Monday, 10 September 2012

The Internet: seducer, scapegoat or serendipity stall?

Are writers distracted from work by stuff on the web? Yes, sometimes. Do they need to pay good money for silly applications that block their access to the web. No, not unless they are total wimps and suckers.

An article in the Daily Telegraph is the latest in a string of mumblings that the internet is the enemy of creativity. Naomi Klein, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith are apparently amongst the novelists who can't write unless they use SelfControl and Freedom (applications) to prevent them watching dumb cat videos on YouTube. Really? What's wrong with unplugging the modem, working in a cafe or library that doesn't have wifi, or even just using real self-control? After all, if they know they want to avoid messing about online, turning off the router, or just disconnecting from the network, is really not very hard to do (and it's free). I'm with Will Self, who said of this self-nannying: "“Get a grip, Zadie! I’m sorry, but that is just pathetic. Turn off the computer. Write by hand. I find that ludicrous.”

But there is another aspect. I suppose it depends in part on what you write, but I find instant access to the internet very helpful. I'm just starting a new project, and it's set in Victorian London. I'm not one of those people who does all the research and then all the writing - I'm too impatient to get started.

So I spent a day sitting in the sun making random notes on an old envelope and reading MR James ghost stories, then started writing. I probably won't keep those early pages, but they help to get the voice right. Yet writing the first 500 words I needed to check: when cigarettes replaced clay pipes in London; how long a baby will survive without oxygen at birth; which treatments of such a baby maximise the chances of its survival without ill-effects; when artificial resuscitation methods started and what they were; what the Society for Recovery of Drowned Persons recommended for treating nearly-drowned people; the appearance of a baby born in the caul; the appearance of the original Waterloo Bridge; when the toffee apple was invented (1940s - no good). I needed to know these things immediately. Guessing and writing on wouldn't work, as some of these are essential to the working out of the plot and I need to feel it's right, or at least possible. And in looking for a mudlark, I discovered there is a very unsavoury job of sewer hunter. I'll have one of those!

Ah, but perhaps Zadie and co are more worried about wasting their time on Facebook and twitter and Skype chat? But what better research source than intelligent, knowledgeable people? From Facebook, I got this from a professional historian: "I think non-clay pipes replaced clay pipes; cigarettes were common by the 1870s but regarded as unsuitable for a gentleman; and had become pretty well universal by the First World War." Twitter can bring an expert in minutes. On Skype, I chat with other writers who help me work out tricky plot points or how to adapt something to make it age-appropriate.

Besides these clear and sensible benefits, though, the web is a serendipity market. It's where you can come across astonishing snippets that trigger ideas, or feed in to your writing. That dreadful question, where do you get your ideas from, can often be answered by 'from the web' or 'from radio 4' as well as the usual 'from the world around, people talking, books, paintings...' I'm off to the library in a minute to read Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, volume 4. Which I was directed to by an article on the web. (The Google bookscan version is full of thumbs.) There, I will write and make notes and I won't bother to connect to Lapwing, the Cambridge University wifi network, because I won't need it. But I wouldn't wilfully shut myself off from that source of serendipity for extended periods in an artificial way.

If I'm writing, and want a break, I'll often look at twitter and find an interesting link to follow. It's the same as picking up the newspaper and flicking through it, or doodling in the margin of the page. A lot of writing is waiting for the brain to make connections, for the subconscious to do its stuff. Feeding in a few stories about female pirates or steam-powered submarines or sewer hunters can't do any harm.  It might be procrastination, but it's useful procrastination. In fact, perhaps web browsing is the modern equivalent of sewer-hunting...

And have you noticed how, once you are into a topic, it crops up everywhere? It's like only seeing how many pregnant people there are when you are pregnant yourself. Once you're on the lookout for arctic explorers or Victorian undertakers, they're everywhere. But mostly online. Not so many hanging in my office if I turn off wifi. I need a big sign: Serendipity welcome here.


  1. Each to their own - to me, it seems a ridiculous use of the technology - getting an app to turn the thing off for you, when there is a perfectly good switch on the wall.

    And I find if I'm spending 'too much' time on distractions, it means there is something not quite right in that piece of writing, so it's a subtle message to me to pull my finger out and work out what that is!

  2. I can understand why they'd want to do it, and I've heard a lot of people say they need to switch off, but I like being able to let go and watch cat videos to decompress!

    Plus, I tend to tweet about what I'm writing and the instant feedback and support is really helpful. There's nothing like being cheered on to do another chapter by a group of people who like your work.

    1. I agree, Joely - encouragement and feedback over twitter is *so* valuable.

  3. Hi ann
    Nice ripost to Ms Smith et al. I am in two minds myself - twitter is the 'water-cooler' - Google is 'the library' and we can't sit in one place all day. I most certainly do lack self-control when it comes to buckling down, but I guess there are other strategies to try before Freedom etc. I suppose a case of whatever gets you through the night (and to the end of the book)and Ms smith can no doubt afford it!
    Ali B

  4. I believe the Romans knew something about resuscitation - but did they get it from the Arabs? It seems to me that research has endless possibilities!
    But yes, I can "switch off" if I have a deadline to meet - if I don't someone could be dead. That's a rather powerful incentive!

  5. Not really sure why you or any of the others vociferous on this subject are getting so hot under the collar about this. If people wish to buy apps to help their distraction, then surely that is their own personal choice. As is yours to deal with your distractions.

    1. I wouldn't say I'm getting hot under the collar about it, Tracey. I think it's rather a stupid public display of weakness: 'Look, I can't even control my own internet use - silly me!'

      Of course, anyone can do what they like - but if they want to make a public display of it, as Zadie et al have done by discussing it in a national newspaper, they are inviting comment.

      I'm more interested in seeing the positives in permanent online access and suggesting it's not simply a distraction but a source of inspiration and help. The suggestion that writers are better off ignoring the internet deserves a response.

  6. I'm with you about the usefulness of the Net and using it as I go. And yes, there are experts out there you can ask. When I started writing, you had to find the experts locally. But some people who don't have to work a day job do get distracted. I see them often on Twitter, trying to focus, but doing just one more tweet...

  7. I suppose where social networking is a genuine addiction (and I do know from friends that it can be an addiction) then it's okay for people to take whatever help they can get. I don't have a problem with that at all. But speaking personally, I'm with you: self control and discipline work just fine for me. Frankly, when I'm in an introverted, reflective, contemplative writing space, I'm not interested in social networking. At the same time, when I need a coffee break, I take it on FB. Equally, if I need to research something I'm perfectly capable of doing the research without being distracted by social networking sites. It does come down to self discipline and self control, but we do have to accept that not everyone has the same levels of each and so each to his/her own and whatever works.

  8. I follow the same method of research that you do: I write, and then if I need to look something up, I do it right then. It helps me keep stories flowing. Even when I wrote a book in a notebook by hand, I had my computer on in the background, in case something had to be checked online.

    Personally, I can't imagine getting an App to 'nanny' my internet use. While the internet can be distracting, it seems like a true writer would still feel himself or herself always pulled back towards the writing. Simply the fact of being an author should itself be a sort of natural limiter on internet over-use, don't you think?

    Anyway, thank you for the interesting post. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who researches while writing, instead of beforehand.

  9. Hmm, your blog has eaten my comment, which I made the day your post came out. Pfffth. Obviously, I've been incredibly distracted by the internet since then so hadn't noticed...

    But I was trying to say: well said!

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