On Focus

Just lately, everything I read provides another example of extraordinary creative productivity. Agatha Christie, for instance, passed through amazing periods of writing, Between 1930 and 1940, she published 27 novels or collections of short stories, and that’s not counting the plays. And these were her magnificent years, the years of her best work, not just the best speed of production. One of the novels she published under the name of Mary Westmacott she wrote over the course of three days on holiday. How could anyone do such a thing?

But she’s not alone; there’s an anecdote I always remember about Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. Three weeks after war was declared, he went to see Harold Nicholson in his chambers at the Temple, and commissioned him to write a Penguin Special of 50,000 words entitled, Why Britain Is At War. He took delivery of the manuscript a fortnight later. Then there’s the extraordinary women of the 19th century: Mary Braddon, who brought up 11 children, five dating from her common law husband’s first marriage, six that she gave birth to herself, while writing over 80 novels. Or Fanny Trollope, author of a whopping 100 volumes, who also had money problems and numerous children, a fair few of them languishing towards death while she wrote in the other room.

Now me, if I get 5,000 words a week, I figure I’m doing quite well. I often don’t.

I’ve been puzzling over this, wondering why it is that we are such slowcoaches compared to those 19th and 20th century authors. (Who are the big-output writers of the contemporary culture? Ruth Rendell, perhaps, Lee Child? I can’t think of anyone headed towards 80 novels.) Nor do I think I’m alone in being a slow writer, in fact, most writers I know or know about produce more or less the same number of words. Partly it’s because we are expected to do more towards the business of living, despite all those so-called labour-saving gadgets. No servants these days to cook and clean and look after children. All those emails and phone messages to answer (although the authors I mention often wrote quite a few letters), the internet to surf. But it still doesn’t quite account for what I feel in my bones is a more dissipated way of living in the modern world, in which our focus is fragmented time and again over the course of each day.

Reading one of my student’s essays today on Foucault, I got excited about what felt like a revelation. And perhaps it isn’t; maybe it’s just me following some little jumpy idea around, bedazzled by its lustre. But anyway, it was an essay on surveillance, and the way that changes in the systems of discipline and punishment had resulted in changes in the way we govern ourselves. So the example most people know of Foucault’s theories – if they’ve heard of him at all – is the panopticon. This is the prison arranged with a central viewing tower and cells surrounding it. Each cell is visible from the central vantage point, but prisoners in the cells do not know if they are being watched or not. All they know is that they may be under observation at any time of day. In consequence, they tend to internalise discipline, rather than have to have it imposed upon them by punishments. They are more likely to behave according to the rules ‘just in case’. The system of justice is only one example of a society ever more concerned with policing its citizens closely. Take health care, for instance. Nowadays it’s not enough for us to be healthy; we have to engage all the time in health-promoting activities, just in case something we are doing may be killing us. It’s not enough not to smoke; we mustn’t even feel urges towards our vices. Agatha Christie was not bothered about getting herself to the gym, or eating well-balanced meals. It must have been a weight off her mind. And she lived to a fine old age, regardless.

We live in a world where increasingly we could be guilty at any moment – guilty of not doing or thinking or feeling the things we ought. And I wonder just how much of our energy goes on self-surveillance, and on trying to do things or stop doing things, that our society censures. The rise and rise of attachment parenting must be contributing to this, because what attachment parenting means is that the child is constantly observed by its parents. Darwin was the first to promote observation of small children. He motivated an army of mothers to watch and note down their children’s growth and development. For the first time, unsurprisingly, the children began to suffer from anxiety, having been made aware of themselves and their potential to do things wrong. Of course, children who are neglected get anxious too – it’s a fine balancing act, weighing enough concern against enough healthy neglect. But I do think it leads us to watch ourselves more closely as adults. What is social media, after all, other than a form of self-surveillance that we hold out to the attention of others? Why would people post status updates on facebook about the nice piece of toast they’ve just eaten, or their relief at having finished filling in tax forms? All this requires time and energy and attention. If we weren’t paying so much time and attention to policing our inner worlds, wouldn’t we have more energy and focus to give to projects outside of ourselves?

(And given that blog posts can also be a form of self-surveillance that wastes energy, I apologise to all my friends waiting for emails from me – very busy week! So sorry! Will write soon!)

44 thoughts on “On Focus

  1. I think you are spot on about why we don’t have time to be more “productive” in the areas that count. I know for myself that I waste time doing things or thinking about things that aren’t really critical and often miss the chance to pursue things that would be more meaningful for me. I’d have to say that my smartphone and the Internet are both a blessing and a curse too! We have many more distractions to keep up from focusing on what is really important.

    • Kathleen – I think we’re getting used to functioning while always a bit distracted, and that makes it hard to focus, too. I found after my really busy years that it’s good to have some fallow time every day with nothing going on. But even that is hard to enjoy, because my head is so full of all the little things I feel I ought to do, and I’m just nagging myself to get on and do them. Oh for more compartmentalisation!

    • Well that’s true, but our ancestors didn’t function in a world with nothing other than work. They had very busy social lives, and in the middle of last century, the radio, the theatre and the cinema were big distractions too. I think it’s how the easy accessibility of distractions affects our thinking over time that’s at stake here.

  2. I think the days used to be longer in Christie’s time and the government is hiding that information from us (it’s a conspiracy!). And so we feel forever guilty about being less productive which causes us to work even harder and worry even more about how inadequate we are. Plus, as someone else mentions, there is TV and the internet, the new and improved opiate of the masses😉

    • Ha! Funny, yes maybe the days were longer. But I think what I’m trying to say is that it’s much harder to compartmentalise. I know there are always dozens of things I really ought to be doing, and because most of them involve the computer that’s right there in the room, I have no excuse for not doing them. Now I’ve finished the Christie biography, I find that she went out to digs in Syria in order to avoid being bothered by hundreds of tasks. You couldn’t escape them anywhere in the world these days!

  3. I think the equivalent now would be James Patterson – 71 novels and counting. I think it is quicker if you are writing to a formula in a genre and using the same characters through a series, as you are not starting from scratch each time. Agatha Christie did this with Marple and Poirot of course. I think there are quite a few self-published genre writers who are also knocking out two or three or four books a year, though I couldn’t possibly comment on the quality of their output.
    I think it’s partly about mindset – thinking of writing as a business rather than a matter of creativity and inspiration. There are plenty of journalists who churn out thousands of words every day, because it’s their job to do so.
    Personally, though, I’m deathly slow – if I write any slower I’ll be writing backwards. But I consider it a better day if I have written 200 of the right words than if I have written 2000 of the wrong ones.

    • Oh good call. I was wracking my brains to try to think of a really prolific author and just couldn’t. And yes, some people do manage to find a mindset – like Sebastian Faulkes who has an office he turns up to from nine to five every day (very similar to the journalist he used to be, I guess!). I did laugh at your comment about going backwards (and agree with your sentiments). I like the anecdote about poor old Joseph Conrad, who used to thump his head against his desk after he’d sat there for eight hours without finding a single word. (Don’t do this at home)

      On another note, I received an email to let me know that Deep Country is winging its way to me as we speak. I’m looking forward to it very much indeed.

    • Archie (hello!! lovely to see you!) I just cannot tweet. 140 characters is about a third of a thought for me! But I appreciate some of the links people post. Still, I really don’t need another time sink – a hungry blog is about all I can deal with!🙂

  4. Fascinating post. I’m always slightly suspicious of highly prolific novelists as though quantity doesn’t equal quality which is of course nonsense. I particularly admire writers who wrote one perfect book – Harper Lee for example.

    • Oh the restraint of the one perfect book! I know what you mean – when writers just seem to churn out books, it does indicate that some at least will be turkeys! I am ashamed to say I have never read To Kill A Mockingbird. I really do want to, though (and where have we heard that before!).

  5. I immediatly thought of Carol Joyce Oates writes something like a novel a year. Plus she writes essays, short stories, etc. and has a teaching position. And she does not write genre literature. She isn’t to everyone’s taste. I have read two of her books so far (The Falls and We Were the Mulvaneys) and thought both were pretty good.

    I do think that technology which is supposed to make us MORE efficient sometimes really does have the opposite effect. I wonder sometimes about the prevelence of attention deficit disorder in children and now adults. Is this is a modern affliction; take away the tv and the phones, the beeps and the buzzes, would anyone still suffer from it?

    That said, I had better stop messing about on the internet and get back to work!;)

    • Joyce Carol Oates is another excellent call. And I do not know HOW she does it. I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read by her, although enjoy might not be the right word as she is always disquieting. I read a piece in the newspaper a couple of years ago now about the problems of the modern age and one was ‘constant partial stupidity’, which was what they termed the inability to concentrate because of continual distractions. I thought it was a rather good name.

      Your last comment really made me laugh!

  6. Stephen King is another modern equivalent, and he experiments with format and style quite a lot. For him, it’s all about a personal commitment to sit down and write every day. And to read when he’s not writing. From what I can tell, he sees it very much as a job you do whether you’re feeling inspired or not.

    Your point about self-monitoring is fascinating. I find that with logging my diet, my books, etc., etc., I feel like I spend up chronicling what I’m doing (a form of keeping myself accountable) as I spend doing the things.

    • Yes, Stephen King is also a terrific call. (And another author I have yet to read). He brings out some real chunksters too, doesn’t he? I’m sure it is that job mentality that helps, and wonder if it is itself a powerful antidote to other forms of distraction. Yes! You get exactly what I mean about self-monitoring, thank you! If I sat down and just did all the online emails and comment replies and blog visits and so on that I need to do rather than keep calculating them over and over and figuring out what order to do them in, and which I can afford to leave, etc, it would be so much quicker….

  7. I read an article last week about how people in the U.S. work more hours than most other countries, yet remain less productive… hmmm

    • I think that working long hours is always counter productive. I remember friends who became lawyers saying, well yes, they worked until 9 or 10 at night, but that usually meant that around 5 o’clock everyone was exhausted, and they would send out for pizza and take things easy for several hours. After all, we aren’t machines, and no one can work constantly without breaks. Well, apart from mothers….😉

  8. I think there is a fair amount of genre writers who is extreemely prolific and some others are as well. Joyce Carol Oates etc. I don’t know why they can do it while others can’t. I already mentioned that in another comment, I belive reading less is one way to go but focus, I agree, is key. In The Art of WAr Pressfield sees all this getting distrcated as just one way to procastinate.
    I have a full-work week, given that it’s not easy but I manage to maintain three blogs and watch movies and read books and what not…. Clearly if I wanted to write more other things, some of all of this would have to go. I’ve already sacrificed housekeeping …That was sooo painful. Lol

    • Caroline – lol! Yes, housekeeping is clearly the first thing to go…. and I’m amazed at all you manage to get done (although the impression Brits have of Germans is that they are amazingly efficient). What I’m trying to get at is the lack of compartmentalisation that creeps into modern life. When I’m writing on my laptop, I’m conscious that I also have a number of emails I owe, and that I should answer comments on my blog, and visit other bloggers, and fix up student appointments, and order this that and the other. I don’t have to move from my seat in order to do these tasks, and so I seem to have no excuse for NOT doing them. But the point is that whether I do them or not, I’m wasting time and energy watching myself procrastinate, and having one part of my mind nag the other!

  9. Fascinating post!

    Weren’t writers in the 19th century paid by the word? People’s only entertainment being these printed serials, I guess that productivity and quantitiy mattered more than quality. I read some Dumas lately and by today’s standards the text could well be cut by half or more…

    I don’t quite agree about the weight of (self-)surveillance influencing our writing output, when I consider the weight of guilt-inducing religious rules and social conventions in the 19th century alone. We’re indeed more distracted, but we’re also more free to say (and publish on FB) whatever goes through our mind, even toast and tax forms.

    • Ah you see this may be just because I don’t update my status on facebook, but why would I want to tell people about the toast and the tax? You see, I would think that it wouldn’t interest others. Your point about the rules and social conventions of the 19th century is fascinating, but don’t you think that these rules were so strictly imposed and so widely upheld that people didn’t have to question what would happen if they broke them? They knew. Today, freedom itself is an issue, because we are all free to do as we please, to become what we can, to go and be whatever most appeals. And in doing that we have to be much more self-aware, which in itself takes time and involves a lot of thinking and decision making.

      I quite agree that Dumas could have used a rigorous editor! And authors did write for serialisation. They probably felt what they wrote was of good quality (Victor Hugo refused to believe that his long, descriptive middle section in Notre Dame de Paris was as dull as his editor told him and insisted it was not dropped from the full, printed volume!), but the nineteenth century reader probably had a bit more patience with the text than we do….

  10. You’re so right about productivity and why it’s changed. So many days I find myself planning to rewrite at least three more pages of my novel. Then, I get sucked into terrible time warps (mostly online, but sometimes not. Sometimes it’s just deciding I need to clean out a closet or organize all my spices alphabetically). And the pressures to plan healthy meals and get that 30 minutes of exercise in every day are ones I have a hard time ignoring. We just have so many distractions.

    • Absolutely! The mere thought of all I ought to do – including my spice racks and my closet – takes up energy and mental space I could use more productively elsewhere. You see just what I mean!

  11. You’ve brought up a most interesting and relevant point. I don’t know why either… Yes, ironically, reading takes up a lot of my time which I should be working on a writing project, and then there’s blogging, which just about takes up most of my time in a day. I’m beginning to find myself even addicted to my laptop, reading, researching, despite seeing doubles when I look away from it. I need to be a recluse to make time for myself. But, I’m taking time off next week, a little hiatus. So, hope that can help realign myself. 🙂

    • Arti – that’s how I feel – I need to be a recluse. Because nothing takes up time and energy like other people – not even worrying uses up as much rocket fuel!🙂 I would so like to put aside a couple of hours every day for other kinds of writing but it hasn’t happened yet. I do hope you have a lovely time off. I’m all for breaks. They keep us fresh and creative.

  12. This is a really interesting post litlove, I shall have to think about it…

    I do agree with lots of the factors commenters have noted above. I think however that the comparison with journalists, who do have to write prolifically and fast, is an apt one, also genre writers who can produce two or three books per year. Most novelists these days can’t make ends meet on what they earn from their writing, I know Trollope was a postman (is that right?) but most earlier writers were able to dedicate more time and energy to their work.

    I also wonder whether the act of writing hasn’t changed a lot. It’s easy to endlessly rewrite and edit on a computer, much harder with a pen and ink. Plus I doubt Dickens and Braddon gave a thought to English literature students as they scribbled away, but I bet that serious novelists do worry about the quality of their prose a lot more, their contribution to Literature. We have a great deal more literary theory these days, and it must tempt writers to be self-conscious in a way that perhaps earlier writers were not. Maybe modernism is wot done for us?

    • You’re right, Helen, that authors have the most dreadful struggle these days to make ends meet, and only a very few can call it their profession. And it’s an interesting thought that self-consciousness about prose also slows the modern writer down. I’ve only seen a few handwritten manuscripts. Proust’s was a mess of crossing out, George Eliot was amazing, did it all pretty much first time, and Colette was somewhere in between. I put my hand up to spending a fair amount of time editing what I write (although most blog posts are first drafts – tempting though it is to try and neaten them up!). So maybe technology, that old time saver, is again the thing that makes us more self-conscious about what we are writing, and more prone to procrastination!

      • Hah, well, I guess I was wrong about self-consciousness being a modern affliction then! (And yes, it probably would have helped if I’d actually seen a few manuscripts before making that generalisation!)

        I’ve been thinking more about what you wrote, and about everyone else’s responses. I was a little amused (in a nice way!) that we all hurried to excuse ourselves in relation to those productive writers of the past. Perhaps even for their times they were unusual? I don’t know. And now I’ve read Lilian’s comment and I think that’s brilliant too, but it definitely fits in with what you wrote.

      • Oh no, not wrong at all! Thinking about it further, I remember now Josipovici’s book on modernism. His line was that modernist writers had a hellish time because they had no tradition to write it. Every book was starting from scratch in a way, with the form and content asking to be redefined. And if you look at Agatha Christie, say, she wrote far more than Conan Doyle, or Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham, even though they were all quite prolific in their way. So some of those amazing outputs really were just plain amazing!

  13. What an interesting discussion. There have been so many innovations to save us time – washing machines, hoovers, dishwashers, to name but a few – and then so many modern ways to waste the time we’ve saved. When I limit myself to checking blogs, forums, emails etc only three times a day, I’m amazed at how much more time I have.

    • Karen, well isn’t that the truth! That the time we save, we lose pretty instantaneously. I really ought to cut back email checking. It can be so easy to do it almost obsessively (and particularly when I have lots of jobs I don’t want to do) and it’s hardly likely that anything exciting is about to come in. Sometimes I ask myself – what am I hoping to receive? It’s amazing how hope is so blind to reality…..

  14. This makes so much sense–it fits in with the research I read about the amount of energy required in exerting will power, and how that takes away from the energy available for other mental pursuits.

    • Yes! That’s it exactly, Lilian. Now you remind me of that post you wrote, and how true I thought it was when I read it. Any exertion of mental will power is hugely draining on the batteries. Thank you – that’s exactly what I was scrabbling after without expressing it very well!

  15. Very interesting post. And I imagine that Agatha Christie had people to cook and clean for her! I think 5,000 words is impressive. I’m very interested in those lucky people who manage to get into the ‘flow’ and produce works of brilliance in a small amount of time but all too often I have to be concerned with those kids who struggle to concentrate and produce good work at all.

    • Pete – well yes, I imagine that is your world right now, and it’s not an easy one, is it? Tell me about it! We must swap experiences. And yes, for most of her life Christie had servants, well at least until WW2, and she died in what, the early 1970s? Something like that. Bless you for thinking 5,000 words good. I need the encouragement!🙂

  16. I’m always frantic on the weekends trying to get everything done and then feeling guilty that I don’t accomplish everything on my list. Then I feel annoyed that my whole weekend went towards doing things and not relaxing. It’s a vicious cycle, which I really hate. It’s not wonder I am always feeling grumpy of late. I think there are just far too many distractions anymore and maybe even more expectations–it’s exhausting.

    • Danielle – oh so true. I think I am just in one of those periods at the moment when there is just too much to do. The house is a mess and I’ve got lots of phone calls outstanding and I haven’t baked a cake in ages. But if there’s no relaxation at the weekends then the week is going to be a real drag! I agree that the expectations for what we can accomplish seem to rise all the time. And I am getting older…..!🙂

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