Neil Gaiman used to be a lot of things. Nocturnal, for one. A really excellent multi-tasker, for another. Once upon a time he was addicted to music, which he used as creative lubricant during late-night writing jags. Now 50, the science fiction and fantasy writer describes his changing habits with bemusement. And why not. Gaiman is one of those lucky artists whose commercial success matches his talent. Plus, how scary can aging be for the man who cooked up “Coraline,” “The Sandman,” and “The Graveyard Book”?
I used to always write with the TV on. I wasn’t really watching it. It was sort of company. And I used to try to find the bad TV. It couldn’t be bad enough that I’d want to turn the channel but it couldn’t be good enough that I’d want to pay attention. I loved “The Jerry Springer Show” at the three in the morning. A run of five late-night satellite-feed Jerry Springer shows one after the other was a terrific thing to write with. It was another stream of stimulation. What I find now is I’m only capable of processing one stream of information at a time.
Music was a drug that fueled the writing. You’re writing something dark and weird and scary? Go put some Iggy Pop on. Ten years after that you’re going “Well, Iggy will be distracting but I’ll put on some Michael Nyman, some soundtracks, that’d be great.” And now I’m at the point where it’s a little bit like somebody talking to me while I’m trying to think….It takes a few attention points away that I actually need for the work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about attention. Engaging creatively requires a staggering amount of it. I used to think that carving out time was tricky, but I’m starting to believe that using time well is the real challenge. I don’t know if I’m more distractible than I used to be, but the sheer assortment of distractions the digital age has dropped in our laps is voluminous. All we have to do is unplug. I know that. You know that. But it’s truly, disturbingly difficult. The news is important. The weather forecast is useful. There’s real emotional value (or possibly fake emotional value, which feels the same, which is a problem) in knowing that someone has decoded my opaque status update. Maybe there’s a new post on D-listed. D-listed makes me laugh. Laughing is healthy. Good health is important. And so it goes. Products like Freedom lock the weak-willed off of the Internet for designated periods of time, and there’s comfort in knowing that Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, and Nora Ephron need electronic handlers to keep them on task. Of course Internet-blocking software doesn’t do much for self-loathing. But that’s another conversation.
Here’s how Gaiman deals:
Sometimes I find when I’m frustrated with what I’m writing and can’t break through to where I want to go, if I can step, meaning surf, away for 30 seconds I come back somewhat renewed. My problem is its hard to step away for 30 seconds and much easier to step away for four hours and then look up from an eBay auction that I’m not sure how I got into because I was googling the definition of a word. What I tend to do now is go down to the bottom of the garden [at his home near Minneapolis] where there’s no wireless and for my moments of distraction, when I’m just stuck, I have Windows installed on a Mac computer and I will play a game of solitaire, Spider Solitaire, the one I’ve been playing for years, the one from 1998. And I play a game, and I win or lose, or I get bored, and then I go back to the thing I’m on. That’s my weird little mental break.