‘Vast, unbroken slabs of time’

Neal Stephenson on writing versus correspondence:

Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the “recluse” label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers. These limits most often come into play when people send me letters or e-mail, and also when I am invited to speak publicly. This document is a sort of form letter explaining why I am the way I am. …

Letters or e-mail from readers, and invitations to speak in public, might seem like very different things. In fact they are points on a common continuum; they have more in common than is obvious at first. The e-mail message from the reader, and the invitation to speak at a conference, are both requests (in most cases, polite and absolutely reasonable requests) for the author to interact directly with readers. …

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

That is not such a terrible outcome, but neither is it an especially good outcome.

This reminds me of Don Knuth at Stanford who, years ago, wrote the following:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

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