Is the Internet Making You Less Creative?

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:

Inner Space: Clearing Some Room for Inspiration

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Long Live Long Form

Flying in the face of the ever-shrinking attention span, two new publishers are hard at work pushing long-form narrative nonfiction into new territory.  If you’re a writer you’ve probably heard about these. If you haven’t, please check out both Byliner and The Atavist.  For a place to start, here are some great stories:

Bill Donahue’s just-released piece The Secret World of Saints, about the world’s first Native American saint.
Matt Power’s Island of Secrets, about one man’s search for an undiscovered kind of tree kangaroo on the island of New Britain.
Dave Wolman’s The Instigators, about the digital activists who started the Arab Spring.
And of course, Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, about the Greg Mortenson fiasco.

These are perfect for the bus or plane if you have some sort of e-reader.  It’s well-worth the $2 or $3 for a great, meaty read.  After all, how much did you pay for your last coffee?

Unfamiliar Fishes (Review)

Brief review of Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes:  “In her new book, she argues that 1898, the year the United States annexed Hawaii, was perhaps the most significant in American history. It was the year the country officially became a colonial power, a charge led by Theodore Roosevelt, who, she writes, ‘pined for these [island] bases for years the way a normal man envisions his dream house. All [he] ever wanted was a cozy little global empire with a few islands here and there to park a fleet of battleships.'”

Read the rest of here.

Telling True Stories: Three award-winning writers discuss their craft

Next Wednesday, Deborah Blum, Michael Perry, and J.C. Hallman will be discussing the art of nonfiction storytelling at the Open Book Center in Minneapolis.  There is a reception, with wine and cheese, at 7 pm, followed by Panel Discussion at 7:30, and a book signing after the event.  Admission: $10, $5 for Loft/American Society of Journalists & Authors members, and students.

The Writers:

The future of publishing may be in flux, but one thing remains constant: There will always be a need for writers who can tell a good story. This panel brings together three master storytellers to discuss their craft and to examine the role of narrative journalism in the 21st century.

Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and the author of four books including her latest, The Poisoner’s Handbook. She has written for The New York Times, Slate, The Wall Street Journal The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Discover, Science News, and New Scientist. She has appeared as a guest on The Today show, Good Morning America, and NPR’s This American Life, Morning Edition, and Talk of the Nation/Science Friday. (deborahblum.com)

Michael Perry is a humorist and author of the bestselling memoirs Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, Truck: A Love Story and Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting, as well as the essay collection Off Main Street. Perry has written for Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, Backpacker, Orion and Salon.com, and is a contributing editor to Men’s Health. His stories have appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007, the Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing and other anthologies. (www.sneezingcow.com)

J.C. Hallman is the author of three books of literary journalism, In Utopia, The Chess Artist, and The Devil is a Gentleman, and a book of stories, The Hospital for Bad Poets. As a journalist, he has interviewed a tyrant, attended satanic rituals, joined Scientology, lived at communes, dissected heads, and sailed on the world’s first residential cruise ship. His stories have appeared in the Best American Travel Writing and other anthologies. (www.jchallman.com)

Sponsored by The Loft Literary Center, the ASJA Educational Foundation and the Upper Midwest chapter of the American Society of Journalists & Authors

See also here, or RSVP on Facebook here.

Chris Jones on How to Be a Writer

Got to respect a guy who can write about his balls and his dad in the same issue.  One of the best:

First off, a pro is necessarily getting paid to do what he does, and that’s a tough trick these days all on its own. But a pro is also defined by the scope and practice of his operation. A pro has sources. A pro knows how to spot a lie. A pro does the work. A pro gets it right. A pro knows how to hustle the corner, but he also knows his way around a paragraph. A pro does it all, and he does it all well, without vanity or fireworks. A pro doesn’t leave any holes or openings, in his soul most of all.

More on that, and writing, here.

The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” Umberto Eco on the power of lists, and how to navigate a million books a year

Last summer, The New Yorker made the announcement that sent shock waves through the ranks of youngish American writers: It had decided who the 20 best of them under 40 were (though it carefully avoided the word “best”). The list did indeed include some of the most formidable writers of their generation: Wells Tower, Daniel Alarcon, Rivka Galchen, and many others, and their stories have now been collected in a new anthology, “20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker.”

Needless to say, in the cloistered hothouse of the writing world, the list caused a mix of panic (existential and aesthetic), celebration (fiction matters!) and sour grapes (a record harvest).

But amid backlash came a procession of alternative lists: 20 more under 40, 10 over 80, 41 over 40, and so on, while others cataloged the most overrated writers, the most underrated writers, etc. The New York Times summed up the reaction with the headline: “20 Younger Writers Earn the Envy of Many Others.” Gawker.com posted a primer on how to complain about the list, “without looking jealous and bitter.”

Why all the fuss?

Read the rest here.