categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
This was going to be a short essay about distraction. It was—excuse me, what was I saying? Wait I lost my train of thought….let me take this call first…and answer this e-mail….
As I was saying, distraction, and the thousands of possible objects we call distractions, are an enemy of the writing life, or at least, an enemy of the effort of consistent concentration required for the creation of longer projects. To write a book of prose most of us need blocks of time where we focus on nothing but that book. These blocks of time, it seems to me, are not so different in duration than the four or five set matches going on right now at the U.S. Open. And they also require a similar focus and intensity. You don’t see Nadal checking his e-mail during changeovers. He has, as the expression goes, one thing on his mind.
It is 3:46 A.M. as I type this sentence. There are disadvantages to working at this time of day, the most obvious is that I will be tired and cranky later on, especially when I teach my two o’clock class. But there are advantages, too, the chief one being that for the next two hours no one is going to call me or interrupt me in any other way. I know that my early rising time makes me an extreme case, but we all face the same challenge of finding that block, that chunk, that slice of time when we, like Nadal, can have one thing on our minds.
It’s always been hard to find these blocks and, let’s be honest, it’s getting harder. “Death by a thousand cuts,” was how a colleague of mine described the academic life, but it’s not just the academic life, it’s every life. Leave your computer for a day or two, and despite that automatic out-of-the-office reply, you will come back to find 400 messages in your inbox. E-mails and phone calls sting and swarm like insects. And it isn’t just writing that these distractions interrupt, but anything else that requires a decent block of time—going for a hike, say, reading a book, having a conversation, eating a meal.
Lately, when I am feeling beleaguered in this sort of way, I think about the Kurt Vonnegut story, Harrison Bergeron. You have likely read this story and it’s a good one. “The year was 2081 and everybody was finally equal,” it begins. Everyone is equal because anyone who was exceptional in any way is burdened with a handicap that is required by law and administered by Diana Moon Glampers, the United States Handicapper General. So if you are strong you have to wear lead weights around your neck or bags of birdshot on you arms and if you are pretty you have to wear an ugly mask so that no one else feels bad that you are better than them. Harrison himself is seven feet tall and a beautiful genius and so is forced to wear dozens of weights and a hideous mask. The story is usually read as a kind of political parable, and it is. But for my topic today I want to focus on the handicap that Diana Moon Glampers comes up with for smart people. Harrison’s father George, like Harrison himself, is exceptionally smart and so he is forced to wear a little radio in his ear. “It was turned to a government transmitter,” Vonnegut writes. “Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.” The noises that go off in George’s ear include a twenty-one-gun salute, a riveting gun, and a buzzer. When they go off, his “thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.”
You get the point, I guess. We have all become Diana Moon Glampers unto ourselves. Many of us have created lives where the distractions come almost as fast and furiously as they did for poor George. George’s wife, Hazel, is much less intelligent than he is, and it is interesting to see how Vonnegut defines this low intelligence: “…she couldn’t think about anything expect in short bursts.” Many of us have built lives where nothing but short bursts are possible. But if we have chosen to write this will not do: we need more than short bursts to make long books. To go back to my U.S. Open metaphor, one of the things that defines the very best of the pros is there ability to stay focused and concentrated for an entire match.
“We humans are an elsewhere,” wrote Reg Saner, who was my professor in Colorado. Boy, are we ever. It is the way of the human mind to jump around, and as the owner of a particularly jumpy mind I know this well. I don’t want to get too strict here and suggest that we should spend our writing time sitting rigidly at our desks, staring at the screen as if waiting to return serve. We are still elsewhere when we are writing, maybe more than ever, but it can be a more focused and refined elsewhere. We allow distractions in but they are not distractions anymore, they are funneled toward a purpose. They become a more here elsewhere.
I will end on a practical note. As I’ve said before at Bill and Dave’s, I was lucky to develop my writing habits before the great coming of the internet. I suppose the computer I’m typing on, a Dell Inspiron 1150, could talk to other computers if it wanted to, but I’ve never let it. This poor lonely little laptop has never been connected and never will be. That means that during my three hour morning tennis match there are no incoming e-mails, no Google searches, no checking of my Amazon numbers. This does not make my time at my desk better than anyone else’s. But it does make it quieter. There will be enough twenty-one-gun salutes, riveting guns, and buzzers during the rest of the day. Soon enough I will connect to the Office of the United States Handicapper General, I mean the internet. Soon enough my thoughts will flee in panic.