Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Monster in the Room

On Writing With and Without the Internet

Recently I invested $10 of my hard-earned Teaching Assistant’s salary on the software program Freedom. Freedom is a software program that, according to its website, “locks you away from the 'net so you can be productive.” If you’re a writer or someone else who wants to be forced to concentrate on a boring old MS Word screen, you simply plug in the amount of time you want to be internet-free and Freedom disables your connection, infuriatingly refusing to respond no matter how many times you click your Safari icon, not unlike that scene in Young Frankenstein where Victor Frankenstein tells Igor and Inga to lock him in the room with the monster and never let him out, no matter what he says.

That I resorted to paying for external enforcement may make me seem like an Internet addict. In truth, I have a fair amount of self-control when it comes to buckling down to the task of writing. But even if I resist the twin sirens Facebook and Gmail (What’s my elementary school friend's baby doing now? Have I missed any important discount emails from the Gap?) for a couple hours of internet-free writing, I’m painfully aware that the option is still there. I’m thinking about resisting the Internet’s allure instead of thinking about a scene in my nascent novel draft. Whether I’m on the Internet or not, I’m drawn away from the fictional world I’m creating by the possibility of the virtual world inside my computer. My hope, in getting Freedom, was that I would take the possibility of that virtual world away.

I’m certainly not the only writer who has struggled with the issue Internet distraction. In fact, it seems like most every writer has some kind of position on the issue. Anecdotally, most take a less-extreme form of Jonathan Franzen’s position: not unlike Voldemort, the Internet is an evil whose power must be reduced, if not eliminated altogether.

I queried some Prairie Schooner staff members (all writers in their own right) to see where they fit on the spectrum.

“I quit Facebook three years ago. Cold Turkey,” writes Prairie Schooner Editor in Chief Kwame Dawes, adding that he “ended up healthier and more productive.” (Healthier and more productive indeed! If I quit Facebook would I, too, win a Guggenheim?) Dawes acknowledges that his easily-distracted personality, rather than flaws with Facebook itself, played a big part in his decision to leave the site. “The problem was never Facebook,” he says humbly. “It was me.”

To what extent can we blame the medium? It’s easy to do so, probably too easy: there are emails to write, we say, or, I need to keep in touch with my friends. Both are true, but probably not to the extent we think they are. It’s easy to claim the tyranny of the medium as a way to abdicate responsibility for our own writing.

On a deeper level, it’s possible that quarreling with email and social media fulfill our basic need to be at war with something. Berating ourselves over our susceptibility to the lures of social media, in other words, is its own distraction. Quitting, as Dawes did, is one way to deal with the struggle. Coming to peace with the Internet is another. “I've tried to take away a lot of the guilt I feel about Internet-surfing while working,” writes poet and Prairie Schooner Managing Editor Marianne Kunkel. “I've always been a slow, deliberate writer. What I've found is that I sometimes get stuck writing a certain part of a poem—a sentence, a phrase, a single word even—and if I sit there long enough to think about it, my mind will turn to bubble gum. This isn't good—what results is that I either plow through, writing something that the next day I'll realize is bogus or just bad, or I'll get frustrated and stop writing for the day. I've found if I take about a five-minute break, I can come back with a clear mind and fresher perspective and get the poem back on track. A ‘reboot,’ to use a digital term.”

The very thing I find problematic about Facebook draws Kunkel to it: the site “offers showy and alarming images—profiles of friends from high school, celebrities’ outfits, coverage of natural disasters across the world.” She finds that, “suddenly I'm thinking about something else entirely, and can go back to my poem as if a whole day has passed rather than five minutes. And I can better see my poem for what it really is!”

Kunkel’s comments are refreshing; in talking about the value of web browsing to her poetry, she upends the central dichotomy of self-control/lack of self-control that usually dominates discussions of the Internet’s influence on writers.

Prairie Schooner Web Editor and fiction writer Ted Wheeler takes a harder line. “I've never used a program that limits my access to the Internet, or unhooked my modem. If I can't avoid unproductive distractions online, then I probably don't have the focus to work productively anyway.”

Ted’s comments made me reconsider all the back-patting I’d been doing since downloading Freedom. The fact is that it’s great to block out distractions, but it’s also almost always easier to take the extreme position: all Internet or no Internet. It’s easy to congratulate myself for my focus, in other words, and harder to have a more nuanced—and probably more productive—attitude toward the Internet.

Ted reminds me that so-called distractions can actually be crucial to a writer—as, for example, with research: “Following hyperlinks to learn more about a topic, or seeing how a narrative thread can develop through found information can be a productive distraction,” Ted writes, going on to add that, “later in a draft, when I know all I care to know, I'll often work entirely with pen and paper in a room without computers or outside. It really depends on what goals I'm bringing to the work for the day.” (Then again, research is different from Facebook—unless you’re looking to steal the names of half-known associates for your stories, in which case Facebook is research.)

I’m not using Freedom as I write this, which means that in the last half hour I’ve checked Facebook several times. In the Land of Facebook I’m finding out that Nabina Das has tried out a tandem bike, my high school friend Sarah is urging us to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, and someone has linked to a video of Bruce Lee playing ping pong with nunchucks. None of these are things I don’t want to hear about; in fact, I’m glad they’re there. But if I’m focusing on the world of my novel I can’t imagine they’ll do me much good.

Am I more productive on Freedom? I’m not sure. I spend a lot of time being annoyed at the restrictions I’ve imposed upon myself. And there are still plenty of non-Internet distractions, of course—some of which, like playing ball with the dog, I indulge without guilt. The reality is that there are going to be distractions no matter how restrictive software programs become, no matter if there is a software program designed to temporarily disable your entire life. I’m going to need to learn how to live with them. In this way, the whole thing sort of reminds me of meditation, where I’m told you have to be able to recognize distracting thoughts and then release them, bringing your awareness back to the present. This act of bringing your awareness back is supposed to be inherently valuable. I hope it’s the same with writing.