Sunday, August 17, 2008

Negative Space

What happened to me when I decided to banish myself from the internet: I WROTE MORE.

The rules I set for myself were pretty draconian. I initially set a five day prohibition on posting and commenting on blogs, but I didn’t stop there. No YouTube, podcasts, IM/Chat, LibraryThing, Goodreads, Shelfari, Facebook: the whole Pandora’s Box of internet delights.

I was moderately successful, but I did cheat a little. I commented on a couple of blog posts. I peeked at Google Reader and I read and responded to email. I Twittered.

When I first heard about Twitter I resisted for quite a while. I couldn’t see the point, but I will concede that posting under 140 characters a few times a day was my methadone. It kept me from feeling completely unplugged and it made me want to check in and post that I’d done something useful – like maybe that I’d gotten some writing or reading done.

To help with the unholy temptations, I made some physical accommodations. I put my laptop on my desk and left it there. I kept my notebook and pen within arms reach at all times. Normally, I leave my laptop on the bedside table at night, drag the laptop into the living room when we’re watching a movie and sometimes I bring it into the kitchen or out onto the deck.

Here’s what I found out: no matter how lightweight the web browsing activity is, it is taking up headspace at the time I’m engaged. When I stay away from all distraction and keep my WIP at the forefront of my brain, it tends to stay with me. Even when I’m working, I can keep my WIP somewhere near conscious thought and much to my surprise, I found that I could take short breaks during the work day to jot down ideas and even do some actual writing. The notebook has actually become a replacement addiction for the internet and I now write a little just before I settle in to read at bedtime and I typically write a little as soon as I wake up. I also write down all kinds of random ideas and even bits and pieces of flash fiction. I didn’t do that before.

This morning when I woke up, the electricity was out in my house. I checked all the breakers and wandered around in a caffeine deprived state for a little while and finally saw a neighbor outside who told me that it was out all over our subdivision. She woke up at 4:30 this morning, presumably when it went out and the electric company recording said they hoped to have it back on by 11:30. The electricity was out all day long and didn’t come back until after 7 P.M. Freaky! But, I wrote more, finished one book and got halfway through another (which I read aloud to Scott – kind of fun in an 1840’s way).

I enjoy writing blog posts and reading and commenting on other blogs far too much to quit entirely, but I also feel a whole lot better about engaging with my work and making progress on my WIP than I do about web surfing for most of the day.

I used to think that I needed to schedule time to write and I’d get frustrated when I couldn’t find that time. When I did, it was always a struggle to get back into the current of the WIP. I now know that I can stay in the current as long as I’m not constantly filling that negative headspace with other things.

We could use more days without electricity.


Usman said...

One of the things I had to do to really kickstart work on my WIP and find more reading time was getting rid of my TV surfing addiction. I love to go through sports, news, Hational geographic, Movie channels; the whole gorgeous array from my cable provider.
Now I limit myself to the special events I really want to see.
Please don't say , No electricity. It is over 40 C here in Pakistan, with humidity in the eighties.

Charles Gramlich said...

You said it exactly. This is a great post. Should be must reading for anyone who wants to write but also plays on the net and blogs.

I did well today too. I had some revisions to finish and I put in about five solid hours on that, allowing myself only two short breaks to check email, and doing no blogging after this morning's session. Felt good.

Travis Erwin said...

You summed it up well, but blogging has paid dividends as well for my writing career. it's all about balance.

Lana Gramlich said...

Brutal on the power outage, but it seems to have helped, anyway!

Steve Malley said...

Hear hear!

I keep my notebook handy too, sort of jot down little notes about what I want to happen in the coming days.

Not connecting to the net til I hit my daily goal is working for me, at least in part because I do my writing and stop. By the time the next morning rolls around, I'm chomping at the bit.

Nothing like a power-free day!

Anonymous said...

Since all my writing is done on the laptop, a blackout doesn't help my writing progress. However, I tend to surf in between ideas and find that if my wip is always open or available on the dashboard (mac) I'm working on that or other writing quite near-constantly.

I'm so glad you're focusing on your wip though and however you need to do it, with the electricity out or the mental blackout of life outside of the work, it's a great thing!


Yogamum said...

Excellent post, although I was secretly hoping you would say that time-wasting on the Internet made writers more productive ;-)

Melissa Marsh said...

I'm so glad you got so much done. The Internet can definitely be a catch-22. I like to just write on my laptop because there's no internet access on it - keeps the distractions to a minimum.

Seachanges said...

Good for you! I too often use internet and blogging as a distraction and excuse and tell myself I must keep in touch, read blogs etc., until I found myself overwhelmed with work this last week and realised I got through it quite happily, needs be, without too much 'distraction'... However, I now do feel I need to catch up, badly!

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

You have set a good example for the rest of us digital junkies. Oh, how I'd love to get all those wasted hours back, and apply them to something constructive! Reading your blog doesn't count as 'wasted hours', of course ;)

Mardougrrl said...

Oh, I am such an internet junkie, Lisa. Here I am, officially admitting I have a problem. When I am checking the same webpages 50 times or so a day (how I wish I were exaggerating), then I know I am avoiding something, namely my WIP and my writing.

IA about the "negative headspace"--I want to be mentally consumed with my writing, not with Go Fug Yourself (or, or whatever.

Hmmm...consider me inspired!

Larramie said...

I've been thinking about proposing a "Blogger Unplugged Day" once a week. Think folks would join up and abide, Lisa?

Sustenance Scout said...

I would, Larramie!

Lisa, your day without electricity reminds me of stormy summer days when I was a kid when 1) there was no a/c anyway 2) we all ran around the house turning off anything electrical so they wouldn't get zapped by lightning. I know the chances of my PC getting zapped by lightning are slim, but I still feel so RELIEVED when I turn the darn thing off when a storm's brewing. Maybe a hint I need more breaks? I agree. K.

Lisa said...

Usman, Yikes on the 40C (which I had to find a converter understand -- 104 F!). TV and DVDs were hard for me over the winter too, but there's never much on in the summer, so it's all the internet that gets me. But I agree -- it's addictive too (except for the sports ;))

Charles, I think we all have to come to our own conclusions about how disruptive time on the internet can be. I wouldn't believe it was a big problem for a long time. It does feel good to walk away for a while -- and it was almost a relief when the power was out for so long because since getting on line wasn't an option, I really didn't care anymore. I think I'll be working on this for a while.

Travis, It really is all about balance. I'm intrigued by your statement about the dividends it's paid for you. For me, it's all about community and support -- I just have to remember that the community will carry on without me if I walk away for a couple of days :)

Lana, If it wasn't unseasonably cold yesterday, I don't think I would have missed the electricity at all. Well -- it would have been kind of nice to have the stove and microwave. But I'd have sat outside all day long otherwise. As it was, we all (me, Scott, the dog and the cat) hung out most of the afternoon huddled in the bed, reading and eating the Popsicles before they melted ;)

Steve, The biggest issue I have with completely staying away is that I'm on line all day at work. Now that I know I can focus on my WIP better if I stay away from the internet even during my work day, it's a big challenge to resist going out and surfing around, but I'm working on it -- ONE DAY AT A TIME.

Susan, I'm glad I started writing more in longhand before the power outage because otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten anything done on it. It's all a process of trial and error, but I'm finding that if I keep jotting things down in the notebook and if I write out new scenes in longhand and then type them in later, I seem to actually get more done. Maybe it's because I'm not editing on screen as much. I haven't figured it out yet. I am much a work in progress!

Yogamum, Oh yeah...didn't I mention that? Nine out of ten software marketers agree...

Melissa, It would be a simple matter for me to turn off wireless access on my laptop, but alas, I am not enough of an adult to do that.

Seachanges, I was thinking about what you said here and I wondered why it is that I can go months and sometimes even a year without calling or writing to my very closest friends and that's fine, but if I'm out of touch with my blog friends for more than 12 hours I start breaking out in hives. What is that?

Electric Orchid Hunter, To have the hours back...oh don't say that! Oh, and of course I'd never consider reading your blog to be anything less than essential as well ;)

Monica, That's the first step! There are a million tricks for cutting down, but you know that. For me -- a hopeless addict, it's almost like just shutting it off and staying away from even the laptop is the only way I can handle it. It's very much like alcoholism. Some people can handle alcohol in moderation and some people can't have even a single drink. I can't web surf in moderation. I am a junkie. I have to stay completely away, or the next thing I know, I've lost time without meaning to. Same same.

Larramie, Those who can handle their broadband probably won't feel like it, but for internet junkies like me -- bring it on!

Karen, Maybe...

I think I sometimes secretly wish my computer would get blown up in a power hit!

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm following your progress with great interest because I'm trying to become more productive too. Lots of good ideas and insights in this post and the responses.

By the way, Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union just won the Hugo for best science fiction book of 2007. Did you enjoy that, or was it too sf for you?

Lisa said...

Shauna, I LOVED "Yiddish Policemen's Union" although the closest it comes to Sci Fi (in my mind) is that it's an alternative history, where instead of settling in Israel, the Jews settle in the fictional "Sitka, Alaska" (or something like that). There was definitely no "sci" to it at all, so I'm surprised it was even eligible for the award. I suppose that proves I have no idea what sci-fi is!

Carleen Brice said...

Ain't it the truth, Ruth. These internets are the best time-waster humans have ever invented. And yet...there's so much good stuff here too!

Those who post once or twice a week might have the right idea.

Jennifer said...

Have you heard of the 90-9-1 rule, Lisa? Supposedly, online forum/blog participation can be broken down into three "groups," where 90% of people lurk without posting, 9% of people post occasionally, and 1% post frequently. In most cases, I fall into the 9%, but when I find myself struggling with a difficult passage in my writing, I tend to go through all my bookmarks a dozen times or so, looking for new content.

My old laptop didn't have built-in wireless, so I would pull out the wireless card and put it in the desk drawer, and I was fine with that. I CAN shut down the wireless on this machine, but, for some reason, I always find an excuse to stay "plugged in." So perhaps I'm a junkie too. :/

Achieving balance with all things Internet and writing has been really difficult for me. I've tended to be all-or-nothing, and that's not helpful. And trying to come up with rules and schedules doesn't work for me either. My brain has to feel like it can work when it wants to work, if that makes sense. Sometimes that means 3:00 a.m.

Right now, I'm working through some tips a friend sent me meant to help with simplifying your life and redesigning your work day. They're sort of Zen. They're difficult, but already I'm seeing some cool results.

Geez, this comment was long, and what I meant to say most of all was that it's awesome that you've been reading, writing--and thinking about writing!--so much!

Patti said...

you'll have to pry the internet form my cold dead hands...or something dramatic like that...

Vesper said...

I'm glad for you, Lisa!

This is a very interesting post. I'm dealing with some of these problems myself, when trying to juggle work, home, writing, blogging, and it's hell... Lately, I've been writing a lot more on my WIPs. This is reflected in my absence from my blog and from the others'. However, I wouldn't give up blogging since it has brought me many wonderful things, among them meeting great people and learning a lot about the craft.
My laptop is not connected to the Internet and I intend to keep it that way. I also take a lot of notes on paper, in notebooks or even on sticky notes. Sometimes, though, I experience what could probably be called "withdrawal symptoms", even though I'm very very very far from using the Internet the way you do.

It takes a lot of discipline and will power... :-)

Sphinx Ink said...

Kudos to you, Lisa, for having the self-discipline to pull away from the cyber vortex. I didn't realize just how addicted I was to the Internet until after Hurricane Katrina, when I had to go several weeks without online access due to lack of electricity. I went through psychic withdrawal pains--partly because I wanted to go online to find out whether my family and friends were safe, and partly because I'd been used to surfing the Web idly for so long that it had come to take up many hours of my day.

Of course, once things got back to "normal" and I regained online access, I returned to my former habits.

I admire you for having willpower to focus on the goal of writing your book, rather than the pleasures-of-the-moment offered by web-surfing.

Ello said...

I am so with you on this one, Lisa! So with you! You may have noticed how much less I am around the blogosphere. Still trying to find that perfect balance!

Riss said...

hey lady,

I'm glad that you're finding ways to keep things rolling. A sense of community is important but you can find that in not only the not-web-world, but also in yourself sometimes without distractions. I'm working on this too hehe...i tend to go to the internet because my brain wants something to fill it up, occupy it, whatever. I learned, sitting in Estonia with no internet essentially for two weeks that not only can I survive, I can still learn a lot. I dunno-it is a balance, that's really all it comes down to-I go to the internet for information and entertainment but I think it comes down to value that I was touching on on my blog tonight. I dunno...I'm going to go to sleep because I'm thinking in half thoughts at the moment.

Lisa said...

Carleen, "Ain't it the truth, Ruth", I LOVE that. I even have a cousin, Ruth and never heard that. I'm going to say it 40 times tomorrow until Scott and my partner at work make me stop! I actually have decided that I'll post when I feel like I want to and not worry too much about the frequency. I don't think I'll get kicked off the internet for that, right?

Jennifer, Ah! No, I'd never heard of 90-9-1, but I think for a while I was definitely 1, and at one point, I was checking my favorite blogs constantly to see if there was anything new. Google Reader has helped me tame some of that and it's also stopped me from commenting as much, so I hope people won't be upset because I don't visit as often. I still read everything, I just don't make my presence known.

The defined rules definitely don't work well for me -- I'm too much of a rebel, but the decision to leave the laptop sitting someplace where I'm not constantly checking it has helped lots, as has the (sad, in a way) decision to deprive the world of my long blah blah blah comments -- and of course I'm being facetious about depriving the world.

Deciding to write every day has been very helpful and I don't even give myself a word count goal or time -- which surprisingly seems to work just as well. I am looking forward to more of your Dickens WIP -- you have some GREAT themes going and I can't wait to see where you take them.

Patti, I know, I know. Having to be online all day for work really makes this hard for me. It's sort of like being an alcoholic working as a bartender.

Vesper, Oh I doubt I'd ever give up blogging entirely. I've got too many friends "out here" and I really get a lot from reading what everyone has to say. I'll bet you have found a good balance for yourself.

Sphinx, I'd say Katrina was far from a normal circumstance and no one would blame you for worrying about friends and family and trying to stay plugged in whenever it was possible.

I do worry about the election -- I'm kind of an all or nothing person when it comes to politics. Once I get into it, it's hard for me to stay away and consequently I either know all the up to the minute action or I'm clueless. I suspect I'll do a bit of jumping into the mix for a day or two and jumping back out again.

Ello, I have noticed! Good for you. See, if everyone posted just a little less, I'd still read you religiously and even comment now and then, just to let you know I was there.

Riss, I can relate to the hyperactive brain thing. Usually when I'm up VERY late, that's exactly what's going on with me. But -- I also know that if I never give myself any time to just "be still", I'm missing out on hearing my own thoughts. It's sort of like -- I stopped using my cell phone in the car about four years ago when I realized that I'd gotten into the habit of using the time I was driving to make phone calls. I know one or two people who I now believe are not capable of driving alone with their own thoughts. They always call me when they're driving to or from someplace. I always feel like I'm just keeping them company.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf