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Turn It Off

In my writing classes, I often suggest to writers that they turn off the internet until they have written their pages for the day.  Better yet, turn it off [1] completely on a regular basis and do other things.

This has become more and more challenging for all of us.  More and more of our world is online.  This is where we talk to our friends, touch bases with editors and agents, find out about market news and trends. We keep up with each other and all the other writers in our genres via Facebook and Twitter.  With the advent of ebooks, the potential for spending even more time on line is exponential.

In his essay, “On Distraction [2],” Alain de Botton writes,

“One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.”

Ring any bells?   Over and over, tests reveal that our concentration is becoming fragmented by our attachment to electronics.   I know that I can be sitting in a comfortable place, watching a movie or reading a book, and will suddenly be overwhelmed with the desire to click open the email client on my phone.  I am a natural magpie, as many of us are, easily distracted by the bright, the shiny, the new fact, the intriguing bit of history.  (Kathyrn Rusch calls this syndrome popcorn kittens [3] (and really, watch the video)).  I try to resist, but often I do not.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing a novel is the fact that it takes awhile. A long while, usually. It requires a tremendous amount of focus.  If your attention is being fragmented, dragged away into Facebook or yet another Twitter, or the latest Google newsfeed, or your email dinging (how often is it important, really?), how much focus do you have?  Even if you’re just looking up a fact, you are fragmenting, losing focus, taking yourself voluntarily out of the book world.

You might think you don’t have a problem.  I challenge you to keep track of your time on the internet over the next week.  Every time you open an email program on your phone. Every time you check your Amazon numbers or reviews on Goodreads.  Every time you pop in and Twitter or lounge around on Facebook.  Every time.  Write down the time you begin and the time you end.

I am not suggesting the Internet is a demon. Not at all. It has to be one of the greatest technological advances ever.

However, it can undermine good writing in a number of ways. The first is that falling out of the book world, the lack of focus I mentioned above. All by itself, this is harmful to the work.  More insidious is the fact that when we are on the Internet, we are not doing any number of other things.  Walking and observing nature or the world around us, for example.  Daydreaming, always a cornerstone of writing novels.  Gardening, reading, talking to other people, leafing through a magazine, drawing, shooting photos, taking a class in French cooking.

You see what I mean.

If you recognize yourself in this blog, I have a few suggestions for you.

1. Turn off the Internet completely while you are working. Don’t have an automatic sound to alert you when a new email comes in. Do not allow yourself to check anything.  Turn it OFF.  Stay with the book world.

2. Related: do not turn on the Internet before you begin writing.  This is one that aggravates me almost every single work day of my life, I confess.  It seems idiotic that I’m not checking email, facebook, Twitter, headlines, etc, etc, etc, like everybody else.  Instead, I’m walking the dog, then facing the blinking cursor on my MIP.  This is not me being superior, you understand.  This is me saying I hate doing it, but it works.  Try it for a week.

3. Give yourself an hour or two every day during which you are not connected to any machine of any kind. The phone is off. You are away from the computer. You are not watching television.  Read, perhaps, or knit, or take a walk. Lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling.  Play with a kitten.  Cook something.  See how it feels.

4. Try some simple meditation.  It has been shown to offset the fragmented thinking born of the onslaught of information from which we are all suffering.  For more information, here is a super-easy, religion-free explanation. [4]

5. Give yourself a reward when you accomplish an hour of focused, Internet-free time.  An apple maybe, or a token that goes into a jar for a big treat.

Do you have any other suggestions? Howls of horror? Talk to me quick because I have to get back to my Facebook page work. 

About Barbara O'Neal [5]

Barbara O'Neal [6] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [7], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [8].