Whenever I move into a new house (and there have been many: 23 houses, give or take), for the first week I revel in the surroundings. The space. The views. I sit in various places. I observe what’s outside the windows. I lounge in the backyard. I notice where the sun falls, and lie in it.
By the end of the first month, I no longer notice. That space I created has already become cluttered. I look through the window but I don’t see what’s out there. I know what’s out there. I start living inside my head again.
In Tony Eprile’s article ‘Open Your Eyes: Seeing like a writer’ (March/April 2013 edition of Poets & Writers Magazine), he talks of the importance of sitting still and observing:
Simply paying attention is something anyone can do, but it requires training and patience, a Buddhist quietness of mind that allows one to look steadily and assiduously, to see and not just recognise. It requires an emptying of thought and an opening to vision … Look closely, and slowly, at the world, and it will reveal itself to be quite different from what you once imagined it to be.
He goes on to talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory that describes in gloriously delicate detail ‘the slow glide of a raindrop off a leaf’.
When I travel, things are different. The newly minted world has colour, texture, life. I carry a journal, write every night trying to recreate the day, and looking back, my words are always vivid and evocative. But I can’t seem to do this in my backyard. I don’t notice what’s happening to plants. I want to learn how to write about my everyday life in the same way.
Many writers are talking these days about the impact of the internet and social media on their daily practice. The constant feeling of being interrupted. The distractions. As I read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, I became increasingly aware (read: alarmed) of how using my laptop (iPad, iPhone) was affecting not only my work but the way I interact with my family. I find it increasingly hard to switch off. In our kitchen, once the domain of toasters and kettles and slow cookers, the benchspace is lined with modems, various sized cables and different items charging all the time. As I do the dishes, the iPhone podcasts from the Wheeler Centre (only 98 more podcasts to go!).
While I apparently work three days a week, on the off days my laptop sits on the bench, dinging every time someone posts on Facebook or Twitter or enters something in iCal or even sends me an email (how old-fashioned). As I read to my kids, or bash on musical instruments, I have one ear out for an update.
Of course, I know I can change all this, I can adjust all the settings, but what bothers me is that I find it very hard to commit. Each time I hear that ding I get a rush of adrenaline; like it’s a news update. I feel compelled. Even though it’s very rarely a message that requires urgent attention — or any attention at all, really. I also feel queasy, as if I’m gambling into the early hours, while I’m pushing buttons.
There’s no doubt. When I have whole days away from the computer, I start to feel calmer. I start to notice. My writing takes on unusual shapes and forms. I feel completely peaceful when I have uninterrupted time for reflection.
Nicholas Carr argues that the way we use the internet is changing how we process information, and even the way our brains work:
The mental functions that are losing the ‘survival of the busiest’ brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought — the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument…’
And what about memory? I feel like I don’t use mine much. I haven’t even bothered to remember my home phone number (after about 15 houses, I gave up) because I can store it on my mobile phone. I don’t need to look at a map, remember the address of where I’m heading, because I’ll just punch it into the GPS. But Carr argues that this kind of laziness means we are losing the capacity to create and store long-term memories:
The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement.
I don’t want to abandon social media, blogging, ebooks and internet research altogether. But after reading Carr’s book, I’m reluctant to continue using my computer the way I do. It’s a process of seduction. I let myself get distracted. But I feel used and abused later. I want to be focused.
While being able to research while not leaving your bedroom is pretty exciting (for an introvert like me), I’m now debating whether internet research really helps my writing process. Perhaps it’s better to head out to a library, to focus in on one thing at a time, to just sit and talk with people, to let ideas percolate. When I start researching on the internet, I always feel overwhelmed. Because I am interested in everything. I want to make connections everywhere. Traditional research seems to involve discovering the root of an idea and then branching out. Internet research seems to involve getting the whole tree and desperately pruning down. I need to set boundaries, as with all other aspects of my life.
When I’m older and grey, I won’t be reciting reams of poetry like my grandfather did. I wonder, as my short-term memory starts to fade, what will start to pour out?