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ON GATHERING, AND PARING BACK


14th May 2015

I have been thinking about how much has changed since I started writing novels. I didn't actually begin my first drafts on a typewriter, but back then personal computers were a novelty. In acquiring the skills to use one, I remember there were countless lost files and a corresponding quantity of tears. My bulky desk top computer was really a word processor, a superior typewriter that checked my spelling, gave me a word count, and allowed the luxury of 'cut and paste'. As an aspiring writer I instinctively loved computers and saw how much time they could save me; typewriters had iconic appeal, but for the long haul of writing a novel a computer was the perfect tool.

The Internet, when it came, had a clearly defined function: I used it for email and for research. The speed of email was thrilling, and since I lived in a place with limited library resources the ability to scour the web for information on obscure topics from my own home was invaluable. In those days the World Wide Web felt quite spacious, and I could never have imagined how quickly it would expand, how voraciously it would feed on our curiosity, our innate loneliness, and other less attractive traits.

And now I want to begin a new novel, but a novel in its early stages is a fragile thing. There is the sparking idea that might easily be extinguished if it is not fed the right material, and as it grows there is the fear of never finding the structure that will both support its development and remain invisible. It is the time when much of the thinking out of the novel is done, and it is a bit like falling in love - you want to dwell on and with the beloved most of the time.

But thinking about anything in a sustained way feels more difficult now than in the pre Facebook and Twitter time. So I decided to see whether it was possible to find a way back to a more spacious place, to feel less bombarded by other people’s thoughts, by their urgings to ‘like’ this and that, to click, click, click on interesting links. A news item provided the handy final straw: it appears that people, even quite young people, are experiencing memory lapses, the result of an information overload.

I deactivated my Facebook account, and every time I might have gone to it I picked up a paper book and began to read. I read two books in the week it took to break the habit, and while I will miss the odd contact with distant friends, they can reach me by email. Meanwhile, the days and nights do seem to have more space and time for the gathering part of the novel’s genesis, and my head definitely feels less cluttered.

Perhaps when the writing is safely underway, I might revisit social media. But then again, the time one has in hand is an unknown quantity and, at my age, certain to be short, too short to squander on repeated trips along an overcrowded highway.

I once heard Germaine Greer say in passing that ‘Good writing is good thinking’ and it struck me as an obvious truth, though one that is little talked about. Despite its cheering effect, and it can be cheering, social media acts upon the writing mind as the constant flicking between television channels acts upon the non-flicking viewer. Those who wish to flick may stay, but, even if only for a while, I must leave the room.




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