Right after I finish making excuses about finding a good time to write, I go and find a couple items from real, live Writers talking about their work habits. AL Kennedy describes her ideal writing day, which involves lots of procrastination, caffeine, and Tai Chi; then Allison Gibson talks to Emily St. John Mandel, Alexander Chee, and Nova Ren Suma about where they write. The verdict: everyone is different, and there is no magic formula for productivity. Economist Tyler Cowen makes a good point about this as he blogs about a recent New York Times article that says multitasking is turning our brains into rice pudding:
To sound intentionally petulant, the only multitasking that works for me is mine, mine, mine! Until I see a study showing that self-chosen multi-tasking programs lower performance, I don't see that the needle has budged.
To each his own then. For what it's worth, my most productive writing stint lately came while sitting on the couch working on a freelance article while my wife watched The Bachelor. I think the sheer willpower it took to block that out must have made me concentrate better.
For four glorious years, years that turn more golden the further they recede into the past, I was able to stay home with my kids while my wife worked to support our family. It was fun. It was frustrating. It was four of the best years of my life. When I left my career in IT, I saw it as an opprotunity to become a capital-W Writer. After all, I wouldn't have a job. I'd have all that time to write! I was completely wrong of course. Nap time and occasional babysitter days offered fleeting opportunities to write, but something else always came up: my son didn't feel like sleeping, my daughter wanted a bottle, I had to run errands, I needed a nap myself. I finally resorted to getting up at 5:00 am to write before the rest of the household woke up.
When the economy exploded in 2008, we decided it was time to become a two-income family again. I told myself the silver lining would be more time to write (me and my problems, I know--the salary and benefits were convenient too). I'd be sitting in front of a computer all day, and at the very least I could squeeze in a half hour here and there between putting out fires and meetings about putting out fires. But as I settled into my new routine, I found it just as hard to write, not the least because the work never let up. I wasn't used to the pace. And when I did catch a break, I had trouble switching my brain into writing gear. To make matters worse, my employer blocks Gmail and sites like Google Docs and Dropbox where I can shuttle drafts back and forth to my home computer. I'm back to getting up at 5:00 am again.
Assuming most aspiring Writers have to work a day job for a living, where do we find the time? Do you get up early or burn the midnight oil? The morning slot is my only option now. After a full day at work and the steel cage match getting two kids bathed and ready for bed, I have nothing left in the creative tank. Is it possible to train your mind to turn on a dime and switch gears from spreadsheets to similes, databases to drama? And most importanly, if you have any ninja boss-evasion skills, I want to know.
PEN American posted an email exchange between Jonathan Lethem and David Gates last week in which Lethem says he has a second computer with its internet functionality stripped out that he uses for fiction writing. Otherwise, he says, the temptation to fool around online is too great. Gates later calls this getting a computer "spayed." Lethem also talks about the nuisance of widespread WiFi in general:
I’ve been guessing that being offline will soon be the new luxury. Expensive safe zones in remote locales, coffee shops bragging of “No WiFi,” etc. I tried to persuade Yaddo that they ought to get ahead of this curve, and reinstate a Cone of Silence approach to art colony life, but no cigar. I appear to be alone in this.
Actually, he's not alone. A couple months ago, Seth Fischer from the Rumpus talked to the owner of a cafe in San Francisco that markets itself on the strength of not having WiFi, and there is software built to temporarily block internet access on a computer (an internet condom, to use Gates' analogy). A few years ago, author and former Harper's web editor Paul Ford wrote about what he called "Amish computing," or using an old battery-powered word processor for writing that is nothing but a keyboard and tiny screen.
I'm thinking this is a great niche market Apple is missing with the iPad. All the iPad models have some kind of internet access of course, but they could be marketing their WiFi-only models (the ones that can't connect over a 3G cellular network) to writers looking for less distraction. You can always carry it somewhere that doesn't have a free internet signal. Of course, this doesn't do a lot of good when you can also use it to watch The Wire and play pinball in HD.
The Man is keeping me down in my real world job today so I'll have to keep it short, but Slate is stepping up big time for literature with a couple of cool features this week:
- First, they are serializing a young adult novel called My Darklyng, by Laura Moser and Lauren Mechling. It's about vampires, naturally. Personally, I prefer the original mustachioed Count, but the kids all seem to like teenage emo bloodsuckers these days so it may be up your alley.
- And Slate is also running excerpts from Christopher Hitchens' new book, Hitch-22. Sadly it's a memoir, not a cranky aetheist's analysis of the Will Smith movie, but if you're a fan of this Hitch you should probably check it out.
It's not a surprise when you think about it, but Americans' main leisure activity is participating in experiences that we know are not real, i.e. TV, movies, video games, books. Paul Bloom on "The Pleasures of Imagination," from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. One psychologist gets the puzzle exactly right when she states on her Web site: "I am interested in when and why individuals might choose to watch the television show Friends rather than spending time with actual friends."
Why is this exactly? Mainly, Bloom says, because imagining experiences is a lot less work. But the fictional life is more interesting too:
... fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn't include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.
I'm not a fan of single-book apps, that is, iPhone/iPad apps created specifically to display the contents of one and only one book, rather than reading them in an app that views many other books like Stanza or the Kindle app. Buying single-book apps is like having to build a separate bookshelf for every new paper book you bring home, or buying a new TV for every movie you rent. But I'll make one exception for children's books because of the multimedia and interactivity a dedicated app can offer.
I bought my son a copy of Dr. Seuss' One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish from Oceanhouse Media and it's wonderful. It's not just a simple digital rendering of the classic book, it's an interactive storybook that he can either flip through and read himself or listen to a guided audio version. He's just now learning to read on his own, and it's a perfect mix. He's familiar with how to use the interface from playing games and watching videos, so I didn't even have to show him how to use it. As each page flips the screen pans down to the relevant drawing and text. If he gets stuck on a word, he can tap it and the app will read the page aloud, highlighting each word as it goes. Not a bad way to occupy him for a long car ride or while I have to take a call for work. Remind me to get a video of him reading sometime or else I'll regret it.
Designer Frank Chimero says books now have to earn their right to be printed on paper:
I want to see things earn the privilege to be objects. If we have the option of things being “real” and “not real,” I want the real stuff to be really good. I want the times when ink hits paper to always be beautiful, useful, and desirable. It seems like such a shame to cut down a tree to print this Land’s End catalog, with the thin model coyly smiling at me on the back in her awkward swimsuit. I bet it bunches up in the wrong spots. It seems silly to give permanence to a thing that was meant to be ephemeral to begin with. This goes for junk mail, beach-books, handouts for students, whatever. If your shelf-life is shorter than forever and ever amen, I think we need to think about whether or not it needs to be printed.
I don't necessarily like the implication that something published digitally is less worthy, but he makes a good point later about content. The paper copy serves one purpose as an art object, the content serves another as information:
If I’m thinking as a normal consumer, I don’t really care terribly much about what the future of ink on paper is going to be. I care about what the future of content is going to be. I want fuller, more thoughtful, more substantial, more enriching, more nourishing content. I want good stuff. I want stuff that doesn’t feel like a chew toy. I’d suppose that the only people who care about the future of ink on paper are the people who make their money (or not) selling the paper that has the ink on it. (Or if your magazine is named PRINT.) Those of us who consume the content, I’d suppose, don’t give much of a rat’s ass. We want convenience and access, and then after that quality.
Speaking at the Guardian Hay Festival, Nadine Gordimer mounted a defense of printed books over digital from a different perspective than the usual arguments about aesthetics or nostalgia, focusing on accessibility by poor and rural populations:
This is a very big question: whether technology will outstrip the printed word. But with a gadget you are always dependent on a battery and on power of some sort. A book won't fall apart; you can read it as easily on a mountaintop as in a bus queue. The printed word is irreplaceable, and much threatened.
More from the Guardian Hay Festival here.
This article by Nicholas Carr from Wired, an adaptation from his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, caused quite a stir online late last week, namely because it suggested that the internet may not be all that great for our brains. Carr cites research by a UCLA professor that shows how web surfing rewires neural pathways in the brain to encourage faster but more shallow thinking:
When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.
As Carr wrote in another piece for the Atlantic, Google is indeed making us stupid. What he is saying is that it's not so much the length of content online that encourages skimming, it's the sheer volume of possibilities. We don't feel like we have enough time to linger over any blog post or tweet, not to mention 2,500-word articles on psychology, because we have to move on to the next one. We're overwhelmed by choice. Rogert Ebert calls this the quest for frisson, moments of intense reaction. In the real world this is often accompanied by a physical reaction. Online it's usually expressed as "OMG" or "LOL." The problem for Ebert is that whatever the charge he gets from them, finding them is a compulsion:
A frisson can be quite a delight. The problem is, I seem to be spending way too much time these days in search of them. In an ideal world, I would sit down at my computer, do my work, and that would be that. In this world, I get entangled in surfing and an hour disappears.
The effects on work is obvious, especially the solitary concentration required by writing. "Multitasking" has always been a problem, if not outright myth. It seems like our brain can switch back and forth between many tasks, but it's still focusing on one at a time and the costs of switching are dear. AJ Jacobs has taken to tying himself to a chair to force himself to stay put and concentrate. But now the distractions of the internet are bleeding into pleasure reading. If we read more and more on the same devices where we work and look at videos of cats playing the piano, how can we be expected to concentrate? An e-book takes so long to read, and there are just so many cat videos you haven't seen yet.
Twitter users can win an iPad and get all of its industry-changing e-book goodness by entering the McCormick Foundation's #1amend Contest. If you don't use Twitter the rest of this will make no sense, so by all means stop reading. But if you are friends with the Fail Whale, here's how to enter:
- Find news stories online that deal with the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment (that's freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government, in case you fell asleep in civics class.)
- Post the link on Twitter with the #1amend hashtag.
- Make it awesome, because the tweet that earns the most retweets will win a shiny, sexy present from Cupertino.
The contest is supposed to be open only to those living in the Chicago area, so I guess all of you still tweeting from Tehran are out. More details on the McCormick Freedom Project here.