Personal Space and Writing Novels in the Internet Era

Okay, I’ll admit it: work on my new novel, Finch, is going well because every morning my long-suffering yet often amused wife Ann hides the router box and my cell phone. I get up around 7am, I have my breakfast and watch something innocuous like BBC News or Frasier for about half an hour, and then get down to work. Around noon I take a break to get some lunch, then go back to it, usually at that point editing or organizing notes. Around 2:30 I call Ann on our landline and she tells me where the router box and the cell phone are (it has internet access on it) so I can finish up the afternoon with necessary emails and other work, before going to the gym.

The internet in its many forms is, for me, a harmful and insidious enemy of novel creation. A novel takes a great deal of uninterrupted thought, not to mention uninterrupted writing. A novel in gestation does not brook interference of this kind. This isn’t just a matter of procrastination or time-wasting. It directly affects quality and depth in my opinion. The sustained effort required by a novel should not include multi-tasking on other things, if you have the option.

Ten years ago this is not something I, or anyone else, would have had to worry about. In fact, I remember writing parts of one novel in an apartment that didn’t even have electricity. Or, heck, any furniture to speak of. I got up around dawn, went to my day job, and then came back and wrote until it got dark. Sometimes I’d go to a coffee shop so I could write longer.

The point is, some forms of modern technology are, in a certain context, dangerous. Sometimes in workshops, Ann and I will force students to write longhand just to cut them off from their laptops and all the stuff that comes flying up onto the screen. Some hate it. Some realize what they’ve been missing.

Another thing I’ve found out over the last few months–in an odd way related to my first point–is that more and more people believe they have a right to inhabit my personal space, electronically, whenever they want to–and I damn well better be available. Obviously, one cannot in this era be divorced from the internet 24-7, so I am at times online even now (after all, I’m writing a blog entry). But I try to pick and choose those times that are not disruptive to novel writing and thinking about the novel. Yet more people than I would’ve thought have expressed irritation of varying degrees because I guide them to Ann or tell them I won’t be in touch until after my deadline of December 1. A couple even had their noses out of joint because I had the nerve to go to Europe on a book tour and–how horrible!–had some fun while I was there in the middle of my novel-writing stint, the logic being if I had time for that, I should’ve had time for them.

The fact that I was actually working on the novel while in Europe seems irrelevant to some. Nor does it strike them as sensible that I be selfish and choose my rules of public engagement while I’m working on the novel. For example, when I have a great day of writing, I am more likely to be internet-sociable at night. When I have a slow day, I’m more likely to cut myself off from the world and think things through. So in one sense I understand the frustration, since I seem illogical in my interactions from day to day, week to week. But that’s the logic of creativity for you. It’s not a science. It’s not some kind of quantifiable paint-by-numbers thing.

What I want to convey, if I can, is not so much that novel writing is a mystical creative experience, but that it requires my full concentration–more so than anything else I do. In fact, nothing I do or will ever do requires even half the intensity and full-on mindfuck that writing a novel does.

And I also want to convey that I am not the kind of person who has a book promotion/internet/nonfiction brain interwoven with my creative brain. The two are separate. To summon one I must banish the other. To go from being in the moment while writing in the morning to this other thing in the mid-afternoons–this person who fields requests for interviews, fan mail, production questions on forthcoming books, and all of the other stuff a writer or other creative person deals with outside of the writing–to do this, well, I make a transition. I cross the border into another land, assume another identity. Because, for me at least, I am becoming someone else entirely.

The writer me is mono-syllabic, doesn’t care if his beard grows down to his ankles, scribbles notes on little bits of paper, takes long walks in the woods mumbling to himself, maps out character positions in rooms and notes where the light is coming from, doesn’t answer the phone, and isn’t fond of talking to people.

The other me is, in general, chatty, sociable, likes talking to people and putting people in contact with one another, and uses the internet to make friends, advance projects, and communicate a love of books. And, yes, this other me also sometime gets involved in flame wars, arguments, can be caustic and sarcastic and moody. But always: engaged.

In becoming this other me, I deliberately choose to erase the space between myself and others. I allow myself to be accessible. And, then, some people come to expect it. They don’t see the writing–the longhand journals, the print-outs, the notes strewn across the table. They forget, I think, the point of all of this, and that it isn’t a miraculous, instantaneous conception. That it isn’t churned out like copies of the daily newspaper on a mechanized printing press. That it isn’t business-as-usual during such a project.

Look:

Four months ago, that was my novel. Today, it is this:

And this:

Isn’t that crazy? I think so. The way it gathers, coalesces, becomes this fully formed thing is utterly insane. Like a golem. Or a scarecrow. I made this? Me?

By December first, it will look different again. Next year, it’ll be sandwiched between covers and people I don’t know will read, in some sense, my very private thoughts.

And in the meantime I’ll come up for air again for a few months. I’ll be available and accessible and social. And even though right now I am thinking Maybe a little more wary than before. Maybe not on email 24-7. Maybe not quite so easy to get hold of. it probably won’t turn out that way. Until the next thing, at least. I’ll know when the time comes. The router box and the cell phone will find their way to the strangest places. I’ll turn from the page I’m scrawling, in the grip of an emotion I can’t identify but that tightens my throat, makes me somehow vulnerable, and February will have become May and the weather outside the window will seethe with storm clouds, and I won’t know where the time went, or where the stack of manuscript pages came from, or even what they might mean, to anyone.

Comments

  1. says

    Dude, look at your freakin’ handwriting.
    Does the typed manuscript have anything in common with the handwritten one? They could use your handwriting as a cypher for sekrit messages. Some future archeologist will unearth your drafts and go mad just from looking at them, and next you know Finch will be locked deep in some museum, incorrectly cataloged as the Necronomnomnomicon.

    Also, shoo. We know you’ll be back.

  2. says

    I love these posts. Inspirational on many levels, and also good advice. The Internet is a demon with anaesthetic-laced claws and breath that smells of chloroform. Creative process is creative process, and if people don’t respect it, then perhaps they don’t deserve respect themselves. The 24/7 e-mail availability fetish is not the end of Society, but it makes it very, very hard to concentrate for some people. I wish everyone understood that. Thanks for giving us a peek behind the curtain.

  3. Ann VanderMeer says

    Thank you so much for this post. Hopefully all those people that are routed to me will no longer be so disappointed that they can’t get directly to you. Perhaps they will stop taking it personally because it ISN’T personal – it’s what you must do as a writer. And perhaps…..they will no longer take their frustations out on me. Perhaps……

  4. says

    Entirely understood. Novel writing isn’t the only thing that requires that level of engagement. Kevin and I often find ourselves disconnecting from the world for hours on end when we get into a software project. One of the hard things for me is remembering to get up and talk around for a few minutes once an hour so that my legs are stupidly stiff when I finally surface.

  5. says

    Anyone who doesn’t appreciate being guided to Ann VanderMeer is just silly – she’s the fiction editor of Weird Tales for God’s sake!

    Well, I’m probably just being paranoid here, but I want to make sure you aren’t referring to my comment on Litkicks, “If Jeff ever decides to stay home . . . but he’s too busy with book tours in Romania and the Czech Republic, conventions in California, and a Book Festival in Louisiana . . .” because that was my kidding way of telling people how busy you are.

    I love the photos of the novel in progress! Someone should make a video of the notes morphing from one stage to the next.

    I finished reading Veniss Underground (great!) and started Shriek (also great). In style, you are onto something fine and solid. Sure, other writers have used journals, records of correspondence, etc as narrative devices, but there is something remarkable in the way you do it.

    Describing Duncan Shriek as “composed entirely of digressions and transgressions” is delightfully original, but you take it a step higher by using the “empty space” of a LACK of commentary to evoke poignancy. At least that’s how I see the paragraph on pages 34-35 of Shriek. Leading up to the moment in question, there is a pattern of narrative/commentary, narrative/commentary; that is, Janice Shriek writes the narrative and Duncan Shriek adds the commentary on a fairly regular basis, so that the reader comes to expect it. When Janice speaks of Duncan getting stuck in the sewer pipe, that entire passage is very touching, all the more so because when Janice says, “I wonder, Mary, if Duncan ever shared memories like this with you…” there is (to me) a palpable lack of commentary until that thought has passed. I found myself wondering what Duncan was thinking! Was there a tear in his eye? Like when you’re talking to someone on the phone and they stay silent for a moment.

    I can sure talk a lot, once I get going. One more thing: The last couple of lines of this post, about the weather outside the window seething with storm clouds & not knowing where stack of pages came from or what they might mean – very poetic!

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Cheryl–I agree, of course. And I know when Ann’s involved in software projects it’s often that way for her. There are certain things that are more complex than others, in that you’re thinking through the implications of each decision in the context of a thousand other decisions, the connectivity being the complex part. (I still plan on those cricket posts, after December 1st!)

    Bill–not at all. I have wonderful fans and friends and readers for the most part. In a way, I think I’m also saying it’s my fault. I have made myself much more transparent and accessible than, say, Kelly Link, who works off of a different paradigm because she’s a different person. Which means people quite reasonably expect more. And they also sometimes feel more ownership of the person rather than just the work. So I’m just kind of posting a reminder about what’s important.

    And here I am commenting on my own blog today because…it’s not a writing day. Another thing is, recharging is important. I wrote about 15,000 words this past week, not including revising some scenes and rearranging some things. So it was important to give myself the weekend to be away from the novel. (Also very re-invigorating for me were Minister Faust’s posts–I just love that guy.)

    And you’re absolutely right in your reading of that section of Shriek. I wanted readers to wonder why Duncan isn’t commenting, and I think you nailed it. Although reviews of Shriek were almost uniformly positive there were a couple of negative reviews saying the characterization wasn’t three-dimensional, to which I mentally replied, “you have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.”

  7. Timblynod says

    Pfft. You writers. So eloquent…even when bitching. ;)

    How ’bout a rant in iambic pentameter? Nothing so telling as a paroxysm rounded with a couplet.

    p.s. Just got ‘Secret Lives’ and ‘Why Should I Cut Your Throat’ from Amazon. Still looking for a few earlier works. Soon, though, I’ll be a veritable Vandermaster. Vanderversed?

  8. jeff vandermeer says

    and we owe you other books. down the rabbit hole until friday. thanks again to faust and hello langan.

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