This piece was retrieved from an old archive of my online writing—there will likely be some rough edges!
According to Laughing Squid, the bizarre invention pictured above was called “The Isolator,” and was intended to help aspiring creatives focus on their work. Hugo Gernsback was the inventor, although he’s more well-known for his contributions as a magazine publisher to the literary genre of science fiction.
The design is simple: by restricting the amount of stimulus reaching the author, they should be able to achieve a higher level of productivity. It seems that even in 1925, writers struggled with their own primitive versions of Twitter and Facebook. What’s so remarkably amusing about the Isolator is the extent to which it goes for the sake of focus. The user can’t hear a thing, can see only through two small slits in two remarkably small portcullises, and is even restricted from the soupy air of the unfocused world. Perhaps there lingered a theory in early 20th century medicine that reasoned an oxygen-enriched environment was catalytic to a higher creative output.
“Focus” is a funny thing. Creative people struggle with it more than most, I would assume. People in the general workforce talk about needing focus at work—they need to finish up a report, a long-winded e-mail. In my case, it’s about getting some particular story out the door. We, as a group, have a few tactics to get our workplace focus. We drink coffee. We put on headphones, with or without music. We snack. We close down the browser, or at least we certainly log off Facebook. Okay, we just make ourselves go “invisible” in chat. All of these tactics work well enough for getting work done at the office because for the general workforce, work isn’t all-encompassing. It isn’t their life. It only requires a small portion of their greater intellect.
Creative work, on the other hand, is different. Some people engage in creative work at the office, but they’re a unique and incredibly lucky bunch. The point is that creative work requires a whole different kind of focus. Writers, in particular, have their own set of tools that help keep them focused, and oftentimes, they’re not all that different from what we use at work: coffee, music, extrication from Facebook. Jonathan Franzen “famously” disables the Internet altogether when he’s writing. The so-called “blogosphere” is filled with hastily-written (and probably half-plagiarized) lists of the best five or eight or twenty ways to “stay focused while writing.” Books have been written on staying focused, but one would be a lot more productive if they skipped the book, wrote even 100 words, and messed around on Facebook the rest of the time.
Just to completely relay the point, here’s a collection of bullet-point tips for focus:
- Having positive patterns in my routine.
- Block out time to be creative.
- Enlisting my family and friends for help.
- Close Your Eyes and Think About Your Story
- Eat More Flaxseeds!
- The Power Of Grandma
- Keep your workspace clean and uncluttered
- Say no to Facebook, Twitter, Myspace
- Forget About The Results
The amount of ways one could get focused are, clearly, just about infinite. They fall into a few different categories: setting goals, cutting out the outside world, getting support, and pseudo-pseudoscience. Apparently by applying a combination of flax seeds, closing my eyes, cleaning up my desk, and forgetting about actually getting anything substantial done, I can achieve creative success.
Ironically, the Isolator solves most of the aforementioned problems, save for setting goals and eating flax seeds, unless, of course, that oxygen tube could be modified to shoot flax seed into the user’s mouth at a regular interval, so as to maximize the chemical focus they supposedly provide. Of course, one can’t talk to Grandma while they’re in the Isolator, but they certainly can say “no” to MySpace, if, for some inane reason, they haven’t done so already.
I wanted to stray away from giving advice myself, as that would make my a hypocrite, but I will say that there’s only one rule that has worked for me: Set a goal, and if I don’t achieve it, I’ve become worthless. I let the guilt hang on my shoulders for days. I beat myself up over it, and restrict myself from relaxing until I push through the backlog and get that done, too. No “whoops, I missed a day, now that’s 500 less words to write this week.” Someone might say, “But that’s no conducive to creative work! You need to free yourself. Close your eyes and forget about results!”
I can’t afford to do that. I want writing to be more than a hobby for me. If writing is just a hobby, something I do only when the world’s endless variables align perfectly for my maximum focus, then I might as well give up. I once used to consider photography a hobby, too, but now I take a picture once a month.
So, no, I don’t need an Isolator to get my writing done. No one should. And no one, really, should need all those tips I listed earlier—those kinds of suggestions strike me as more constructive for work scenarios, when one’s fully creative power isn’t particularly necessary. Gernsback had it wrong back in 1925, just like most bloggers have it wrong now. If one really wants to write, they’ll do it. And if one also really like to play video games, they’ll find a way to inflict a masochistic punishment for choosing that over the former again and again. Isolation doesn’t solve anything, and neither does supersaturation. They both just make one complacent. They make the world easier. The world isn’t easy. I do better being hard on myself.