The Sawyer Effect

From Jonah Lehrer, an illustration of the power of intrinsic motivation — the desire to do a thing because you enjoy it, rather than for any extrinsic reward like a paycheck:

Scientists have recognized the importance of intrinsic motivation for decades. In the 1970s, Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett conducted a classic study on preschoolers who liked to draw. They divided the kids into three groups. The first group of kids was told that they’d get a reward — a nice blue ribbon with their name on it — if they continued to draw. The second group wasn’t told about the rewards but was given a blue ribbon after drawing. (This was the “unexpected reward” condition.) Finally, the third group was the “no award” condition. They weren’t even told about the blue ribbons.

After two weeks of reinforcement, the scientists observed the preschoolers during a typical period of free play. Here’s where the results get interesting: The kids in the “no award” and “unexpected award” conditions kept on drawing with the same enthusiasm as before. Their behavior was unchanged. In contrast, the preschoolers in the “award” group now showed much less interest in the activity. Instead of drawing, they played with blocks, or took a nap, or went outside. The reason was that their intrinsic motivation to draw had been contaminated by blue ribbons; the extrinsic reward had diminished the pleasure of playing with crayons and paper. (Daniel Pink, in his excellent book Drive, refers to this as the “Sawyer Effect.”)

Pink defines the Sawyer Effect as “practices that can either turn play into work or work into play,” after Tom Sawyer, who tricked his friends into painting a fence for him by convincing them it was fun.

This week I am faced with yet another rewrite of my book, to answer more concerns raised by my editors — an entirely extrinsic motivation, with all that connotes. I’d rather be playing with blocks or taking a nap.

Writers Unplugged

Myself, I’ve set up a second computer, devoid of internet, for my fiction-writing. That’s to say, I took an expensive Mac and turned it back into a typewriter. (You should imagine my computer set-up guy’s consternation when I insisted he drag the internet function out of the thing entirely. “I can just hide it from you,” he said. “No,” I told him, “I don’t want to know it’s in there somewhere.”)

Jonathan Lethem (via)

And here I thought I was the only one going to such extremes.

Writing Like It’s 1999

John Dvorak had an interesting piece recently on the transformation of computers “from being a mathematical tool used for calculations, to a communications device.”

Initially, computers were used for calculations. The first intended purpose was for artillery trajectory calculations — hardly a noble purpose, but certainly a practical one. In the early days, computers were described as electronic bins. … As the desktop computer revolution developed, the devices’ uses were inevitably based on some aspect of calculation. Spreadsheets were the perfect example. At the time, the only communication aspect of computers was the fact that they could double as powerful aids to word processing software.

By 1979, however, modems and networks were making inroads. They made it possible for computers to talk to each other in some crude way. That was the beginning of the end. The computation aspect of computers continued to grow, but it was the networking aspect that was the disease vector, so far as social upheaval is concerned. You can figure out the rest of the networking timeline. It began 30 or more years ago — 40 years, if you want to count the invention of Arpanet in 1969.

The iPad and smart phones are just the logical conclusion to this trend: computers whose only real purpose is to communicate, not calculate.

Whatever the grand social implications of “the communications-oriented computer” — Dvorak considers it an asocial, porn-proliferating, newspaper-killing “disease” — it has been a disaster for writers, at least for this highly distractible writer.

I’m no Luddite. I love the web, maybe too much. Most evenings now, after my kids go to bed, I find myself opening up a laptop and reading online when once I would have opened a book or turned on the TV. To a natural reader, it is like heaven — an endless library. (Also an endless TV and jukebox, but personally these aspects interest me less.)

That is just the problem: the web is a massive distraction that is becoming increasingly difficult to tune out. Today you can’t buy a new laptop that is not wifi-enabled, and you can’t walk into a library or Starbucks that does not provide wifi. No doubt computers eventually will follow smart phones into a world where all computers are connected to the web all the time, with or without wifi.

The irony is that today’s computers are actually less useful for writers than were the slower, “dumber,” un-networked boxes of ten years ago. That is because writers need to do the one thing modern computers can’t — disconnect.

I hear the objection already. “Why don’t you just turn off the damn internet for a while? Close your browser. Show some willpower, some discipline!”

Well, that is what most writers do. What choice is there? But over and over I hear writers echo my own experience, which is that the web is very difficult to block out entirely, because the same machine we use for typing is also the one we use for web-surfing. Our work tool has become a play tool. Our typewriter has become a TV. What you scolds may not understand is that our work is different from yours. Writing of any quality requires deep focus; long, quiet, undisturbed stretches of time; and isolation — in Joyce’s famous phrase, “silence, exile, and cunning.” Any work that involves serious thought requires some of these things some of the time, I suppose, but good writing needs them all, every day. And modern computers, alas, are designed to create the opposite environment: distraction, connection, zoning out.

What we writers need is a computer optimized for word processing and nothing else. A “dumb” computer that is little more than a “smart” typewriter. A workspace — a computer screen — with no distractions, that does not tempt us to pop online “just for a minute to check email.”

I have found something close in the AlphaSmart Neo, a simple plain-text word processor with virtually endless battery life, whose praises I have sung before. But once I have completed a draft of a novel and moved to the editing phase, I have to use a word processing program, in my case WordPerfect, to which I am passionately, stubbornly devoted. That means I have to switch to a laptop.

So how do I work on a laptop and completely shut out the web? By eliminating all the “advances” of the last decade.

I recently bought an old ThinkPad T23 on eBay. The laptop was made in 2001 or thereabouts. It was a high-end machine at the time, with a retail price well north of $3,000, but I picked mine up for about a hundred bucks. The build quality of these old ThinkPads is unsurpassed, and the T23 is engineered to be light and tough enough for corporate road-warrior types. It has a great keyboard but, honestly, not much else. Best of all, it has no wireless card.

A nine-year-old laptop is not a perfect solution, of course. Battery life is short (I get about 1:45). At 5.5 pounds the T23 weighs a little more than today’s ultraportables. And with such an old machine, who can say how much tread is left on the tires? But so far I am thrilled. To a writer, less is more. I bought this computer precisely for what it can’t do.

I wonder: isn’t there enough of a niche market to support a new laptop like this, which sacrifices processing power, memory, and networking ability for the simpler things that writers and other thinkers value — low price, long battery life, light weight, good keyboard, bright screen? The ideal writer’s computer would have many of the virtues of a netbook, minus the connectivity, plus a little size to accommodate a better keyboard and display. It would be good for students, too. Certainly it would be a machine John Dvorak would love.

The Price of Procrastination

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”

— William James

Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments


1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it — but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

— Henry Miller, notebook, 1932-1933 (quoted in The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall)

Stock and Flow

From a blog called Snarkmarket, sorting the 2010 web using economic principles:

There are two kinds of quan­ti­ties in the world. Stock is a sta­tic value: money in the bank, or trees in the for­est. Flow is a rate of change: fif­teen dol­lars an hour, or three-thousand tooth­picks a day. Easy. …

But I actu­ally think stock and flow is the mas­ter metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind peo­ple that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the con­tent you pro­duce that’s as inter­est­ing in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what peo­ple dis­cover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, build­ing fans over time.

… And the real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bounc­ing with your flow — to maintain that open chan­nel of communication — while you work on some kick-ass stock in the back­ground.

A very useful concept. Read the whole thing here. (via)

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The Importance of Shipping

Seth Godin advises writers and other artists (at around 7:45 of this video), “What you do for a living is not be creative. Everyone is creative. What you do for a living is ship. … That is the discipline of what a creative artist does.” Even allowing for a little hyperbole (obviously artists have to be creative and ship), it is a useful reminder.

I ran across this clip the other day, just as I have been laboring to finish my third novel. And “laboring” is just the word for it: after a December that was by far my most productive month ever, I have been useless in January. I have not been writing well enough. Much, much worse, I haven’t been writing enough, period. I have rationalized my January slump as exhaustion and “part of the creative process” and all the usual horseshit, but listening to Godin I wonder if it isn’t the lizard brain after all — fear of finishing, of showing your work, being judged. Yes, even now, with two books under my belt.

I have sometimes been jealous of my writer-friends who were trained to write on deadline. Advertising copywriters do not learn to write truthfully, and journalists do not learn to write beautifully. But they do learn to finish. Or call the damn thing finished, whatever imperfections remain, and move on to the next assignment. In the long run, that may be the most valuable skill of all.

Finish. Ship. Next project. That is the unpoetic reality of being a writer. All writers know this, yet all writers need to hear it again and again. Myself included.

Source: Seth Godin: “Quieting the Lizard Brain” on Vimeo. Read Godin’s blog on the same subject here.

A cabin made of hours

“Like so many of the key skills of the writer’s life, the solution [to being distracted by the Internet] 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.…

“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.”

Laura Miller, Salon critic who retreated to “the fabled cabin in the woods to think, read and even write a bit,” safe from the maddening presence of “the biggest distractor in my life — the Internet.”

A Thousand Words a Day

I have a new work routine. Mornings, I go into the city to write in the main reading room of the Boston Public Library, where I churn out a thousand words a day on my new novel. The BPL has wireless internet access, so I don’t bring a laptop. Too much distraction. Instead I type on a little portable keyboard, a gadget called the AlphaSmart Neo, which I’ve written about here before. In the afternoons, my thousand words complete, I work on other things: research, editing, email, this blog, etc.

Ordinarily I do not like routinized, quota-based writing schedules like this. It does not fit my personality very well. I prefer to work in intense bursts of three or four or even five hours at a time in which I start and complete an entire scene in a single heroic effort. These marathon sessions leave me exhausted, so one exhilirating hyper-productive day is usually followed by two desolate fallow ones. I would prefer to smooth this out, of course, and maintain a more professional, clockwork writing schedule. But my brain does not seem to work that way. My natural method is sprint-and-recover, sprint-and-recover.

I don’t recommend this method to other writers. Novel-writing is harrowing enough without putting yourself through the wringer this way. More important, the net result is fewer words produced. The hare may write better than the tortoise, but he will write less. And publishers value “more” over “better” — regular producers, however mediocre, are in demand; erratic producers, however brilliant, less so. Particularly at this point in my career, I simply can’t afford another missed deadline or long silence between books.

So, after an unproductive week last week, I’ve resolved to become a thousand-word-a-day tortoise for as long as I can stand it. Why 1,000? As you can tell from this (still new) blog, I am obsessed with other writers’ work habits, their daily routines, their work spaces. It is a natural curiosity for anyone in a solitary profession, I suppose. You want to ask, “Am I doing this right?,” but there is no one to put the question to. So you study other writers to see what works for them, and you experiment to see what works for you. Unfortunately there are as many writing routines as there are writers. On the low end, there is Graham Greene and his famous 500 words a day. Many writers talk about 1,000 words a day, including one recently quoted here, J.G. Ballard. The most common writer’s routine I’ve heard is “five pages a day.” (A thousand words comes out to only three or four manuscript pages. You’ve read about 450 words so far.) So I’ve chosen the middle way, neither especially ambitious or lax.

And it seems to be working. Why it is working I have no idea. Maybe it helps to get on the train and commute into town every morning like a banker. Maybe it is because the soaring, barrel-vaulted reading room at the BPL is a beautiful, inspiring space. Maybe it is just refreshing to dump a work routine that has ceased to be productive. Who knows? These writing routines tend to work for awhile, then, for mysterious reasons, they don’t. That is just the way it is in a creative endeavor.

So I’ll stick with it while it’s working. I’m not naturally a thousand-words-a-day kind of writer. I want to be great, and I worry that you cannot be great if you aspire merely to be consistent. But for now this is what I have to do. My book is due January 1.

Categories: Creativity · Productivity · Writing    Tags: · · ·

Edmund Wilson Regrets

This note card from Edmund Wilson seems quaint today. The card was sent to a student group that invited Wilson to give a reading. Wilson’s handwritten answer reads, “I don’t give readings either unless I’m offered a very large fee. E.W.” (Click the image to view larger.)

Over at Crooked Timber, the card triggered an interesting discussion of the decline of the “public intellectual”: Wilson could afford to bat away requests like these because his income from writing was secure, a luxury few intellectuals enjoy now. But even a lowly non-intellectual midlist novelist like me has to smile at Wilson’s imperiousness, for no novelist today would dare declare, “It is impossible for me to blog, tweet, Facebook, appear at conferences, give ego-crushing readings in empty bookstores,” etc.

Today even reclusive novelists play the publicity game. As Nathan Bransford recently pointed out, Thomas Pynchon has put together a playlist of songs for Amazon and Cormac McCarthy dutifully appeared on “Oprah.” I don’t know where this ends — J.D. Salinger’s blog? Philip Roth on “Dancing With the Stars”? — but one wonders what will become of the brilliant but publicity-shy young authors out there. Is talent enough? Has it ever been? All I know is: there are no Edmund Wilsons in my shop, either.

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Makers vs. Managers

I’ve written before about the need for writers and other artists to have long stretches of quiet, uninterrupted time to submerge completely in their work. A post is making the rounds today by the programmer and entrepreneur Paul Graham that places the artist’s workstyle in a wider context.

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it. …

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

I quote the piece at length here because Graham gets it exactly right, but you really have to read the whole thing. I read it with a little shiver of recognition.

Of course all writers are both makers and managers at different times. The trick is to keep the two roles separate, to wall off your “maker” times, those long periods during the day when you are trying to create. It does not matter if you retreat to a dedicated workspace like Philip Roth or just a crowded coffee shop, so long as you segregate your creative-work time from ordinary, “managerial” work time. A writer’s workplace is to some extent a state of mind, a “maker” state of mind: isolated, entranced, submerged.

To non-writers, no doubt this all seems a little fussy and precious. That is because most people, not just powerful people, live in the managerial mode, shifting constantly from task to task. I am lucky my family understands that Daddy needs to go off and be alone for long periods to do his work, and they indulge me. My kids don’t know any different. To them, this is all just part of Daddy’s job and his personality. They understand, too, that I am often “distracted and cranky” when I am writing, as Stephen Dubner describes his own maker times. All part of the writing life, I suppose. Still, as a writer it helps to have myself explained to myself, as Paul Graham has done today.

Update: Daniel Drezner, a professor at Fletcher, adds an important thought about the particularly high cost of interruptions in the early stages of a creative project:

I think the problem might even be worse than Graham suggests. Speaking personally, the hardest part of any research project is at the beginning stages. I’m trying to figure out my precise argument, and the ways in which I can prove/falsify it empirically. While I’m sure there are people who can do that part of the job with a snap of their fingers, it takes me friggin’ forever.  And any interruption — not actual meetings, but even responding to e-mail about setting up a meeting — usually derails my train of thought.

The early stages of a novel — or any creative project, I imagine — are equally tentative and fragile.

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Capote and Ellison: Blocked or just procrastinating?

“Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block — or were they just chronic procrastinators?” This interesting article from Slate, by Jessica Winter, considers whether there is a difference between writer’s block and procrastination to begin with.

Famously, both Capote and Ellison went silent after producing great books. Capote’s silence lasted nineteen years, from the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965 until his death in 1984. Ellison struggled for nearly forty years to produce a followup to his 1952 debut, Invisible Man. He never did.

Their struggles were not alike, though. Capote seems to have produced very little in all that time. Ellison, when he died in 1994, left behind thousands of pages. One was paralyzed, the other flailed. But both seem to have had the same inner problems: perfectionism, crippling anxiety about meeting heightened expectations after an early success, low self-esteem, excuse-making.

As a writer and lifelong procrastinator, the stories of Capote and Ellison scare the hell out of me. The lesson: the ultimate failure for a writer is not producing a bad book; it is producing no book at all.

(And yes, I realize I am procrastinating by writing this!)

chronic procrastinators?Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block—or were they just chronic procrastinators?

Writing in the Age of Distraction

I’ve said here that the internet is lethal to book-writing. And to me, it is. But since the internet is not going away, we writers had better learn to manage it. Cory Doctorow is one writer who seems to have figured out how. Somehow I missed this great piece by Doctorow on Writing in the Age of Distraction.

The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn’t help my writing.… But the Internet has been very good to me. It’s informed my creativity and aesthetics, it’s benefited me professionally and personally, and for every moment it steals, it gives back a hundred delights. I’d no sooner give it up than I’d give up fiction or any other pleasurable vice.

Doctorow offers six techniques for getting your work done without quitting the internet cold-turkey. It’s worth a read for any web-frazzled writer — myself very much included.

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A Quote for the Holiday Weekend

“It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation.… When you come back to the work your judgment will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgment.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

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