Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of distraction

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Walden Pond

If you were to ask most writers what they thought of distraction, they’d probably say that they needed a lot less of it. I’ve noted elsewhere that in theory, writing a novel is easier today than ever before: whether you use Microsoft Word, Scrivener, or even WordStar, the physical act of putting words down on a page has never been more straightforward. We have software to check our spelling and help us outline our stories; the process of revision, even at the most granular level, is close to seamless; and even if we write our works by hand, the range of other conveniences at our disposal can’t be denied. Online research gives us access to information that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find in the past, to the point where authors like Jonathan Franzen have argued that the idea of research itself has been permanently devalued. In terms of looking for inspiration, we have whole libraries of quality content available for free, with more being added every day, all of it searchable and retrievable from anywhere. If all that stands between us and decent work is a series of practical obstacles, these hurdles have been gradually filed down, until almost nothing separates us from the performance itself.

In practice, of course, that isn’t the case. A decent novel takes about the same amount of time to write today as it ever did, whether you’re an accomplished hack or a diligent artist. (Whether a novel takes six weeks or six years to complete is more a function of the author’s personality, and this fact hasn’t changed since the days of Anthony Trollope.) Elsewhere, I’ve said that this can partially be explained by a variation on Blinn’s Law, which states that the amount of time it takes to render a single frame of animation remains constant, even as technology advances. Animators have a certain baseline level of patience that doesn’t change much; if the hardware becomes faster, they simply ask their computers to do more and more. Word processing software, in turn, might seem like it saves time, but whatever a writer gains in the process is offset by the many little revisions and corrections that he or she might have skipped on a typewriter. Whether or not such infinitesimal changes make any difference is debatable—they’re often touches that even the most diligent reader wouldn’t notice—but it means that the minimum time a novel has to percolate in a writer’s head will pretty much stay the same.

Jonathan Franzen

Another part of the explanation lies in the increased possibility for distraction that technology affords. Writers have always found ways to procrastinate, but the temptations we have these days seem qualitatively different, thanks largely to the very same innovations that have granted us so much potential freedom. It’s often pointed out that the most successful forms of online content—Wikipedia, Reddit, Twitter, even the web itself—arose less out of an overarching vision than from a set of convenient tools that allowed users to easily shape the results from the bottom up. Publishing a picture or a comment is so effortless that it can almost be done without thinking, which turns the screen in which we spend much of our lives into a jungle of ephemera. It includes a lot of garbage, but with a few basic filtering mechanisms in place to separate the good from the bad, we end up with an incredibly seductive menu of constantly updated diversion. For writers, the process works in both directions, with the ease of generating content colliding with the ease of consuming it, and the two halves meet on the laptop. And because we spend so much time there, we’re more vulnerable to it than people whose jobs require them to occasionally get out of the house.

Writers all develop their own ways of dealing with this, often taking the form of a conscious rejection of technology itself, whether it’s Franzen’s computer with the Ethernet port glued shut or Michael Pollan’s writing shack. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle, with the time we spend on actual work alternating uneasily with checking email or clicking through the newswires on The A.V. Club. And the first step to living with distraction is acknowledging that it has its place. Obsessive singlemindedness can be as dangerous to a writer as its opposite; every meaningful project includes elements of delay, avoidance, and postponement. The form it currently tends to take is a little more insidious, since it can’t be distinguished at first glance from much of what we do when we’re being productive—as any office worker knows who has ever quietly switched over from a spreadsheet to But it’s impossible to cut ourselves off from it entirely without separating ourselves from the useful tools that it simultaneously provides. And if nothing else, we can take consolation in the fact that when you average out the forces of acceleration and distraction, we end up more or less where we’ve always been.

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2014 at 9:51 am

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