Monday, June 24, 2013

Attention Deficit and the Effect on Reading and Writing

by Julia Buckley

When I was a student I had a great attention span.  I sat through eight years of Catholic grade school--one teacher per year, the same basic class for eight years--and listened to what was mainly lecture for the whole day. I started first grade in 1971, and there wasn't much buzz in the world of education about hands-on learning, literature circles, group work or varied learning styles (or if there was, it didn't reach my educators).  So it was lots of listening, reading and writing, and I did fine in that environment. I read many books outside of school, too (the library was one of our favorite haunts), but I read them one and a time, and I didn't skim.  I was a linear reader, starting with the prologue or first chapter, and ending at the end.  No jumping ahead, no reading the ending first. I followed the rules.

In high school and college I followed a similar model.  It was only in my adulthood that I realized, as time became a more and more precious commodity and the sudden reality of the Internet offered more and more ways to divide that time, that I had to make choices.  These choices are endless, and they look like this:

1. Which books to read?  What's at the top of the TBR list?
2. Which books to write?  How much time is allotted for writing versus reading?
3. Which books will make me interrupt other books because I'm excited to read them? How many books can I read at the same time?
4. Which books, because of their vastness (GAME OF THRONES, I'm looking at you), will I find myself skimming because I just can't wait that many hours to find some of the answers I'm seeking from this text?
5. How much time can I conceivably spend on Facebook without it being a waste of my life force?
6. How much time, realistically, can be spent on promotion of my own books that might not pay off in any way?
7. How much time will I have left AFTER I grade papers and do lesson planning for my paying job?
8. How much leisure reading is allowable, and when does it become a vice that I must sneak in behind closed doors?
9. How much time is there for blogging, tweeting, web-siting?  Is it worth it, or is it an exercise in vanity--a cry into outer space?
10. How many times will I interrupt the thing I'm doing NOW because I thought of another thing I also need to do, and I figure I should do it while I'm thinking of it?

In answer to number ten: a lot of times.  In fact, today I noticed that I had four different windows open on my laptop and I kept jumping back and forth between them, just as my mind jumps back and forth.  Gone are the days of my linear thinking, and scientists theorize that this new hop-scotching thinking will eventually re-wire our brains.

My activity looked like this: I was working on a new book, but then remembered that there was a photo I wanted to e-mail someone.  I did so, then returned to the book, only to remember that I had wanted to Google "Jeanette Walls" because I am reading and admiring THE GLASS CASTLE.  I read about Walls and saw that she was writing a new book, so I clicked on the article telling me about that.  Then I read that Walls was married to another writer, so I clicked on the link telling me what he wrote.  Oops. Back to my
book. But then my son told me he wanted to buy a new television with his graduation money (it's always about the newest technology) and he wanted me to look at the link he sent me.  So I did.  Then I took a break to read some of THE GLASS CASTLE.  Back to the writing, which involved Googling a bunch of different things that I needed to know for the book, including some details about towns bombed during WWII and which German beers are most delicious.

I can understand why, at some point, they say we'll need to download information from external drives into our brains, which can only hold so much information.  There are days that mine feels like it's overflowing.

In any case, I am reading several books at once, and I'm managing to keep them separate in my mind.

Do you have an attention-deficit or non-linear life dilemma?  Are we the victims of our technological advances?  Do you still read the way you read twenty years ago?  If not, which way is better?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great post, Julia. To the multi-tasking you mention, I would add watching TV and Netflix and rereading beloved books, a less taxing activity than reading new ones. Last night I had to figure out how to watch the new episodes of both Inspector Lewis and True Blood at 9 PM (Lewis was over at 10:30, True Blood repeated at 11). In the half-hour break, I read a P.M. Carlson mystery from the 1980s, recently reissued on Jim Huang's Crum Creek Press, because I wanted to find out what happened and finish the book before I got into bed, where I'm reading the long-awaited 900-page conclusion of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I'm not skimming, because I'm using it as my two-week sleeping pill prescription. And I'm doing better than poor Jordan, who died before writing the last three books, leaving someone else to finish the job. On the other hand, of five hardcovers I've had at the top of my TBR pile this week, which I happened to acquire randomly (ie didn't pick them myself, all authors new to me), I discarded four a chapter or two in and finished only one: Jane Casey's The Last Girl, a character-driven police procedural that I recommend highly. And no, I didn't do any of it this way when I was younger.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Oops, left out a few words: it should have been "recently reissued by Crum Creek Press, on my Kindle!"

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, this sounds very familiar!! But do you ever MISS the way you used to read/process?

Harvee @ Book Dilettante said...

I prefer to concentrate on one book at a time, but sometimes that doesn't happen and I juggle a few books. I like reading so much it takes away from my personal writing.

Julia Buckley said...

Harvee--I understand that dilemma. But it can never be a bad thing to love reading.

Ruth said...

I can absolutely relate, and my question is 'Why is this happening?' Did it all start with the tv remote? I can't even watch just one show at a time anymore.

BTW you left out distractions like: had to go to the bathroom and when I walked past the kitchen I remembered I hadn't eaten, then realized I'd meant to vacuum the living room, looked out the window and thought I might as well go get the mail from across the street then ... And so on.

It's a wonder I get any writing done!