In the current issue of Poets & Writers is a story that was long in coming, on an issue my friends are tired of hearing me harp on: information overload. Obviously, I’m not the first person to write about this, but my concern is not only about the annoyance of dealing with too many data streams. Rather, it’s about the cumulative effect that the constant intake is having on the deeper, more mysterious processes in the mind. Namely, I am concerned about creativity.
Two recent pieces in the New York Times have gotten at this same point. In Pico Iyer’s The Joy of Quiet, he writes that, “Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music.” In Susan Cain’s piece on the New Groupthink and the cult of collaboration, she writes that “solitude is a catalyst to innovation,” and that “Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process.”
This concern is something in the air, but it’s not a new phenomenon. Recently, a friend posted Henry Miller’s Commandments from 1933, the first of which is, “Work on one thing at a time until finished.” And D.T. Suzuki wrote in his 1953 introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, “Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.”
For those of us who value solitude it’s a concern that has taken on a new urgency. I don’t pretend to have any answers, but this new piece explores the issue in what I hope is a new way. For example, while there is much talk of “attention” these days, and a growing awareness of its importance, there has been very little discussion of the fact there are different kinds of attention. We have two neurologically distinct attentional systems which work at cross purposes: Focused attention and distracted attention. Which one are you using right now?
The following are my thoughts, along which those of a handful of other writers, on how to keep your inner space alive when the outer one keeps pressing in. As Zadie Smith recently advised,”Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”
The story can be found here: