5 min read

That kid trying to zip his coat

How often can one distracted writer yearn to be a 4-year-old trying to zip his coat?
That kid trying to zip his coat

Or, the odd places your missing focus turns up

There is a burgeoning category of publishing that could be called Distraction Lit. One volume after another warns of our ever-worsening attention deficit, bemoans the sinister effects of social media and the insidiousness of the distraction economy, and asserts that digital tech is making us stupider as a species. Hard to imagine how the human race could get any dumber, but a slew of social critics are convinced we have managed it.

Some titles align with Mindfulness Lit, others with Productivity Lit, some with Creativity Lit, and some seem to be mostly 300 pages of crabbiness about how everything used to be better. Once again we are fallen, not from Eden but from the library reading room.

The concern is not without merit. It might not merit 20 books all saying mostly the same thing, but I can attest to my own difficulty applying myself to hours of focused reading or writing, something I had no trouble doing as an undergraduate in the 1970s. Some of what now diverts me from the words at hand are adult responsibilities (and possibly cognitive diminishment) that I did not have when I was 20. But more of a problem, at least for me, is CRS—constant refresh syndrome, also known as “let me just check my phone/email/soccer scores/CNN headlines/RSS feed/software updates/whereabouts of the cats/whereabouts of those delicious almonds with truffle salt.” The last two are unrelated to technology but they do not help the situation one bit. “Let me just check” becomes another 30 minutes I will never get back.

What used to come naturally now takes effort, and that has been true for at least 25 years. In the late 1990s, my magazine moved to temporary offices in another building and we were without an internet router for about four days. I was struck by how much writing I got done in those four days. And ever so happy to get the ’net back.

I recently retrieved something written around 2002 for my first online project, a blog titled scribble, scribble, scribble… I had built it with Wordpress, which afforded me opportunities to dork around with the code. And dork around I did.

I used to be prone to this kind of thing. In the days of Mac OS 9, it was easy to open up the resource forks of the system code and do very important things like change the color of the download progress bar. Because I could, I did. I had no resistance and not much caution. I created a secret Linux partition on my office Mac. I once messed up the OS so badly I had to close my door and discretely do a complete system reinstall. The IT guys would have killed me, had they given a rat’s ass for those of us who used Macs, which they did not.

Sometime in the early 2000s I realized what had become of all that lost focus for reading and writing—it was hiding in the code. That is, it had become a chore for me to concentrate on a book or a piece of writing for an hour, but whenever I dug into my blog’s code, there was my missing attention span. I could work all day without even looking up.

In Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, Ellen Ullman wrote:

Nine hours with the programmers go by and I have no sensation of time passing. When I glance at the window, I’m surprised to see that the light is oblique and the sky’s blue has deepened.

Amen. Late one morning, a workday morning, I was trying to concentrate on drafting a story when I had the bright idea to take a break and check my blog’s W3C compliance. For those of you who are not codeheads, that means checking whether my website’s HTML code was free from errors that might screw up how it displayed or responded when readers interacted with it. It was easy to run your code through a checker that would detect and flag anything missing, mistyped, or dodgy enough to cause a problem somewhere down the line. If that was your idea of fun.

It was my idea of fun, and on this morning I learned my blog’s code contained 157 errors. One hundred fifty-seven! You might wonder how a webpage could load at all with that many goofs, but think of a misfiring engine. It still runs, it just does not run well and at some point is going to break down. My blog was misfiring. I told myself I would hunt down a few of these errors, maybe six, or eight, or a dozen, then resume the work I was paid to do. Five hours later, I had nailed all 157 and could not believe so much time had elapsed. All else had ceased to exist. It was just me and the code.

I have loved to read since first grade and I love every aspect of writing. I have heard Bob Dylan call himself “just a song-and-dance man.” Well, I am just a read-and-write man. Yet, for all that love, there are days when 45 minutes of focus on text feels impossible. Why is writing code so different? Beats me. Perhaps I missed my true calling.

Maybe coding proves deeply satisfying because as I am doing it I am figuring out another language, and more than that I am crawling inside a machine and learning how it thinks. (Perhaps I should try reading and writing from that mindset.) Plus, when I am geeking around with my computer, success is clearly defined and apparent. When the HTML or CSS is right, the page displays the way I want it to. Back when I needed to configure a Linux driver properly, the printer would spring to life and I knew I had gotten it right. When I write an essay…well, some people are informed, some are amused, some are affected the way I intended, some sing my praises. Others miss my point entirely, or turn away to their phones after three paragraphs, or mistake my pellucid prose for more twaddle clogging their inbox. Most are silent and I will never know what they made of my work.

Once, I watched a small boy laboring to zip his coat. He was maybe 4 years old and he had stopped at the door of a restaurant. This kid was blocking the way out for about 10 people who had finished their supper and were trying to go home. He did not care. He did not even notice. He was looking down, hunched with effort, trying to get his damned coat zipped.

How might this essay have turned out were I able to bring to it the concentration of that 4-year-old? Or the focus of my younger self finding 157 errors in HTML code? Might have been great. Maybe not. Maybe the unresolved errors in the prose code are what gives it life. The painter Eugène Delacroix said, “One always has to spoil a picture a little in order to finish it.” Robert Henri may or may not have said, “In every great painting there is a bit of bad drawing.”

Who am I to argue?

A note from management. This afternoon, Dr Essai hits the road for Seattle, then Vancouver, then a ship to Sitka, Alaska. This is a photo trip and the doctor plans to fire up his image brain and give his writing brain a rest. So for the next 16 days, this letter may become sporadic, and anything that does issue from the doctor’s keyboard might be unusually concise, which to some of you may be a relief. Upon his return, Dr Essai will resume pecking away like a stunt chicken. In the meantime, as always, thank you for reading.