Choices are distractions

Tech Life

Rands for me is always a must-read. What I like about him is that, unlike too many other people out here on the Web, he only updates his blog when he has actually something to say. And you can appreciate that something or not, you may agree with him or not, but you cannot deny that his writing is carefully thought out and thought-provoking.

These months I have been struggling again with the dreaded writer’s block. My kind of block, I think, isn’t really content-related. I have indeed many ideas for many stories to write. My block has more to do with lack of time combined with a sort of information overload surrounding me which makes me take more and more ‘mental sticky notes’, and then leaves me without time or opportunity to expand them into something structured and fluid.

In his article, A Creative Soundtrack, speaking of writing tools, Rands writes:

For first drafts, I use one of two tools: a Moleskine notebook or TextEdit.

The choice of which to use often comes down to location. Is where I’m currently sitting MacBook Pro friendly or not? If that answer is yes, I’ll fire up TextEdit and get started. As sophisticated tools go, TextEdit is bare bones. It’s just a simple text editor (Sentinel, 15 pt, FTW) that allows me to do rich text editing, search and replace, bold, italics, and the occasional underline.

That’s it. No macros, no line numbers, no revision control, just pure writing simplicity.

This requirement of simplicity is rooted in my belief that choices are distractions and distractions are the leading cause of you not writing.

The emphasis is mine, it’s where Rands ‘nails it’. The answer is there, for me and my block. Distractions, in my case, spawned by an excess of external inputs that all look interesting and stimulating and promising and leading to links and links and other links. I used to fool myself into thinking I could multitask. Now I’ve established I simply cannot. The key to understand how I function as a writer is once again wonderfully explained by one of my favourite authors, Neal Stephenson, in his famous piece titled Why I am a Bad Correspondent:

[…] Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

That is not such a terrible outcome, but neither is it an especially good outcome. The quality of my e-mails and public speaking is, in my view, nowhere near that of my novels. So for me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people. But I can’t do both; the first one obliterates the second. […]

During my most prolific years (1990–1999), I basically wrote using pen & paper, then copying the manuscripts on my trusty Olivetti ETP 56 electric typewriter. On the computer I did everything else. They were two separate activities and I managed to carry out both rather efficiently. In the next decade, the Web got more and more full of content and information to browse, read, and waste time with; at the same time I started my freelancing as a translator, and that meant more hours of work spent before a computer. Merging the two activities — writing and working+using the Internet — simply sounded handier and more practical. But alas, after some time I realised that, from a creativity standpoint, it was not so.

So here I am, badly needing to separate things again, and hunting for those (hopefully) vast, unbroken slabs of time Stephenson mentions. One of my most important resolution for next year is to resort to my vintage writing corner as often as I can.

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!

1 Comment

  1. Totally agree. I have lot of ideas but too many distractions: mail, web, twitter, new programs, friends, phones, etc.
    I must find my time and my space to write and be creative. Maybe I’ll buy a notebook without (wireless)lan; or a simple Moleskine.

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