This piece about writing and distraction by Benjamin Nugent resonated with me. Nugent – as prone to technological and other distractions as anyone else – managed to get into a writing program in a “college town on the prairie” and immersed himself in his fiction to the exclusion of all else.
by Josh Trapani
This piece about writing and distraction by Benjamin Nugent resonated with me. Nugent – as prone to technological and other distractions as anyone else – managed to get into a writing program in a “college town on the prairie” and immersed himself in his fiction to the exclusion of all else. No internet, no TV, no hobbies, no relationship, little money, and few friends. And yet he found that this singular focus, this monomania as he calls it, hurt rather than helped his writing. Being so close to, and exclusively focused on, the task at hand left him unable to step back enough to judge his own work critically. Only when he achieved a better balance was he able to move forward.
It seems like a trivial point at a certain level, but the need for balance is so easy to forget. I don’t know about you, but I go through life feeling swamped by my daily obligations, and then face an additional uphill battle against an array of mainly silly, often technological distractions that threaten to kill my remaining time. I dream of a simple, often monastic, alternative existence.
But this truth of needing to pull away from the task at hand and engage the mind in other things to maintain or regain the proper perspective extends well beyond writing. How many scientists have had their deepest flashes of insight in a dream or on a walk, rather than in the lab? Last month I was reading the World War II epic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. In the book, the Soviet physicist Viktor Shtrum, who has been stuck in his work for a while, has a brilliant breakthrough after engaging in a dangerously free discussion of politics with colleagues who have been evacuated from Moscow. This is fictional, of course, but distraction (or at least engaging the mind in something different) leading to insight rings so true.
Even when I’m faced with tasks in my day job that require creativity or ingenuity, I tend to stand up from the computer, get away from my desk, and go walk around or just sit in another spot with a notebook and nothing else. I think better that way. Then I return to my computer and execute.
Rather than power through in a Hail Mary fashion (which I know sometimes works for other writers), I do the same when I face a dilemma in my fiction.
The comments on Nugent’s piece, which are also worth reading, broadened the discussion. One makes the excellent point: There’s a big difference between wanting to be a writer and having a story you want – you need – to tell. If all you want to do is be a writer, isolation can be a real detriment. If you have a story you need to tell, a lack of distraction can sometimes be a real blessing.
This makes me think a bit about the difference between imagination and lived experience. I sometimes read stories that are about characters who are the same demographic as the author, live in the same place, are also writers, and – far more damningly – while they seem to have oodles of time to hang out and get into messy relationship predicaments with one another, that’s about all there is to them. The craft in such stories can be superb, but does the author have anything to say? On the flip side, I recall an interview with a bestselling thriller writer where he was asked how much research he does on the technical details of his protagonist’s spycraft, and his answer was (and I’m paraphrasing): Not as much as you think, since there are few actual people on earth who do what my protagonist does.
This has some relevance to my own history. I showed up at college interested in and passionate about writing. I then got immediately side-tracked, if that’s an appropriate word, by a combination of things: my fear of not having a job when I graduated, the difficulty of getting into the classes I wanted as a freshman, and my newfound fascination when I was exposed to certain fields of science for the first time. Sometimes now I look back and ponder how things would have gone had I stayed on my original path. When I’m reading over something I’ve written I may wonder how much better it’d be had I devoted myself to writing.
But then, I certainly don’t regret my lived experience, and can only hope it’s made the well from which I draw inspiration richer.