Whirligig Mind

Apologies for being so delinquent these past two weeks. I’ve been anxiously completing yet another round on my latest novel and couldn’t think of much else until it was done.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

I’ve been desperately trying to focus on the latest round of my new novel, but have found myself distracted to the point of anxiety, pulled to pieces by too many disturbances and digressions, with too many balls juggled in the air, and lashed by an increasingly troubling new behavior that finds me clicking on “Send/Receive” literally in mid-sentence, or tapping “Ctrl-Ctrl” with my left pinkie which brings up the Google prompt that helps me instantly look up some small matter of detail that can wait, only to come alert after a good five minutes to the fact that I’ve somehow drifted completely away from my work and must close down my browser and chide myself vocally before I can attempt to dive in again.

This scattering of time and mind that has become normal in our synthetically social existence sabotages the inherent requirement of the novelist to focus only on one place, one time, one event, one conversation, one character, one emotion, one moment of transition. I have tried to reclaim this single-minded purity of creative thought, but I’ve consistently struggled, finding that “Google is indeed making me STOOPID!

Nicholas Carr, author of the above referenced and extremely insightful article in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, recently released a book on the subject, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” that I am anxious to read, assuming I can find the time and attention!

Last week’s New York Times article “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price“, details signs I recognize in myself, particularly my increasing willingness to accept multiple inputs naturally, almost simultaneously and with the assumption of productivity which is actually “inflicting nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought.”

Though I’m nowhere near as bad as the poor guy in the article, still I accept this growing syndrome in myself with a sharp stab of alarm. These symptoms are the death knell for the long-form writer. So I’ve instituted new practices to combat the degradation, like setting my email to check only hourly for new messages, adding daily meditation sessions, and forcing myself to read a WHOLE article online before switching to another.

Whether these will help my focus or ease my panic-seized heart, I cannot tell. And I cannot help but question if my sense of my own creativity, the formative persona that conceives these words, is not itself part of a dying species.

In a recent NPR interview, Carr points to one perspective: “Human ancestors had to stay alert and shift their attention all the time; cavemen who got too wrapped up in their cave paintings just didn’t survive… The Internet returns us to our ‘natural state of distractedness.'”

Could it be that this is natural? Then why do I feel so stressed?

Stress makes sense if you’re about to be attacked. What keeps us alert also keeps us alive. Though most of us no longer stand constantly before the jaws of the lion, no matter how the metaphor might appeal. And most great human achievements date to when we were more in control of our world; they came with the rise of agriculture, communities, civilization, language and literature… I doubt humans could have managed so much if things had been otherwise.

Yet to accept this new distraction as natural, perhaps even beneficial, seems to advocate a constant and acceptable state of “A.D.D.”, a state we simultaneously condemn, diagnose and medicate in our children. It’s as if we’ve given ourselves an excuse to fritter away valuable, keenly focused time with vaguely associative meanderings, interesting in themselves, but in the end amounting to almost nothing.

I find more comfort in the concept of the brain’s duality – of the “control tower” of the mind semi-consciously forcing the primitive, impulsive mind to choose from among its many instinctual stimuli in order to achieve great things.

I watch my nine-year-old struggle with focus, honestly agreeing that his homework is far from interesting. I cajole him, “Just focus and get it done!” Still he dawdles, asks for snacks, fights with his brother, attempts to play with a toy or turn on the TV. Finally he finishes and can turn to a project he cares about – these days, a series of fantastical mechanical imagings and sketches of brooding characters that have emerged from the depths of his as yet unbridled mind. I watch as he focuses intently. He can barely be enticed by the scents of dinner laid on the table before him.

“Just a minute, Mom. I just want to finish one thing,” as he scratches away at his creative fixation.

This, from a child regularly accused of lacking attention!

Perhaps, then, the root of the argument is engagement, full and voluntary, in the pursuit of vision.

Are we afraid to engage? It lacks the thrill of something new, the dopamine fix that the constantly shifting mind feeds upon. Engagement is hard. It gives me a headache. It weighs down my body and sometimes my spirit because I’m trying to get things right, make my story perfect and that takes concentration, deliberation, the challenge of choice and acceptance of its consequences.

Last week, in the end, I did complete my latest round of revisions. This draft is finished, for better or worse. Perhaps my current obsession with distraction also reflects the stress of taking a break, the luxurious limbo of a few days to clean up my office, and the anxiousness inherent in the large emptiness in the center of my desk.

It won’t be there long, one way or another. Already I’ve cleaned up large piles of scattered scraps. It’s too soon to know what any of them will form, but I’ll need the full capacity of my once prodigious focus before I can find the courage to fill up that space again.



  • Beth

    I loved this essay.

    As I read this, I thought that this is the existence of so many people……I could relate to every thought, but you said it so much better…….!

    Age, Maturity = lack of focus, time, memory, engagement + more stress, piles of scrap, unfinished business, computers and more….

    and the reward…..seeing our kids grow, and learn and taking the same steps we did…….yet, now we understand them and see ourselves in that process long ago.

    And in 35 years…………. payback.
    ah hah ! The circle of life.

    • Judith

      So glad you liked it, Beth, and wonderful to hear from you here, of all places! The funny thing about kids is that they do focus and remember everything when they WANT TO… Tonight, I got an detailed, moment-to-moment review of yesterday afternoon’s activities, all in an effort to convince me that the boys had indeed bathed last night and therefore required no bathing tonight. Of course, I’d forgotten, not to mention they stank! But their ability to be clear on command is utterly enviable. I can barely recall what I did two hours ago!

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