After reading Therese and Porter’s posts on the digital world and its effects on our thinking and productivity, I’ve been thinking a lot on the subject. How does all of this affect my life, my creativity?
Confession: despite my reputation as a flighty Gemini, I am not a multitasker. It’s precisely because of my scatteredness that I can’t be—I must focus on one task at a time or I lose things, break them, get lost in the Shiny Everything. In college, after losing my keys for the 400th time and having to call someone to be rescued, a friend said, “You need routines.”
Turned out, he was right. As a very scattered, always-thinking, always dreaming creative type, the only thing that makes it possible for me to manage life is to keep a set of pretty rigid routines. That means one thing at a time. I cook when I cook—if I try to do anything else with it (apart from listening to music), I will burn everything. I can’t walk away. If I walk my dog, I walk my dog. I don’t listen to music or podcasts. We just….walk. The notifications on my social media and email are turned off and I check one thing at a time. If I am going to write, I don’t open my web browser, and on distractable days, I use Freedom to lock myself out. I’m still reading an average of five or six novels a month, sometimes more, and I do read on an iPad, so the Internet is there. The one exception is if I watch TV, I might have my iPad open and flip around, but that’s down time and I feel it’s okay to not really focus on anything.
This is not to demonstrate my superior skills of concentration. It’s just that I didn’t realize I don’t multitask at all and that seemed so weird in the modern world that I had to give it some thought.
So I don’t multitask, but I am still absolutely, completely immersed in the modern world. I love technology, connectedness, social media, and access to everything I want, when I want it, now.
Last night, Christopher Robin said that he’d never seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and he might like it. Since it has become my favorite movie (and our cross-over points for fiction of any kind are very small), I was delighted, so we settled in to find it. We looked through On Demand. It wasn’t available as a rental, only a $16 purchase. Tried NetFlix, and Amazon Prime, ditto. Not available yet. Undaunted, he tried iTunes and there it was, so we pulled it up and settled in to watch. Now apart from the
slightly bloated size of our entertainment budget, it is kind of miraculous that this is possible. I don’t have to go anywhere. Whatever I want is right there, at the end of a mouse or a remote.
The thing a writer who is focused on the long game will do at that moment is….wait for it….write the next book.
If I want to talk to one of my sons, I can text them or check out their Facebook profiles, send an email, even just call. If I want cat litter or shoes or art supplies, I pull up the appropriate screen, tap in my numbers, and it will arrive at my door in a day or two. If I want to read and don’t like what I have around the house (hard as that is to believe, given the towering piles of reading that await), all I have to do is go find another one online in two seconds
This extends to nearly every arena of life. If I want to find out about a city, I check out Google Earth. I can see the street my hotel is on , and get a 360 degree view of it. I can travel with some clicking, find a cab, a restaurant, a movie, reservations, tickets, artists. I can research almost anything, in great detail, from my armchair.
Everything. Instantly. The Shiny Everything is right in front of me at all times.
As writers, we can even now write and publish our work instantly, via blogs and zines. Our public presences, via social media, give a big hit of recognition every time we sign in, so we learn to be clever in the moment, tally our Instagram and Facebook followers as if they are actual sales of books. We can even write and publish a novel in no time at all, be selling copies a week after it has been completed.
Here is my worry: writing is a long game. It’s the only possible way to have a strong, healthy, long career. I’m not talking about writers who are just in it for a fast buck or people who have one story that needs to be told, but writers who want a career, a long, satisfying, frustrating, maddening, up and down, heartbreaking and thrilling life as a writer.
Our world is all about the short game. Writing is the opposite. It takes a long time to learn the craft, to learn how to tell a story and tell it in competent, then perhaps beautiful language. It takes time to hear your voice, to understand what you want to say, and what kind of books you want to write in order to do that. It takes a lot of failure and trying again. It takes mistakes upon mistakes until those mistakes build a staircase to success.
Writing is one book, written and rewritten, polished and published. Then another. And another. And another. Every single one written to the best of your ability, then again, with passion, with care, with honor and as much truth as you can muster. I don’t mean that every book will take years. Some do, some don’t. The point is to write, to take as much time as you need to write the book that honors your particular gifts, ideas, focus.
Writing, and writing, and writing.
But here’s the thing. Even with all that practice, all the care in the world, all the learning, there is no guarantee you will succeed with any book you write, even if you’ve succeeded in the past. We’d all love to believe in our fast, slick, connected world that there is some magic formula we can learn, some way of being great enough at the fast game, the slick game, that we can succeed automatically.
The truth is that nothing you do, nothing I do, will guarantee success for any of the books we write. Some will succeed, sometimes so far beyond expectations that it’s startling and all you can do is laugh. Others—perfectly great books, sometimes even better books—will languish. Traditional publishing has always been shortsighted in the sense of wanting every every single book to be a big smash hit, and our instant gratification, connected, in-the-moment world has made that a hundred times worse. That’s where the anxiety lies for many of us. If there are three books that do well, one that flies, and the next one doesn’t sell as well for whatever reason (cover, timing, the phase of the moon, major disaster in the world), the next contract might be harder to get. That anxiety leads us to multitasking, frantic busyness, endless social media-ing.
To what end? What does it cost in terms of that long game of a writer’s career?
If everything is instantaneous, and everything is on Twitter, and my image is dependent on flying high every minute, then what happens to me if I am only in a writing phase, pulling something together that feels big and important and challenging to me, and I need time to do it? Like, real time. A year, two. And even then, what if that book that I work so hard on, that I sell and publish with a respected New York house, fails to perform? Does that mean I’m a failure? That I should give up?
No. It doesn’t mean any of those things. It doesn’t mean there was even anything wrong with the book.The thing a writer who is focused on the long game will do at that moment is….wait for it….write the next book.
In the publishing world, the pressure to be glittery has always been there. Young and new often performs better than old and jaded, and the current climate of instant gratification has trained us all to feel more and more like we need to keep up with that glitter.
But a long career contains many moments, many books. Those books are always out there, too, forever and ever and ever. The more seriously you take the writing process itself each time, doing your very best, most sincere work, the more fully you give yourself to the idea of your own body of work, the more easily you can weather everything else.
I’m not sure how we keep ourselves from wanting instant gratification, honestly. I can identify the problem, but not the solutions. How do we stay focused on that long game? How do we protect the work we’re meant to do from the onslaught of connectedness and the need to have instant feedback? Realistically, I’m not going to get off-line in any meaningful way. I live in this world and I’m okay with that.
But I want to protect the body of my work from the need to satisfy something outside of myself, and satisfy my own sense of artistic accomplishment. One thing I can do is keep the work to myself until I’m very sure I’m ready to show it. Another is to take time every day to work away from distractions (I can turn off the internet for a few hours without losing anything). I can look at the shelf of books I’ve already written and realize that one by one, they have had their moments in the sun, but as a body, they represent a career of care and integrity—and that’s the reward of the long game.
How do you feel about the long game? Does it even seem possible? Do you have other ideas to help protect the long tame, to keep it viable and real in a hurry-up, Shiny Everything world?
Note: I’ll be teaching on several topics at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference April 23-26, in Colorado Springs, including a Romance Novel Boot Camp. I’d love to see you! For more details, check out PPWC.