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.