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  • Richard Farr

“No Twitter? No Facebook? No Instagram or InFog? Are you serious?”

The short explanation:

I’m lazy. I can predict with great confidence that I will not die wishing I had spent more time at my computer. And I have discovered (to my great relief, after extensive research conducted over a bottle of cold beer on a sunny afternoon on my back deck) that InFog — though unquestionably a revolutionary new paradigm in the evolution of the social-mediatric game-changerliness scenario, ’n’ such — has not yet been invented.

A longer explanation:

Some years ago I happened to read both Neal Stephenson’s brilliantly inventive novel The Diamond Age and an article by the physicist Freeman Dyson on the laws of inertia. (Short review of The Diamond Age: “Science fiction that wears its tech cred lightly, while being deeply nuanced, imaginative, and thought-provoking about the history and possible futures of social behavior and ethical prejudice — who the hell is this guy?”)

Only because of the Dyson article, I spotted what was (I thought) an error in Stephenson’s tech: he was imagining, in the opening chapters, a “nano-projectile” technology that he seemed to present as cutting edge (“give ’em ten years and they’ll actually build this”) when in fact it was essentially impossible (“completely ruled out by some basic physics”).

Now, let me be clear: I may have been dead wrong about the nano- thing. Not the point. The point is this: I thought Stephenson was probably just the kind of nerd who would appreciate hearing the objection — provided it was given, as I intended, not at all in a spirit of calling him out on an error, but rather in a spirit of “This is interesting — see what you think — and thanks by the way for being so annoyingly talented.”

So I navigated to his website, planning to send him an email. But I couldn’t send him one. His minimalist site offered no means of making contact with him at all. And I found his justification for this hermetical practice — quoted here from a longer version in ‘Why I Am a Bad Correspondent,’ an essay in his collection Some Remarks — both charming and entirely persuasive:

There is nothing or little that I can offer readers above and beyond what appears in my published writings … Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all… If I organize my life in such a way that I can get lots of long, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of email messages …

These days, authors are forever being told — usually by “experts” who have never written a book, and never will — that they absolutely must maximize their “social media footprint” or their “brand.” Leave aside the fact that this gives you the choice of sounding like either Sasquatch or a soft drink. The thing is this: there are 24 hours in a day. It’s a very general, very long-standing problem that human beings aren’t sure how best to spend those hours. (Excluding sleep, the average adult life contains fewer than half a million of them; I don’t know about you, but I find this a terrifyingly small number.) And artists (I use the term without pretension, referring to anyone who makes artifacts, and cares about their excellence) must be ruthless about getting more or less everything else out of the way. Any marketing activity whatever takes time. Whether that time would be better spent on writing the next page of the book that has not yet been written, talking to the cat, reading something from another century or civilization, or taking a walk around the neighborhood while vaguely noticing stuff — is always a question that should be asked.

Whether you are an artist, or any other type of human being whatsoever, do yourself the favor of looking up, reading, and digesting Raymond Carver’s superbly funny and bitter and self-knowing poem “One More.” It’s about being an artist, but it’s also about how to live, and not live, a life. A nice unpretentious modern take on Ars longa, vita brevis.

Have I taken Carver’s message, and Stephenson’s, to heart? Well, a bit. I have restricted my “footprint” pretty much to using this blog as a place to say things I feel like saying and answer questions it seems worth answering. But then again, apparently no: Stephenson and I are the same age, and he publishes more words every year than I’ve yet managed in my life.

The Greek word from which we get the Latin ‘ars’ (art) is techne (“tek-nay”). It really means: skill in making things. So the idea behind the quotation is: “Learning how to make things well, and then doing it, takes a lot of time, but there isn’t much time, so don’t waste it.” Yet wasting it is so tempting! The Irish playwright J.M. Synge didn’t have a Twitter account, marketing calls, nor even malware on his laptop to distract him. But even he found writing brutally hard. He had a card pinned over his desk, on which he had scrawled the words GET ON WITH THE BLOODY PLAY.

That’s what the job is. So probably I shouldn’t even be writing this.


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