Sunday, November 03, 2013

technology and its relationship to making art

photo by megskay
Today's Book Review was all about technology. If, how, whether, or to what degree technology and its effects alter the way we write and live as artists. If you don't read/get the NYT, this issue is worth getting hold of. Obviously, if you're reading this blog, you're a card-carrying member of the tribe who partakes, at least a little, in the online exchange of thoughts and conversation.

In particular, I found Nicholas Carr's review of brain guru Daniel Goleman's "Focus" to be compelling. Ponder this statement:
"Seemingly scattered ideas, sensations and memories coalesce into patterns, into art." 

I can't tell you how much I -- as a bona fide scatterbrain, as a child who routinely had teachers' commenting on my lack of attention and wandering mind -- felt validated by Goleman's assertion that daydreaming connects us with a state known as "open awareness," which is:

"a form of attentiveness characterized by “utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind.” Experiments suggest it’s also the source of our most creative thoughts. Going beyond “orienting,” in which we deliberately gather information, and “selective attention,” in which we concentrate on solving a particular problem, open awareness frees the brain to make the “serendipitous associations” that lead to fresh insights. Artists and inventors alike seem unusually adept at such productive daydreaming."

Okay, so that's the good news. The not-so-good news is that, according to Goleman, those naturally wired with open awareness have to train that down a bit in the face of myriad distractions: the tweets, the fb posts, the text messages, the trivial scattershot of data that floods our cortex these days.

And, as a writer, this is particularly challenging. Remember in the old days when we'd bring a notebook around with us to catch bits of conversations or random thoughts that occurred to us during our regular rhythm of the day? Well I know that for me, the last few years those impulses are now flash-texted into my iPhone in the "notes" section as I amble about on my SW Portland hillwalks (which has been a long-time remedy when I've hit a wall with writing - a way to let my muscle memory and subconscious get an endorphin boost and work out a conundrum on the page).

But as soon as I have that little device out of my pocket, I'm checking facebook, the gps tracker, the weather, twitter and my email, thus bollixing up the works - complicating my mission and sending me down rabbit holes of distraction.

As with any addiction, this behavior takes me on a bit of a euphoria-depression roller coaster. Synapses fire and I feel connected with the world, and then I'm at a loss when I return to my desk with nothing. Consequently (and because my "open awareness" loves to throw me into the arms of various experiments), the other day I decided to take a deviceless hour-and-a-half walk. Left the phone at home, and off I traipsed.

The whole time I felt odd and sort of phantom-limby. I kept patting my pocket (in that spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch way). I witnessed a few interesting things and longed to record and/or report on them. It became clear that my quotidian creative process has become informed by my connection to technology. I was profoundly sad upon returning home and acknowledging this.

It's not that I haven't contemplated this addiction before. I wrote briefly about the month I experimented with a weekly Internet sabbath back here. And then again as a contributor to Shawn Levy's article last year.

So, am I going to reinstate the sabbath? I don't think I am. Because my issue has gone beyond a weekly fast. I think I need to change the way I experience open awareness more on a daily basis. I have to learn how to re-invite the magic. I have always needed to spend much (not some, but much) of my day in la-la-land in order to feel, well, like myself, and I guess the whole relationship between daydreaming and creating art concretizes the reason why.

In his review, Carr sums up the dangers of inadvertently banishing open awareness, and it definitely strikes a chord:

"Always a rare and elusive form of thinking, it seems to be getting rarer and more elusive. Our modern search-engine culture celebrates information gathering and problem solving — ways of thinking associated with orienting and selective focus — but has little patience for the mind’s reveries. Letting one’s thoughts wander seems frivolous, a waste of practical brainpower. Worse, our infatuation with social media is making it harder to hear the mind’s whispers. Solitude has fallen out of fashion. Even when we’re by ourselves, we’re rarely alone with our thoughts."

What do you think? How much time do you need each day to be "alone with your thoughts"?


  1. This is a fabulous post, Suzy. I've been thinking about these things quite a bit lately.

    It's coming up on a year since I finally got an iPhone. All those years of doing without--just fine, thank you--and now I find myself totally addicted. Facebook is especially my heroin. I mainline it. While I still get behind on my blog reading, because that takes more effort to go to individual sites, FB is a simple scroll down the page. Unfortunately, I find myself scrolling nonstop, several times a day. UGH.

    I've thought about taking a sabbatical, but since FB is where most of the reader interaction takes place for my current writing project, I feel totally sucked-in. Can't expect others to read and comment if we don't read what they have to say, too. It's a win-lose situation.

    Need to find that gray area... Sigh.

    1. It's hard to know where to draw that line, eh? It's seems that there are now infinite ways to blur the edges between our writing projects and our interaction with social media.

      I remember ten years ago, in grad school, back when only college students had Facebook. My MFA concentration was creative nonfiction, and there was this lecture given by Tara Ison, where she cautioned us about mining our lives for material to such a degree that we were living our lives purely in order to create story, at the expense of actually being present in our lives.

      How many times have you chuckled when watching a concert-goer, or a tourist holding an iPad up like a divining rod in order to capture something that was really going un-experienced?

  2. i like to imagine being a bestselling novelist who unplugs for weeks at a time to focus 100 percent on whatever I am currently writing. i can't help but wonder how much stronger my writing would be and how much quicker i would get to that magic place where you're just a vessel for the real writing if i had less obstacles keeping me from being alone with my thoughts.

    my current work includes being plugged in a lot and, b/c it's a virtual office, constantly needing to check email. this is course leads me to check facebook, check twitter, check other email accounts. it's like a nervous tick, that lasts longer than a tick as roam through each and every channel where someone could possibly making the slightest of gesture in my direction ("John Doe liked the article you shared on Linkedin..."). It's maddening. But you know what I'm going to do after I log off here? Go on Facebook and ask my local bookstore manager if she would please save me a copy of today's NYT so I can get that Book Review article. See? Madness.

    I love this cell phone rant by Louis CK (although, I'm not sure if it's the subject matter or the deep/confusing love I have for Louis CK):

    1. OMG, Josie, yes! That rant is fantastic. Let yourself feel sad. And pissed. And alone. I agree!

      As far as the impetus to be wired at all times, I also do communications for a day job. (I manage two corporate facebooks and god forbid someone finds a piece of machinery in their bag of tortilla strips and tells the other 100,000 "fans" about it on the wall.) The way all the accounts are linked together, it makes more willpower than not running upstairs every five minutes to wolf down the leftover Halloween Starbursts.

      The kid/technology thing, though (referring to the Louis CK rant), it's a slippery slope. Like many other parents, I came to texting as a way to continue having a relationship with my older kids when they went to college. They rarely answered the phone or returned email queries, but I soon realized that they were comfortable engaging in epic texting correspondence. One of the pieces in today's book review broaches the reason why. Turns out, we're able to avoid intimacy when we text, which helps young adults individuate and have that "I want to know you're there, but don't want meaningful interaction" thing with their parents.

      I'm good with that, actually. I think it's a tool that's both appropriate and benign. But only to help them through a time-based phase. When texting becomes a substitute for active engagement of any sort, then we're fucked.

    2. Anonymous7:36 AM

      "Sadness is poetic."

      Oh, Louis. How I love that man.

      I need to have several hours in the day when I don't interact. I blog a couple of times a week and have great conversations which I treasure, but I can't do the whole Facebook/Twitter/constant email thing because it feels so overwhelming. My inner life is important to me and I'm introverted by nature, so it's not that difficult for me to carve out the time. A lot of times in my car, I turn off the radio and just drive and let myself be quiet. It feels wonderful. Vacation-ish.

      That said, when I'm sitting at a computer, I do feel the urge to constantly check in. I have to really get away from the devices in order to settle back into my thoughts. (Which is why I'm always at the coffee shop, alone in a crowd.)

      - Averil

    3. I hear ya, Averil. We have to save up our forced extrovert energy for the mother/daughter book tour!

  3. I'm so freaking distracted that I don't even want to know just how distracted and disjointed I really am. Kind of like not wanting to have all of your credit card statements on the same table together so you don't *really* know how much you're in debt.

    I had a great break, and completely unplanned, while I was gone for a week with my son. I had a data plan on my phone, but it was limited so all I could really do was text with friends and husband back home. No Facebooking, No Words With Friends (gasp!), no checking stuff I didn't need lest I be charged out the wazoo for my data use. By the time I came home, I was sadly back to FB, but I actually deleted some apps from my phone ---- even Words with Friends!! And 2 weeks later, I can't say I miss a single one of those apps. I feel like I tripped a circuit breaker in my brain.

    I still take notes on paper when I'm out and about. There's something about having to find the paper and pen and get it down that relieves my anxiety about possibly forgetting it.

    1. I keep thinking about your book room, Teri. The way you manifest joy by surrounding yourself with things of beauty. It's an inspiration. xo


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