Learning From Freud: Addiction, Distraction, Schedules

In An Anatomy of an Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and The Miracle Drug CocaineHoward Markel writes:

At some point in every addict’s life comes the moment when what started as a recreational escape devolves into an endless reserve of negative physical, emotional, and social consequences. Those seeking recovery today call this drug-induced nadir a “bottom.”…The bottom that Sigmund experienced featured far more than the physical and mental ravages of consuming too much cocaine….Most recovering addicts insist that two touchstones of a successful recovery are daily routines and rigorous accountability.

As Sherwin Nuland noted in his review of Markel:

Around 1896, Freud began to follow a constant pattern of awakening before 7 each morning and filling every moment until the very late evening hours with the demands of his ever enlarging practice…writing, lecturing, meeting with colleagues and ruminating over the theories he enunciated in such articulate literary style.

Markel goes on:

It appears unlikely that Sigmund used cocaine after 1896, during the years when he mapped out and composed his best-known and most influential works, significantly enriched and revised the techniques of psychoanalysis and…attempted to ‘explain some of the great riddles of human existence.’

Because I consider myself an excessively and easily distracted person, one who finds that his distraction makes him miserable, I was struck by the description of the ‘drug-induced nadir’ that Markel refers to. In noting my own state of distraction, I wrote:

Like many users of the Internet I suffer terribly from net-induced attention deficit disorder, that terrible affliction that causes one to ceaselessly click on ‘Check Mail’ buttons, switch between a dozen tabs, log-in-log-out, reload, and perhaps worst of all, seek my machine immediately upon waking in the mornings.

The effect of this distraction on me is not dissimilar to that experienced by other sufferers: I sometimes feel a beehive has taken up residence in my cranium; my attention span is limited to ludicrously short periods; my reading skills have suffered; writing, always a painful and onerous task, has become even more so. Because of the failure to attend to tasks at hand, my to-do, to-read, to-write, to-attend-to lists grow longer and cast ever more accusing glances my way. Worse, their steadily increasing stature ensures that picking a starting point from any of them becomes a task fraught with ever-greater anxiety: as I begin one task, I become aware that several others are crying out for my attention, causing me to either hurry through the one I have started, or worse, to abandon it, and take up something else.


I experience distraction as a fraying at the edges, a coming apart at the seams, a sundering of the center–whichever description you want to use, it’s all that in my feverish imaginings and experiencing of it.

Since my primary mode of distraction is ‘Net distraction, I’d like to offer another description it. I sometimes use ‘screeching’ or ‘scratching’ in trying to describe the activity in the inside of my cranium that makes me want to stand up and run away–and check mail or reload a page–from reading or writing. All too quickly, when working on a computer, I need ‘release’ and the act of moving the mouse so that something else appears on my screen promises relief. A change of screens, that’s all it is. And ironically, I can never take in whatever it is that I switch to. My mind is too blank at that moment, still perhaps processing residual irritation. Then, seething with rapidly accumulating anxiety about my still-on-the-burner work, I switch back. A little later, the ‘scratching’ begins again. I jump in response. Repeat ad nauseam.

And then, I thought about some of the techniques I’ve used to try to combat these these states of mind and being:

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.


I have tried many strategies for partial or total withdrawal: timed writing periods (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour); eight-hour fasts (I pulled off several of these in 2009…to date, this remains my most successful, if not repeated since, intervention; since then, somehow, it has been all too easy to convince myself that when I work, I should stay online because, you know, I might need to ‘look something up’); weekend sabbaths (only accomplished once, when I logged off on a Friday night, and logged back on on Sunday morning); evening abstentions (i.e., logging off at the end of a workday and not logging back on when I reached home). None of these strategies has survived, despite each one of them bringing succor of a sort.

And I went on to conclude:

I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction.

I take some solace in the fact that the strategies I have adopted–even if unsuccessful–at least put me in some very good company.

Writer and Reader, Bound Together

Tim Parks, in the New York Review of Books blog, writes on the always interesting, sometimes vexed relationship between writers and their readers, one made especially interesting by the blogger and his mostly anonymous readers and commentators:

As with the editing process…there is the question of an understanding between writer and reader about what kind of reading experience is being offered. Readers like to suppose that their favorite writers—journalists, novelists, or poets—are absolutely independent, free from all interference, but the truth is that if an author indulges his own private idiolect or goes on for too long, he can at best expect to divide readers into those who admire him slavishly, whatever he throws at them, and those who set him aside in desperation. At worst he will be left with no readers at all. Is there a relationship between a writer’s respect for these conventions and the content or tone of what he writes, the kind of opinions we can expect him to have?

The blogosphere, with its wonderful but dangerous flexibility, can ruthlessly betray an author’s attitude toward his readers. Does he respect their precious time and keep things tight? Is he sensitive to their expectations? Is he willing to read the comments on his post and perhaps even respond to them? Dickens, one suspects, might have spent many hours online discussing the fate of Pip Pirrip or Little Nell. As for me, I’m glad to listen to editors and produce an article, and eager to have it widely read. But I’m relieved not to be contractually obliged to engage with readers afterward.

My interaction with ‘my readers’ here has been a mixed one. I still get very few comments on my posts, but some who comment do so quite frequently. Sadly, I am guilty of often not responding to comments. There is a large backlog of them on this site right now, and I keep telling myself that I will sit down and take care of them. But parenting is taking up a lot of time, as are my reduced work duties, and of course, so does the rest of my life (and blogging itself). Ironically, sometimes, it is the really thoughtful comment that gets lost because I hesitate to reply too quickly and say something silly. More often than not, this results in that comment remaining unanswered (and on at least two occasions has led to readers accusing me of not wanting to address their critical commentary).  I hope I have not lost too many readers this way. I have also, as noted before, lost a couple of readers, frequent visitors to the comments space, who had grown offended by my political stance. (This will probably happen again.) Those were visible, but obviously, some show up here once, and then leave because they do not find my writings congenial to their politics. (This must have happened during the period when I wrote several posts on the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College.)

While I do not think I will be able to address the issue of offending people by what I write here, I remain committed to answering comments as often, and as thoughtfully, as I can. I hope you’ll stick around and take my word for it.

Happy Birthday Blog!

My blog turns one today. My first post went up on 13 November 2011 and some three hundred and twenty posts have gone up since then. I started to blog because quite simply, all too often, I’d catch myself saying, ‘Really? I don’t think so!’ or ‘Really? How interesting!’ in response to something I’d read or seen or experienced, and wanted a place to write down my responses. I also wanted to reminisce a bit when I felt like it. What I was looking for, it seems, was a letter-to-the-editor plus notebook and scrapbook space. That’s how it started, and that’s how its gone  I have not attempted to write long essays–though I hope to down the line–and neither have I tried to do any academic writing here. (I have at times, commented on my teaching experiences and discussed some writings of mine.) This remains, resolutely, a bit of an informal grab bag.

A year on, and I’m still here, which is a good sign. I enjoy writing here, even if, as might be expected, it can be a struggle at times. I’ve blogged with some frequency, on the theory that I would stop blogging if I didn’t blog regularly. I’ve not, however, blogged while on vacation so my two trips out of New York have resulted in two extended gaps in posting; I’ve not minded that, not in the least; the breaks have been invigorating. (I’ve thought about blogging while on the road but have not enjoyed it so I don’t think I will try it again.) There is still no discernible focus here, which has been, on occasion, pointed out to me as cause for concern and sometimes, conversely, as a strong point. I have sometimes been foolishly intemperate; sometimes confused; sometimes vague; sometimes too quick; par for the course for writing online in a forum like this, I think.

My readership remains modest and suitably ego-deflating. I get a small number of hits every day because of search engines; some folks come here via the links I post on Facebook or Twitter; and there are too, a few folks that read this blog via RSS feeds or email subscriptions. Occasionally, someone has been kind enough to share my posts elsewhere and that has always helped to bring in more readers. I remain very grateful for such gestures of interest. Given the amount of great writing available on the ‘Net, I’m still amazed that anyone reads anything here. I’ve often not been able to respond to comments from readers, because I’ve become caught up with other things and only had time to come back and write my next post. I’ve worked on getting better at this but I’m not sure I can always keep up. Then, there were those readers that were offended by my writing and said so; a couple of readers left in a huff because of disagreements with me in the comments space.

I intend to keep blogging in similar fashion–in terms of frequency and content–for a little while, though for personal reasons I expect my posting frequency to drop off next year. Next year, other writing projects, long on hold, will take up more of my time, but I will continue to post here as and when possible. I also hope to convert some of the pieces here into longer form essays; the posts here will serve as embryonic forms of more extended reflections on the themes touched on in there.

So, really, there you have it. I’ve written a bit here, and I’ll continue to write some more. Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

The Distraction of Distraction

I’ve written on distraction on this blog before (several times: detailing my ‘Net distraction; comparing the distraction attendant when trying to write with a pen as opposed to a word processor or blog editor; describing the effect of changing locales of work on distraction and of persistent online activity on the ‘offline’ world; noting how constraint might be essential to creativity.) This would indicate distraction is often on my mind, that I’m distracted enough by distraction to write about it–again and again. I’d like to think writing on distraction might be curative, that describing my strategies for dealing with it, appraising and evaluating them, might enable me to, as it were, ‘see through them’ to understand what goes wrong. Perhaps writing on distraction will also enable some reckoning with the internal monologues that lead to the breakdown of my ever-weakening resolve to not be distracted; perhaps coming to grips with its phenomenology–the release of tension experienced by responding to a distracting stimulus, the breakdown of my inner resolve to not look away, to not procrastinate–all might help. (It is impossible to write about distraction without writing about anxiety so that little demon will presumably make an appearance.)

At the outset, I should say I find my distraction incapacitating to the extent that–without exaggeration–I can say I am terrified and made unhappy by it. I am prone to thinking I am the most distracted person in the world. (I pen these words in the hope someone will make the effort to try to convince me I’m not so, for  misery needs company.) I experience distraction as a fraying at the edges, a coming apart at the seams, a sundering of the center–whichever description you want to use, it’s all that in my feverish imaginings and experiencing of it.

Since my primary mode of distraction is ‘Net distraction, I’d like to offer another description it. I sometimes use ‘screeching’ or ‘scratching’ in trying to describe the activity in the inside of my cranium that makes me want to stand up and run away–and check mail or reload a page–from reading or writing. All too quickly, when working on a computer, I need ‘release’ and the act of moving the mouse so that something else appears on my screen promises relief. A change of screens, that’s all it is. And ironically, I can never take in whatever it is that I switch to. My mind is too blank at that moment, still perhaps processing residual irritation. Then, seething with rapidly accumulating anxiety about my still-on-the-burner work, I switch back. A little later, the ‘scratching’ begins again. I jump in response. Repeat ad nauseam.

The resultant composite sensation resembles nothing as much as it does a kind of emptiness, a vacuity. Nothing has been taken in, nothing emitted. I feel merely depleted. This depletion calls out for replenishment, and thus, strategies for ‘holding down’ the restless wanderer as well. Nothing has worked yet, and by that I mean no strategy–internet fasts for instance–has shown itself to be sustainable. Perhaps the most successful behavioral modification is architectural as in physical distancing, like that present in my trips to the gym, where for a brief, intense set of moments, I can immerse myself and concentrate on physical effort. In those moments, there is genuine relief, not the empty kind experienced when switching tabs. Then, all too soon, the workout ends, I towel off and head home, already, bizarrely, anticipating the moment when I will sit back down at the scene of my perdition.

Note: In subsequent posts I hope to describe my experiences with the strategies I have tried for dealing with distraction.

Re-Reading What One Has Read

A few days ago, I wrote a post on reading (and re-reading) what one writes. Today, I want to put down a few thoughts on the business of re-reading what one has read, sometimes willingly, sometimes not.

Susan Sontag once said, ‘All great books deserve to be read five times at least.’ When asked if she did so often, she replied in the affirmative. (I dimly remember her saying this during a 1992 interview at the 92nd Street Y.) I have never read a book five times–unless you count comic books like the Tintin series, which I’ve re-read dozens of times–but Sontag’s remarks still make acute sense. The most perspicuous definition of a classic book is one that endures, that is read and read again by successive generations, by a diversity of readers. We embody those diversities and temporal passages in our personalities and histories; what better way to enjoy the true worth of a classic than to expose our different selves, changes wrought in them by our unique experiences, to its endlessly multiplied offerings?  It seems staggeringly obvious to me, as it has to many others, that Anna Karenina will be read differently once its reader has actually suffered an acute heartbreak or two, or lived through a slowly disintegrating relationship.

So this sort of re-reading is an acknowledgement of the dynamic relationship between writer and reader, and of the creative nature of reading itself, informed by the particular background that he or she brings to the text. There is another, more mundane, and possibly more infuriating kind of re-reading: when one forgets that a book on our shelves has already been read by us, or even when in returning to a book we are currently reading, we resume at the wrong point and realize that the pages we are staring at are ones that we have read before.

The former might occur to any reader with a sufficiently large library of suitable vintage. We scan through its shelves hunting down the unread, and sometimes forget that our catch is one that we had seized upon and read before. Sometimes we find out quickly as we enter its pages; sometimes revelation arrives late.  I do not think the author should feel insulted that his work had failed to be memorable; our memories are strange things and we still have little idea of what makes some of its inhabitants long-term residents and others merely transitory visitors. Instead, he should hope that I find the revisitation sufficiently invigorating to continue. After all, doesn’t every writer want to be read and read again?

Moving on to the latter kind of re-reading. Resuming a book I’m currently reading, at the wrong point, is a common affliction for me. I do not use bookmarks–for some reason, I absolutely disdain them–and I often forget the page number where I had halted. I try to locate the point of departure but that quest often goes wrong, and so I plunge in with a guess. And sometimes, a page or so later, I come upon a passage that tells me I have been this way before. I find this experience curiously shaming sometimes: Was I not paying attention the last time I was reading these pages?  But here again there is reassurance for both reader and writer: I get a second chance to put things right and pay heed to the writer’s efforts and the writer gets another opportunity to keep me hooked till the end. Oh, and yes, the writer gets read again.

The ‘Narcissism of the True Artist’ and Reading What One Writes

In his seminal Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy, RJ Hollingdale, after noting that Nietzsche made note of some forty-six poems composed between 1855 and 1858, goes on to say:

The sign that he was a born writer, however, is not to be found in them, but in a remark in Aus Meinem Leben [From My Life], where describing his earliest efforts in verse, he says, ‘In any event, it was always my design to write a little book and read it myself’–a childish expression of the narcissism of the true artist, who works because he wants to admire what he has done.

There is one rather mundane way in which one reads what one writes: the infuriatingly necessary re-readings of one’s writings in an effort to get them ‘just right.’ This results–as I have experienced in the closing stages of getting a book manuscript to the publisher–in a peculiar sort of nausea at the sight of one’s ‘beloved.’ At that moment, weary and exhausted by the endless redrafting, polishing and proof-reading, I want only to be done with the damn thing. It’s not as if I’ve considered the ‘product’ then to be complete; rather, it is that I cannot summon up the energy for another painfully close and exacting edit. (Months later, when I look at the submitted version, I’m astonished by how much dross I let get by me.)

Then, there is the ‘narcissistic’ way: going back to read what one has written, perchance to admire and self-congratulate. It doesn’t always quite work out that way: all too often, our reaction to what we have written in the past is horror at the juvenile confusion on display. (I suspect this is by far the most common reaction that most writers have.) The internet, of course, has added a wrinkle to this: what we have written in the past is preserved seemingly forever, for others to search, track down and deploy against us. (I shudder to think of the trail of unmitigated nonsense I have left behind me in my perambulations through internet fora.)

But there are times when we do admire what we have written. And this is productive of a pair of peculiar sensations related to each other. One, I think, is a kind of mystification: Did I really write that? The second, is an acute anxiety: Will I ever be able to repeat that? The sense of wonder, of puzzlement, about the source of the sentence(s) we see before us reminds us that we are often not quite sure of the provenance of a desirable turn of phrase, from whence it came, what prompted it. The worry about our capacity to pull off a repeat is an acknowledgment of the same conundrum: If I don’t quite know how I pulled it off the first time, how am I ever to encore? The endless theorizing about the ‘process’ of writing, the ‘writers’ tips,’ indeed, the entire arsenal of writing instruction, often seems a tacit acknowledgment of this simple fact of writing: we are never quite in control of it all.

Colm Tóibín on the ‘Real’ and the ‘Imagined’

Colm Tóibín writes of the intimate relationship between facts and fiction (‘What Is Real Is Imagined’, New York Times, July 14 2012), about how the story-teller’s primary responsibility is to the story, about how the novelist may, in creating fiction, embroider the facts, embellishing and enhancing, for being stuck just with the facts is not a good place to be:

If I had to stick to the facts, the bare truth of things, that would be no use….It would be thin and strange, as yesterday seems thin and strange, or indeed today.

But the facts that the writer dresses up and ‘alters’ should only be those that he knows intimately:

If I tried to write about a lighthouse and used one that I had never seen and did not know, it would show in the sentences. Nothing would work; it would have no resonance for me, or for anyone else.

No man can give that which is not his, I suppose.

So the writer may draw freely and creatively upon the ‘known real,’ while not being too fastidious about offending the living:

I feel that I have only rights, and that my sole responsibility is to the reader, and is to make things work for someone I will never meet. I feel just fine about ignoring or bypassing the rights of people I have known and loved to be rendered faithfully, or to be left in peace, and out of novels. It is odd that the right these people have to be left alone, not transformed, seems so ludicrous.

These are all good observations on the art and ethics of writing fiction.

But Tóibín starts off by trying to make a distinction that should have struck him as untenable:

The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.

Tóibín imagines here the distinction to be a clear one, between the hardness of land and the ‘softness’ of water, between the tangible, graspable solidity of land, and the quicksilver, through-your-fingers elusiveness of water. But the ‘universe of what is clear and visible and known’ is a universe infected with the ‘fictions’ of our theories about it. What is ‘clear and visible and known’ springs sharply into focus because of those fictions. And land? Land is shot through and through with water. Dig a little, you hit water. Pick up a handful of dirt – it’ll have moisture. From these admittedly crude imaginings one can arrive at the recognition that ‘fact’ is suffused with ‘fiction,’ just as the bare, solid, visible land is, that what we imagine solid is all to easily revealed to be  squishy and permeable.

The ‘bare truth of things’ that Tóibín speaks of is visible to us because of the stories we have told ourselves about it.  He knows this, surely. Why else would he say that ‘what is real is imagined’?