Finding Writing Focus in a Digital Age

A woman reading in the woodsI’ve written about shutting out distractions before. It’s a bit of an obsession with me — especially in a time when we have more things than ever that can be distracting.

These things aren’t always bad, even though many make them out to be. Social media is wonderful; when it feels like too much, there’s nothing stopping you from logging out to take an extended break. No one forces people to put Candy Crush on their phone. If you can’t stand in line at the grocery store without calling someone on your phone, it’s not technology’s fault. With mobile technology has come an amount of information on the go that I’m not sure could have even been fathomed when I was younger. What people choose to do with that is their own business.

But as a writer…I definitely understand what Jonathan Franzen was getting at when he said this:

β€œIt’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

Some people scoffed at the quote, and I understand why. It’s extreme.

It’s Franzen, so it’s meant to stir ire in many. (If you take the bait, Franzen has done exactly what he set out to do.) But it is not without some bit of truth…

Focus in a Digital Age

As a writer, I do believe — to write to the best of one’s ability — that solitude is vital.

I could write a fun, fast-paced novel on the go while keeping up with Twitter and everything else that flashes, beeps, and buzzes — the moment it all flashes, beeps, and buzzes. Those kinds of books have their place; in fact, you probably have better odds making money writing fiction by quickly producing fast fiction. But I have yet to see a deeper work of literature created by someone who is constantly available to every distraction around them.

A somewhat recent episode of the On Being podcast touched on this. While I encourage people to listen to one of the most articulate and, at times, beautiful conversations I’ve heard in some time, I understand that it might not be your thing…or that you choose to do other things with an hour’s time. So here’s the gist:

It’s an interview with Maria Popova, the person behind Brain Pickings — a blog that often looks at older writings and sees their relevance in how the words and thoughts still apply to us today. Really, it’s a blog about taking time to think deeply about things.

There are many quotable moments in the On Being interview, but the one that mattered most to me came when Popova talked about how her best ideas come at the gym, while riding her bike, and in the shower. The reason those times are moments of great ideas is pretty obvious…in Popova’s own words:

“…these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life. The moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind.”

Woman looking into woods

Intimacy with Your Mind

I think writers lose something the instant they have a moment to sit up from what they are doing and check Facebook or some other site begging for attention. To create writing with depth, I believe one must go deep into their mind and not let anything take away that precious time to either think or simply be still. I do just as much writing — maybe even more writing — on quiet walks in the evening with my wife as I do when sitting at my desk with all distractions shut out.

I know so many people who want to write, but don’t spend much time thinking. The instant they have a moment, they turn to other things to distract or entertain — instead of falling into all that’s going on in their head. When I’m writing a draft of a novel, it rules my mind. I won’t say all my thoughts are about the work, but most of them are. Even when things are busy at work, when I’m not doing what pays the bills — the moment I step away from day job responsibilities — work is not on my mind…

Writing is.

To write well, it’s important to create a life where ideas flow in a steady cadence, and that rarely happens when the mind is distracted.

The more intimate you are with your mind, chances are, the more intimate you will be with your writing…