Shortcuts, distractions, & discovery

The book club I attend discussed Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie last week. Flavia de Luce, Bradley’s precocious detective, lives in a rambling house in postwar England. She spends much of her unstructured, unsupervised spare time tinkering in an old chemistry lab.

Flavia lives in a world where  information travels slowly and schedules are not stuffed with activities. She can’t Google to find out what she wants to know; she gleans it through a combination of experiences, experiments, conversations, and observations. And she reads.

At the reference desk, I often field requests for film versions of assigned books. I see students (and anyone else using a computer, myself included) frequently distracted by email, social media, 24/7 “news,” and the temptations of the information superhighway with all of its scenic byways and circuitous routes.

The book club’s consensus was that Flavia represents a childhood free from modern shortcuts and distractions. Which sounded good, in light of my squeamishness at abetting college students in shirking their reading. I frequently urge my teens to turn off the screens, to realize how much time they would have if they focused.

But an essay in the New York Times today gave me pause. Writer Hanif Kureishi lauds the creative benefits of distraction and suggests that drug treatment of children who have trouble focusing is mostly a way to regulate behavior in the interest of conformity and obedience. He considers the “attempted standardization of a human being” to be the real problem.

So, are students who are finding ways around assignments actually creative problem solvers, rather than bluffers? Are they modern-day Flavias, wandering a very different but potentially fruitful and interesting garden path? Will their serendipitous travels in virtual worlds lead to good old-fashioned discovery?

The novelists of November

It’s Nov. 2, and I haven’t started writing a novel yet. During four previous Novembers I’ve been bent over my keyboard by now, trying to get off to a good start for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal? A completed 50,000 word novel by the 30th.

What then? It depends. My NaNoWriMo novels are sitting in computer files, unlikely to ever make it to a bookshelf. What’s the point, naysayers ask?  As Carolyn Kellogg wrote in the LA Times Jacket Copy blog last year, there are worse ways to spend free time than writing a novel.

Completing a large writing project in a month is an exercise in discipline. It helps form an important habit, one Jane Yolen says is the secret to her productivity: “Butt In Chair.” NaNoWriMo is also good for creativity; there isn’t time to succumb to your inner editor.  And there’s a sense of camaraderie as thousands of people around the world work towards the same deadline.

These days, writing fiction could take your mind off famine, recession, war, and politics. Or in the Northeast, power outages and October snow. As I heard Professor Ralph Williams say at a post-film discussion in Concord two weekends ago, beauty (or in the case of NaNoWriMo, attempts at beauty) can help us deal with evil.

Need more motivation? Some November novelists take their manuscripts to the next level.  Writing for Chapter & Verse, a blog at the Christian Science Monitor, Husna Haq points out that two recent best-sellers, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, began as NaNoWriMo drafts.

Intrigued? You have most of November left to join NaNoWriMo. If you have no idea where to begin, check out Galley Cat’s excellent daily tips for NaNoWriMo. Today’s tip is one I endorse: visit the reference desk.