Monday, June 7, 2010

de Botton on the Difficulty of Focusing

In City Journal, Alain de Botton (author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work) considers just how difficult it has become to focus one's attention on something for an extended period of time. Excerpts:
One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties -- something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows. We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture -- and, in the process, we don't allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds.
Read the whole thing. Sometimes I catch myself woolgathering over novel ideas, gathering snips and snatches of ideas that I think would make for a good book. I shuffle such fanciful thinking aside pretty quickly. Ostensibly, I'd like to achieve some success with my short fiction before moving on to longer forms; one feels better about skinning up his compositional knees, so to speak, when the word count is smaller. But there's also this nagging doubt that keeps yanking on my hair and whispering rude things into my ear: Could I concentrate long enough to finish it? Reading The Lord of the Rings in the one-volume edition that Tolkien intended or diving into George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series feels a bit daunting right now. And if reading for extended periods is challenging, mustn't writing must be even more so?

(Picture: CC 2005 by
Tim Cummins; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)


Anonymous said...

I think writing a long work (novel) is easier, actually, than writing a short work. Yes, there's tons to go into it and yes, it takes a longer time. But the concentrated feel of a short work, plus the limitations of character development, etc - is too much pressure for me. At least right now.

You need to virtually meet Stephen Parrish - he's at; we're also doing launch-birthday-party this week at I've given him your name about twelve times, but he's disorganized that way and may never make it over here.

AidanF said...

I'm not sure George RR Martin can Concentrate long enough to finish. BTW, I particularly enjoy these posts on craft and writing life.

Loren Eaton said...


I'm off to investigate! Gracias for the tip.

Post Script: I agree that writing can be easier when you have a bigger playing field (e.g. a novel's length). But it takes less time to fail with a short story, which seems to be the way I learn best. Mess up it, realize what I did wrong and give it another go.

Loren Eaton said...


I think there are quite a few people who share that opinion of Martin. If I start the series now, though, maybe he'll be done by the time I get to the end. One can hope!

Glad you're enjoying the posts. That warms the shrivelled little thing I call a heart.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can no longer read a book for more than thirty minutes. I well remember days of endless reading. No more. Communicating with others via the Internet has warped me.

Unknown said...

Ah, the joys of ADD. Learn to ride the tiger, grasshopper...

Loren Eaton said...


Me neither. Kind of depressing, isn't it? I'd like to re-learn the skill.

Loren Eaton said...


Is "riding the tiger" a euphemism for taking a kind of medication of which Tom Cruise doesn't approve?

Unknown said...

Well, the origin of the phrase comes from the old folk tale about a man who managed to get onto the back of a tiger and ride it through the forest, but got eaten when he finally stopped.

I manage my scatterbrained-ness by trying to get a rhythm going such that I actually accomplish my X hours of writing in the 2X or 3X block of time I've laid out. Fold laundry for ten minutes, write a few hundred words, play a flash game, write a few hundred words, etc.

Loren Eaton said...

I've tried push ups to break those hypnotized spells when you get stuck at a particular place. It works sometimes, although not as often as I'd like.

ollwen said...

This is long enough that it took me a few sittings to get through (because I resemble it) but speaks to the same thing in some interesting detail:

On short vs. long stories, I can relate to Aerin, in that I tend to dream big and wide and have a hard time with the intensity and polish a short demands to work well. If writing is anything like drawing though, I think Loren could be on to something with the short starts and failures and starts again. My anatomy prof used to say "Begin. Begin. Begin!" in that first glance you catch the major forms of the figure without getting distracted by the details, and so we would whip out pages and pages of 7 second sketches. After a while, something happened. I found my hands and mind more coordinated. I was more quick and confident with the solid-graphite pencil, and though it seemed like a different kind of drawing altogether, when the next large and detailed (slow and laborious) drawing assignment came, not only was I able to complete it in about half the time, it was better. I finally broke through my glass ceiling of "89" to win my first A.

Also, I am in favor of push-ups, even if they don't perk up the brain immediately, I feel better when I do them. ;)

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, pushups are good, as are jumping jacks. But I prefer the former because they don't make me look quite as silly. Also, they make my son giggle, which is a lot of fun.

Oh, man, that picture at the front of the New York Times article is painful. I've had mornings like that.