The Distraction Generation
The internet has changed the way I process information. Watching TV, I can’t help but sift through browser tabs at the same time. Playing video games, I listen to an audiobook about the information age’s diminishing attention span. Multitasking, I shuffle down the sidewalk, texting while cycling through internet radio stations.
This instant gratification for sensory stimulation has done a number on my brain. Last time the power went out, I stocked up on battery extenders for all my mobile devices. I couldn’t help but imagine all the casting announcements and movie spoilers I’d be missing.
Given my condition, it seems like the only way I could get any writing done, would be if I moved to a cabin, with no wifi or cellular reception. Like a doomsday prepper, burying busses underground, I’d need prolonged isolation before I could hear my internal monologue again. Stealing three extra walls, I’d have to convert my workspace into an actual cubicle, a hyperbaric chamber in the middle of the call center.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says he writes behind a closed door. I can’t help but imagine a bank vault with wall mounted laser turrets, a retinal scanner, and a terminal to read his palm print. A fortress of focus, where he writes not on a computer, with its frenzy of features, but a quill and a piece of parchment. Whatever his method, it works for him.
If only I came of age in a time of such discipline, a time before the laundry list of notifications filled my screen, before I felt phantom vibrations when my phone was still plugged in, before I had social media pen pals asking me to share chain letters every morning.
I lack the self control to write behind the closed door of my apartment. There are too many toys vying for my attention.
The Playstation’s red light turns green. Spinning, the disc drive says, “You’ve sunk a hundred hours into Skyrim, it would be such a shame if you never finished the main campaign.”
The flatscreen whispers, “You’re a season behind on House of Cards. Nothing a little binge watching can’t fix.”
The free weights peak out from beneath the coffee table. “How do you expect to fight crime with those muscles? Better do a set of reps before you go out on patrol.”
My medley of monitors blink on. My anthology of albums roll out onto the floor. My brickwork of paperbacks topples over. Fearing cabin fever, I overstocked on distractions for last season’s hibernation. Now I have to go out just to get any writing done.
A Stroll through the Smog
My laptop gives me the freedom to write anywhere, too bad the tool of my trade has so many other uses. This electronic enabler can clog my imagination. My solution for staving off all this thought pollution, is to dip my head in the smog, at least part way.
This is why I work in coffee houses. They give me the sensory stimulation I need to get back to writing.
People watching pacifies my desire to see talking heads on screen. Eavesdropping, occupies my eardrums. My rotating cast of friends distract me from the inherent loneliness of my calling.
These sights and sounds shake keys in front of my subconscious, giving my conscious mind the time it needs to get things done. A little background action makes the perfect filter for my distractions.
If I restrict my headspace, writing in a protective bubble where my thoughts are clean and clear, each word gets the formal treatment. I break up the flow, editing as I go. Crazy notions aren’t worthy of documentation. I get stuck more often, when I get stuck I turn to my distractions, and the cycle begins again.
If writing behind a closed door is like working in a tuxedo, public writing is like working in a Hawaiian shirt: it’s loose and casual, I don’t have to worry about getting mustard all over it, or the quality of everything I’m coming up with. With my doubt diluted, the stakes are lowered. With my inner critic diverted, I’m free to have fun. With my thirst for input quenched, my output flows forth.
Filtering Negative Energy
There are drawbacks to writing in public. Not every distraction is within my control. I don’t get to choose who occupies my space. I lack the authority to fire coworkers, kick passengers off the bus, or be the bouncer at the bar.
I’ve written articles on how eavesdropping and people watching can help your writing, but that’s only if you have a choice in the subjects you’re observing.
Demanding to be watched, some people are too loud to leave eavesdropping as an option. Turns out, writers have hecklers same as any other performers.
I can’t tell you how many people have given me their best Stewie Griffin impressions, “How’s the novel coming? The one you’ve been working on for three years? Got a nice stack of papers? Got a compelling protagonist? Got an obstacle for him to overcome?–”
I used to have a lot of stormy weather friends, interrupting my process to vent. I could never tell if they wanted advice, reassurance, or acknowledgement. They were broken records who didn’t realize they were telling the same story over again.
Toxic people fill my headspace with negative energy. Tainting my writing, they fragment my sentences. With my thinking cap knocked backward, they make me feel like hanging it up for the day.
Recently, a social bully threw a plastic bottle at me for looking off in the middle of his story. I walked away without acknowledging him. I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior, especially in adults. I have a zero tolerance policy for people who bring temper tantrums into my writing space.
The Right Smog Levels
When I first saw people Tweeting a call for social media silence so they could get some writing done, I thought they were insane. Why didn’t they just unplug and come back when they were ready? Now I get it. It’s like quitting smoking, tell everyone what you’re doing and they’ll hold you to it.
If one of your followers catches you in a chat, they’ll call you out. “Aren’t you supposed to be writing?”
Sometimes I need those checks and balances. Sometimes I try to spin one too many plates at the same time. Sometimes I need structure.
With too much thought pollution, I get nothing done. With too little stimulation, the same thing happens. For me, it’s all about balancing the smog levels in my brain.
A great book on how the Internet is literally changing the way we think is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr.
Writing friends, please share the methods you’ve devise for finding focus in the comments.
7 thoughts on “Dealing with Thought Pollution”
When I’m at home I drown in the smog, but I always get more work done at coffee houses. The way you described your writing habits—keeping your sub occupied with just the right smog level—made my own habits make sense. I need noise in order to force my mind to focus, but I can get distracted easily with a surplus of stimulus. When I’m at home, I listen to music and eat candy. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about chewing bubble gum that makes me focus, lol! Also, this may sound weird, but if I have Harry Potter on the TV with the volume turned down low and burn candles and drink tea, I get lots of work done too. When I studied in college, I did this allll the time. I think it made me motivated, because then I could pretend I was at Hogwarts studying magic instead of learning about capital budgeting methods. (Wow, that makes me sound like a big weirdo nerd, haha!)
I’m glad you saw something of yourself in this one.
Your Harry Potter ritual makes a lot of sense to me. I tend to watch things I’ve seen a dozen times, on mute, while I’m jotting ideas down. I’ll listen to albums I know by heart too, all in an effort to keep myself from getting distracted.
As always, thank you so much for reading!
I have just come to the end of a week with no laptop which now has been fully restored! Hooray! and yet…oh no. Without it I wrote an entire outline for a murder mystery novel, a couple of character outlines and half a blog post, all by hand. Not with a quill, but felt the same! I got this done despite having my phone distraction to hand because though I had that, it’s hard to see so well on the small screen and so I could go back easily to writing. Now the laptop’s back and I’d vowed I’d avoid Twitter today so I could do writing, yet here I am with tabs open for Monday Blogs. Damn it. (Slight irony then I began with yours!) I have seriously thought about quitting social media lately. I won’t, but I remember writing a lot more when all the fun conversations and distractions weren’t there.
To properly write (and I don’t mean my blog posts because I can do those without too much thought) I have to set aside a good block of time, turn on the tunes and not open a single tab. Not even have the internet up. I can do this at times, but the draw of online social interaction pulls me away too much these days.
I don’t have the option anymore of going to write in a coffee shop or pub (as I have done, in fact the first 5 chapters of my WIP were written back in the child free days in record time in a pub!)
Now I have to be at home and there are too many distractions, though TV is not one. In fact if I decide to sit and watch TV it rarely happens as the internet takes over. I need to be more disciplined and the only way I can see is to focus myself with drawing up a schedule.
Great post Drew and if you find the solution to this modern problem, please let us all know!
More and more authors are telling me they set aside days for social media fasting. I’m not sure how well I’d do with a fixed schedule. I tend to trick myself into getting writing done, by convincing myself I’m only going to be dabbling.
I realize not everyone gets to flee to a café or a pub, but it helps to have an awareness of just how much stimulus you need to be productive. This is part of the reason I don’t care for open offices, because it’s hard for the individuals to get the balance right.
Thank you so much for reading and sharing your insight!
This post is basically written for me in my life right now. Only my solution is to run away from the social media landscape because I don’t have time to deal with drama all day IRL and online. Sadly, neither paths are very conducive to writing. Maybe I can find an internet coffee shop, or something even more remote. Like Narnia.
Early mornings. For me that’s the only thing that works. I know it’s dependent on lifestyle/jobs but I do my best work between 6 and 10. After that I start finding it a bit harder as emails etc start coming in as everyone eases into their day.
I don’t stop writing after 10, but I’ve found that those 4 hours are the best for me. I find it too easy to be distracted by basically everything if I happen to get up at say, 8. Something about being up really early enables me to trick my mind that the whole world is asleep and I’m alone with whatever story I happen to be working on.
I’m similar in that I try to write throughout the day, but there’s a 4-8 hour block where I’m at my best. For me it’s in the afternoon, between 2 and 10.