I’m a messy writer. I don’t mean that my handwriting is bad (although it is), or that my desk is cluttered with empty mugs and books and baggies of trail mix (although it, too, is). I mean I tend to compose right in a browser window, alongside a whole bunch of open tabs (right now I have 14 — just kidding, 15, because I opened another one while composing this sentence). I’m not particularly proud of this strategy, though, and I often think about what would happen to my writing if I adopted a less chaotic system.
At Slate, Katy Waldman evaluates several such systems: specifically, apps designed for fiction writers. She examines yWriter5, which lets you organize your project on a “storyboard,” and Lists for Writers, which aims to fight writer’s block by providing lists from which writers can get ideas. She also mentions Hemingway, which “will kill your darlings until each sentence is bold and clear enough to satisfy Papa — it highlights adverbs, unnecessarily flashy words (such as ‘utilize’ for ‘use’), and instances of passive voice” (another appropriate title might be Orwell). And she talks to some of the many writers who swear by Scrivener, which she describes as “essentially a writer’s studio where you can store drafts and research, craft outlines, and organize your thoughts.” But she maintains a certain skepticism about the whole field:
“The fiction-writing app is a curious creature, because it can only sell creativity by downgrading it. It operates outside of the traditional, mystery-swathed model of inspiration, in which brilliance floods down on us from heaven, and instead reduces invention to a series of steps. In lassoing and regimenting the muse, fiction apps evaporate some of writing’s pain, but also some of its glory.”
She asks: “Are there any writing apps out there that will actually make you more creative? Not more fiercely productive. Not more efficient. But more imaginative, fresh, inspired, and afire with what Wordsworth called the ‘auxiliary light’ of the mind? Does the app exist that will make your novel come out not simply faster and cleaner, but better?”
Lists for Writers (which sounds a bit like Yossarian) apparently aims to be a source of ideas. But other tools for writers, like the Internet-blocking software Freedom, focus on the more modest goal of eliminating distractions. These actually seem to subscribe to the “mystery-swathed model of inspiration” Ms. Waldman mentions — the idea may be that if you can just block out external stimuli, brilliance will flood down on you from heaven more swiftly and with fewer interruptions.
In a November essay for The New York Times, however, the novelist Marie Myung-Ok Lee argues that the Internet’s influence isn’t baleful for everybody: “The ever renewing bits of information in my Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr feeds provide endless fodder, like going shell collecting on the beach on a normal day versus the day after a hurricane when the ocean has burped up every interesting bit of stuff imaginable.” And she adds: “The payoff often comes when some trifle — say, an article on Inuit recipes for fermented salmon heads — that I’ve clicked on for no discernible reason, can years later become the perfect thing for a character musing on his long-ago romantic summer job in a cannery in Alaska.”
For her, the Internet may be one giant List for Writers, offering her a constant stream of semi-random information from which she can pick that which inspires her. And indeed, much of the current thinking on creativity extols the virtues of doing stuff that isn’t actually your work. The neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin and others have advocated taking breaks as a way of stoking creativity, and in an investigation of daydreaming at Mother Jones, Indre Viskontas quotes from Dr. Levitin’s book, “The Organized Mind”: “The history of science and culture is filled with stories of how many of the greatest scientific and artistic discoveries occurred while the creator was not thinking about what he was working on, not consciously anyway — the daydreaming mode solved the problem for him, and the answer appeared suddenly as a stroke of insight.” She also cites research suggesting that letting your mind wander can lead to unhappiness and cell aging, which may give writers pause — then again, nobody said being creative would keep you happy or young. And as Cody C. Delistraty has noted at The Atlantic, studies have also linked messy desks, moderate alcohol consumption and a certain degree of background noise to greater creativity.
Given all this, maybe some writers would benefit from tools that, rather than sheltering them from the outside world, exposed them to it in strategic ways. Maybe they need an app that, per the example of Charles Dickens, shuts down the computer at a particular time every day and forces them to go take a walk.
Then again, maybe our habits don’t matter so much. That’s the argument Casey N. Cep makes in her Pacific Standard essay critiquing our obsession with artists’ daily routines. She writes: “The incessant interrogation of artists about their daily lives might only be voyeurism, in which case such idiosyncrasies are fine, but I think most of us read about their lives in order to shape our own. I read and read and read these routines thinking that if only I could find the right one to borrow then I would be more productive, more successful, more writerly.”
However, she argues:
“It is not only the routine of any of these artists that made them successful. Not many of them even follow the routines they offer. Their creative lives are all more complicated, more disordered than the bullet points or time stamps they detail in one-off interviews. And even if they devotedly followed their own procedures, then it would be still odd to reduce the mysterious beauty of their work to these obvious patterns of waking and sleeping and typing.”
Sometimes, I do try to clean up my virtual work space. I sign out of email, close all the tabs, and forge ahead with single-minded focus (or, at least, distracted only by the physical world). But I’m not at all sure which are my “more productive, more successful, more writerly” days — those when I make an attempt at neatness, or those when I give in and open up 15 articles about dinosaurs. If Ms. Cep is right, they’re probably about the same.