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