Focusing in the Age of Distraction

After months away from the keyboard, I’ve started work on a new novel, a mystery/thriller with a female protagonist. I wrote the first draft of Wanda Wiley over a period of about eight days in August, and the published version was closer to the first draft than anything else I’ve written. I had recently read and was powerfully moved by Donald Goines' Dopefiend, and I understood his writing method even as I read: just pour it all out. Following that practice is what made Wanda Wiley feel so different from my other books, which had been more carefully planned.

The months after writing Wanda were insanely busy. Three kids starting school, travel to Chicago, San Diego, LA, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, lots of high school conflict and drama, and tons of work.

I write software for a living, and I’m partially responsible for the healthy functioning of a number of servers. In September and October, we had a flood of traffic, and I spent those months responding to what seemed like hourly minor emergencies. I got in the habit of checking my phone fifty times a day, the way my kids do, though while they were looking for likes and social mentions, I was looking for alerts and symptoms of the next computer emergency.

For years, I’ve been able to maintain solid focus on whatever projects need my attention, because I’ve engineered my life and environment as much as possible to avoid distraction. When you have kids in high school and a full-time job that involves live computer systems, it’s impossible to fully avoid distraction. But it’s also possible to say no to unnecessary projects and social events, to keep Facebook and Instagram off your phone, and to shut off all means of electronic communication when you really need to focus on your work.

The distraction I felt over the fall months, when circumstances both at home and at work demanded constant attention, reminded me of how hard it is for most people to focus in this age of distraction. Many of my friends have been so caught up for so long in the busy-ness of non-stop scattered activity they simply accept that a life without focus is normal. Life, for them is so full of interruption, the only thing left to interrupt is the previous interruption.

What bothers me in watching this is the expectation even among reasonable people that everyone is always available, all the time; the assumption that an immediate response to texts and calls and instant messages isn’t intrusive; that there’s no such thing as intrusion anymore because if you aren’t doing fifty things at once, you aren’t doing anything at all.

I sometimes imagine what it would be like if people had to intrude physically instead of electronically. You’re in a meeting, and your friend’s head pops up from a trap door in the table, the way phone notifications slide down from the top of your phone screen. “‘Sup dude! How’s it hangin?”

You’re at the dentist getting your teeth cleaned and your daughter stomps in demanding money for new shoes. Right behind her is your coworker asking for the password to some account. Then comes the colleague, the parent, the old friend, and the flash sale alerts from the store you can’t remember ever going to. There are no boundaries anymore, no expectation of private time or private focus.

Until you make them.

But even that isn’t enough. You have to constantly assert your intentions against a world that doesn’t seem to understand them. You have to engineer your life against distraction, which seems to be as fundamental a fact of our environment as ice and snow to the Inuit, who have engineered their lives to avoid being killed by cold.

A few years ago, just before she died, my friend gave me a framed quote from Jessamyn West. It says:

Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.

When my friend gave that to me, the words seemed dramatic and extreme. Now I realize the truth of West’s statement. That’s not to say I believe in isolation or shutting out the people around me. But as the general atmosphere of intrusion becomes more pervasive, you have to fight harder against it. For at least an hour or two each day, you do have to be savage in defending the reflective and contemplative spaces in which the imagination flowers. Otherwise, busy-ness begets busy-ness, and you’re too frazzled to figure out why, despite the contstant work, you never quite feel fulfilled.