Despicable cottages

Laura Miller

Laura Miller
New York, New York, USA
Senior Writer
I work for Salon, mostly writing about books, and occasionally about TV and film. I edited The Salon Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors and am the author of the new book, "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."


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SEPTEMBER 10, 2009 10:39AM

A cabin in the woods

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I haven't posted in weeks, mostly because I was away through much of August, staying in places without Internet access. That was both intentional and unnerving, since I've been thinking a lot lately about the effect that the constant stimulation of the Net has had on my ability to concentrate, whether I'm trying to get something significant accomplished or just want to sit still and read without jumping up every 10 minutes to check email. So I sought out the fabled cabin in the woods to think, read and even write a bit.

Most writers have a fantasy workplace, an environment where, if they could only get the trappings and atmosphere just right, they'd be so much more productive than they are when jammed into a corner of the living room with family life raging all around them. Some want utter solitude, others want the mild white noise and bustle of a cafe. While my home is more tranquil than most, it still has its distractions: dishes to be washed and phone calls to be answered.

Getting away from the biggest distractor in my life -- the Internet -- turned out to be enlightening. I got a lot of reading and thinking done, including some much-delayed research for my next book project. Still, the outside world intruded; a few days after I left, Salon announced the lay-offs of several editors and writers, including my own wonderful editor, Joy Press. I could tell my day job is going to be looking a lot different in the immediate future, but I tried not to think about that until I got back.

As perfect as the places I stayed were, I can't afford to spend much time in them, and I don't really want to live out in the country where I can only get online once a day by driving into town to visit the library. The most productive and accomplished writers I know can work almost anywhere: on planes, in hotel rooms, with other people chattering in the same house or room, with chores piling up and the phone off the hook.

Like so many of the key skills of the writer's life, the solution comes down to (groan) self-discipline. I came back resolved to break my habit of checking email and the Web (even to handle essential, chore-like tasks) whenever the urge strikes. I've converted to the "no email before noon" productivity cult and save up any web-based activity for after I've done the day's allotted reading and writing. (Unlike most people, I find that reading now seems to be even more challenging to my powers of concentration than writing, perhaps because as a journalist I'm usually writing on deadline.)

Now that I'm paying more attention to the insidious impulse to "take a little break," I see that it hits whenever I'm looking at a project that requires full and deep attention. I know that these projects are both more rewarding and more interesting that what people I barely know are posting on Twitter and Facebook, but trivia can be very seductive. Like potato chips, it's hard to resist once you've allowed yourself "just a taste." You have to build yourself a cabin, not of logs but of hours, and not in the woods, but during some part of every day. And then you have to lock the door.

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A log cabin of the mind... (rather than a "Coney Island of the Mind") Yes. That is what I do when I want to compose music. There is always the temptation to click-around on the Internet as a distraction (or see what my Salon favorites are up to.) I also notice because of the sheer volume of interesting material I start to 'skim' rather than read....and I miss a lot by doing that. I also type too fast and send messages which require decoding. Those things do not happen as much when reading a printed book, or writing a letter by hand. best wishes, C.