Silence, please!

by Pari

It sounds easy enough:  Commit to one internet-free work day each week.

That resolution is related to another one this year: start each day with writing rather than email or other distractions.

But wouldn't you know? On Wednesday, after taking my older daughter to school, I started my computer and went straight to the Inbox. It took a few minutes before I realized what I was doing.

On Thursday I was smarter. I didn't turn on the computer at all.

You see, the internet is a comfortable habit, a ritual. It's also an incredible time and creativity black hole. When I spend the first hour of my day reading and answering emails, visiting blogs, checking out news sites – my mind is already crammed with other people's concerns and ideas. It's even worse than that; the habit leads me to internalize much of what I read and begin thinking stupid thoughts such as:
*  Why bother writing at all when the publishing industry is going to hell?
*  What do Sasha's adventures matter when compared to our failing economy?
*  Who'd care about Darnda in the face of global warming?

We all know how productive those kinds of questions are.

When I read JT's recent posts on the writing life I realized I'd been thinking along the same lines. What were my work habits? Were they helping or hindering me?

The most important question of all was: Why do I feel so overwhelmed and undercreative?

Problem #1:  CLUTTER
Physically  my office and house are full of unnecessary crap. Compound my packrat ways with three other people and you've got a real mess. There's no visual peace.
The good news is that I can throw stuff away, get rid of the papers I've kept since grade school. Shedding the junk, the tangible things, of my past life is incredibly liberating.

Mentally Oh, boy. Talk about running in circles. Whether it's on the internet or worrying about the kids, my husband, my career, money, making dinner . . .

I never feel like I'm doing enough.

Here's the kicker: Mental quiet nurtures my creativity like nothing else. It's essential. But I've put myself in a position where it's so rare it almost feels like cheating. I've forgotten how to BE quiet without feeling guilty.

A remedy for this is a little more difficult to build into my life than you might think.

Problem #2:  Marketing
I honestly believe that just about everything an author does that touches others can fall under the rubric of public relations/marketing. Because of this, I've allowed myself to feel like I HAVE to do everything. Every email MUST be answered personally and sincerely. New marketing outlets MUST be found, researched and pursued. Every blog MUST be visited. You get the idea.

I feel like I'm never doing enough.

Here's the pisser: You've got to have new product to market. Otherwise it's a case of diminishing returns when you're only flogging your past works. If I'm constantly worried about marketing, I'm not writing my fiction and expanding my "product base." I know that sounds utterly unromantic, but it's a business reality for my career trajectory.

Back to last Thursday . . .
One of the things I noticed when I sat in my office chair that day was that the computer pulled at me even though it was off. There was this weird palpable vibe, a nervous tingling in my stomach. A hum. I felt tethered from the machine right to my heart.

Screw that!

I left the room and edited hardcopy at the dining room table. I wrote with pen on paper.

And . . .
I had breakthroughs in plot points that had been bugging me for months.

In the afternoon, I went back into the office and began throwing out some of the junk I'd kept for  future maybes. Jettisoning an old term paper would make me think of something in another part of the house and I'd get up and throw that out too. In the middle of that flurry of activity with all those connections coming to the fore and all those synapses firing, my mind was wonderfully at ease.

I could feel the shift and it energized me.

My internet-free work day demonstrated that peacefulness is more complicated and less easily defined than I thought. Much of the noise comes from within. Guilt is born from a misguided idea that accessiblity or the old butt-in-chair AT THE COMPUTER technique is synonomous with productivity.

It's not for me. 

I realize I've painted myself into a psychological corner. I've surrounded myself with technological temptation and noise and have convinced myself that it's my real work. It's easier in a fragmented life like mine — with kids and other obligations — to justify grabbing a few minutes to shoot off an email than it is to sit there staring at a blue sky.

But which activity is ultimately more important?

Which one fosters the mental environment for creativity?

I know that my happiness and productivity are linked to finding more time for blue-sky gazing. So far, a potential antidote is to turn off the computer at least one work day a week. Since I can't go on long retreats, it's the respite I can provide myself that will keep me in touch — and will affirm and strengthen — my attempts to find the quiet to be creative on a daily basis.

I might end up w/o the computer more frequently than that; it feels so good. Or maybe I'll find something else that's even better.

The internet/technology aren't intrinsically bad. Not at all. But I've found they're culprits in the way I approach my craft.

What about you?
How do you find the consistent and real silence to hear your own thoughts, to let your creativity speak?

36 thoughts on “Silence, please!

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    “You’ve got to have new product to market.”

    An excellent point, especially for those of us who use the idea that we’re “marketing” to justify all this avoidance of actual work here on the Web.

    I’m finding myself writing more and more in my notebook. It’s partially to stay away from on-line temptation, but it’s also an experiment to try and snap out of this recent outbreak of Ego Inthepitsticus (aka Itotallysuckitis) that I’ve been having, the one that makes me literally groan in pain when I open my word processing program.

    We’ll see if it works. Unfortunately, you have to get back to the computer sometime, unless publishers are going to start accepting handwritten manuscripts again.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I don’t get much silence now because of the construction going on in my neighborhood and it is a HUGE, stressful problem.

    But the Internet thing – It’s an addiction and an evasion. My solution is that I don’t open or answer anything anymore that’s not essential or obviously personal. I don’t get caught up in all those Facebook distractions like gifting and tags – those are really evil.

    I tend to my own blog and Murderati, and only visit others if I need specific information or I’ve got absolutely nothing else to do.

    Just as I decided long ago that I didn’t HAVE to answer the phone every time it rang, I’ve decided that I don’t HAVE to answer clearly time-wasting e mail – I don’t even have to look at it till the weekend, if I don’t want to.

    It’s a shame that real mail might be getting lost in the deluge of spam, but it’s become impossible to sort through it – I think for all of us.

    I do my part by NOT sending non-essential e mail, too. The worst offender is “Thanks for being my friend on ——” and the invites to events that are nowhere near my part of the country. Think before you send that kind of thing, because it can do you way more harm than good.

  3. billie

    Pari, I’m fortunate to have the barn out back. My partners in zen (three horses, a pony, and two miniature donkeys) keep me off the computer many hours a day and they also get me out of my busy head.

    I think turning the computer off, all the way off, and going to a different space, would be the key if I didn’t have the barn.

    Right now I’m editing on pages in my bedroom, away from the computer. It’s nice looking out the window and seeing the horses and the sunshine (or the gray day, or the fog, etc.)

  4. pari

    Dusty,I think we suffer from similar afflictions — and that it would be more difficult for you to make the switch since your day job requires computer communication and is probably pretty damn distracting too.

    Because of what you’ve written before, I now have a notebook in my car and I always carry a pad with me when I know I’ll have a few minutes to think about writing.

    But the trick is to cut the loop, to “shake things up,” so that we can realize our real priorities vis a vis writing.

  5. pari

    Alex,You poor thing! Construction is the pits. It’s noisy and unpredictable — a lousy combination.

    You’re right about the clutter and junk on the internet and in our emails. Some days I end up deleted dozens of emails that are nothing more than noise.

    It amazes me how many people still sign me up for their newsletters w/o permission . . .

    No. We don’t have to answer right away. We need to guard our precious, precious quiet.

  6. pari

    BTW: Alex,Since I don’t have caller ID — and I do have kids — I always have to answer the phone in case it’s an emergency.

    Don’t get me started on unnecessary calls . . .

  7. Steven Steinbock

    Pari, your column definitely hit home with me – especially the bits about clutter and the black-hole of the computer. Unfortunately, my computer (like most people’s) sits on my desk. And while my computer is like a vacuum sucking all time and thought into it, my desk is like a magnet, attracting “crap” from everywhere.

    Partial solution: I’ve been in attic purge-mode since Christmas. I’ve purged my file cabinets (“A” through “J” so far), reshelved all the books, and have eliminated all the piles of papers that have gathered on my desk and floor. On the down side, this keeps me from writing.

    I’ve also totally lost my family to the Internet. I only see them when they come up for air or meals. This has led to some resentment and indignation on my part. After all, I use my computer for work, and they’re all using theirs for play and social networking, damn them. Rather than targeting my resentment at the family, I’m blaming the Internet. This has radically reduced my mindless Free-Cell playing and web-surfing.

    Pari, regarding your telephone and parental responsibility issues, I’ve learned to ignore the phone during the day, and my kids, if they need me, know to call my cell.

  8. Michael McGovern

    I wish I could avoid the Internet, but I’m writing my story in blog format so it’s pretty impossible to do it any other way.

    Great idea to write freehand, though. Just changing it up can make such a difference with breaking through creative blocks.

    Perhaps set aside days where you specifically don’t do ANYTHING on the computer but open up Word (or whatever program you use)? It’s that darned Internet browser and mail program that’s the real time-sucker (and, for me, Solitaire. Stupid game, I would never play it with just cards so why the HELL can’t I resist playing a game or ten every time I turn on the computer?).

  9. billie

    Reading the wonderful comments made me realize something about myself and why I don’t end up getting sucked into the computer too much of the day – I am far too dependent on touch and the feel of things in my hands.

    For editing, I need the pen on the page. Computer games don’t appeal to me because there are no gameboard pieces, die, actual cards. I do spend a fair amount of time keeping in touch with friends via email – I vastly prefer actual letters with stamps but it seems no one “does that” any more.

  10. Louise Ure

    Amen, Sister Pari. I could have just signed my name to your blog post (without the kids reference, of course).

    In addition to the suck of the computer, there’s also the iPhone. So even when I’ve managed to get out of the office/away from the computer for a moment, I’m still checking in on the wee gadget.

  11. Stephen D. Rogers

    I find it difficult to convince others that my silent time is important time, but who can blame them for not understanding? They go from DVD player to IPod to computer with nary a break.

    If they’re all so busy doing anything to keep from being alone with their thoughts, how can they understand anybody who is starved for that?

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I have resisted getting an i phone for that very reason. I don’t WANT to be that connected. I don’t WANT the temptation. And I don’t WANT to learn yet another gadget.

    I’m a Luddite on that one for the forseeable future. You want to get in some quality time with me? Buy me a drink or ask me to dance. Preferably both.

  13. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Pari

    This is a wonderful blog topic and I wholeheartedly agree about the time-suck thing. I’ve avoided joining most of the networking sites because of the huge black hole your available writing time disappears into.

    But, I love using my neck-top computer, plus pencil and reverse sides of scrap printouts, and find that just making notes of a scene, or the dialogue almost in screenplay format, means I’m not staring at that dreadful blank page.

    And Alex – how do you drink and dance at the same time without spilling most of it?

  14. Debbie K.

    Ouch. How did you know my life so well? Today I’ve had to close the email and internet to get my work done. But the pull, the pull. So, I bargain with myself x number of paes and then I can check my email or send one. I hate the constant fight. Curse that internet and my addictive personality!

  15. J.D. Rhoades

    I’m with Alex on the iPhone. I waste enough time on the Internet without carrying the damn thing in my pocket.

    Come to think of it, I’m also with her on the drink and dance thing.

  16. pari

    Hey all,Speaking of distractions. My older daughter broke her nose this morning and we spent all day in the ER. She’s basically all right, but it was sure emotionally draining!

    I’ve got to run an errand but will respond to everyone’s comments once we get settled down for the rest of the afternoon.


  17. J.T. Ellison

    Oh no!!! I hope she’s feeling better soon!

    Pari, I am so in touch with this. I’ve discovered that my exciting time shift isn’t working at all. I’m just not awake enough right out of bed. My natural biorhythm is in that 12-4 slot, so I’m going back to that, with extreme caveats – I can write earlier if it is working, email is filtered for triage, and the away message stays up so if it’s not important I don’t have to read it.

    And since Randy has a new gig and is working at home, it’s very, very difficult to ignore him until 1. Just isn’t working right.

    The important thing, I truly believe, is having some mental quiet time, regardless of WHEN in the day it falls. Good for you getting through the initial purge. I do one monthly and love the freedom.

  18. pari

    Steven,Doesn’t that purging feel good? I’m doing a little every day. My goal is to throw out 10 items in my office daily and 10 items somewhere else in the house. It’s working pretty well and I often exceed the goal.

    I haven’t lost the kids to the internet yet, but we really restrict their use of the computer for nonacademic purposes.

    Good suggestion re the telephone. It’d help if I knew how to answer my cell and had it charged. I think we’re going to buy new phones and see if we can enter the new millenium.

  19. pari

    Louise,I do remember watching you with that iPhone and thinking that I never wanted to be THAT accessible πŸ˜‰

    I know all of this technology is such an incredible boon, but it’s beginning to feel like an imposition to me.

  20. pari

    Michael,I don’t seem to have the willpower to avoid the internet if the computer is on; I just fall into it before I even realize that’s what I’m doing.

    So, at least one computer-free day per week is in my future for a long, long time.

    It feels just wonderful. Really.

  21. pari

    Billie,I wonder if that tactile propensity is one of your true saving graces?

    I love the speed of the internet and the accessibility of so much information. But there’s something to be said about touch; that’s a little of what I was getting at with the post about thesauri as well.

  22. pari

    Stephen,What a fascinating question you raise.

    In general, I do think people are forgetting how to be quiet. Hence the disrespect for it.

    But what irks me is that I’m disrespecting myself when I take that quiet time. Now, who needs to be her own worst enemy?

  23. pari

    Zoe,A neck-top computer???? Hunh? You’d be appalled at the images I’m coming up with for that.

    And the way to dance and drink at the same time is to have a very large glass and only fill it halfway.

    Easy as pie.

  24. pari

    Debbie,Isn’t it just amazing how much it pulls at you?

    The addiction for me went haywire during the last four months of the election cycle; it was sick.

    I’ve come down from that but still have more to do to put the Internet in its place.

  25. pari

    J.T.,I hear you.

    It’s that mental quiet time that I seek and it’s so incredibly difficult to come by.

    BTW: Her nose IS broken, though the break is small. She still looks like a prize fighter though.

    I’m sure it’ll do wonders with the boys.

  26. pam claughton

    This is a very timely post for me. I’m not supposed to be here right now. I have a self-imposed ban on surfing the net because I need to be more productive. But, it’s lunchtime, so I gave myself a half hour to play…time is almost up!


  27. pari

    I’m laughing, Pam.

    I’m using the internet daily as a kind of reward now: If I do what I’m supposed to do I “get to play” on blogs etc for a limited amount of time.

    Turning this whole activity into a treat might be the way to go.

  28. Jake Nantz

    Pari,If it helps, I’ve broken my nose somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 times (I need whiskers or something to warn me ahead of time). Other than a small knot where I kept re-breaking it, the nose looks normal. The rest of me, welllll…

    Besides, tell her the guys she’ll really want aren’t the ones who want an unscarred, dainty flower who is seen but not heard. She’ll want the guy who will see the bump (if there even is one) as adding character and beauty of its own.

    Alex & Mr. Rhoades,Hell I’ll buy you both drinks sometime, just to pick your brains. Not sure what my wife would think of the dancing, though. (with either of you, come to think of it…)

  29. Cornelia Read

    Pari, the only way I’ve learned how to fight my obsession with the internet is to write at my friend Sharon’s house every weekday. My wireless connection doesn’t work there.

    We may gossip for a while, and I can easily be lured to leaf through her latest magazines, but eventually I settle down for a good long day’s work. Plus, she always has a case of Diet Pepsi with lime out in the garage refrigerator. Heaven.

  30. pari

    Jake,My daughter isn’t vain at all and she’s not thinking about boys quite yet (thank goodness).

    Her bruise looks pretty impressive, but she’s in fine spirits now.


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