A creative retreat in the digital age


Like many great satires, Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” imagines a dystopian future eerily reminiscent of our present world, one in which invasive social networking threatens his characters’ sanity and their souls. To research the book, the reserved novelist had to break down and buy an iPhone.

The change in his life, according to Shteyngart, has been nerve-wracking. “It’s hard to focus. It’s hard to have a conversation without checking the iPhone. It’s hard to go to a shrink and spend a few minutes on the couch and not need to see what’s happening.... It’s even hard to finish a thought.”

Shteyngart has found himself initiated into a life of overwired fatigue familiar to many longtime smart phone owners. However, for him, this presents an especially disconcerting challenge. “When you’re writing, you need to let go and fall into this trance state where you’re just falling deeper and deeper into the work and everything around you retreats. That’s very hard to do when the iPhone’s pinging at you.”


His struggle is far from unique among creative professionals and artists as they grapple with the ubiquity of iPhones, iPads, BlackBerries and Facebook. They’re asking themselves how, in a society where e-mail is now a screen tap away, they can find the solitude and focus many feel vital to their work and livelihood.

It’s a challenge most people share in our brave new digital world, but for these folks, it is a particularly acute one. Especially as a career in the arts more often means being a freelancer, creative professionals find themselves balancing the necessity of constant communication for business with a need to unplug and find the mental space to produce coherent work. They’ve come up with an interesting mix of coping strategies.

Phillis Levin, poet-in-residence at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., describes how her inspiration comes from retreat. “For me, poetry in particular comes from this source of silence. It’s the opposite of that white noise that’s created by too much stimulation.” However, the awareness of e-mail in need of reply can easily distract her: “When somebody sends me an e-mail, I feel if I don’t answer right away, another hundred e-mails will go by and the person will write, ‘Why haven’t I heard from you?’ so then I answer right away. Then that person thinks I answer right away, so they answer me right away.”

Of course, poetry has traditionally been associated with bucolic isolation. Charlie White, artist and director of the MFA program at USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts, believes that most artists fashion a place of retreat for themselves, whether a studio, an office or a desk. “The whole idea of it is to have a place of one’s own and to use that place to block things in order to generate something, whether it’s a purely theoretical position or a traditional object.”

This notion of the artist holed up in his secret grotto tends to hold true, even in the most social of creative environments, Hollywood. Writer-director John August, whose credits include “Go” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” finds disconnection essential to his work: “A lot of times when I’ve started projects, I’ll go away for a week. I’ll sort of barricade myself in and crack the back of a story. I actually handwrite pages so I can’t turn on my computer and start looking at stuff and editing.”

A self-described early adopter, August is as connected as they come: He runs a popular screenwriting blog, tweets, owns both an iPad and iPhone and his writing office above the garage boasts a 30-inch monitor that he claims could “potentially hold all the Bloomberg data, if I want.” He’s so plugged in that he read about his latest project with Tim Burton, “Monsterpocalypse,” online before he got the call to work on it. Yet, even the tech-savvy August admits the big question among screenwriters these days is increasingly where to go to get away. He too says he’s “finding it harder and harder to put the gadgets down and put the distraction away.”

Devo frontman and film composer Mark Mothersbaugh, whose scores include Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” fought long and hard to keep the digital armada at bay, having helpers print and read his e-mails for him until he finally relented and got a direct e-mail address, an iPhone and an iPad. Now, he must balance the demands of these devices with the solitude he needs to compose. “I’ve been invaded both by the telephone in my pocket that vibrates when the drummer from Devo wants to play Scrabble and my laptop sitting here waiting to tell me there’s hundreds more e-mails coming in.”

August uses an application named Freedom that cuts his Internet connection when he’s writing, while Levin has bought an old wood desk and filled it with paper, ink and fountain pens — and no computer. For his part, Shteyngart coyly says he retreats to upstate New York, where AT&T’s patchy network renders his iPhone blissfully ineffective.

Yet fleeing digital connection isn’t always an option. As Shteyngart notes, writers and many other artists often have to function as small business owners. “You’re always waiting for that next call to come in because you’re dealing with agents, publishers, publicists.” Likewise, August’s online identity as a screenwriting guru demands daily attention, which he likens to playing the Facebook game Farmville: “I certainly feel that compulsion to blog at least a couple of times a week. There’s some pressure to have a funny tweet every few days to keep the engine running.”

Those digital demands can be just as focus-draining as physical communication for writers and artists, according to Levin. “If you were in a room and someone knew you were working, they wouldn’t just keep walking in on you, would they? But the door keeps opening if you’re working on a screen.”

Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor in communication and author of the upcoming book “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” has made a specialty out of researching how multitasking saps focus. His recent studies have demonstrated how chronic multitaskers are unwilling or unable to focus on one thing, even when they are required to. His research has convinced Nass that such divided attention spans adversely affect creativity. “Creativity is hard work. It’s focus. Really struggling with a thought, rather than lying back and letting it just appear.”

He and his colleagues plan on working with undergraduates at the center for writing at Stanford to see how multitaskers write. “Our suspicion is that the high multitaskers will have problems carrying a theme or leitmotif throughout writing.”

Nass’ concerns are already finding fertile soil in the tech community. Intel has asked him to examine to what extent corporate policies create environments in which e-mails and other distractions make it hard to be creative. Nass has developed some recommended coping strategies, such as disciplining oneself to answering e-mail in a few 30 minute chunks, rather than throughout the day.

Mothersbaugh thinks the cultural habit of multitasking and constant connection has already had an effect on art. “I see the arts reflecting a loss of bigger thought in general. Especially in the world of music, there’s very few big proclamations, it’s all just people doing a little shout-out.”

Shteyngart is much more bleak. In his novel, long form text has disappeared and novels themselves are considered gross relics of a past age. With absolute seriousness, he mused: “I wonder if art in the future will also be completely disconnected, have this kind of staccato signal, or whether it will be much shorter.” Even more alarming, Shteyngart thinks digital faux connection threatens an element fundamental to thoughtful art: “Empathy with others, the ability to understand another person’s mind. You see other people passing, but you’re not really connected with them.”

Yet perhaps a younger generation will be less cowed by this digital chaos.

In fact, Chris Coy, who’s begun the MFA program at Roski this fall, finds inspiration in these new demands of the Internet Age. It’s the subject of his art: “The Internet is our existence now, , and it is our duty to question the use of it — artists can help to facilitate ways of showing that.”

For the rising generation that Coy represents, veteran video artist and new media pioneer Bill Viola sees the main challenge of hyperconnection as one of individual discernment. “You have to choose yourself. You decide what is useful and what is not useful to you. That’s a very hard decision for people to make.” However, Viola not only sees the rise of the Internet as a new form of renaissance, but he also has faith in the role of the artist to help us confront that fractured state of mind our digital age seems to foster. “I think for artists, there is a lot less danger because artists have the creative spark. They will figure out a way to make even the most toxic, horrible thing interesting, and make people aware of things.”