A couple of days ago, I wrote my post on fountain pens with, er, a fountain pen; this one is being written in the old-fashioned way, on a keyboard, in the WordPress blogging tool/scratchpad. Writing a few hundred words with a fountain pen was a revelatory experience in several ways. (I realize this is self-indulgent navel gazing at its extreme, but bear with me.)
Most significantly, the nature of the distraction experienced in these two modes of writing was significantly different. When I write with a keyboard, using a word processor, or like now, using a blogging tool, my fingers rest on the medium of distraction, the computer. To procrastinate, to look away, to divert myself, I need do very little; I move my right hand to the mouse and click on a tab. These tabs often function like ticker-tapes: at any moment, one of them could light up with a notification for news that must be attended to. For instance, as I type now, I have tabs open on my GMail Inbox, and my Facebook Profile page: these could suddenly show a ‘(1)’ to let me know a little missive has arrived; when that happens, more often than not, I pull away from work. (Who am I kidding? I always check.) Often, I don’t even need a notification to divert me; I simply leave the writing–because I’ve hit a sticky patch–and move away. (I just checked a Facebook notification – someone accepted a Friend request.)
When I wrote my post with a fountain pen, in long-hand, in the pages of a notebook, I wrote a little more steadily and persistently, working my way through three paragraphs before I stopped to reflect. In part that was because it was an easy post to write, but partly also because I was not writing on a keyboard, so close to distraction. This is a little simplistic, but I do think that writing with an implement that is also the site of our distinctively modern distraction makes a small difference to the nature of its hold on us. (This does not, for a second, mean that those who write with pens are less distracted.)
The physical particulars of composition with a word processor also affect the phenomenology of distraction. When I wanted to insert a paragraph between my second and third originals, I went back, drew a little arrow to indicate insertion, and wrote in my para on the opposing page. (I also added a new closing line to the fourth para, squeezing it in in the little space available.) Cutting-and-pasting makes such tasks trivial, but it also provides an opportunity to divert oneself by toying with the text, moving it hither and thither, reluctant to commit, all the while engaging in a holding action with the business of writing more. This ability to manipulate the text so effortlessly can lead to paralyzing play; by contrast, the physical contact of nib on paper, the not-so-easily-erased ink made visible, can induce commitment and fidelity to the written word.
It’s perhaps significant that these initial thoughts, prompted by a new writing experience, should be centered on distraction; nothing else is quite as indicative of writing’s challenges.