Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about Douglas Adams, the writer behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Quite a lot has been written Adams’ wit, his originality… and how notoriously slow he was to finish anything.
You would think that using a computer would be the perfect remedy to this problem, wouldn’t you?
Strangely enough, no. Not necessarily anyway.
Neil Gaiman (who wrote the early Adams biography Don’t Panic) explained recently that Adams’ writing actually got slower after he started using a computer, “because he could fiddle with fonts and such and pretend he was working.”
This story illustrates a problem that I’ve noticed many writers are having in our new, tech-driven world.
On the one hand, Internet and computer technology has made it very simple to get things done and sent off.
You can live in Eastern Europe, write something on your tablet, share the results with other writers living continents away, get their feedback in as little as a few hours (depending on time zones and how detailed the feedback is), polish your piece and email it to your publisher in San Francisco the next day. Then you can contact the illustrator living in Brazil and ask if how the book cover is coming along.
On the other hand, the new technology presents challenges. You can start your day planning to write something, then spend two hours following pop-up ads to buy this new toaster you didn’t realize you needed but desperately have to get, then take a break to watch the new episode of your favorite Scandinavian thriller show, check Twitter to see how your social media following is doing… and now it’s one a.m. and you only wrote half a page.
On a darker level, new tech can sometimes hurt us. Some research suggests that the way we use social media changes how our brains operate, impacting memory and attention span.
There are also areas where new tech creates trade-offs that may not necessarily harm your work, but aren’t worth it. Wendell Berry pointed this out in his famous essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” explaining that he enjoyed the fact using a typewriter meant he needed help from his wife to revise his work. Getting a computer would mean losing that element of their relationship, a cost he wasn’t interested in taking.
What’s the solution to this problem then?
Well, totally abstaining from computer tech and social media doesn’t seem feasible for most of us.
Recently, I reviewed a collection of essays and panel discussions from a literary conference. When asked about a book he would recommend to others, one panelist recommended The Shallows: What is the Internet Doing To Our Brains? by Nicholas Carr. The panelist gave a great summary of the book, which collects research on how the Internet negatively affects our brains.
Afterward, the panelist mediator asked, “Did Carr find any of his information on the Internet?”
That sums up the dilemma: the information we need to get for many of our projects or jobs, the things we most do to stay in touch with other people (for business or pleasure), make it all but impossible to truly cut the Internet and computers out entirely.
Instead, we have to find ways to balance our exposure to computer technology.
For example, think about one tech activity or tool you can reasonably cut out of your writing routine right now. You could decide to use pad and paper to record ideas during your commute. You could stop using YouTube to listen to music while you write for a week. You could scale down to a cheaper, slower work phone so you don’t have enough space to play games when you’re supposed to be writing something.
Think about that one thing, and let me know what you come up with.