It is a fine line that we ask ourselves to walk. My work requires hours alone in my studio, silently conversing with the work emerging in front of me. It is a form of primal nakedness, working that way, best done in private.
Every once in a while it is necessary to unfold that frock in the box under the bed, the gown of “adequate social skills,” as I needed to do for the opening of my show on Friday night. During those three hours anyone can enter your world. Conversations ranged from an in depth discussion of Sianne Ngai‘s provocative book, Our Aesthetic Categories (which has had me spellbound for months) to questions about why you seem to really like the color blue.
Most artists are jugglers. The intense focus required to do their work must be handled gingerly while the “everything else” part of life conspires to distract, erode and undermine. But wait. Is that really an accurate model? With so much discussion about the forces in our culture that are veering us towards attention deficits, multiplexing overstimulation and an absence of contemplative time, maybe this isn’t the right way to see things.
Benjamin Nugent‘s opinion piece in the New York Times on Sunday helped me put this into perspective. He starts his piece, The Upside of Distraction, with this:
Writing a book consists largely of avoiding distractions. If you can forget your real circumstances and submerge yourself in your subject for hours every day, characters become more human, sentences become clearer and prettier. But utter devotion to the principle that distraction is Satan and writing is paramount can be just as poisonous as an excess of diversion. I tried to make writing my only god, and it sickened my work, for a while. The condition endemic to my generation, attention deficit disorder, gave way to its insidious Victorian foil: monomania.
Monomania is what it sounds like: a pathologically intense focus on one thing. It’s the opposite of the problem you have if your gaze is ever flitting from your Tumblr to your spreadsheet to your baby to rush-hour traffic.
Nugent describes a period in his life when he had crafted an existence that allowed minimal distraction from his writing: No Internet, TV, iPhone or interesting neighbors. He was at his work with complete monomaniacal focus.
The disaster unfolded slowly. The professors and students were diplomatic, but a pall of boredom fell over the seminar table when my work was under discussion. I could see everyone struggling to care. And then, trying feverishly to write something that would engage people, I got worse. First my writing became overthought, and then it went rank with the odor of desperation. It got to the point that every chapter, short story, every essay was trash.
I could not imagine why; conditions were ideal. It took me a long time to realize that the utter domination of my consciousness by the desire to write well was itself the problem. Monomania, a 19th-century malady to which my 21st-century immune system had developed no defenses, had crept into my soul, like gout into a poet’s foot, and spoiled it by degrees.
When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane. I lost the ability to cheerfully interrogate how much I liked what I had written, to see what was actually on the page rather than what I wanted to see or what I feared to see.
So Nugent assessed the patient and applied a sensible change in diet. He fell in love, started hanging out at his girlfriend’s house which came with wifi, flatscreen TV and a DVD player. He joined a band. “One morning, after I diversified my mania, my writing no longer stank of decay. Eventually, it sat up and took food.”
While most of us have heard Jonathan Franzen’s warning that you cannot be a serious writer and have Internet access, Nugent is suggesting more of a middle way. It may be like any dietary advice—every body has its own needs and as the owner of one, it behooves you to find out what yours likes best. I do know the one thing all artists share: A passionate desire to produce the best work possible. And to achieve that, we will do whatever is asked.
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