The New York Times’ Opinionator blog once again proves why it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite things on the internet. First time novelist and writing professor Benjamin Nugent writes in their “Draft” section (one that’s devoted entirely to writing) that the Luddite lifestyle he adapted when starting his MFA program in the rural midwest turned out to harm, not help, his writing. The whole piece, appropriately titled “Upside of Distraction” is sweet, sweet salve for a procrastinator’s guilt.
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.
He’s got a reassuring message for us writers with real world day jobs, too:
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.
Recently, I’ve noticed that my work in my nonfiction writing class and efforts as a newbie blogger have made me better at my real job. Maybe not substantively better, since it involves a very, very different kind of writing than what I do here or in class. But it’s made me better in terms of perspective, mindset and sanity. It’s like a friend once said to me when I was single and dating: “Have lots going on.” In other words, don’t hang your hopes and self-esteem on one pursuit (a creative or romantic one). Having lots going on outside my day job, real work I can see going somewhere and that I enjoy, helps ease the frustrations that come with any desk job. And when I feel as though I’m failing as a writer, or (most often) am beating myself up for not getting as much outside stuff done as I’d like — this blog post or that story pitch or that interview that would have made an assignment for class so much stronger — having a day job that’s often interesting and stimulating can be a cold, necessary reminder of what matters: it’s what’s affording me the luxury to do these things in this city in the first place. When you have lots going on, no one thing can be the measure of your worth.
Sidenote: Benjamin Nugent’s debut novel looks really good. Based on reviews, it’s family and character driven…probably the kind of thing they’d call “chick lit” if he weren’t a dude.