “It’s okay, begin again,” giving myself little moments of forgiveness repeatedly for fifteen minutes a day.

I was certain that I wasn’t making any progress. Of course, that isn’t the purpose of mediation. That is why they call it a practice and not a mastering. But I showed up every day. And by showing up and being with whatever my mind presented, I was changing outside my practice. I forgave myself in small ways throughout the day. I found I had patience where I hadn’t before. Most importantly, I found acceptance of what was happening.

Meditating was instrumental in helping me live with the dying, knowing that this could be the last movie we watch, the last time we see these friends, the last time we have a romantic dinner, last birthday, holiday, kid’s soccer game or ski trip. It taught me how to stay present in the very last days, when the past didn’t matter and there was no future.

Almost two years after I started, meditation is still frustrating. I rarely find that I’ve calmed my mind or cleared my thoughts. My mind is still overactive; I have to bring it back to my breath hundreds of times, but I show up. And I have found that makes all the difference. Show up and be with what my practice is for the day.

Now as I come back to my writing after my husband’s death, I am learning the same about my writing. Just begin again, breathe. And most importantly, show up each and every day and be with what my writing practice has in store for me. Even if I write for fifteen minutes and it’s utter crap, I showed up. And whatever I discover in that time, follows me throughout the day.