Friday, October 30, 2009

Do Writers Need to Be a Little ADD?—Guest Post by Martha Nichols

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Many thanks to my guest blogger today, Martha Nichols.

Martha is a freelance magazine writer and editor who runs WOMEN = BOOKS, the blog for the Women’s Review of Books based at Wellesley College. She also teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School.

If MAADD didn't evoke drunk drivers and an earlier generation of enraged mothers, I'd be all over it: Middle-Aged Attention Deficit Disorder.

My attention divides and divides again; I can't even spin a good acronym without referencing something else. This is a bad thing—right?

I used to think that was a rhetorical question. The answer was obviously yes. Lack of focus took me away from my work. It stopped me from following through on a thought; it made me unable to fix the logic of a short story. I became just plain grumpy and distracted, a state in which I couldn’t wrestle ideas into their proper form.

But lately I’ve had the strangest epiphany: Maybe writers need a little ADD. Maybe their brains need to be shaken, not stirred.

How else to explain why I’m writing more and better than I have in years? I’m far busier—sometimes exhaustingly, hopelessly, ridiculously busier—than when I had more uninterrupted time in my schedule to write.

Once my son Nick joined our family, I dropped much of my freelance editing business. When he was a baby, then a toddler, I felt constantly distracted and unproductive. Ironically, I was focusing on my own fiction writing—part-time, to be sure, but that level of focus seems luxurious now.

And it didn’t work for me.

Reams have been written about the fractured attention of mother-writers, whether they’re Anne Tyler famously burning the midnight oil after her kids were asleep or Grace Paley producing telegraphic short stories at the kitchen table.

I'm not ADD in any clinical sense. I’m a parent. But one book that became a touchstone for me a few years ago was Edward Hallowell's CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!

Hallowell, a psychiatrist in the Boston area, has popularized ADD and ADHD as diagnoses, and has written a number of well-known books about coping with these disorders. But in CrazyBusy, he goes a step farther, arguing that our multi-tasking, post-millennial, "CrackBerry" era fosters a form of cultural ADD. In that sense, we're all suffering.

I used to agree completely. Two years ago, when my son entered kindergarten, I gave myself permission to go back to full-time work. It took awhile to settle into my current whirl, and I felt like a juggler with one hand and five hundred torches. I’m a freelancer, so finding work was more complicated than just landing a single job.

There are still times when I wish I had one employer or one work mode—editor or writer or teacher or blog manager—rather than shifting among them all.

But what’s surprised me is how alive my mind feels now. I've gotten better at mental juggling. I won't claim I'm more organized, but my constantly dividing and skipping attention seems to be sparking me as a writer. I find myself excited by ideas all the time.

A few years back—say, 2006, when CrazyBusy first came out—this attitude would have seemed like grounds for Lithium. When my son was four or five, his wildly shifting attention seemed a match for my own disintegrating brain. I found it profoundly disturbing to be so scattered. I kept exhorting him to focus, as if focus and control of all those flowing ideas were a kind of Holy Grail I was searching for myself.

There's no doubt some of my attention struggles were and are physiologically rooted. Many researchers now believe that what those of us in middle age really experience is failing attention. In "The Midlife Memory Meltdown,"an article for O magazine adapted from her book on the topic, journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin says of our aging brains:

"When the frontal lobes are in top form, they're adept at figuring out what's important for the job at hand and what's irrelevant blather; a sort of neural “bouncer” automatically keeps out unnecessary information. In middle age, that bouncer takes a lot of coffee breaks. Instead of focusing on the report that's due, you find yourself wondering what's for dinner. Even background noise—the phone chatter of the coworker in the next cubicle—can impair your ability to concentrate on the task before you."

But I've always been like this. I'm great at synthesizing ideas, but I've never been good at memorizing facts. Historical dates elude me; foreign vocabulary evaporates as soon as I'm not immersed in it. (My French is terrible, and I lived in France. And let’s not even mention—not here, anyway—the Vietnamese class I’m currently taking.)

The best shift for me has been one of attitude, not a new wonder drug or a brain transplant. I’ve learned to embrace my proliferating ideas, to find in the strange twists a far clearer, more personal writing voice. This Martha is not quite so careful, has more fun, and is —I think—more fun to read.

Blogging encourages such creative idea generation, which may be why I’ve taken to it. It's no accident that I'm running four blogs now, one in an editorial capacity with multiple authors on assignment with various deadlines.

In CrazyBusy, Hallowell himself distinguishes between the "stress" that gets your juices flowing and the anxiety-producing mess of having too many commitments:

"If you’re busy doing what matters to you, then being busy is bliss. You’ve found a rhythm for your life that works for you. This world is bursting with possibilities; its energy can be contagious. If you catch the bug, you want to jump out of bed each day and get busy, not because you are run ragged by details or because you are keeping the wolf from your door, but because you are in love with this fast life."

It’s also true that I’m doing less fiction writing these days. My excuse for the moment is that I need to be entrepreneurial with WOMEN = BOOKS and my other blogs. Traditional print journalism and book-publishing have imploded; like so many magazine writers, I feel compelled to get online and to make the future happen tout de suite.

An excuse is an excuse is an excuse, however. Somewhere under the blizzard of ideas, I know it’s time for me to focus again on longer writing projects, too. I need to find a balance, although I’ve never been good at that.

We all have our particular demons to conquer. Mine is an extremely abusive, judgmental inner editor. Maybe all that’s changed is that I now accept both my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I no longer bludgeon myself into perfectly transparent, orderly prose—and that’s liberating—at least for me.

Yet there’s a bit of cultural demonizing at play here as well. Scattered attention seems like a formidable problem if you believe order is all—or that the only real goal is an end product. But creative flow is not served by an obsession with order. And for writers, being in control is not necessarily a good thing.

So what say you, fellow writers and readers? Do you struggle with divided attention? Do you ever find it a blessing?

Where was I?

Martha Nichols


This post has been adapted from “Am I Crazy to Study Vietnamese?” on Martha Nichols Online. I also blog at Talking Writing and Adopt-a-tude