Tuesday, May 03, 2005

On Writing: Country Roads, Take Me Home

So I’ve done it again, I’ve fled New York City for a hundred-year-old West Virginia farmhouse perched on an Appalachian foothill overlooking the Ohio River Valley. (The picture above is currently my favorite shot of the view from my writing desk.) There isn’t a phone line or internet connection in sight, which (aside from the beauty and the silence and the miles of open spaces where my dog can run and chase deer while I sit on the porch swing) is precisely why I’m here. That, and finishing my book. But those two things go hand-in-hand these days, because apparently I have to be miles from an Internet connection to actually spend an entire day writing.

I have no idea how this happened: At one point in my life, I'd get a few emails, I'd respond to a few emails, no big deal. Then a few turned in to lots which turned into hundreds, and now it’s just out of control. A friend of mine wrote an article for Time Out New York last summer about how electronic communication is ruining our ability to concentrate. The fact that he used my out-of-control-email-life as the lead to his story was probably not a good sign. A psychiatrist in London has actually done a clinical trial showing that email does more damage to a person’s concentration and IQ than smoking pot:

“emails … have an addictive, drug-like grip. Respondents' minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an email dropped into their inbox ... the effect ... was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night's sleep.

"This is a very real and widespread phenomenon," said Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist from King's College, London University, who carried out 80 clinical trials … The average IQ loss was measured at 10 points, more than double the four point mean fall found in studies of Cannabis users ... Dr Wilson and his colleagues found a compulsion to reply to each new message, leading to constant changes of direction which inevitably tired and slowed down the brain. In fact, it is a recipe for muddled thinking and poor performance."

I buy that completely: When I got to West Virginia almost two weeks ago, it took several days before I could just sit down and write without that weird nagging feeling like, There’s something else I should be doing right now … emails to read, emails to reply to. Writers don’t just sit and write anymore, do they? Of course they do. They just have to go to the middle of nowhere, miles away from any internet connection to do it.

A few weeks ago, during a conversation with an editor, I was talking about how hard it is to juggle a book, freelance writing, teaching, public appearances, and the many emails that result from it all. She very wisely said, “The key to life is focusing on what’s important, not what’s urgent.” The light bulb that sentence set off in my head was more like a carillon bell. This is the problem with email, and it’s the problem with writing books: An email comes in, someone asks a question, however small, and for some reason we feel we must respond within minutes, or at least days. That’s urgent. But it might not be as important as, say, the book you’ve spent the last eight years of your life trying to write. The book that may not be due in minutes or even days, but that is due in a month. I asked this editor where she came up with that brilliant phrase -- I figured she’d say something about it being a Buddhist meditation or something. But no. “A time management specialist came into the magazine,” she told me. “He sat down in my office and the first thing he said was, don’t check your email.” Then he gave her that line about the urgent and the important.

So why am I telling you this, aside from it being a good quote. I’m telling you this because, secretly, that's why I started this blog. It's my way of staying in touch with friends and family and the outside world while I'm off focusing on one very important thing: My book. It's my way of saying, please forgive me while I write my heart out and only go online a couple times a week. I hope everyone understands. Please, keep emailing me: I love reading them, and I promise I’ll respond. It just might take a little while.

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