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Inner Space: Clearing Some Room for Inspiration

Just over ten years ago I embarked on my first assignment for this magazine—a profile of Chuck Palahniuk, who was at that point a relatively new writer in Portland, Oregon, and whose star was just beginning to rise. One of the people I needed to talk to for the story was Tom Spanbauer, a local writing guru and somewhat of a mentor to Palahniuk who is the author today of four novels, including Now Is the Hour (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

Looking back, what I remember about Spanbauer’s house is this: It was dark and quiet. He had an old computer sitting in the middle of a table in his dining room. Since this was a decade ago, I pointed to it and asked if he could “dial up” from there. His exact wording is gone now, but he said something to this effect: “Writing, for me, is a deeply private affair, and I can’t imagine making the place I write so public.”

“Get with the times, old man!” I thought to myself. But still the idea lodged itself deep in my mind and has resonated ever since. Maybe I didn’t quite realize how much I was already beginning to struggle with the same dilemma. And surely I had no idea how much that tension would grow as connective technology, in all its forms, threatened to consume the dark, private corners where I could be alone with my own thoughts.

But now we are well into that era, and many of us have felt this strain far more acutely, as access to the Internet has become ubiquitous and effortless, and the amount of information out there has become nearly impossible to fathom. Scientists at the University of California in San Diego calculated that in 2008 (a year after the original iPhone was released) Americans consumed thirty-four gigabytes of information per day, the equivalent of one hundred thousand words—or 350 percent more than we consumed on a given day in 1980.

Not surprisingly, there has been an avalanche of stories about the effect this is having on us, and specifically about what this means for our brains. Most of the news is not so good: One study suggests our lack of downtime is lowering our ability to think critically and to analyze. Others claim distraction causes loss of IQ points, and that it can take up to twenty-five minutes to regain our focus after an e-mail or phone call. Another study estimates that distraction is costing the U.S. economy around $650 billion a year in lost productivity. Much of this research seems to validate the words of the Roman thinker Publilius Syrus who said: “To do two things at once is to do neither.”

These deleterious effects are catalogued at length in Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010). Carr, who is a freelance writer, could not even finish writing the book without moving his family up into the mountains, away from all the distractions against which he was railing. 

This is an increasingly common lament among writers these days. Novelist Richard Powers, author most recently of Generosity: An Enhancement (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), says that he used to work for twelve or fourteen hours straight, but that such immersion has become impossible. In her lecture after receiving the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, Doris Lessing said: “Writers are often asked, ‘How do you write? With a word processor? An electric typewriter? A quill? Longhand?’ But the essential question is, ‘Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?’ Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas—inspiration.”

Other writers such as Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Lethem have gone on record saying they write on Internet-disabled computers. There is, of course, a very good reason for this.

In his landmark book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (HarperCollins, 1996), psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the five stages of creativity—preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. Of these, it seems that at least three, if not four, are incompatible with the constant influx of new and fascinating information we encounter online. What creativity needs most of all is time for the mind to percolate, to mix old ideas together in new ways, and to find connections no one else has found. For this the mind must be left to itself.

I was curious to see if Csikszentmihalyi had any thoughts on what effect our current state of endless self-entertainment might be having on creativity, so I called him at his home in California.

“Yes, absolutely, I think it’s something to worry about,” he told me. “Many creative people enjoy the company of people. They get as much information and stimulation as possible—until they reach the point of saying, ‘Okay, now I know what I have to do.’ Then they close themselves off from any kind of contact and put themselves in a position where they can’t be distracted. You have to reduce the cacophony of information into some new shape, whether that’s a poem, or a piece of music, or a mathematical calculation.”

“Not long ago I started to have a feeling that I couldn’t quite shake. Online I would get a bizarre, Internet-induced amnesia, totally forgetting whatever I’d gone online for. I even wrote about the importance of getting offline, but found I was less and less able to simply do that.”

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