Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 9 June 2011



I just try to concentrate on concentrating – Martina Navratilova


I’m having trouble concentrating. Every day I have a load of stuff I feel I ought to read before I start work (e.g. e-mails, RSS feeds, blogs) and sometimes I find myself looking at the words and realising that nothing is going in. I’ve just tried to read a poem by my friend, Dave King. Dave’s on a roll at the moment and every day of late there’s been a new poem waiting for me when I open up my feedreader and for the past few days I’ve found myself unable to read them. It’s not as if he’s started writing in a foreign language or anything, it’s just that I find myself looking at the words and nothing is going in. They’re just words on a page. Now usually I like Dave’s poems – they’re never less than readable and sometimes even quite brilliant – and he has hundreds of readers and so I don’t obsess about passing a comment if I can’t think of anything better to say than, “Great poem, Dave,” but I’m feeling a bit guilty because I can’t read today’s poem. I started to read it but I’m finding myself unable to focus on the words. I’ve had a good night’s sleep, in fact over the past few weeks I’ve finally managed to regulate my sleep pattern – I go to bed at about 11pm and wake up by 8am which means I’m getting my regulation eight hours a day more of less. So shouldn’t be tired even if I feel tired. I can’t be tired. So why can’t I concentrate?

Concentration has been defined as "the ability to direct one's thinking in whatever direction one would intend". I think that’s a little simplistic. I can direct my thinking towards Dave’s poem well enough. It’s getting the poem to register that I’m having a problem with; we’re talking degrees of attention.

Our ability to concentrate depends on a variety of factors:

  • commitment
  • enthusiasm for the task
  • skill at doing the task
  • our emotional and physical state
  • our psychological state
  • our environment

I don’t have anything else on my mind especially. I’m not distracted. Even the bird’s being reasonably quiet at the moment – he’s hanging off the edge of a picture frame hammering the wall which is good for him (yesterday we had about six hours of car alarm practice). I’m playing a nice floaty score by Ennio Morricone, nothing bombastic or even especially melodic to be honest, the room is bright enough and warm enough without being so warm that I want to nod off and I’ve been fed and watered; my hunger has been assuaged but I’ve also not eaten so much that I feel the need for a wee kip. So, why can’t I get my head around this poem? Okay, I do have a bit of a headache but I’ve had a headache now for several weeks; other than that I have no more aches than I usually have. I’m used to working through headaches and even if I’m in real pain I’d rather be occupied than lie around feeling sorry for myself. My glasses need a clean. So, let’s go and give them a wash. [Short recess whilst glasses are washed and dried.] What else? My chair is comfortable. I’m not unhappy. I’m perfectly capable of reading and understanding one of Dave’s poems so we’re left with the top two: lack of commitment and enthusiasm. What’s the difference?

Commit: to pledge oneself to a position on an issue or question

Enthusiasm: absorbing or controlling possession of the mind by any interest or pursuit; lively interest

Okay, so commitment is more akin to duty whereas enthusiasm is ones attitude towards that duty. When my dad died I faithfully went over and mowed my mother’s garden lawn even though I hate all aspects of gardening. And I did the job to the best of my ability but I can’t pretend I had any enthusiasm for the job.

Okay I don’t feel duty bound to read Dave’s poem but I do feel a certain loyalty. Now as regards whether his poem will be of any interest to me I’d really have to read it first. Most of his stuff is interesting but I’m not interested in everything he writes about, even if he writes about it in an interesting way. I think that’s the mark of a brautigan[1]truly great writer, the ability to take any subject and make it interesting. Brautigan is one like that. What he lacks in technical ability he makes up in inventiveness and I’m pretty sure that I could read a new poem by him just now with no problem.

For starts it would probably be shorter than Dave’s poem. Dave doesn’t write epics but he does write poems longer than I generally enjoy and if they were by any other writer I might not even try to read them. Today’s poem is 57 lines long but they’re nice short lines, 272 words in total excluding the title. Here’s a link to the poem. The average reading rate is between 200 and 250 words per minute so what are we talking about here? About 1 minute and 20 seconds. That’s not much time out of anyone’s life. Surely I can get my act together for 80 seconds.

Yes, but it’s when those 80 seconds fit into the grand scheme of things. I’ve been sitting at my computer for four hours. That’s four hours I’ve been reading and replying to e-mails, reading and commenting on blogs and working on this post. It’s nearly lunchtime. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time to try and concentrate on one of Dave’s (or anyone else’s) poems.

Wikipedia doesn’t have an article on concentration. But it has one on attention. It includes a clinical model of attention as proposed by Professors McKay Moore Sohlberg and Catherine A. Mateer:

Focused attention

The ability to respond discretely to specific visual, auditory or tactile stimuli.

Sustained attention

The ability to maintain a consistent behavioural response during continuous and repetitive activity.

Selective attention

The ability to maintain a behavioural or cognitive set in the face of distracting or competing stimuli. Therefore it incorporates the notion of "freedom from distractibility."

Alternating attention

The ability of mental flexibility that allows individuals to shift their focus of attention and move between tasks having different cognitive requirements.

Divided attention

This is the highest level of attention and it refers to the ability to respond simultaneously to multiple tasks or multiple task demands.

and, of course, they ended up with a list of things that work against us giving things our full attention and devised solutions to the problems:




Environmental modifications

Reduce distraction, facilitate organisation

Improved context for cognitive processing

Attention training

Cognitive exercises, generalisation training

Improved processing efficiency, increased self awareness

Self-regulatory strategies

Orienting, pacing, key ideas log

Increased sense of self-control, personal empowerment

External aids

Develop use of lists, calendars, organisers

Reduced reliance on internal attention and memory systems

Psychological support

Education, relaxation training, psychotherapy

Decreased anxiety and depression, increased self-esteem

(See Improving Attention and Managing Attentional Problems by McKay Moore Sohlberg and Catherine A. Mateer.)

Effectiveness is dependent on more than commitment and/or enthusiasm. No matter how committed or enthused I was I’m never going to climb to the top of Mount Everest. But reading a poem and ascending the world’s highest mountain have more in common than you might imagine. They both require focus and how long we can focus on something is something that you can put a time limit on. We’re talking here about our attention span,

Let’s just clarify two terms before we go on any further:

  • Focused attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that attracts attention. The attention span for this level is very brief, with a maximum span, without any lapse at all, that may be as short as 8 seconds. This level of attention is attracted by a ringing telephone, or other unexpected occurrence. After a few seconds, it is likely that the person will look away, return to a previous task, or think about something else.
  • Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. If the task is handling fragile objects, such as hand-washing delicate crystal glasses, then a person showing sustained attention will stay on task and will not break any dishes, but a person who loses focus may break a glass or may stop washing the dishes to do something else. Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to "pay attention" to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies. – Wikipedia

Twenty minutes is loads of time to read a poem. But when I’m online I tend to flit from page to page. Most users spend less than a minute on any webpage. I know for a fact that, at the moment, the average user spends 50 seconds on my webpage. And when you’re in that frame of mind it is easy to pass over something that really deserves your time. Imagine going for a run round the block and the coming in and sitting down to read Dave’s poem. I bet you’d have the same problem as me. You need to settle in before you could tackle something that required some processing power. And that is what I think happened this morning with Dave’s poem. I was jumping from this to that to the other and then I was faced with Dave’s poem and I couldn’t stop and give it the attention it needed.

‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is doing to our brains’ is a magazine article by technology writer Nicholas G. Carr highly critical of the Internet's effect on cognition. Carr's main argument is that the Internet might have detrimental effects on cognition that diminish the capacity for concentration and contemplation. The article, of course, has polarised opinions. But the fact is that we do

  • Skim
  • Read just headlines
  • Move down the left side of the page quickly
  • Ignore anything that looks like an ad

In the article Carr writes:

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

War-and-PeaceNow I could never read War and Peace before I started browsing online so no great loss there and I am still able to read fairly involved texts and retain enough information so that I can write decent reviews on them, BUT (and it’s a big but which is why I wrote it in capitals) I can’t jump from one kind of reading to the other. I need to decelerate; cool off, have a bite to eat, watch a bit of TV, do the dishes, do something to change the way my mind has been working.

It’s easier the other way. Last night I finished reading a book and then happily went online and started researching stuff for my review. I didn’t read anything from that point on. I scanned and pasted the links into a Word document to read at my leisure later.

Now some people might say that this is simply lack of self-control. And they would probably be right. But if I finish work a little early and let’s say I’ve got ten minutes before tea, I would never think to try to squeeze in a chapter of my book because I know nothing would go in. I’m all for time reclamation (reading on the bus on train is a given) but there’s reading and there’s staring at pages.

I’m talking about engaging with the text. I said it would take me 80 seconds to read Dave’s poem and on one level that's a fair enough assessment. I could look at every single word (okay I know we read in blocks of words but bear with me) and say that I’d read it but poetry is not like that. You can’t read it like you’re reading this, go, “Got it,” and move onto the next one. Last night there were four new poems in a group I’ve recently been invited to join and I felt burdened looking at them. I often feel burdened when online. Because the demands on my attention are great. I forgot to check Facebook a couple of days ago and when I looked around teatime I had 300 unread posts and I don’t have that many friends.

I feel . . . resentful, yes, that’s the word. I resent that my mind needs to work at such a pace to try and keep pace with this onslaught of information so that when I find myself faced with a 52-line poem – that I would really like to read and will probably actually enjoy once I get round to it – I cannot give it the space it deserves. So the poem is sitting unread at the moment. But there is a danger in that because tomorrow if he’s still churning them out at the rate he is I’ll have another one to read and I’ll end up probably reading neither of them because now it feels like he’s looking for twice the commitment from me and I wasn’t up to half that amount the day before.


Seriously, how much do you remember of what you’ve read online? Yes, it’s interesting at the time. It makes you think or smile. You add a comment or two and pass on and the next day there’s something else to read. There is always something else to read; always, always, always something else to read. If Dave doesn’t post another poem tomorrow then someone else will.

It has been a long time since I crammed for any exam. I actually don’t remember cramming, me being the clever bugger what I was at school, but I understand the concept. I had to study but I enjoyed studying. I never got why some people needed to cram. I put it down to the fact that they’d not studied properly in the first place and this was them paying the price. But some crammed because they didn’t believe they’d studied enough even if they had. Cramming can’t be fun. It’s force-feeing yourself facts. Eating is one of life’s pleasures and even I can enjoy a good meal and time to eat it. But that’s the whole point. Eating is not just about filling your belly any more than making sure you’ve read everything that appears on Facebook and Twitter and all the rest. I never update my status because that would be one more thing for my friends to read and seriously do any of you care that much what the hell I’m doing?

I am beginning to wonder about the effect that trying to stay afloat online is having on me. I try and convince myself that keeping up my online profile is important (and I’m not saying that it’s not) but I remember what I was like before I had my burnout and I didn’t know if I was coming or going or had indeed been and gone. And I don’t fancy ending up back there. This is supposed to be fun. What is the point if it’s not fun?


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I often find it difficult to read poems on the computer. Something about the lighted screen? I don't know. I prefer the poem in a book or magazine. Because I can carry it around and reread it at leisure? Without having to bend myself to the needs of the machine?

I imagine ereaders will get to the point they present poems in an attractive, friendly format.

I often have to reread poems anyway. And there are books that take me forever to read because I work my way through one or two pages at a time.

J. M. P. said...

(Jim, I always feel to shy to comment on your entries. Just some unrelated thoughts:)
—At work, I edited a book by teacher who cited N. G. Carr. The author was inflexible with the reading habits of children. I could not agree with her thesis that we should go back about fourty years. In my land, this means go back to a dictatorship.
—One of my favourite poets, Wisława Szymborska, once said that she likes to spend a long time reading short books. I really like her.
—I read War and Peace before having internet at home, but I didn't read it in one stretch.
—I have trouble concentrating.
(Now I should take all this and write my comment, lol.)

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that’s partly what’s bothering me about Dave’s poetry of late, Glenn, although Dave is not the only person who is suffering from my inability to concentrate, but you can’t – at least I can’t – just scan one of Dave’s poems and I’ve got it and I can just start rattling off some inspired comment. It’s not the computer although it doesn’t help. A part of it is the sheer quantity of stuff to read and I doubt many of us give what we’re reading the attention it deserves. We’re doing the writers a disservice and we’re not getting the most out of it ourselves because it takes time to remember. I know there are those lucky buggers who can scan a piece of paper and it’s locked in their memories but, and this is becoming a source of some irritation to me, unless I spend time with a work it can be lost to me in minutes; it’s as if I’ve not read it, so why bother? I had hoped reviewing books would help me to be able to retain (and crucially recall) the stuff I’d read and researched but I find even there it’s depressing how little I can bring back to mind about books I’ve read only a few weeks ago. When I was ill one of the symptoms was difficulty in concentrating – you have no idea how long it took me to produce some of those early blogs – but I’d hoped that all that was by me. It seems not. This morning my head is mush but, as you can see, I’m not so bad that I can’t string a few sentences together but the thought of critiquing a poem just makes me want to nod off. I suppose it’s possible – probably more like – that I’ve been overdoing it since I got better but I’m afraid that’s my nature and even if I’m not working I can’t not go through the motions of working.

And, Josep, thank you for commenting. There’s absolutely no reason to feel shy around here. It pleases me no end when people pass a comment or two. I am with Szymborska: give me a novella any day over a novel. I was talking to a writer of speculative fiction the other day who was bemoaning the fact that many publishing houses demand an minimum word-count in excess of 70,000 words before they will even look at a novel. My response was to list the word counts of a few classic science fiction novels that would never have seen the light of day under the current regime and there are so many great science fiction novellas out there too, probably more than in any other genre.

I did try to read War and Peace when I was at school. The book was so popular that I was only allowed to take it out of the public library for two weeks and I remember the librarian being reluctant to let me have it being convinced (rightly so it transpires) that I’d not read it. I probably read about a quarter of it before I had to take it back and I’ve never looked at it since. I always smile when I remember Woody Allen joking, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” That is about as much as I can remember about it.

If we went back about forty years here in Scotland – I take it we’re talking about the teaching of reading here? – I think it would definitely make a difference but one has to remember that the Internet is here and it’s not going away and what children need to be introduced to very early one (well before they ever touch a computer) is the joy of reading. Before my daughter was born I had already bought her 100 books and to my delight she turned into – with a little help from her mother’s genes – a voracious reader. The last time I saw her she was showing me her new tablet PC and the books she had downloaded to read on it so computers are not bad if they’re in the hands of people who use them wisely.

Art Durkee said...

I don't even try to stay afloat anymore. I don't even try to read everybody's blog who I would normally read. I am happy to read a few of them, and read the others tomorrow.

But then as you know I'm a fast reader who retains most of what he reads. When we lost power here all over town for three hours a couple of nights ago as a major storm came through, I sat down and read Larry McMurtry;s short memoir "Paradise" in two hours. (I like his nonfiction more than his fiction, to be honest. THis is about three weeks in the South Pacific, where he was also writing about the life and death of his parents in landbound northern TExas.) It was quite a good read, and I recommend the book.

The internet promotes the skimming of texts. It promotes shallow absorption merely by being spread out so wide and thin. I find that one CAN use the Internet for in-depth, slow reading. One must choose to do so, however, and finish something before clicking the links to all its sidebars.

I always read poems more than once. That's necessary to the artform, I think. Because it's NOT prose, not essay, not reportage, not straightforward prose fiction. Poetry has musical connections, loops, echoes, resonance, and sometimes paths that only reveal themselves upon rereading.

Some kinds of books I can only read at most a chapter a week. These are books that I have to stop reading and think about, and integrate, before I move on. Poetry can be like that, too. There aren't that many poetry books I would WANT to be able to sit down and read at one sitting. I only do that if the book seems to be a single work of art itself.

I agree with you about the science fiction novella. It's a length within the genre that is often perfect for the stories. Robert Silverberg is a grand master of the novella. One of my other favorite writers, Jim Harrison, who is a poet first and a mainstream novelist second, is also a master of the novella. I think it's the perfect length for fiction.

As for concentration itself—you hoped I would finally to it eventually, I imagine—the mental fogginess that I am experiencing at times from my own illness, not to mention some of the medications, is I agree very irritating. Here I am trying to write a piece of music on commission, and some days I can't focus enough to do so. I lose whole days to the mental fogginess associated with the medical narrative. It's really frustrating. So I do sympathize. I've learned, however, not to beat myself up if I have a foggy mental day. I can't do anything about it, and I need that energy for other things. So I do my best to not waste it on frustration. I'm not perfect at that by any means, I still get frustrated; and I find that I can still get SOMETHING done on those days, even if it's not much, or what I WANTED to get done. I guess this is about letting go of some kinds of expectations.

Marion McCready said...

The thing that occasionally gets me is the endlessness of it all, the blogging lark goes on year after year and I've been facebooking for over a year now too. It's a neverending conversation. I very much limit what I commit myself to read and have done for a good while otherwise it becomes terribly burdensome and basically unmanageable. Sounds like you're putting far to much pressure on yourself, the amount of work you put into your blog posts alone astonish me. Obviously I thoroughly enjoy them which is why I read them though I rarely read your book reviews (unless a title really stands out for me), the non-poetry ones I mean, because I don't buy or read a great deal of fiction.

I don't really think the internet has affected my concentration. I've always been a skim-reader whether on page or on-line but I have no problems in reading something properly when I want to.

The thing I find when reading poetry, whether on-line or on the page, is that I generally have to make a real effort to take in a narrative. I automatically read visually in a sense, absorbing the images, sounds, the look and feel of the words latching onto the lines / words that evoke something in me. Sometimes it takes me several reads to focus on what a poem is actually about, and I'm not talking about difficult or obscure poetry here.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this speaks to my condition, Jim! Comfortingly, it's always been a problem so it's one facet of a fragmenting consciousness that I don't have to attribute to early onset dementia! Recently I've been starting the day with 10 minutes deep breathing and for an hour or so afterwards my concentration levels are more acute.

As for reading poetry, I have been employing recently the simple technique that i used to prescribe to my students, that of placing a blank sheet of paper over the text and revealing it line-by-line. Which is a bit sad.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think the big difference here, Art, is that I came online to promote my writing; that’s my primary reason for being here. If I wasn’t trying to build up (and hang onto) a following I would dial everything right back. I would be like you, do what made me happy.

The thing I find about reading online is that you build up a momentum and then there’s a poem to read but my mind’s not in poem-reading-mode, it’s in skim mode and I slide right off it. When I pick up a book and sit in my armchair my pace is completely different but by that time the laptop’s been turned off to avoid meltdown and it’s just me and a cup of coffee. I mentioned I joined a wee poetry critique club on Facebook a few weeks back. I haven’t said a thing on it for over a week easily. And yet the poems keep pouring into my inbox. I look at them, recognise poem-shapes but I cannot summon up enough interest most of the time to read more than a line or two. I started off good guns, making wee comments, being constructive, but so quickly I’ve lost heart.

The return of the brain fog is troubling me. Most people I deal with online are working fulltime jobs and all this Internet malarkey they’re fitting in when they can. Me, because I only have Carrie to take care of (and she’s really not that much of a burden), I can – and do – sit here for hours every day, easily 50 hours a week and yet I feel I get so little done; I used to be so much more efficient than I am now. I’m feckless, that’s what I am. I don’t think I’m bored with it all but I’m wondering if all the effort is really worth it. I’ve followed the ‘rule’ – regular posting, quality content yada yada yada – and yet it seems I only have the same handful of regulars that I attracted right back at the start. Where’s all the new blood?

Part of me would like to jack all this in and go off and find a traditional publisher. Ah, but if only it was that easy, if only this was forty years ago. Nowadays publishers expect you to have an online presence, to actively promote your work, to do all the stuff that’s wearing me down. I don’t know.

And, Marion, yes, ‘endlessness’ is a good word. And limiting yourself is sensible but aren’t you afraid you’ll miss something, that one thing you’ve been waiting to hear and you would have heard it if you’d only been that tiny bit more diligent in checking your Facebook page? We always assume that others are coping better than us, doing more than us and doing it better when I bet most of us are bedraggled, run ragged and don’t know if we’re coming or going but determined not to give in, to make some effort to be sociable. The thing I find half the time is that a blog pops up in my feedreader and I often have no idea whose blog it is or why I’ve subscribed to it but I look for something wise or witty to say to keep my public profile up. And yet, after almost four years, four hundred blogs, 100000+ words as a very conservative estimate, I still have only 138 followers and can’t hold most people’s attention for more than 48 seconds.

I’ve never been afraid of hard work – hence the four breakdowns/burnouts – but I am seriously wondering if the ratio of effort to return is worth it. The Internet is built on reciprocity though – what goes round, comes round – and, in principle, I think that’s a good thing but in practice…?

One of my personal goals is to educate myself. At my age I should be a respected professor of poetry but I couldn’t name most of the poets writing today and I’ve certainly not read them and the list of poets I’ve read next to nothing by is embarrassingly long. I never studied at school. I just went to classes, soaked everything up and came top of the class. And that has always been the case with me; I learned by osmosis. Nowadays that isn’t happening. Now I have time to devote to the things I’m passionate about it’s as if my bike’s lost its chain. And that’s just depressing.

Marion McCready said...

Jim, I'm pretty confident that the only way for you now to increase your regular readership is by networking bigwigs (for want of a better word :)), getting in with the right people, commenting in the right places and on the right blogs. I'm not worried about missing anything important poetry-wise on f/b because people multi post about anything important and plus they all post about it anyway so it'd be hard to miss.

I blog,and I've always done so, mainly to help me write and progress in my poetry, I'm not looking for mass readership. I like the fact that people can find out more about me and my poetry through it and I'm often surprised by who I find out reads it (I nearly fainted when Claire Crowther told me she had read my blog!).

Being an academic doesn't automatically make you a good writer or reviewer. I think you write fantastic, insightful, reviews and if I were you I'd be making a name for myself by being a regular reviewer for decent literary mags and journals.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not at that stage with the poetry yet, Dick, but if the poem is in a long block of text – Art Durkee is very guilty of that – I’ll paste the poem into Word and add line breaks after every full stop. It destroys the formatting but the added white space – and the choice of font sizes – makes reading easier. But this is me as 52! Okay, fifty-two hard years but still…

Mornings are very bad for me. I seriously don’t think I could hold down a real fulltime job and this is me supposedly better! That last bout of illness really tore the lining out of me. Most mornings I devote to reading blogs, e-mails and checking Facebook although I’m getting sick of Facebook and it’s only been a few months. I do almost all my work-work after lunch. Carrie naps for three hours every afternoon (and the bird goes with her) so it’s quiet and I can usually focus by then. And I think that’s some of the problem. The online poetry-reading gets slotted in when I’m not at my clearest.

Another thing I suspect that’s getting to me is bad poetry. At least I think it’s bad poetry. I looked at a chapbook someone had uploaded a wee while back and thought it was a mess. Later I found a link to it calling it “a masterwork” and I thought, Eh? There are people out there who assume when you say you like poetry you like all poetry. Most people like music but no one likes all music. I don’t see the point of much of the poetry I read online. I suspect it’s bad but I lack the . . . I’m actually not sure what I lack, confidence probably, to say (even to myself) that it’s bad. All I know is that I don’t see the point of it in a public forum. There are exceptions like your good self but these are few and far between.

The thing is, just like fiction, not all good poetry is interesting either. H.P. Lovecraft is undoubtedly a great horror writer – some would argue the greatest – but I really don’t find horror appealing. If I was sent one of his books to review I’d likely read it but I wouldn’t choose to read it. If people are writing about stuff that doesn’t interest me, no matter how good they are, they’re still on a hiding to nothing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Marion, okay, perfect example: who the hell is Claire Crowther? I know I could look her up, and I may well do later, but at this very minute I have no idea who she is. Is she one of the bigwigs I should be schmoozing with? I haven't a clue who the players are. There’s also the fact that I’m not just a poet which means I’ve got two lots of ‘bigwigs’ to snuggle up to. And let’s not forget my two plays which I always do which is why they’ve sat in the proverbial drawer for as long as they have because all I have to do is think about how much work would be involved in doing something with them and I want to crawl into bed and forget the whole thing.

I’m not unsociable but I have to work hard at it. I never go anywhere because I really hate going anywhere. It’s a big reason why I’ve never actively pursued a “real” publishing deal: just think about all the people I’d have to interact with and the readings they’d expect me to do! But at the same time I can’t just leave my writing to stagnate. Online seemed to be the ideal solution and it’s not as if I’ve not read load and loads about how to go about it. I’m simply not selling something that has a great market appeal and just because people like my books doesn’t mean they’ll like my poetry and vice verse and my short stories are a different kettle of fish entirely not that I’ve made much effort to get many of them out there.

I agree that being an academic doesn’t mean you’re any good when it comes to the practice of writing but most people who meet me thing I am one anyway. I was once introduced by a boss of mine as “the cleverest person he’d ever met” and I groaned internally when he said that because I knew it would only be a matter of time before I disappointed him which I did some time later with my third breakdown/burnout. Part of the reason I started thinking about the whole concentration thing is that I have been studying for the last four years, spending hours and hours researching stuff and I can hardly remember a damn thing. As you know I write posts weeks in advance and the fact is that most of them, by the time I come to upload them, I can’t remember writing them. Stuff is not sticking. This I am not used to. As I’ve said above, as a kid I just soaked up information. I didn’t understand the concept of cramming and if I studied it was usually because I was interested and wanted to learn more not because I didn’t know enough to pass the exams that were looming.

I’m glad you appreciate the work I do – I’m not so daft to think that no one appreciate me – but I am starting to wonder what the point is if I’m not benefiting from it.

j said...

I've almost totally stopped reading most blogs, except for a few. Your posts require my full attention, which I enjoy -- because there is nothing that skims the surface in your writing and your approach -- but I do wait until I can focus to read. I know that because I don't read many blogs and hardly comment that fewer people will read and comment on my blog. At this point, I'm fine with that, but I am also not really promoting anything at the moment.

At some point I decided that I'd rather read more books and -- hopefully, once I am really feeling better mentally and have adjusted -- write, because I can't do it all, at least not very well.

I am always happy when you stop by and comment on my blog, but also understand when you don't, especially these days when I am cranking out one post a day (and they aren't all that great, given that they are short and generally prompts).

Jim Murdoch said...

This was a factor in cutting back slightly on the frequency of my posts, Jennifer, because I am fully aware that they require attention. (And here’s me whinging about the fact that I’m not attracting more readers when my approach is so untypical of what we’ve come to expect online.) I could write shorter posts. I don’t actually try to write long ones. I write until I’ve said what I have to say but to be fair I usually skim most issues even when I spend 3000 words on them. What I really should do is write until I’m done and then split up the posts into manageable chunks. But it’s still a time thing. I need to get an article out every ten days plus read and review and book in the middle. The book reviews are easy. I’ve reviews written covering me into August and I might even have one done for September for an anniversary. The articles used to be easier too but I’ve pretty much used up the topics I can write about without doing much research, now most articles demand several hours worth of reading and note-taking before I even begin. I’ve even bought a book for my next one because there wasn’t enough of it available online.

You should read more. Reading always motivates me to write. It also suggests new directions. I think that would be good for you.

I do check your blog whenever there’s a new post. They’re never very long and so not such a great burden but finding something to say often is especially when you cover the same ol’ same ol’. I’m not so wise that I can always think of a second or a third thing to say so I’ve found myself, of late anyway, saying nothing. I do worry sometimes that I’m my own worst enemy in that I build up a level of expectation. I always leave a long comment on Lis Hanscombe’s blogs for example but there’s a reason for that. We found ourselves communicating by e-mails and it was becoming a burden so we agreed to stick to the blogs as our main source of exchange. Now, of course, not commenting would make me feel very guilty and I can’t help but feel much the same with you because I’ve made a habit of saying something pretty much every time you put up something but I just can’t do that on a daily basis. Lis posts once a week and that’s great. I look forward to her posts and to the hour or so I usually take to reply but more than that would turn a pleasure into a chore. And I would hate for that to happen.

But that is what’s happening overall, commenting is becoming a job of work and work is never fun.

Marion McCready said...

This is the third time I've tried to comment and blogger keeps wiping it grrr :(

It doesn't matter who knows or doesn't know who Claire Crowther is, just that to me she is a poetry superstar so the fact that she read my blog even once is equally terrifying and exciting!

Why don't you you publish your essays and reviews in mags and journals? There are always folk bemoaning the lack of poetry reviewing out there. It would raise your profile and therefore interest in your own work.

Jim Murdoch said...

I did, of course, look up Claire Crowther after I made that comment, Marion. Her poetry is pleasant. Of the examples on her webpage the one that called to be the strongest was ‘Reconstructive Fortressing’.

You suggestions about reviews is a good one. I have thought about it before. A few things put me off – I can be so easily put off – but probably the main one is not have free reign as to the length of my articles. I’ve read many ‘reviews’ where the poor reviewer has to try and say what he has to say in a few hundred words and it’s neigh impossible. I don’t actually read any poetry magazines these days. Even when I was young I never bought many but I would look through the ones in which my poems appeared. Mostly I was unimpressed. I prefer collections of single poets to magazines and anthologies; it’s finding poets that do something for me that’s hard. All my heroes are dead. And I rarely read any e-zines either. I have the time but not the right kind of time. Let me explain.

To a great extent this blog has changed how I read. I no longer read for pleasure. All I read is stuff I’m researching or going to review. To relax I watch TV. In the past I would read to relax but since all I do all day is read reading is now work. This is not as bad a thing as it seems because I enjoy work but this is where my poetry reading suffers because of how I now read. You’ll note that I review very few poetry books. I don’t get sent many but I don’t go out of my way to look for them either. Novels are easy to review but I struggle with the poetry and put a disproportionate amount of work into most reviews. Part of this is because I’m not that intellectual I dream of being. I feel I can’t speak with authority without checking my facts first; I don’t have that problem with prose.

I can see the benefit of doing reviews for magazines but I do have to wonder if the rewards would warrant the effort I know I would put into them. I have seen some sites looking for book reviewers and I am tempted but I’m also acutely aware that since I finished my novel I’ve done very little writing, a handful of poems and nothing else. Sure I’ve done other stuff, like redesign the website in preparation for the release of Milligan and Murphy later this year, but there’s always other stuff.

I budget my time like we all have to and I’m a great believer in time reclamation but in practice I find it not so easy. I can’t just switch my mind into poetry-receptive-mode when it’s time to read poetry. The bottom line is that I think I need to seriously look at how I’m using my time.

Art Durkee said...

Several thoughts came to mind reading your replies to comments, Jim.

I started with a facetious "Wait, what was I saying?" comment in mind but dropped it.

I think what's going on here is not at all about reading and writing, but about depression and illness. I say that because I've been there, done that. I'll break it down how I perceive what's going from reading between the lines, but if I'm wrong do ignore this. (Ask Carrie what she thinks?) I think you've run afoul of your own desires and expectations, and that's what's dragging you down. It's not really about the blog.

1. You're feeling mentally fogged, you have an illness you thought you were all over, and you have a history of mental, let's not call them breakdowns but, episodes. Well, duh. Recovery from any illness that affects the mind is not absolute, with a definite ending date. Its effects can come back, based on several factors. Whenever I get tired I get really foggy. It can leave a longtime deficit in concentration. It can suddenly get better. I have good days, and days I can't explain why I was foggy, I just was. (There isn't always an answer to "why.")

1.b. ANY decent family doctor would tell you that when these things converge and combine, you will likely feel depressed, like everything's no fun and a huge effort, and there seem to be no rewards. I've been there and felt that. A couple of years ago my doctor had me take antidepressants for 8 months, which I really resisted, BUT they did help me cope with my feelings till I came out the other side. Now I don't need them, and don't take them. (Most people need to realize that depression is not a death sentence, nor is it always enduring or permanent. I for one don't have chronic depression, but I did have situational depression.)

2. Add to that your sense of futility based on having expectations about how your writing life online would go. It's not meeting your expectations or living up to your plans. ANY decent counseling therapist, or spiritual director, would tell you that such periods—call them setbacks or call them fallow periods—are unavoidable and to be expected. This problem, which I have been through so many times I stopped counting, is to change one's expectations, or abandon them entirely. Be reasonable in your expectations, and stop beating yourself up when you don't live up to them.

3. Most people who read never comment. You can never build any accurate sense of your readership based on who comments, because most people never comment anyway, and those who comment regularly are the ones who are interested in building relationships. The percentage of visitors who leave comments on my own blogs is less than one percent; it always surprises me how many hits I get per day, because the number's actually pretty high. I gave up wanting to create dialogue via comments on my blog, because it's not a medium that inherently promotes dialogue. Quite the opposite. It promotes skimming, as you've said.


Art Durkee said...

4. Hard work is no guarantee of success, it's only a guarantee of being tired at the end of the day. I am reading right now Caroline Myss' superb book "Defy Gravity," and the very first lesson in there, which is really pertinent to me and my life, and which I find myself really absorbing at last is: You cannot think you way out of your problems. You can work hard all your life, doing everything right that you've been told to do, and it still might mead to nowhere and nothing. AND that is not a cause for despair or depression. It is simply the truth: We do the best we can, and then we have to let it go, and not obsess on how much better it could have been, or how much more reward we should have gotten. If we focus on the rewards and goals, we risk missing out on the journey. There is an element of faith in play here, which doesn't have to be remotely spiritual or religious faith: it's simply faith that what think is worth doing IS worth doing. It does always lead to a reward—but not always the reward we anticipated.

5. Most poetry online really is bad poetry. I often choose to not leave comments when a poem means nothing to me, or doesn't affect me, or if it's so full of clichés that I can tick them off on my fingers. For two reasons: Is the poet really open to comments? (see below) And, frankly, no one's paying me to write reviews or to give them the benefit of my knowledge. So if I choose to write a review, it's because I want to, because no one else cares anyway. I post reviews periodically—every writer should write at least two reviews a year, just to do it—of things I've encountered that I really liked. That's enough. I'm not interested in reading things only to review them, as to me that seems like wasting my valuable time. So my reviews are all about things I've liked, and were memorable to me.

5.b. They're not really wanting my critique anyway, and most would be offended if I was too honest about it. I learned a lot about critiquing from face to face poetry groups as well as online workshop groups, and I made a choice to sometimes not comment, unless asked, just because it's a poet who has invested too much of their self-esteem in their writing and anything but fawning praise is going to be taken amiss. So it's just a waste of energy and time.

So, I hope you feel better soon, that the fog clears up again, and that you get out of this funk. At the same time, I know from my own life that my life rarely agrees to abide by my intentions or timetable. It often frustrates or irritates me that life does not conform to my wishes. LOL I get that from my Mother, who spent most of her angst in life on precisely that point. So I learned where that tendency comes from, in me, it comes from her, and I know therefore not to let it rule me.

These days, since I am very much not in control of my life and what happens to me next, I've been forced to learn the virtues of patience and Zen-like detachment from outcomes. Things happen the way they happen, and there's often nothing I can do about it. And I actually do value and appreciate those virtues.

Anonymous said...

"Our environment" -- that's a big factor for me. Sometimes it's tough to focus for sustained periods at work with all the distractions.

Is Google making us stupid? Definitely. I don't have to remember ANYTHING anymore. I can just Google it. Akin to using a calculator to do menial math. If we don't use our brains...

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing is, Art, I’m not depressed, not by a long chalk. In fact by what most people will have come to regard as my norm – let’s call it hound-doggedness – I’m actually quite bright. I have no worries-with-a-capital-w. To be honest I’m not even feeling the effects of inflation. Yes, I have a poorly wife but I also have an independent wife who doesn’t take being incapacitated lying down (sitting down, maybe). I get up in the mornings and I can do whatever I want and what I want to do is work. I’m not especially interested in making money not because some more money wouldn’t be nice but we don’t need any more money. I’m not going to discuss my financial situation online other than do say that we have what we need and are not sponging off the state; I claimed what was due to me when it was due and didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty because I’d earned it.

It’s probably getting on for about a year since I felt that this last bout of mental illness had run its course. The ending was abrupt and the result of what I’ve been calling a “positive trauma” that my doctor was unable to explain but think of it as someone jumping out to give to a scare as a way of curing hiccups; one day the brain fog lifted – completely – and I could work so that’s exactly what I did, every hour I could. I was doing that anyway – I’ve never been the kind of person to let a little thing like brain fog to hold me back – but obviously it made my life harder and I had to put more effort into writing and I was less efficient. That I wasn’t well was also clearly evidenced by how much work Carrie had to do to clean up my writing before it got posted. She still checks it (never a bad thing to get your work proofread) but the errors are now minimal and acceptable.

That said my health could be better. I have a number of niggles which I won’t bore you with. Everyone has their niggles. But here’s the thing: for most of my life I’ve had trouble sleeping and I’ve just accepted it as part of who I am and made the most of my time – I’m a great believer in time-reclamation – but over the past few months I’ve found myself sleeping through the whole night or a regular basis, anything from seven to ten hours straight (quite unprecedented!) and yet I’m not waking up refreshed, in fact most mornings I could happily go back to bed within an hour of getting up. I don’t. I tough it out but I’m rarely in a fit state mentally to do involved work until after lunch. So the mornings get used up reading blogs and answering e-mails and Facebook when I can be bothered. This I resent. And ‘resent’ is the right word. I’ve always accepted my mental health issues as fair payback for running myself ragged. Nowadays, though, I work at what is for me a very leisurely pace. I have a huge stockpile of articles and reviews so I’m never under pressure to get anything out. So I feel that since I’m playing fair with my body that my body should play fair back.

I have been online for nearly four years now. When I decided to start the blog it was partly as therapy. I was used to working and I needed to work or at least go through the motions of working. In that respect this blog saved my life or at least kept me sane. But it was also a business. Okay, not a business where it mattered if I made any money but it was still important to me that I treated it like a business and not a hobby; my writing has never felt like a hobby. To that end I read as much as I could about how to operate online and did my best to get in line. In some respects I’ve been quite successful but for a while now I’ve felt that I was making little progress.


Jim Murdoch said...

I had resisted getting involved with Facebook for a long time, Art, but I dived in there and floundered around for a bit but I’ve still not been brave enough to get into Twitter. I’m not the kind of outgoing person who flourishes in environments like this; I’m not a social animal. So then most days these days I sit down in the mornings with a certain weariness of heart. The question I keep trying not to ask is: What’s the point? And if I did find that becoming something I couldn’t let go of I would start to suspect that I was becoming depressed-with-a-capital-d again. I’m a bit down, a bit weary but this is work and a part of work is getting up and getting on with it when you can’t be bothered.

This article though stemmed from something that has been bothering me for a while. A great deal of my ‘business’ involves me studying, not something I find hard as long as I’m interested and let’s face it I can study whatever I want. But what I’m finding is that it’s not sticking. I’m not sure when I wrote this article but my daughter was over on Sunday and I was talking to her about it – she’s taking a psychology degree – and I found I couldn’t remember what I’d written about. A measure of the success of my ‘business’ was always expected to be intellectual growth – I may never become a best-selling author but I was certainly expecting the be able to talk with an increasing authority and confidence about writing but what I’m finding is that I’m able to hang onto the stuff for the two or three days I’m working on the article and then it just evaporates. It’s not just intellectually-challenging stuff either. I find myself frequently asking my wife the same old questions like what numbers go in the recycling. I can remember that if there’s a triangle and a 1 in it then it goes in – that’s stuck – but I keep forgetting about the other numbers (and we’re only talking about two or three numbers). Cooking times is another one. The last time she went to the States I had to get her to write down the times for things like pasta and rice because I couldn’t remember. So it’s pretty obvious that I have not bounced back to where I was before I was ill and my suspicion is that this is me. But that’s no reason to roll over and die. You do the best with what you have but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to get frustrated about it and even whinge about it from time to time. In the past I have not worked within my limitations. I have always pushed myself. I never relaxed. That I’m paying the price is only to be expected. But I don’t have to like it.

So I am frustrated. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet. Nor even take a break because I’ve watched what happens with other people when they take a break, they get forgotten in no time at all. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life online it’s that people’s attentions wander. There are too many shiny things competing for their attention. They’re not going to sit still and watch the place they saw you last to see if you appear, no, they’re off.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m usually quite good working around distractions, Milo. At the moment our cockatiel is jabbering away at a mirror on the top of his cage and although I’m aware of it it’s not bothering me. Now, if he decides to practice his car alarm impression that will get under my skin and if he persists he’ll get a time-out in the bathroom where he can chatter to the mirrors there to his heart’s content.

But I do worry that knowing that I don’t need to remember is causing me to stop trying so hard. I’m never far from a computer and Google is just incredible. Have you ever seen a film called Idiocracy? It’s a bit silly but the underlying message is deadly serious. It imagines America 500 years in the future. One reviewer called it basically “Kafka's The Trial meets Beevis and Butt-Head” and that’s not too far off the mark and in its own way it presents every bit as terrifying an image of the future as did Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Just what would the world end up like if we stopped thinking for ourselves?

Art Durkee said...

That sounds good, Jim. Glad to hear your clarifications.

I have also struggled with something called acedia. It was well-known as "the noonday demon" to the monastics of old. It's not depression, although from the outside it can look like it. Your clarifications brought it to mind. I don't know if it's any more relevant than my previous thoughts, but I throw it out there on the off chance that it's slightly useful.

Acedia literally means, dryness of the soul. (Its Medieval nickname, the noonday demon, meant: demon that attacks in the light of day, drying us up and making us feel helpless.) Acedia is treatable, by meditation, by doing other things rather than focusing on whatever is making you feel blah, and even by prayer. But sometimes you just have to endure the dryness. There is always a reason for acedia, even if we don't know what it is. (Sometimes we never get to know it is.) Maybe you were just pushing yourself too hard, and you needed to stop and do nothing for awhile. Doing nothing is not a sin, after all. Who says we have to work all the time? I have rediscovered, in writing the current piece of music, how I must take breaks away from the writing table.

I dunno if that fits your situation, though. Like I said, just a thought.

For anyone else who might be interested, some years ago I wrote a longer essay on acedia on my own blog. In case anyone's interested:

awyn said...

I think the magic word in all this is "focus". I've run into the fog of not being able to concentrate because of mental overload (things demanding my time for which I'm feeling pressured)and my heart's not in it at the moment. It's worse in InternetWorld: (the sheer amount of hours it takes just reading blogs, news, articles, doing research, answering email, etc. ) It sometimes helps to set aside the equivalent of a day or two of fasting: "Internet-Free Wednesday" or"Time-out Saturdays". Then when you go "back", establish a hierarchy of importance vis-a-vis what needs your intention. Everything else has to stand in line. I dunno--this works for me sometimes. Might not eliminate the fog completely, but does wonders to dissipate great globs of it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, if there’s one thing the Internet is good for, Annie, it’s wasting time and lots of it. I sometimes wish that my interests weren't quite so broad and I just stuck to maybe the poetry but even there it’s never just the poetry, is it? Not if you want to do anything more than post the odd poem on your blog and accept what readers happen to stumble on you. Even when I was at my worst I never got a handle on how my brain fog worked, what triggered it and what relieved it; it came, it went and when it went I worked. And I’m exactly the same now. I have no idea why I’m becoming foggy again but I spent this morning watching TV because I wasn’t fit for anything else. I tried real coffee. I tried washing my face in cold water and finally I just decided to sit it out. Now it’s lifted and I’ve got about an hour and a half before I’ll need to get Carrie up so we’ll do what we can and that’s all we can do. I have no intention of jacking all this in or anything – I would have to be really bad before I considered that – but I do wish I could get more done. There is so much I want to do

Dave King said...

Lots of points that I could pick up here, Jim, both from your post and the resulting correspondence, but I will try to focus on focussing!

I have been having many of the difficulties you describe. For example, I know quite a number of long poems by heart, yet when I tried to recite one to myself, I found that I couldn't. Damn it, I thought, my memory's going. That was yonks ago. In fact, it wasn't my memory, it was my concentration. I did still know it all through, but couldn't get through it in one go. Other thoughts invaded and the next line disappeared. I have worked on this since, and have improved slightly. I can now get through a long poem, when the conditions are right. (Incidentally, I think that applies generally. Memory gets all the blame for these problems in old folk, but it seems to me that the memory is often still intact. It just is the ability to focus and retrieve that is impaired.

I have less trouble maintaining my focus when writing than when reading. There are more people writing poetry than reading it, they say. Well I write it more than I read it, I suppose. Not more often, but more successfully.

I would also have to agree with Glenn, that I find it quite difficult to read from the computer screen. Usually, I print stuff of any sort of length to read it.

I don't know how I came to overlook this post, Jim, but I am very glad you pointed it out to me! Thanks a lot for doing so.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, I thought this was an important issue to take a look at, Dave. I am not sure about my memory these days. I do have a great deal of difficulty retrieving stuff that I know is there. I know it’s there because when I find I have to learn stuff anew it’s easier because I’m just reminding myself what I already knew. So it’s in there. I know it’s all to do with how often we use a memory which is why learning by rote worked so well on us as kids – I bet, like me, you’ve never forgotten your times tables – but these days I learn what I need to know to write my articles and then I’m onto something new. So I can concentrate and I can retain the information for a couple of days but then I let go of it. I’ve talked before about how much we rely on computers these days to do our remembering for us. And all credit to the developers at Google, their search engine is remarkable in its ability to hone in on what I want. You would not believe, for example, the number of times since I started writing my blog that I’ve looked up ‘Mr Bleaney’ – dozens. I know it’s there, I expect it always to be there even if most sites are violating UK copyright by having it there. I still know it will be there. So, why bother remembering it? And yet are you telling me that after forty years I don’t know it by heart? I must do.

What is worrying me of late is the fact that my old foe, the brain fog, has returned. I have no idea why but it’s a real pain, like trying to study in a room full of infants crying. I pick up books or look at websites and just the thought of having to read something and then say something – anything – about it seems so much work. And I wonder what’s the point. It’s the kind of thinking you would expect from a depressive and yet – ironically and unusually – I am not depressed at the moment. I’m keen to work and I have lots of stuff to do that I’m genuinely interested in but the feeling that everything is a chore is weighing me down. I’d love to blame it on overwork – that’s usually the case – but compared to my usual I work at a very leisurely pace just now. It took me four days to write my next two blogs which means I have six days free before I have to write anything (actually eleven because I’m already one ahead of schedule) and that is a lovely position to be in. I can read if I like, or watch TV or play Solitaire all afternoon if that’s all I feel like (I have been playing more Solitaire than I need of late). Hopefully it will pass. I really hate wasting time.

The way I understand memory is that it is a thing that requires reinforcement – hence the effectiveness of learning by rote – and I’ve always been told that you should talk about what you’re doing, explain it to others, as a way of hammering it down into long-term storage. That was the idea behind the blog. So why is so little sticking?

And then there’s the guilt. I feel bad when people like yourself put up stuff and I don’t comment on it. Not so much with you because you always have plenty of comments but I do follow a few sites where I’m the main commenter and I feel responsible to give them a bit of encouragement and yet I can’t help also feeling a bit burdened by my self-imposed (I’m under no delusions there) task. The quid pro quo nature of the Internet is all fine and well in theory – you read my blog and I read yours and the universe stays perfectly balanced – but in practice it’s a wee bit more complicated than that. At least be assured that even if I have nothing profound to say on your poems that I do read (or try to read) every single one of them; I have two outstanding at the moment which I will try to get to this afternoon.

Bob B. Roberts said...

This was way too long and indirect to keep my attention.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry you found that, Bob. I write these articles for my own amusement more than anything. I pick a topic, research it and write an article all in the space of about three days so I’ll never be submitting any of these to technical journals not without a lot of polishing. I’m not an expert on anything, just a curious guy who likes to talk about the kind of things I’m finding out about and if the stuff’s not online I don’t have the time to go and look it up elsewhere.

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