As a writer-type who works from home all week long, I have a definite love/hate relationship with Al Gore’s series of tubes. On one hand, they’re about 80% of my social life–I stay in touch with my friends, fellow writers and family via email, Twitter, and the Facebooks. Writing is a lonely job, and stay-at-home parenting doubly so. Combined, they turn you into a hermit who leaves the house once a week or so. Seriously–your social skills deteriorate, you often forget to wear pants, and your language devolves to that of the preschool children who are your main conversational partners all day long. (It’s not a pretty picture.) The Internet is a lifeline of sorts, where I can stay in touch, ask for advice, exchange notes, and have a chat about something other than Dino Chicken vs. Cheddar Shells For Lunch, or That Goddamn Tank Engine Who Hasn’t Yet Learned That The Other Trains Are All Assholes.
With the good comes the bad, however, and the bad is that the Internet is a giant distraction engine, the most insidious productivity-sapping invention ever realized by humanity. If I were an alien in charge of planning an invasion of Earth, and I had to make sure the Earthlings spent most of their productive potential on trivial shit instead of inventing new stuff, my solution would involve plugging every house on the planet into a data network that’s an unlimited 24/7 font of reading material, games, boobie pictures, music, and movies. Our brains are wired for pleasure-seeking and instant gratification, and having that kind of never-ending information and stimulation source at our fingertips is like giving the lab rat full-time access to the pellet dispenser.
Writing isn’t all that hard. Most of the time, it’s kind of fun. Occasionally, it’s a ton of fun. But it also isn’t particularly easy, either. One thing you have to bring to the desk when you write a short story or novel-length narrative is focus. You need to stick with the story without running off every thirty seconds to do something unrelated. Sometimes the words take a bit of mental shunting to end up in a good order, and when the going gets a little tough, the monkey pleasure center in a writer’s brain will look for a quick fun fix. My dear spouse scoffs at the notion that it’s not just a willpower thing to keep on task when you have the whole Internet, World of Warcraft, and whatever else the Magic Elf Box has to offer, right there at the click of a mouse. (She is made of sterner mental stuff, pure unalloyed nondistractium.) But plug the term “eliminate Internet distraction” into Google, and you’ll see that the problem is rather common among most computer-using productive types.
How, then, does a writer reconcile the desire for socialization, the availability of fast and easy entertainment, the need for research, and the daily word count goal, all without falling into that big time-warping hole that is Al Gore’s fabulous data tubes?
I have a few recommendations for those of you who find yourselves spending most of your writing time looking up articles on attention deficit disor…hey, let’s go check what’s new on Facebook and Twitter! And then maybe see what’s new in our Google Reader feeds. And when we’re done with this Wikiwander, we can loop back around and hit “refresh” on Twitter and Facebook, like an information snippet-addicted rat with a paw on the hair trigger of the old snippet dispenser.
Keep the fun and work separate. Like, in separate rooms.
Set up your office without Internet access. Don’t kid yourself into thinking, “But I need Wikipedia for looking up research bits for my novel!” You’ll spend exactly one minute looking up the information you need, another thirteen minutes compulsively checking every other article tangentially related to your subject, and forty-five minutes on Farmville and IMs. If you work on a computer, don’t just turn off the WiFi–it’s too easy to turn back on at the press of a button. Yank the WiFi adapter out of the box and put it in a drawer in the attic somewhere. If you use a laptop, get an older model without a built-in WiFi card–you don’t need a whole lot of horsepower for putting down text. Do not even take your iPod touch with you, because we both know you’ll just end up surfing for shit on the 3.5″ LCD, and compulsively refreshing your Twitter feed, and then your word count at the end of the day is 29. Don’t do it. Internet bad. Do your work in a disconnected office, and do all the online stuff on the fun machine when you’re finished with your work.
Get a single-purpose writing tool.
I like my fountain pen and hard-bound notebooks. I love the tactile nature of putting ink on paper, the tendency for the internal editor to shut the fuck up when he sees ink on cellulose, the instant hardcopy, and the necessity for a word-for-word revision once I type up all the handwritten stuff. (That’s a good thing. What ends up on the computer is already a second draft, because my tools force a full revision pass at that stage.) Most importantly, I love that the pen and paper don’t do Twitter, Facebook, or Boobs-A-Million. The notebook is a one-trick pony, but it’s a fantastic trick: putting words down without distraction or endless on-screen corrective sentence noodling.
A lot of people can’t, or don’t want to, pen all their first drafts in longhand. That’s not a problem–we have tech available that also does the single-purpose job of the notebook, only with the benefits of keyboards. You can get out a manual or electric typewriter, which gives you instant hardcopy and makes you revise your work as well as you type it into your computer later. You can get something like an Alphasmart Neo or Dana, which work like paperless electronic typewriters with huge page buffers. You can even get an older laptop without WiFi, but still fast enough to run a text editor. (Any laptop will do for that job, as long as you have a way to get plain text files off it and onto a modern machine somehow.)
Never write on your main Intertubes Happy Fun Machine.
I know, some people (like my aforementioned iron-willed spouse) have the ability to shift into work mode and then completely ignore all distractions and hedonistic impulses until the word count is in the bag. We call those people freaks of nature. The average writer has a short attention span, a large pleasure center in the brain, and a job that involves stringing words on a narrative like beads on a string, in what seems like an endless procession of Groundhog Days for months at a time. Sooner or later, we blow off the work for a while to go see what’s new on YouTwitFace, max out our retribution paladin to 85, or build a replica of the Burj Dubai in Minecraft with nothing but sand blocks for a challenge. For the average writer, doing productive work on the same machine that has a Steam client and a meticulously catalogued multi-gigabyte porn collection on it is poison for the daily word count. Sure, you’ll get something done between futzing around on the Interwebs, but your word count will be a quarter of what it could have been.
Still, if you must write on your liquid-cooled gaming rig (or if you have no other hardware that fits the bill), there are ways to mitigate the potential for distractions. Most routers can be set up to limit access to the Internet during pre-set times, and changing all the settings is just enough of a pain in the ass to keep a writer on the straight and narrow. Hell, you could get all drastic and give your spouse the power supply for the router when she leaves the house in the morning. A little less radical is the software option–there’s a program called Freedom, available for both the Mac and Windows PCs, that shuts off your machine’s network connection for a pre-set amount of time. You can defeat Freedom by rebooting, but it’s a minor hassle that’s just enough to keep most people from cheating.
Leave the house for work time.
Grab your notebook, your laptop, or your twenty-pound Royal KHM manual typewriter from 1935, and get out of the house. Go to a cafe–but not one that has WiFi. Don’t even pick the ones that offer paid WiFi, thinking that the expense will keep you from logging in at the Hipster Caffeine Shack. You’ll get out the debit card for a day’s worth of access “just to check something on Wikipedia”, and before you know it, you’ll be sucking down sweet bandwidth, burning up an hour or two of writing time because you want to get your money’s worth out of it. Go to a place that doesn’t offer WiFi, or take something that can’t get onto a wireless network.
Combine all of the above as needed.
I am weak-willed, and the pleasure gland in my brain was enlarged to twice the normal size after a tragic childhood accident involving a microwave oven, a bucket of Legos, and a plate of sauerkraut. I write on paper most of the time, on an Alphasmart whenever I need a quick keyboard, and on the Internet-connected Mac mini only as a last resort (or to revise and transcribe the longhand material.) I also leave the house once a week to get a few hours of writing work in at a cafe in town, and I leave the WiFi toys at home. When I write in the house, I’m either in a different room from the Intertubes machine, or the computer is turned off altogether. My word count isn’t stellar, but it’s steady, despite having to keep two preschoolers happy, healthy, fed, and educated during the day.
If you find that the Intertubes just suck away way too much of your writing time, you may want to give some of the methods above a try. Whatever you’re working on, and however your life differs from mine, I’m pretty sure that when we get ready to depart this reality, we won’t be thinking, “If only I had written a little less, and spent some more time futzing around on the Internet.”
(Unless, of course, you’re laser-focused like my Beloved, in which case you may feel free to call me a weak-willed, Internet-addicted slacker.)