Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Email

"No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide."

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, 1996

I'm starting to believe that email is a writer's worst enemy. It could be the enemy of anyone who works at home, or on a computer, but I think writers are the most vulnerable to its stealthy attack.

Here's why. If you are a writer, answering email feels like you are working. You are typing, after all. And sometimes it is work, but other times it's just conversation. And even if it is important work, it's still a distraction.

For writers, who love to communicate through writing, its an incredibly tempting distraction. In fact, it's much more fun to answer email than to remain stuck in the middle of a scene that isn t working, or wrestle with a feature story that's overly complex. I'm fairly convinced I've acquired ADD (attention deficit disorder) from checking and rechecking my email.

Clearly I'm lacking in mental self-discipline, so I've tried other solutions. With my old computer, I could take out the wireless card and put it in the basement. With my new computer, the wireless is built in. I've tried disabling the software, but it's too easy re-enable to be an effective deterrent. I've even tried unplugging the modem and shutting the whole system down, only my neighbor's wireless isn't secured, so my computer automatically started picking up my email through her system.

When people buy Blackberries or the I-Phone for the ability to connect to the web, I think they are insane. The last thing I'd ever want is mobile access to my email.

So is email a problem for anyone else, and if it is, have you found a solution?

HANK: There's no question I'm addicted to email. I always think: there might be good news. And I can't wait to see it. I physically miss it when I don't check. It's ridiculous.

So. When I'm writing, I turn off the little music that comes up to announce I have new mail. I've realized I'm a perfect Pavlovian specimen when it comes to that little sound. It bings, and I can't stand it. I have to look. So I just turn off the sound.

I also set a time. When I'm writing, I can only look at the email once an hour, and I choose the time, very specifically. It's now--4:16. I can look at my email again at 5:16. I obey myself. This actually works.

My email has a little indicator where you can put a red flag on stuff you absolutely must respond to. Every one of mine is flagged, so that doesn't work at all.

Because it's true: the amount of time you can spend on email expands to fill the amount of time you have. I could do it all day, every day. And not be finished. Never, ever be finished.
And sometimes I power through a bunch of correspondence...and feel very virtuous. Then I wonder--did any of that matter?

Gotta go. I heard a bing.

RO:It's very easy to convince yourself that checking email, or Myspace or voicemail or whatever is "working." I think of it as working "light". It's not really working, but it's closer to it than going shopping, or kayaking or any number of things that you might be doing. It may be a problem if you do it every day or for more than an hour a day but, I think I have it under control. I can quit anytime I like, as they say....

HALLIE: Sure you can.

Actually email is like "research," or Marbles (my husband got me hooked on it after I took Solitaire off my system) -- the thing I do to put off writing. Then again, maybe email addiction is nature's way of keeping us from pouring too much dross onto the pages.

Related question--how come the more I have on my plate, the more I get done? I open email nine thousand times on a day when all I have to do is write fiction. When I've got an article due and training materials to write and work for a client and and and...I may not open email at all.

Do you check the mail that gets automatically shunted to your SPAM or SCREENED mail folder?
If an email shows up in your SPAM or SCREENED MAIL folder with the topic GREAT NEWS, can you NOT open it??
If you get an email dated three minutes ago, do you put off replying because the person will think all you do all day is email???

RO: Yes, yes, no. But, uh, did you just post this...does that mean all I do all day is...

HANK: Yes. Yes, easy to ignore. (But if one says: 'Congratulations!' That's harder.Also if one says: 'Why did you miss the meeting?' I generally fall for that one. And, no. (I feel great if I happen to be able to answer quickly. That's one more thing I "accomplished.")

JAN: No. No. (always skeptical) Yes. You think there's a 12-step program that can help me?


  1. In 1997 I wrote a little radio piece about my ambivalent relationship with AOL's 'You've Got Mail' guy. (He made news, that guy, had a real name, but he was my private Patrick.) While sometimes the timbre of his "You've Got Mail!" affirmed me (subtext: Why of course you've got mail. You, my darling, will always have mail), other times Patrick sounded dubious (Good God, woman, why would anyone write to YOU?). How could one .wav file be so changeable? I couldn't take the mixed messages, his passive aggressiveness on what was, for me, obviously a bad day, and about the time AOL merged with Time Warner, I dumped Patrick for the voice of my automated banking system -- a vaguely Latino, Levi's buttonfly 501 silky tomcat purr -- always suggestive, never dubious. Esteban made even bad news sound good. When I called to get my checking account balance and he reported, "Your balance is eight dollars and sixty-two cents," then went on to ask: "Ever thought about a dream vacation? Press 4 and explore the possibilities...", I thought Yes, baby, yes, and I pressed four until the number blurred and the key went blank.

    But all that's behind me now. My bank went online and Esteban went away. My e-mailbox has its sound de-selected (I traded Patrick for the sexless -ping!- of Gmail, and then I killed the -ping!-), and I never leave the mail client open while I work. I'm always tempted to check email (and shop Ebay and *ahem* read blogs), but if I'm really working I'll go someplace where I can write but can't connect to the Web. There's a favorite local coffee shop with WiFi that gasps and sputters and infuriates patrons (who all head elsewhere, leaving that glorious space and its gourmet cupcakes to ME!), and I also work quite a bit at a table in the garden or -- on rainy days -- in a little cottage we built in the backyard that has electricity, but no phone and no Internet. If I have any self-disclipine at all, it's to park myself somewhere with e-mail out of reach. Once I'm settled, I'm too lazy to move, and I stick for 5-6 hours.

    And the good news is that e-mail no longer delights. There's always more of it than there is of me. Any really good news I ever get is preceded by a phone call. So I happily purge my Spam filter without opening urgent messages that ask me to change my password, offer $10 million in offshore funds or promise to enlarge my penis.

    Select All. Delete All. It's like a head high-colonic. Who needs Patrick? Empty feels pretty good.

  2. I do my best writing when I can't get on the Internet or access email. Before I moved to NYC, I always planned trips there (from Boston) around the time I had a book due. It gave me 4 1/2 hrs of solid writing time each way with no Internet to distract me. Worked like a charm everytime! (And then I could go have a fun adventure in the city to reward myself for my hard work.)

  3. Susannah--please please submit that post to some magazine. Or newspaper op ed department. Or someplace where many more than the (certainly thousands) of Jungle Red-ers can read it. Or make it a followup to your first radio piece. It's so droll..and so perfect.

    Marianne..of course you had to put yourself on wireless-free interstate transportation to get yourself off of email. I know you. You could probably send email by telepathy. your brain is so high-tech, it's probably cyber-connected without even a computer.

    And back to Susannah. Remember that woman's voice who answered 411 when you called information? The automated version.

    And if she didn't get what you were saying, she'd say: "I don't understand what you're saying." Which was so annoying. Her tone was like: 'You're an idiot. Speak more clearly.'

    And then I always responded: "Operator." Which was the way to get a real person. And there would be this pause, and the automated voice would wearily say, "Okay, I'll connect you to an operator."

    Left unsaid was, "Moron. You can't even handle this state of the art system. I'll give stupid plodding you to another anachronism."

    Once I complained. I said to the real person, "You know, I hate that automated voice." She sighed, and replied, "Everyone says that."

  4. Sorry, I'm just too busy WORKING to respond to any of this. Except, I gotta join Hank in urging you, Susannah, to submit that piece to someone who might actually give you money as well as applause. - Mo

  5. Marianne,
    I've learned to love The Acela for just the same reason! I'm wondering, those people who bring their laptops to work at Starbucks -- do they go there to escape the Internet, or is Starbucks wired so you can access your email? This answer oould determine where I work this week.

  6. Jan,
    Isn't the Acela great? It's cozy, comfy, there's a quiet car, food, drinks, electricity, yet no Internet!

    Starbucks has Internet, but you have to pay for it. So leave your credit card at home and just bring enough cash for your latte and you should be all set. I find the B&N cafes good as well. Lots of inspiration all around you--if you're not writing, someone else is willing to take your spot on the shelf.

    Hank, lol. No email telepathy yet, but do have a Treo, which is just as bad. I'll have to start going underground to work in the subways soon. The last Internet free territory in the city.

  7. This week email, blogging and web surfing -- all under scrutiny and about to have limits placed on them. I work from a home office, which means that I'm always writing and blogging when I should be working or I'm working and answering work emails when I'm supposed to be writing. I've determined the home office can no longer be dual purpose and I have to turn the auto-forward that sends me gmail to my work email account off. My writing space is about to migrate away from my desk :)

  8. I think it was J.K. Rowling who commented that her break from writing (in lieu of a cigarette, when she was trying to quit) was/is the game Minesweeper. Yes -- I just found it (oh dear, blog reading *and* web researching in a single 10-minute, no-I-am-NOT-currently-revising indiscretion). On her website she proudly asserts a personal best time of 101 seconds at "Expert Level".

    Somewhere in there, she must have set a rule for herself. One game per two hours? Play no longer than it takes to smoke a cigarette? I've never seen a quote on her relationship to e-mail, but hey -- anyone who takes a writing break playing a game based on evading disaster may feel empowered enough afterward to wade back into Chapter Sixteen without needing to write anyone about it.

  9. Funnily enough, this week, my laptop has decided to go silent on me - except for those annoying little elevator-like pings I must have programed in when I first got the thing. Anyway, without Mick Jagger's voice telling me I've got some letters, I don't check nearly as often.

  10. Sometimes you spend too much time answering emails when there are other important matters to attend to.

  11. We should learn to back up our emails for future reference. Right now I'm using Microsoft Outlook and I see to it that I save all the important emails I will need.

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