Coffee Spoons and the Prufrock Predicament

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was a difficult poem to teach to a classroom full of college students taking their first literature class. To lecture them on inertia–mental and physical–was pointless unless they could relate. What, if anything, would the following lines mean to them?

“Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”

I finally made progress by asking them if they were measuring their lives in beer cans or video games. At least two-thirds of the class perked up and began counting. It was a start.

It’s not unusual to regret, at least to some extent, that we haven’t measured out our lives as well–or as productively–as we would have liked. Although I’ve indulged in my share of meaningless occupations, I take some comfort in knowing my major distraction has always been a book, and I’ve learned much about people and the world from reading good fiction as well as some noteworthy nonfiction.

However, I wasn’t prepared for social media to be quite so irresistible. The result is that some days go like this: take my first cup of morning coffee into the bedroom; prop up pillows; turn on the television to catch the morning news; whip out my iPad to try to find a better news source; read the headlines; consider having my second cup of coffee at my desk and produce those 5-10  new pages according to my ideal writing goal.

So far, so good, but then I open the iPad again and see that little red flag indicating  I have new messages and posts that I haven’t seen. I’ve made a point of limiting my number of Facebook friends so I know every one of them, either as a family member, a good friend, a friendly acquaintance, or someone I met and liked. I consider most of them interesting and, usually, I am entertained or informed by their posts.

The hours fade away; the 5-10 pages become tomorrow’s project, and the posts multiply. I reply to some and answer messages. In an effort to stay on track with the writing, I don’t text unless under duress; I don’t tweet; I don’t do some of the other stuff (If I did, I could name it and not call it stuff.) But, the attractive distraction theory holds. Writing is work, frustrating work. Social media is play, and I like to play.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” Stephen King and Isaac Asimov agreed, both calling writing a lonely job. Even if writers socialize regularly, when they get down to the real business of writing, they typically isolate themselves and put in long hours staring at a computer screen or filling a notebook.

When it is just me and the keyboard, it’s easy to tire quickly and decide to take a short break, scan through whatever social media outlet I favor, and then get back to my work. But short often becomes long, and it’s hard to regain concentration. Is there a solution? If we want to be productive writers, with a reasonable output daily or weekly, how do we discipline ourselves to avoid these attractive distractions?

I’ve spoken with various authors about their writing habits, as well as  reading a number of “how-to” articles. The suggestions for disciplined writing practices range from disabling all social media on the computer and hiding the cell phone in the laundry basket, to renting an office with no media connection whatsoever. Those are drastic measures, and most working writers realize that, along with the negatives of an internet connection, there is also one really big plus–easy access to information.

In the mid-1980s, I was several years away from getting my first computer. At that time, I was working on a nonfiction book that involved a century-old crime. I only had court records of the trial, newspaper articles, and some family documents. When I needed to sort out the time line and verify other data, I found myself at the Santa Barbara library on a daily basis: recreating a calendar from 1899; getting measurements of two steam ships on the Missouri River in the late 1800s; researching the name of river towns; locating maps of various gold mining camps in Montana. It was time consuming and, sometimes, nearly impossible.

I’m grateful for the internet, and the staggering abundance of information that is available with a few keystrokes. But the downside is that entertainment is just as plentiful–and tempting.

The best thing I’ve found to keep the word count up is only planning one day at a time.

“Today I will write the next chapter, or the next page of dialogue, etc. Today I will work; tomorrow I will if  I feel like it.”

By not locking myself into a long-term, rigid schedule, I actually spend more time writing. The payoff is that one good day’s work tends to be a motivator to repeat the process the next day (the snowball effect).

It seems that when I am really engaged in a writing project, it becomes more interesting than the distractions. When that happens, the social media loses its fascination and receives scant attention.

Do you have a system that works to keep you on track?