Don’t Read This

You should be writing right now. But how could you, asks Tony Perrottet, when your computer offers instant access to a “cocktail party of chattering friends, a world-class library, an endless shopping mall, a game center, a music festival and even a multiplex?” In his piece for the Times, “Why Writers Belong Behind Bars,” Perrottet identifies writers who were most prolific and proficient when imprisoned, literally and metaphorically.

From the Marquis de Sade, who penned eight novels during 11 years of incarceration, to John Cheever, who holed himself up in his “dark and dismal” basement, even legendary writers needed to be removed from the real world in order to engage with their fictional ones. But the invasive internet creates new challenges, Perrottet says. “These days, Walden Pond would have Wi-Fi, and Thoreau might spend his days watching cute wildlife videos on YouTube. And God knows what X-rated Web sites the Marquis de Sade would have unearthed.”

Even literary retreats no longer provide escape from distraction. Perrottet describes writers at colonies frolicking in fields with smartphones strapped to their hands. I recently witnessed this from afar when a friend, Jessica Zlotnicki, Program Manager and ersatz warden at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, digitally chastised one the residents to “get back to work” after they “liked” a post on her Facebook wall. (Case in point: here’s a post from one of the Mailer residents, writing about writing, written of course, when he should have been writing.)

But there’s hope! Perrottet lists tactics employed by the likes of Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, Nora Ephron, and Jonathan Franzen, who use crippled computers or employ sensory deprivation techniques to keep them focused. Computer programs like Freedom promise to keep you focused by keeping your computer on internet lockdown.

Still procrastinating? There’s plenty of inspirational distraction to keep you thinking about writing instead of actually getting down to it. For example, my former writing professor, Brian Morton (who said a disabled computer helped him find the focus to write The Dylanist and Starting Out in the Evening) gives his classes Michael Ventura’s illuminating essay “The Talent of the Room.” In it, Ventura says the most important lesson for a writer is to learn how to behave and perform in isolation. “Writing is something you do alone in a room,” says Ventura. “Copy that sentence and put it on your wall…”

Or don’t. You should probably be writing instead.

Do you have tactics that keep you attached to the keyboard? Share your tips below.

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Benjamin Samuel is the Online Editor of Electric Literature. He is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College and doesn’t spend enough time writing.

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