Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Writing Amidst Distractions

The computer is a marvelous tool for a writer. With a standard desktop or laptop, a writer can rely on spell check to proof their typing as they go, paste sentences from one paragraph to another, reorder paragraphs and chapters, and delete a whole passage, which in retrospect is far cheesier than the writer thought it would be before they typed it. None of this, by the way, requires anything more than a basic word processor.

Hook up the internet to a writer’s computer, and that writer has the equivalent of a massive library on their desk/kitchen table. Said writer can access scientific articles and papers on a range of topics from the mating customs of dung beetles to Hubble’s discovery of 3,000 galaxies in just one Ultra Deep Field of space. The writer can access news from around the world, and read about history and events from a variety of perspective from thought provoking to ludicrous. He/she can view maps, satellite photos, and directories of any city in the world, so their character can eat at a sandwich shop which is favorited by locals half a world away. With enough imagination, internet savvy, and time there’s nothing a determined writer can not write about.

Unfortunately, this desktop toolbox for wordsmiths also comes with an extensive set of distractions and diversions. The writer begins the day checking his/her email, and finds they have messages on both the social media sites they belong to in order to promote their work. The writer responds to the messages, updates their status and tweets, then reads and sorts the rest of their email.

Any good writer has to read the work of other writers in order to fuel their inspirational nexus. Thus, he/she subscribes to a series of well written blogs. One of the blogs has an interesting widget in its sidebar, which the writer thinks will spruce up their own blog. So, they find the site offering the widget, sync it with appropriate material for their specific blog, copy the html code, rewrite the code to match their blog's color scheme, and add it to their blog.

The writer finally opens their word processor, or new post page for their blog, when a fellow blogger posts a recipe for low calorie pasta. The next night’s dinner is up in the air, so the writer prints the recipe. Of course, that recipe reminds them of a recipe for lasagna which Alton Brown recently made on TV. The writer decides to print that recipe too, only when they find it they remember they didn’t print it last week because it underutilized cheese, which is the best part of lasagna.

By this time, the writer feels like he/she has done a lot, even though not a lick has been written yet. Thus, the writer takes a 20 minute break to play some online poker. However, the player in position 4 keeps talking smack, so the writer can’t leave until they’ve thoroughly spanked and broken the putz, and 20 minutes has become almost 2 hours. The writer gets away from the cyber-table, and decides, finally, to write. I could go on, factoring in YouTube, Netflix, and a collection of daily, can’t miss, podcasts, but I think the picture’s been adequately painted.

Sometimes, the romantic in me relishes the idea of a good pen, a case of spiral notebooks, and a solitary mountain cabin where I can write uninterrupted. Those who know me, understand why the concept of me living alone, or physically holding a fountain pen for that matter, could never work in reality. Beyond the physical reality though, lies the fact that it probably wouldn’t increase my productivity. Good money says, after a few weeks I’d have names for every squirrel, raccoon, and chickadee in a two mile radius of my cabin, and a kickin’ recipe for beans, but very little work done without my aforementioned research tools at my disposal.

The trick isn’t to shelve technology, as tempting as the notion may sometimes be, but to learn to use it effectively. Good writers need the ability to utilize technology and the discipline to focus past the distractions technology delivers. Such discipline can be drawn from the desire to convey a particular message to readers. Fear of dying before recording everything residing within a writer’s mind, is what inevitably keeps many of us on task and writing.


  1. All too true, James. Time spent back in the day traipsing to the library for research or scouring bookshops is now not saved - but accounted for by googling and blogging and emailing. Discipline needed as never before...

  2. True, sometimes I find myself with 10 to 20 tabs open in my web browser and a few lines written in my word discipline to get myself to write without distractions is to first write everything in a notebook and then pass it all in the word processor, once I'm done with that I go to the internet. :)