Over the past couple of months, I’ve been making my slow way through a nonfiction book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The book is a fair and fascinating look at how our brains have developed over time in response to new technologies. Carr not only looks at more recent technological developments, like the internet, but he also ventures farther back, and reflects on how our minds have changed as a result of maps, clocks, and bound and printed books, amongst other innovations.
This book is not about bashing technology or bemoaning the state of “kids these days” with their iPads and Twitter accounts and Whosits and Whatsits. It is about doing some honest reflection about what this technology might be doing to our brains, neurologically speaking, and the way we think. Carr suggests that we have become more adept at skimming and quickly collecting data, and less adept at deep thought and tasks that require prolonged attention and contemplation.
I teach both traditional and online college classes, and I have noticed in the last couple of years that my patience for anything slow is nearly non-existent. I blame the online teaching. (I’m only partly joking.) I don’t seem to have time for peripheral information, that is, anything that doesn’t serve my immediate purposes. I jump from tab to tab at staccato pacing. I do not linger. But this was not always the case.
I used to linger a lot. As a lover of literature, I lingered all the time—over long Thomas Hardy passages, over the verbal trickery of Jane Austen’s characters, over “boring” texts assigned in college classes (even if I found them boring, I still read them). I don’t think it occurred to me to skip or skim over something; to me, that seemed taboo and tantamount to disrespect. I still believe this to be true of literature, but as far as reading emails or articles, I have become a skimmer.
Regardless of where you fall in this debate, and regardless of whether you are in favor of skimming or diving (to borrow Carr’s terminology), I think the ideas in this book have some interesting implications for writers. If we accept Carr’s premise that technology is rerouting our brains, and disallowing deep thought, then will this affect our writing? Will our writing suffer because we skim? Will we have less patience for polishing our drafts, for smoothing out the rough patches? Writing takes time, thought, and revision. As I see it, writing is not an art form for skimmers.
I’ve noticed that in the last few years, when writing or planning what to write, I have been heavily concerned with finishing. To address that concern, I write quickly to get everything out. I have to make sure I finished what I started. Even more lately, the fear that I won’t finish, or that I’ll become disenchanted or disinterested with my topic, has stopped me from writing anything at all. It’s as if I want to be assured of the finished product, and if I can’t be, then I won’t start. I seem to have forgotten that producing something worth reading takes many iterations.
My dad, who is enjoying a second career as a writer after having been an engineer (a job that demands a methodical and patient mind), has a term for what he does when he writes and edits: editate. It’s a cross between edit and meditate, and I think it accurately conveys what a writer’s job is after the rough draft has been constructed: to get into a contemplative place, and work through the problems the draft presents in a mindful, meditative way.
Editating sounds divine, but I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. It’s not quick enough. It’s not immediately gratifying. And therein lies the problem: the need for immediate gratification. I get this from the internet, from my phone, from clicking between tabs, from little noises that tell me when mail or messages have arrived or when a friend has updated her Facebook account. Carr writes that all these little pings and blips are pleasurable to receive, and the more we receive them, the more we expect them, and the more of them we want.
I have never thought of myself as someone particularly up to date with technology. I don’t get the latest and greatest of any product on the market. Yet, I think I want those pings. And I don’t get them after slogging through a cumbersome sentence. I don’t get them after connecting two previously disconnected ideas. I do get something else, I suppose: a sense of slow gratification, earned and prolonged, which should be better, should be enough, but sadly, doesn’t seem to be.
If slow food is something to be praised, then so should slow writing be. But slow writing seems like death to me—like paralysis. It feels this way, despite knowing what I know about the pace of some successful writers. In an article called “How Many Words a Day?” James Thayer writes that Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day. And J. R. R. Tolkien took 11 years to write the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, which comes out to a slow, and deliberate, 245 words per day. That’s a paragraph, folks. Per day.
Now, I’m not trying to say that pre-internet, writers wrote fewer words because they didn’t have all the distractions. Not so. Plenty of writers pre- and post-internet wrote/write very, very fast. Stephen King finishes a rough draft in three months (and bear in mind, his books often creep toward the 1,000 page mark). Victor Hugo produced 20 pages per day.
What I am saying is that the influence of technology’s pace may eventually show itself in our work. We may fall prey more easily to sloppy plots, quick cuts, bad edits, and misspellings. And so it’s worth asking, will a link eventually be seen between technology and the results of our (maybe) not so contemplative work? Will we be skimmers in writing, as many of us already are in reading? And what will that look like for the future of creativity?