Saturday, June 27, 2009

Looking for an exit ramp

A few weeks ago, my son told me that he’s adopted a new morning routine, one that involves putting pen to paper rather than booting up his laptop. Since he’s on the south side of age 30 (an arbitrary demarcation of trustworthiness), I admit that I immediately snapped to attention.

He told me that his rationale for writing, sans computer, was his recognition that technology was negatively impacting his productivity as a writer. He reasoned that since he awoke at 4:30 am (a full 2 ½ hours prior to his work departure), this was early enough an hour to be moving his writing forward, yet he was keenly aware that time was being wasted. Astutely, he saw that it was technology’s lure via the web—its information (neither good, nor bad) preening, beckoning him in the dark, a mouse click, or a few key strokes away, all he had to do was depart from his writing task at hand and it could be his—was a supreme waster of his time to write.

When he told me this, something resonated with me. Eureka!! My own morning writing routine, one that I’ve maintained for more than five years, had been co-opted by web surfing for information. Given that I have an hour for writing pursuits in the morning before I have to depart for the office, I had begun filling it with peeks at box scores via, reading a couple of well-written literary blogs, and before I knew it, my hour for writing had been reduced to 15 minutes, or less. When I did the quick calculation, it was apparent that I was pissing away writing time to the tune of 2-3 hours per week, and a more significant portion of monthly writing time. Since I require a day job to stay ensconced in necessary materials (i.e. food and shelter), I recognized something had to go if I have any aspirations of continuing to produce a book every year, or two.

Returning to methods that have served mankind well pre-internet is no earth-shattering revelation. Much like television, the digital elements of the internet lure you in, casting a stupor, dulling your senses and more often than not, dispatch the writing muse off to visit some other more worthy soul.

Writers and thinkers more astute than me have recognized technology’s deadening qualities, recognizing it as a killer of creativity. Names like Wendell Berry, Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul have all written eloquently and voluminously on the topic. No less an “authority” than Michael Lewis weighed in on the subject way back in 2001 with his book, Next: The Future Just Happened, in which he closes the book with a chapter titled, “The Unabomber Had A Point.”

Rather than heed these warnings, and the cautionary caveats of other like-minded people, lazy non-intellectuals immediately get their hackles up when their beloved technology is challenged. Interestingly, they don’t even know why they’re so put out when technology and the internet come under attack, just that it holds a pseudo-religious sway over their undernourished worldviews.

Men and women that have long ago gone soft mentally, forsaking the heavy lifting of the mind, don’t bat an eye in lobbing ad hominem attacks at men (and women) who put forth strong intellectual arguments against a blind embrace of technology.

While I wouldn’t put my son in the same league with these intellectual giants, at the same time, he’s no lightweight when it comes to considering life’s thorny questions. Likewise, he’s far from being a neo-Luddite, a common refrain hurled at thinkers like Postman, and in particular, Berry. Without an axe to grind, Mark recognizes that an aspiring writer has regular demands made upon his time from living life, and that there are a finite number of hours available each day, period. For him, it’s all about the productivity factor.

On the other hand, for the past decade, or longer, I’ve listened to all the claims made about technology, and in particular, the information super highway. All of these promises and purported benefits have begun to ring hollow.

When I first hung a right and took the onramp and merged amidst the world wide web, it was akin to standing on a vast ridge, overlooking a wide-open frontier, as far as my eye (and imagination) could see. The vista seemed fraught with positives and great promise. Limitless access to information seemed too good to be true (remember the adage, “if it seems too good to be true…).

Since I’ve always been someone that was (and remains) hungry to learn and continue to push back against my own intellectual limits, the internet (interwebs?) seemed like a perfect new development. Instead, 10 years on, I’m now attuned to my own laziness, or maybe, an ease with taking liberties with shortcuts. All of this crept in, like a thief in the night, with my laziness masquerading as intellectual curiosity.

So, how do you combat it, short of canceling cable and internet, or going off the grid?

For me, I’ve tried to remember what life was like before I had the internet at my fingertips. How did I gather information? Print was the primary method; books, newspapers, and other publications. Obviously, the local library was a resource.

I’m not going to get all pious (and hypocritical) on my readers and tell you that I no longer use technology because you know how untruthful that would be, given that I’m still blogging an all.

What I am doing this summer, however, is decreasing my time mindlessly surfing for information. I’ve cut down on my participation with social media. I’m reading books, including this one. I’m also back to listening to baseball via the radio mainly, which allows me to read or write, and not be a slave to the constant flux of digital images in the evening.

I'll continue to post to my blog (s), but probably not daily. When I have something to share that has involved some thought and effort at setting it down first, on pen and paper, then I'll labor a bit and form it into something semi-intelligent, and then post it. I'm learning that it's is better to ruminate first, rather than immediately regurgitate. These posts will be a bit longer, and most likely an essay, or something resembling one.

Where will all of this take me? I’m not sure, but eventually, I hope that my increased writing productivity means that another book will materialize in the future.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for elaborating on your search for an "exit ramp." As your blog title suggests "Words Matter." Let us not allow the beauty and power of words to become just another disposable bubble. Write on!

Colin Woodard said...

I couldn't agree more about the distracting power of a broadband connection, but my handwriting has gotten so bad I find I have to have a keyboard to write! Solution: when I'm seriously writing something I close my wireless.

For non-fiction, at least, the Internet cuts both ways. Online databases, Google Books, and web-driven interlibrary loan searches make it possible to do research with remarkable thoroughness, efficiency, and power. But there's got to be a time when you can shut it all out and really think. Literally unplugging from the world is a good way to start.

Jim said...


I appreciate the validation that I'm not the only writer feeling the tension between the value of a "broadband connection," and its "distracting power."

The lure of information, particularly if you write nonfiction, as you point out, creates a dilemma in how to do your research, but not get sucked down rabbit trails.

I'm with you on the penmanship angle. Mine is steadily improving however, as I've rediscovered writing with a pen, but alas, it will never again meet the rigorous standards of my former second grade teacher, Mrs. Demjanovich.

Anonymous said...


I was glad to read your thoughts on this, because it's something I've been struggling with too. It's become more difficult, at least for me, to find substance on the web. It seems there are more and more commercially driven sites low on content and big on flash or soundbites. The growth of social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc. seems to have sapped the desire of many to actually take the time to post thoughtful content, or any content. And even many bloggers are content to post snarky commentary and nothing more. I've become so overwhelmed by it all that I've neglected keeping up with blogs like yours that I have always admired. Thanks for keeping at it. You're a shining star.

Your fan,

Jim said...


Thanks for your kind words--they mean much to me, as I've always appreciated your blogging, the honesty and transparency you always brought to your posts.

There are times that I want to chuck all of this and just disappear, creating my own tiny niche relegated to what remains of the print side of publishing.

All of this incessant change for change's sake makes me long for the days when all of us had to trek down to the local library, or pick up the latest rock, lit, or other mag or zine to know what was going on in the world.

More often than not, when you talk about these things openly, people consider you strange, narrow, or lob the dreaded Neo-Luddite label your way.

For the time being, I trudge onward because I still have something I feel I need to say and I still have readers that drop by occasionally and offer an encouraging word. Beyond that, I still enjoy my own writing, something a friend once told me--writing for one's self was what was more important than anything else.

Anonymous said...


I think I really need to listen to your words on this, because they make so much sense. When I was still blogging (and I still plan to get back to it...) I consciously avoided swimming into crowded waters (like reading blogs that have tens of thousands of readers) because they made me anxious and confused: too much to sift through and digest, plus a sense that I was out of the loop and failing to understand how the busy and ever-shifting internet universe worked. (And also feeling embarrassed by having passing thoughts like "Why don't any of these people want to read what I write?")

Then I became overly interested in reading and writing about Green Day, and that brought me face to face with a whole aspect of the internet I found distasteful (frenetic marketing, and people whose views I didn't share, or want to share), yet it sucked me in.

I need to get back to the quieter and more thoughtful corners of the web.

I don't know if I should try to distract you with more internet reading, but there's a very interesting article about the subject here:

I hope you won't disappear. Thanks for all you do. I hope you continue to find that it's worth doing. Delfina