I wondered how other writers were walking this high wire, so I sent out an e-mail to some people I knew, asking if they were having the same issues, if they worried about the intrusion of the world into their writing space, or if they’d found some way to deal with it that I hadn’t thought of. After all, not everyone sees this the same way.
Some connectophiles, such as Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead Books, 2010), and Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin Press, 2010), are relentless cheerleaders for the Internet’s benefits, saying we all gain inexorably from the rapid, constant exchange of ideas online. Shirky even goes so far as to suggest there’s no such thing as information overload. (I wanted to ask him about this, but he didn’t return my e-mails.)
Another person I wanted to talk to was Susan Orlean, author most recently of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2011), who as of this writing has over two hundred thousand followers on Twitter and maintains a huge online footprint while also keeping up an oddly high level of productivity. In addition to writing books, she regularly files stories for the New Yorker, writes blog posts, converses with Twitter followers, and keeps everyone constantly updated on the details of her life.
“I think writing always requires the kind of focus that being a living human makes challenging,” she says, “whether it’s the distraction of friends, or if you’re in an office with people, or if you work at home.” Orlean sets a writing quota of a thousand words per day to help her stay on task. But even so, she says lately she’s felt that struggle more acutely. “Partly I think the ratio of productive time to wasted time is always the same, but there are different ways you spend it. And then sometimes I think the Internet is like when Odysseus is in a boat passing the sirens, and if you turn your head that way, you’ll be trapped forever.”
As long as writers have been writing, they have been fending off distractions. But the question is whether there is something particularly damaging to the creative process about having four trillion bits of information streaming into our computers, landing right in the middle of the place where our serious thinking is supposed to occur, pulling us up out of the depths. That is, I think, what Spanbauer was worried about all those years ago.
Responses to my e-mail began to trickle in. Some people wrote back right away. Others after a few days. A few not at all. Most of the people who replied were ambivalent; some didn’t really see all this as much of a problem. Benjamin Percy, whose third book, the novel The Wilding, was published by Graywolf Press in 2010, wrote, “Even if I’m online, I’ll only have Google open, which is my oracle: What’s the name of that river? What’s blooming in the mountains in August? Was this weapon manufactured before 1950? Which is hugely helpful. I’m not the kind of person who gets lost in research, who clicks on page after page of information. I get in, I get out.”
Percy, like Orlean, also cited the need to have an online presence—something that many writers feel pressured to do. This is one of the paradoxes of writing in the digital age: We feel the need to find some sort of platform off which to launch our work. But what good is a platform if all you have to put on it are small insights, clever turns of phrase, and status updates?
“A lot of the deepest reservoirs of memory and thought you can only tap into when you pay deep attention to something,” Carr told me. “As a writer, a big danger of being constantly connected and distracted is that you risk losing some of that depth. There’s also some evidence that if you’re continually distracted and multitasking, you don’t tend to think in original ways. You kind of follow existing channels of thought, the common wisdom. And I think as a writer it’s extremely important to get outside of that.”
Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl (Hawthorne Books, 2007), voiced a similar concern. “Van Gogh warned Gauguin not to have sex so often,” she says. “He felt it robbed Gauguin’s work of energy, said his paintings would be more ‘spermatic’ if he held back. I’ve started to sense that about Facebook. All the short, quick ejaculations of status updates may be sapping the power out of considered ideas.”
Maybe this isn’t a problem for certain creatively virile writers, but others of us feel it acutely. Stephanie Elizondo Griest, author of Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines (Atria Books, 2008), says that she’s had to swear off wireless technology completely. Sefi Atta, whose second novel, Swallow, was published by Interlink Books in 2010, writes her first drafts on a computer with no Internet connection at all. She says she needs to be connected only to her characters; everyone else gets cut off.
“I remember one morning I worked for an hour straight,” says Dennis Cass, author of Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007). “I was so proud of myself. And I thought, ‘This is crazy. This is psychotic. Something is deeply wrong with me, and it’s my fault that I let it get to this.’” Cass considered “neutering” his computer, but instead found an office with no wireless Internet, which he called his “productivity cave.”
David Farley, author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town (Gotham Books, 2009), perhaps put it best: “Being connected and being on social media,” he wrote, “is like having a line of cocaine laid out next to me. After I snort it up and reopen the Word document I was writing in, another line is laid out for me and, after writing just a few lines, I can feel it staring at me, taunting and mocking me. I don’t do cocaine, but it might be more productive than being connected on social media.”
Was that it? Was I just mainlining trivia? Jonesing on the never-ending stream of junk? Surely there was good stuff there—lots of it, stuff I couldn’t live without. But how, then, could I live with it? I knew I didn’t want to be a digital crack head, always thinking about my next fix. I didn’t want to become, as Csikszentmihalyi suggested, the equivalent of a software application servicing the needs of the Internet. I wanted to be a writer, a thinker, not just a typist ejaculating the first spermatic idea that came into my head. I wanted to find my way back to Lessing’s space, where I could let my mind run over ideas the way a river runs over stones.
Obviously, this problem was caused by technology. So maybe it was in technology that I could find a solution. I started sampling the growing list of antidistraction programs—Freedom, LeechBlock, WriteRoom, Isolator—until I finally found what I was looking for: SelfControl. Not the respectable, old-fashioned, internal kind, but rather an elegant application named for precisely the thing that I lacked. It blocks all Wi-Fi signals for a predetermined period of time and allows me to do what I can’t do on my own without turning into the Unabomber: Shut off the Internet in an ironclad, irreversible way. I just set a timer, hit start, then listen as the cacophony falls away and a silent space opens into which I can hear words, thoughts, ideas emerge. Alone in there, I feel something start to grow that hasn’t for a long time: inspiration.
Frank Bures is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.