A Virtual Montparnasse (Part Two)

by J.T. Ellison

This is the second entry in an on-going occasional series I’ve dubbed "A Virtual Montparnasse." Click here to read the first installment.

The Internet is a devious little succubus, isn’t it?

By all accounts, it is a useful tool that enhances our daily lives. We have instant communication, instant access to our friends, co-workers and teachers. College courses are heavily Internet dependent now — hell, a lot of elementary schools have homework on the web.

And we writers know what an awesome tool the Internet is for research.

But it’s also a force of evil, a direct intravenous line into the procrastination vein.

Can’t write? Check your Facebook page and update your status. Be sure to spend at least ten minutes dealing with your notifications. Return good karma, play a move in WordScraper, read your other friend’s procrastination, I mean status, updates. Throw a sheep for good measure and get back to work.

Tappity Tappity Tap Tap. Tappity Tap. Tap. Tap… tap…

Still can’t write? Do it all again, only this time toss in a few emails, read the Wall Street Journal, run through Crimespot and RedRoom. Check your MySpace. See if Sarah Weinman has updated her blog.

I mean really, if you aren’t doing anything, millions of other people aren’t either. You can prove it to yourself in myriad ways. And there’s great comfort in that.

But is this particular aspect of our Virtual Montparnasse good for us? Is the Internet enhancing our creativity?

I’ll postulate the answer to that is a resounding NO! And I’m not the only one. There’s been a spate of writers addressing the issue lately. I read this article and smiled to myself — I NEED someone to trick me like this. And then my friend Jeff Abbott wrote about his own desire to be Internet free. I agree wholeheartedly with them both. We writers are over-utilizing our online time. It seems like something so simple, so easy. Just turn off your wireless and go. But it doesn’t ever seem to work that way, does it?

Do we need the Internet? Yes, it’s a brilliant research tool. Yes, we can keep up with our friends, blog, check our Amazon numbers. But do we really NEED the Internet?

If you answer yes, I can’t help you. If you answered no, but don’t know how to break free, keep reading.

There is an underlying problem here. It will take a bit of self examination to see why you’re using the Internet as a procrastination tool. And that WHY is going to vary wildly from author to author. 

I’ve come to realize that I have an Internet addiction. No, I’m not addicted to porn, or online gambling. I just find myself almost unconsciously surfing, going to bookmarked site to bookmarked site, checking things out. There are times that I realize I’ve reread the same blog entry multiple times, just because there isn’t anything new out there.

I decided to undertake a candid examination of my problem. I’m not kidding when I say I think it is a real addiction. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sitting in my chair, utterly frustrated and stressed because I have a ton of writing to be done and a ton of reading to be done and thank you notes to write and, and, and… yet I’ll notice that I’ve left whatever I’m supposed to be working on and am on my laptop, surfing.

After some serious soul searching over the past few weeks, I’ve found my WHY.

Don’t laugh, but after a true and honest reflection I’ve realized that I’m substituting the Internet for cigarettes. I quit a couple of years ago, and still ache for the soothing, relaxing, take-a-break nature of cigarettes. I used to smoke a pack a day. Twenty cigarettes. Twenty little breaks. Twenty times a day when I consciously or unconsciously reached for that cigarette and used it to help me focus, to relax, to de-stress.

Twenty times a day… if I kept count, I daresay I’m probably on the Internet twenty times a day as well. I shared my great epiphany with a psychiatrist friend of mine. She laughed and said the Internet is much healthier than the cigarettes, and to give myself a break. Which I appreciated to no end, but I was left with a nagging feeling that there was something more that I could do. Something to lead me away from this. If I had the willpower to quit smoking after twenty years on the sticks, I can beat this too.

I don’t know about you, but I set millions of little intermediary goals for myself during the day. Finish this sentence and you can make a cup of tea. It’s been an hour, you can go ahead and check your email. No Internet after 5… 6… 7… 8… 9… No Internet when Randy is home. No Facebook before 4 in the afternoon, or after 10 in the morning. It’s the same way I quit smoking, in stages, little permissions here and there to make me think I had control over the situation.

None of that really works. It’s all well and good to say these things, but acting on them isn’t my strong suit. It’s like exercise or dieting for me. I can set all the goals I want, but I’ll quickly become bored with the "rules" and slip. I’ve stuck to some of my initiatives, like limiting my listserves (I’m down to two) and making sure I return email in a timely fashion. I stopped reading most of my blogs long ago – relying on Crimespot to alert me when something that might be of interest pops up.

It used to be we didn’t have wireless, so my laptop was a safe zone. I would work on business upstairs on the desktop, and when I was ready to be creative, shut that one off and come downstairs to work on the laptop. That system worked very well for me. But we’re tech geeks, so we got a wireless router, and my new laptop is built for it, so no matter what, I can plug in seamlessly from anywhere in the house. Great, right?

(Let me add, for the record, that all this shilly-shallying generally comes when I’m between books. When I’m working on a new manuscript, I have a much different focus level than when I’m in between. I made a decision that I needed to take a month off between books, and I’ll stick to that, but it’s these down times when I waste the most time. I could be really relaxing and refreshing my mind, catching up on reading, doing research, and instead I’m throwing sheep. Hmm.)

I don’t know how many of you clicked through on the link that Jeff Abbott had in his post, so let me put it here for you to look at. Kirk McElhearn has a wonderful idea for Mac users. There’s also a cool program for the Mac called Freedom. Just one problem. I’m on a PC, and I can’t find anything like this in PC land.

So I decided to use Kirk’s guidelines and figure out a way to make this happen on my laptop. It’s just as simple as setting up a new user account (in this case, Taylor Jackson) setting the parental controls so Firefox and IE aren’t allowed, and poof. Instant "Freedom." I took Kirk’s idea a step further as well — I don’t like moving files back and forth using a jump drive — I lost a major book synopsis that way. One of my many redundancies for my ongoing manuscripts is through email. So instead of moving files on the jump drive, in the new Taylor Jackson account, I opened an email for her with Windows Mail, and opened a gmail account in her name. I reset the parental controls to accept the gmail url, and activated the pop mail account dedicated to Taylor Jackson. Voila. When I’m done for the day, I email my file to my regular email address. Works like a charm.

I tried this new method on Tuesday. I was shocked to find myself working for three hours straight. No interruptions. No chimes to let me know a new email had come in (just a note, you have to log off your regular account to make that happen. And in the new user account, don’t get fancy trying to change icons around, etc — I nearly deleted my entire iTunes library accidentally.)

This may be second nature for some of you sophisticated techies, but I felt like I’d accomplished something major. I have freed myself from my Internet connection, albeit briefly. It’s such a pain to log off the new account, log in to the main account, etc., that I really did stay focused and productive.

I refuse to let the Internet compromise my creativity. I deleted my unused Twitter account Wednesday. I’ve unbookmarked Facebook so I recognize when I’m going there. I stopped accepted apps on Facebook ages ago, so that’s not a problem. If these steps aren’t enough, I’ll get more drastic. I hope that doesn’t happen though, cause we all know how much fun I have throwing sheep ; )

Will our Virtual Montparnasse be the death of us all? What’s your trick to avoid Internet procrastination?

And do you think there’s a way around the Internet sapping our creativity?

Wine of the Week: 2005 Chateau La Rame Bordeaux — simply delicious.

23 thoughts on “A Virtual Montparnasse (Part Two)

  1. billie

    There’s some way, though I can’t remember exactly how, to put the wireless router on a timer so the signal goes off from the source and comes back on at the appointed time.

    We used this for awhile when my son was having trouble disengaging from the online gaming stuff at night. I enjoyed that “internet free” time for all of us.

    I’ve steered clear of most of the online time drains – but it’s easy for me b/c they remind me of cartoons (the icons, the little games, etc.). I’ve never liked cartoons, never played computer games b/c of that, and don’t really like the looks of things like MySpace, Facebook, etc.

    I do like email, and use it for just about everything I can, so the daily emailing is my primary internet time. And a few blogs. 🙂

  2. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Ellison,I think part of what you’re describing is having an addictive personality. I know there are plenty of people who think that’s a load of crap, and I’m fine with them thinking it. I still believe I have one.

    I started smoking at 11. I smoked a pack a day by 14. I started dipping at 19. I would on occasion be driving through campus in college with a beer in one hand, a spit cup between my legs, and a cigarette in the other hand.

    I quit smoking at 21. Quit dipping at 23. Know how? I replaced them with sunflower seeds. Bite, shell, spit shell into cup, eat seed. Repeat as desired.

    I still chew seeds, especially when I’m writing. Used to do it when I drove, too. I truly believe I’m just wired that way, and I’ll always continue to replace one addiction with anoth….hey, what the hell am I doing on this blog???

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    My method is getting out of the house. I grab my laptop and head to Starbucks. Once there, I pop in the headphones of my iPod and listen to music that doesn’t distract me (on a separate playlist).

    I have a nice little corner in the store with an outlet and away from the door.

    No TV, no free wifi.

    Good stuff JT.

  4. M.J. Rose

    I’m pretty bad in the morning when i should be going to they gym… like now… but not the rest of the day – my trick is to have two computers… and I write fiction on one of them and only do that. It’s wireless since I might need to do research on it and I can access my email so I can check it at breaks to see nothing urgent is happening.

    It’s a huge thing to me – I don’t view that computer as social or fun or anything other than my novels.

    Also – don’t beat yourself up too much over on line time becuase we work at home alone we have no normal water cooler time – that’s the normal procrastination time people in the workplace spend schmoozing over cups of coffee, in the halls, talking before/after meetings.

    We need to procrastinate. Our minds are working under cover on our books all the time. Don’t be too hard on yourself – that can backfire too.

  5. Brett Battles

    LALALALALALALALALALA…I’m not listening!!! Internet=good. Internet=good. Internet=good.

    Fine…I’ll admit that…eh…iChat sometimes gets in my way. BUT I BLAME ROB and BILL CAMERON and TASHA ALEXANDER!! I can quit when ever I want, it’s jut that the peer pressure is STAGGERING!!!

    …maybe it is just a tiny bit my problem…

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ay yi yi, The steps to becoming Internet free sound just as time-consuming as the time I spend procrastinating.

    And the thing is, there’s a very fine line between procrastination and legitimate and useful promotion.

    I feel like I’ve become a little less addicted because I’m just oversaturated. But I could be fooling myself.

    Looking forward to what other people have to say.

  7. Kaye Barley

    Addicted. Yep. Admittedly so. A replacement for my cigarettes?! JT – you are so smart! I think that is exactly what Facebook has become! Wordscraper is going to be my downfall (your turn by the way) – its about to make me late for a much needed hair cut! Gotta run!

  8. Louise Ure

    I admit it, JT. I have an internet jones. I don’t even try to talk myself out of it. And it’s only gotten worse now that we’re in the middle of Political Silly Season. Maybe I can wean myself off come November. Sunflower seeds anyone?

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    First of all, THROWING SHEEP?

    What the … ?

    Mind you, I like in Cumbria, where the sheep seem to outnumber the people by several hundred to one. And they’re plotting against us, oh yes. Nobody realises how dangerous they are. A tree fell over further up stream from us a week or so ago and they had the leaves stripped off the entire thing in hours – little woolly piranhas …

    Anyway, I digress. Thank you so much for this post. It’s come at a time just when I was bemoaning the lack of internet access when we’re on the move. Should I Bluetooth-enable my cellphone to my laptop for when we’re in the car?

    And you’ve beautifully answered the question for me – no, I most definitely should not ;-]

  10. Dana King

    I’ll bet if everyone who has JT’s internet problem thought about it and was honest with themselves, they’d realize they had other time sinks to use as procrastination aids before they ever heard of the Internet. (Assuming you are of a certain age and remember that far back. ) All the Internet does is allow you to procrastinate without leaving your chair.

  11. Chuck D.

    Hi JT: Wow…great blog today. When we moved back in July, I got rid of wireless in the house. If I need the net as I write, I make a footnote and come back later on the landline when I need to do some research. Like you mentioned, I can bang out a few thousand uninterupted words in a fraction of the time w/o feeling compelled to click that little blue “e” and do some crucial “research”.

    Hope you have been well! Keep the good stuff coming. 🙂

  12. j.t. ellison

    Dusty, that’s so true. And the bane of all of this. Ultimately it comes down to being a professional and doing your work, which I think we all do. MJ’s point is valid, the mind is still working when we are playing.

    Billie, the only online game I play is Wordscaper, which I feel is occupationally related ; ) I can’t imagine playing video games and the like — talk about a time waster. Of course, there are people who feel TV is a huge time suck too — thankfully I’m not addicted to that at all.

    Brett, having partaken of the IMs with you crazy kids, I can imagine… thank God I forget to log in to AIM 90% of the time. At least you’re out hiking for a portion of the day.

    Alex, another thing I’ve noticed is the longer you’re away from it, the easier it is to stay away. Touring is a blessing, actually, because I leave the laptop at home, which is a lovely break.

    Louise, maybe that’s part of my current issue. I’m a political junkie too and have spent an inordinate time over the past couple of weeks reading blogs, getting steamed and swearing never to read another headline again. 39 more days of that….

    Zoe, I agree – the insidious nature of the woolly beasts is circumspect. Facebook has an application called Superpoke, and one of the things you can do is throw an animated sheep at a friend. It flies through the air and smashed into your windshield, baaing, which is a source of unending amusement for me. But I’ve stopped doing most things on Facebook outside of Wordscraper (a version of Scrabble) Scrabble – good. Sheep – not good.

    Don’t enable your bluetooth. It’s priceless time away from work.

    Dana, you’re absolutely right. My previous procrastination was solitaire. I was thinking about this today – I never spent any extensive time online outside of email until I started blogging at Murderati. Damn blog ; )

  13. j.t. ellison

    Hi Chuck. Maybe you should talk to my husband and tell him we need to do that too. Umm… I have a feeling I already know the answer to that. But it’s a good idea about the footnotes. That’s what I started doing with this separate account and it works just fine.

    Glad to see you back!

  14. spyscribbler

    SO TRUE! I’ve found that if I say I’m going to not read blogs except for one hour at the end of the day, I get through all my blogs and comment on all I want.

    If I “graze” during the day, it somehow takes me ALL DAY, TEN HOURS to get through all my blogs and comment on them.

    It’s bizarre. My latest problem is checking the poll results every hour. Even though they only update once a day.

  15. toni mcgee causey

    Great blog, JT. I found that my internet time went down significantly while I was finishing the last book, and I needed the quiet time to focus. I’ve increased it up a notch, but I’m still below the constant levels I’d gotten to and I find I’m focusing far better on the work I’m doing.

  16. Tammy Cravit

    Technology is wonderful in that it enables us to procrastinate far more efficiently than at any time in history. When Monkey Mind gets going, any distraction is enough. It’s just that the Internet, I think, makes distractions more available, and available in greater numbers, than they were in the old days when you had a pen, paper and an IBM Selectric at your disposal. My favorite Waterman fountain pen can do many things, but it can’t load Facebook.

    Another alternative for the distraction prone: The Alphasmart. (The newest model, the Neo, is available from http://www.alphasmart.com/products/neo_In.html for about $225, but older models are well under $100 on eBay.) When I feel myself getting too distracted, I take my Alphasmart out onto the patio. Voila, no Internet, no games – just an 8 line screen, a keyboard and eight text files. And since the Alphasmart can spew its text into any program, you can even write blog entries and post them back at your desk.

    And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check out that Temptation Blocker link that JD posted. My word count goal for the day is 1,500 words, and I’m reading Murderati instead of writing. 🙂

  17. JT Ellison

    Spy, that’s it exactly, the GRAZING. That’s where I get myself in trouble. Thanks for the perfect word. I still think once I break the habit, which I’ve been actively doing this week, I’ll be fine. Back to checking my email in the morning and the evening. The rest just doesn’t matter.

    Toni, I hear you, sister. It’s just not a significant problem when I’m working on a book. Though I’m glad you’re reemerging, we’ve missed you!

    Tammy, I’ve heard of a few people who love their Alphasmarts. It’s definitely something to look into. My husband bought an E and it’s pretty cool too.

  18. Tasha Alexander

    “Fine…I’ll admit that…eh…iChat sometimes gets in my way. BUT I BLAME ROB and BILL CAMERON and TASHA ALEXANDER!! I can quit when ever I want, it’s jut that the peer pressure is STAGGERING!!!”


    Brett’s right. Only it’s HIS fault. And that Rob and that Bill. Really.

    : )

    (But you’ll notice I have NOT logged on to iChat today……That’s my steely self-discipline. Heh. Yeah.)

  19. Allison Brennan

    I agree with MJ: writing is solitary, and those of us who are extroverts need the Internet to stay connected with people. I don’t have a surfing problem (unless I’m researching and fascinated by the subject), I have an email problem. I love email, which is essentially talking, right? Considering I was voted Most Talkative in school, this is no surprise . . . email has replaced phones for me like text messaging has replaced phones for my daughter.

    Managing Internet time is like managing anything in your life. And like Toni, when the book is going well, I’m online less. When I’m frustrated, it’s just a click away to check email, work my way down my blog roll, or do “research.” But I’m just as likely to pull a book from my shelf and procrastinate by reading (or researching–ha!) Or play video games, which is really my downfall now that I think about it . . .

    But I also know that I’m procrastinating because I’m stuck and frustrated and don’t know how to fix the book.

    I read a great little book and still pull it out from time to time: THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield. He calls procrastination “resistance” and resistance is born out of fear. He has some great insight into what resistance is and why it’s destructive to anyone with a goal. Every book I write, resistance fights me. I know it’s because I’m scared that my last book was the best I could do and I can’t even write close to it now. Therefore, I spend time playing video games. But if I didn’t have a computer, and wrote on the old IBM typewriter that I pounded out half-finished stories on when I was a kid, I would still procrastinate with reading, watching tv, going to the movies, etc.

    One thing that helps me is the kids: they come home from school. I don’t have a lot of alone time to write. I have six hours a day, and maybe three more at night. My books have deadlines. I get paid when I turn in a book. I need the money to pay the mortgage. Those facts usually keep me in line.

  20. JT Ellison

    jake, I love sunflower seeds. I need to get a bag. Like now. Great tip.

    Will, getting away is the best for me too. A drive with the radio blaring is perfect. But I can’t write at starbucks, too much noise.

    Allison you’re exactly right. I want to get that book. And I’m so ready to get started on a new book… But thanks for that.

    And Tasha knows my greatest weakness isn’t the Internet, but phone calls to Chicago!!!

  21. R.J. Mangahas

    Sorry, I’m a day late responding to this. I have been adjusting to an early morning job working in a bookstore (6AM).

    Anyway, this is a post that SO applies to me. For awhile, I was able to just resist the internet, but I’m not sure what happened. Mind you, I’m not obsessive, but it I’m on the net a little more than I’d like to be. So I may have to try some of those techniques.

    And to be fair, we all could use a good sheep tossing every now and then.


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