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Tips for writers: Go away, Internet

September 15, 2008 |  4:05 pm

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Earlier today I wondered if Philip Roth would have been so prolific if he'd come of age nowadays, with the electronic distractions of Twitter and blogging and Facebook and what-all. Turns out two writers that I enjoy keeping up with on the Web have decided to restrict their online activities so they can get more work done.

Novelist and writing professor Tayari Jones, who I follow on Twitter, regularly tweets about the progress she's making on her new book, in addition to the kind of personal items that are suited to text-messaging (dinner engagements, exciting events). Today she dropped the news that a colleague "made me face the awful truth.  tweetdeck is not compatible w/my goal to finish my novel." Bad news for her online friends. But apparently good news for her novel.

Author and editor Jeff Vandermeer explains the drastic measures he's taken (via Shaken & Stirred) to keep himself from being distracted by the big wide Internet that hides behind his computer screen:

Okay, I’ll admit it: work on my new novel, Finch, is going well because every morning my long-suffering yet often amused wife Ann hides the router box and my cellphone. I get up around 7 a.m., I have my breakfast and watch something innocuous like BBC News or Frasier for about half an hour, and then get down to work. Around noon I take a break to get some lunch, then go back to it, usually at that point editing or organizing notes. Around 2:30 I call Ann on our landline and she tells me where the router box and the cellphone are (it has Internet access on it) so I can finish up the afternoon with necessary emails and other work, before going to the gym.

Vandermeer doesn't trust himself to stay away from the Internet: his wife literally hides the machines that will let him online. Like Jones, he has, in part, banished himself from the electronic habits (or proclivities, or addictions) that get in the way of novel-writing.

It is important to point out here that both Vandermeer and Jones are accomplished writers, with lively online presences in addition to their novels. But maintaining the skills to do both present a unique challenge to novelists, and Vandermeer's thoughts on the topic are so interesting that they're excerpted further after the jump.

The Internet in its many forms is, for me, a harmful and insidious enemy of novel creation. A novel takes a great deal of uninterrupted thought, not to mention uninterrupted writing. A novel in gestation does not brook interference of this kind. This isn’t just a matter of procrastination or time-wasting. It directly affects quality and depth in my opinion. The sustained effort required by a novel should not include multi-tasking on other things, if you have the option.

Ten years ago this is not something I, or anyone else, would have had to worry about. In fact, I remember writing parts of one novel in an apartment that didn’t even have electricity. Or, heck, any furniture to speak of. I got up around dawn, went to my day job, and then came back and wrote until it got dark. Sometimes I’d go to a coffee shop so I could write longer.

The point is, some forms of modern technology are, in a certain context, dangerous. Sometimes in workshops, Ann and I will force students to write longhand just to cut them off from their laptops and all the stuff that comes flying up onto the screen....

What I want to convey, if I can, is not so much that novel writing is a mystical creative experience, but that it requires my full concentration -– more so than anything else I do. In fact, nothing I do or will ever do requires even half the intensity....

The writer me is monosyllabic, doesn’t care if his beard grows down to his ankles, scribbles notes on little bits of paper, takes long walks in the woods mumbling to himself, maps out character positions in rooms and notes where the light is coming from, doesn’t answer the phone, and isn’t fond of talking to people.

The other me is, in general, chatty, sociable, likes talking to people and putting people in contact with one another, and uses the Internet to make friends, advance projects, and communicate a love of books. And, yes, this other me also sometime gets involved in flame wars, arguments, can be caustic and sarcastic and moody. But always: engaged.

What if typewriters had also been telephones? What if you could press the top of your legal pad and have today's newspaper pop out? What if your fountain pen broadcast your favorite talk radio station? Today, when the tool of novel-writing is also the primary tool for all kinds of communication, it seems like a miracle that anybody ever gets anything (longer than a blog post) written.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by thelastminute via Flickr.

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