Turning off the news churn provides the space to think, learn and write. Photo: Getty
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Is it possible to live a modern contemplative life?

It has taken years of patient self reflection to realise that my obsessive reading of the news was eroding my well being.

My biggest project in life so far has been the systematic elimination of my crippling anxiety. After quitting a high stress job and stepping away from family pressures, I found that the constant feeling of stress, exhaustion and ache had largely abated. I longed for a complete banishment of that anxiety, and in my search for solutions, I discovered a dark reservoir within myself, contaminating my thoughts; the fear of missing out.

The whimsical acronym, FOMO, conceals a serious problem, say psychologists. With so much of our lives embedded in our ever-changing social media feeds, we are increasingly afraid of being out of touch, of missing out on our friends’ lives, of losing our cool, our edge. That fear goes to our very core of human consciousness, playing into our inbuilt survival drives. In some people, the mental health consequences of FOMO can lead to anxiety and depression; a recent University of Essex study observed that “those whose psychological needs were deprived – particularly those needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness” – were likely to have a higher level of FOMO.

A child of the Nineties, I’ve grown up with this fear, as social media has gradually taken over so much of our private and public lives. Humans have always strived and hoped for freedom, success and connectedness, but social media’s active colonisation of these desires leaves us little choice except to take part in it. In a handful of years, much of ordinary life has moved to its pages, and its scrolling format favours immediacy over depth. It is no longer enough to do good work, or to raise a family well. In art, an artist must be present and visible online, constantly commenting. A politician who works tirelessly can be destroyed by one inadvertent tweet. A mother can be judged on each minute detail of the appearance and behaviour of her children, and on every aspect of her parenting. Many jobs require a social media presence, and employers increasingly police employees’ accounts while demanding expressions of corporate loyalty online. Social media supercharges the quiet desperation of capitalist life; FOMO is encouraged, and enforced.

For me, FOMO was a culture and a way of life. As a teenage girl, I joined protests against poverty and racism in my small, Midwestern city. Part of the culture of protest was a communal obligation to bear witness; I came of age in the era of the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests and Indymedia, the agile, innovative activist-led news service that covered global protest from the ground. I submerged myself in the churning, constant horror of the world, increasing my exposure every time digital media expanded its reach and scope. As we got to grips with globalisation, my fellow activists and I believed in the links between all causes; without a coherent strategy to build a movement for change, we would rush from protest to meeting to fundraiser, never getting more than a superficial understanding of any one issue. The fear of missing out, the relentless pressure to embrace the entirety of the world’s struggles, fostered a group identity. A little city unto ourselves, we all consumed the same media, attended the same meetings, and discussed the same issues. This gave us a sense of purpose and utility, even as our organising failed to stop war and austerity. I took it all in, but I, and many others, paid the price in sleepless nights and blunted skills.

It has taken years of patient self reflection to realise that my obsessive reading of the news was eroding my well being; I had to learn that caring for myself properly, in mind and body, was at least as important as partaking in a mummer’s show of ritual protest. Only when I took a step back from activist culture, pop culture and the twenty four hour news cycle did I find that I had something new to say. I no longer fear missing out, I embrace it.

Today, in the house I share with my husband, we have no television and no radio. The sounds of our days are the chinks of hammers at the nearby building site, the cackle of two magpies chatting from their respective trees, and the buzz of badly tuned motorbikes passing by. As nature and humanity move all around us, my husband and I work on our respective books, sometimes not talking for hours.

My seclusion continues online. My internet is no longer an overwhelming torrent; it comes pre-filtered through my social media and a few online communities. These communities function like a scientist’s isolation box – I can put my hands into the thick gloves, and carefully examine the stories as they come in. When I read of the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, I also read the words of the people protesting on the ground. When I learn of the Islamic State beheadings, it is from anti-colonialists, not hawks for war, and because of my safety protocols, there is no chance I will stumble upon the awful, dehumanising footage.

I fell into this modern version of a contemplative life not because I am aiming to be some sort of admirable, cloistered ascetic, but because it is the healthiest option. My anxiety disorder affects my ability to focus, and caused me trouble in school, university and the world of work. Therapy, medication, and meditation did little to help, and over the years my anxiety ratcheted up slowly, until I lay awake most nights, with a racing heart and aching stomach. It became a kind of torture, and to stop the pain, I would give up anything, including a respectable job, and aspirations for a mainstream, admirable future. Finally, I had to give up the fear of missing out, of disconnection, and I found a kind of peace. I crave more and more of that peace, and I’ve learned to be strict with myself about making choices that enhance it. I can’t afford to give a damn about missing a scoop or not being invited to a party.

Turning off the news churn has given me the space to think, learn and write; as I emerge from the depths of anxiety and depression, I find that I am able to read and understand a complex book, and to absorb and integrate new ideas, possibly for the first time in my life. Now that I have the calmness and focus to learn, I have reengaged with politics, as a student of sorts. In the past year I’ve shed my identity as an old-school class warrior, slowly learning to apply the concepts of intersectionality to the world, and take a smaller, defined place in the ranks fighting for an effective social justice movement.

Even as I have let go of FOMO, I have found new ways to interact online, and have discovered that there is plenty of real depth and connection there, if one knows where to look. My university is still my screen; the course material, and the teaching, is a collective virtual conversation. My course is social justice; I watch and learn as activists in every struggle, from antiracism to the fight for the rights of sex workers, are creating safe spaces, and actively promoting the dismantling of privilege in their work; led by the oppressed, they are literally creating the structure of a practical solidarity. For all its distraction and its pressure, the Internet still has much to teach me. That I have access to this “university,” and the time and resources to study within it, is the result of my immense privilege. I am one of the lucky few, but I reject useless guilt. Only systemic change can dismantle privilege, and those who have it should use it with awareness, as a tool for change. Seen in this light, my peace is a tool I can use to increase my capabilities.

My peace, my embrace of missing out, is still imperfect. When I see a story that I wish I had written, I still get a little jealous and a little anxious. I wonder if I am an impostor, and think that if I were truly competent I would have had the story first. But the solution here, again, is to let go, and remember the benefits of my approach. Instead of spending a morning chasing after a scoop, I might have learned a new concept, provided support to a friend, thrashed out a theory with an expert halfway across the world, or nurtured my relationship with my husband. Instead of joining a chorus of comment, I contribute less frequently, but with a fresh perspective.

Most of the time, I remember that I no longer hate myself, and that neither social media nor the movement owns me. My choices are valid because they are mine, not because they conform to some imagined standard for activists. And even though I am privileged, and even though my work for change takes a quieter, more thoughtful form now, I deserve my happiness, and to take part in the world on my own terms. Because the happier I am, the more I will have to offer, as an activist, and as a person.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism