LevGrossman

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

On Writing and the Internet: Data Is the New Alcohol

In Snow Crash one of Time magazine’s all-“Time” best 100 novels!!! — there are these characters called gargoyles, who are people who walk around with a computer and augmented-reality goggles and an always-on Internet connection, and they’re constantly hoovering up information and spewing it up onto the Net.

Everybody thinks they’re really uncool. And at one point one of them gets eviscerated with a blade made of glass.

(Stephenson mocks such people a second time in Anathem in the form of the dudes who carry jee-jahs.)

And yet I have essentially chosen to be one of them. I’m blogging and tweeting and Facebooking on top of the king-hell amount of e-mailing and magazine writing I was already doing. A lot of writers do. Instead of — or at any rate in addition to — building up lots of words and releasing them in big novel-sized chunks, we’re constantly dribbling them out. Like we’re the victim of some unfortunate literary prostate condition. I tell myself it all serves the fiction in one way or another, but the truth is I just like talking to people directly, w/out the intermediary of paper.

I already regret that last simile. About the prostate.

But I wonder if, long-term, this kind of relationship with connectivity is really compatible with being a good novelist, which more than anything else is what I want to be. A lot of writers have been ruined by addictions in the past. Heroine, alcohol, etc. Me, I don’t have big — big — problems with drugs and alcohol. (I have in fact, over the past 6 months, moderated my drinking, something I never thought I would do. In case you were, wondering, that’s where the shortage of drunk-tweets is coming from.) Data will be the addiction that gets me if anything does.

Jonathan Franzen wrote, in a really good list of writing tips, that if you’re serious about doing good writing, you’re not going to be able to do it on a computer that is connected to the Internet.

On balance I think that’s right. Left to my own devices I will interrupt my writing every ten minutes, five minutes, 30 seconds, to check e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Slashdot, Techland, and various webcomics.

I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Some piece of good news, I guess, that will permanently and irrevocably relieve all my financial and professional and artistic problems and simultaneously justify my existence as a human being.

Which would be cool. But it’s been a long time coming, and in the meantime it’s no way to get writing done. Which is why I resort to a piece of freeware called Self-Control, which cuts off my access to a specific, customizable list of domains for a specified period of time.

There’s probably a way to break it, but I haven’t looked into it. If you know, don’t tell me.

Self Control isn’t easy. I do an hour at a time. For the first few minutes I feel like Case at the beginning of Neuromancer, when he’s been permanently (he thinks) cut off from cyberspace.

Or like those guys in The Wheel of Time, the male sorcerers, who’ve been severed from saidin. You really get a strong, sharp whiff of cosmic alone-ness when that app kicks in.

(It smells like .. cumin.)

But then, after a while, I start to pick up different signals. You know, the kind that come from inside instead of outside.

Sometimes it’s even good news.


18 comments on “On Writing and the Internet: Data Is the New Alcohol

  1. Church says:

    I don’t see how you can be a good writer without being some variant of Gargoyle.

    But then, I’m not a good writer.

  2. dougfort says:

    You want to be a good novelist? Like Henry James? Feh! IMO the actual paper document is now only a portion of the ‘novel’. Your online presence is a major part of the entity. For reading ‘Codex’ was a much different experience for me than reading ‘The Magicians’ (btw I really liked Codex).

  3. M says:

    having just finished college *pats self on the back* i can tell you that we have it harder, so much harder these days

    they want us to do research, on the internet, but dont they know there are other things on the internet too?

    anyways, i dont think anyone can work properly in front of the computer with internet.

    that being said, why fight it, skynet will be here soon.

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I write a lot about this in Booklife. You’re absolutely right. Don’t you disconnect from everything when you do the novels, though? I do. I try to go weeks with the most limited online presence. And I laugh–yes, laugh uproariously–at facebook status messages like “I’m in a coffee shop, and I just wrote the most amazing sentence.”

    Alcohol, in moderation, steadies the nerve, I hear tell.

  5. Natalie Bates says:

    You are a wonderful, wonderful person for linking to that app. Thank you.

  6. Alison says:

    I think you’re a good novelist. But I don’t have very good taste. I’m not a book critic and I don’t think I ever in my life had a shot at even proofreading for Time magazine.

    These things depend a lot on who you want to impress.

  7. Leigh Ann H. says:

    I’m having this problem exactly this evening, tweeting through all the things I’m doing to avoid hammering out this bit for someone. OMG, Internets!

  8. […] bit of smartstuff from Lev Grossman, a novelist who is also TIME’s book critic and resident nerd-blogger. He […]

  9. sandra, tvgp says:

    stop labeling yourself. write whatever you want, when you want, how you want

    with however many words it takes

    don’t blabber on for the sake of filling a page number quota, don’t trim for the sake of honoring some stupid word limit

    be a great cyber novelist (if you insist on being called a novelist…)

    you are part of the overdue revolution which liberates writers from print restrictions

    why would any writer not take full advantage?

    ***

    p.s. congratulations on your marriage, your baby, and while i’m here

    “happy 41st!” will toast from my sister’s party

  10. dennitzio says:

    There’s other apps too, including Freedom, which cuts off the Net completely until a specified time or you reboot. The Economist has a great article: http://www.economist.com/node/16295664

  11. amybillingham says:

    I think the interwebs are a big attention trap for anyone in just about any profession.

    I also think that The Magicians is even better than Codex (and I’m guessing also more successful, with the #10 on NYT list?), and presumably you are becoming more “connected” rather than less, so maybe it’s a good thing. Or at least not a bad thing.

    And I forgive you for the awful prostate simile, but only because of two others that I really loved in The Magicians (deep-sea diving gear, p82, and Superman, p204). Yes, I’m such a geeky fangirl that I actually have those references on hand.

    ps
    Did I see a Dr. Horrible reference in this post?

  12. Leverus says:

    @amy thank you! I feel like that entire post was justified by the Dr. Horrible reference

    @jeff v I got the title of this post backwards. alcohol is totally the new data.

  13. Bruno says:

    Thanks for the app indication (Self Control), just downloaded and think it will really come in handy for myself.

    On the post itself, i couldn’t agree more, as i’m not a very disciplined person and suffer a lot on this data overflow that de web 2.0 is.

  14. Jolisa says:

    “A lot of writers have been ruined by addictions in the past. Heroine, alcohol, etc.”

    Whereas other writers could have been saved by an addiction to heroine(s), i.e. more of them, and really high quality…

    Nice analogy, though, especially in that we now have sparkling data on tap, rather than by the bottle, and it’s awfully cloudy at the bottom of the keg.

    The trick, for me, is to try to remember to alternate each page of intoxicating high-proof web data with a cool clean draft of something paper-based. Helps me keep a clear head, anyway.

  15. Jake Seliger says:

    Self Control isn’t easy. I do an hour at a time. For the first few minutes I feel like Case at the beginning of Neuromancer, when he’s been permanently (he thinks) cut off from cyberspace.

    This is why I export my self-control to Mac Freedom: I have enough self-control to start the program but not enough to stay offline by myself.

    You’ve probably already heard about Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, which is worth reading. I’ll recommend it, although he doesn’t quite prove his central point; I discuss that in much more detail in this post.

  16. Natalie Kinsey says:

    there’s a point of no return, right? A point when the writing gets its own walking papers and the two of you set off like bff’s with balloons and a park to go see about. I’ve realized that I write because I crave, demand, won’t fucking do without, immersion. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that word but it has something to do with the feeling of not wanting to be anywhere else, doing anything else.

    During the transition between the two points (point A with focus flitting about… request from child to play the littlest, miniest ever petshops, more coffee? who friended me? No one? Why not? and Point B being much nearer to the state of immersion) I’m in some real danger of not ever making the journey. I’m trying to coral (that says coral and I want it to say the thing that involves rope) my focus, to woo it off identity thoughts, maintenance and worry thoughts (all kind of weakening in their own way) and to marshal as much of it as I can into the writing. i think there’s a lot of juju when you can do this. I know my addictions are all in service of dropping into this, caffeine lubes the hinges, wine softens the sharp retort of my own discontent at not having gotten in.
    p.s. just finished magicians tonight. loved it.

  17. Marlow says:

    We are all both beneficiaries and victims of the modern world and its technologies. We live our lives embedded in a world of media that shapes us and directs us. We often perceive others(and ourselves)through a medium and have multiple online channels of interaction with the world. In the future we will have avatars that are as real to us as our own flesh and blood. We are training new generations for this transition to an ultra mediated existence. When was the last time you were in public and did not see someone using a cellphone? In time we will embed these technologies into our bodies and the internet will live inside us. We will migrate further and further into our technology and like The Matrix it will become real to us and indistinguishable from our physical reality. We will have the power to shape our lives in ways that are beyond the scope of ordinary human experience. The experience that Lev is grappling with is the birth pains of the future. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is debatable. Its inevitability is not.

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