Beware Rabbit Holes: Managing Bad Distractions and Good Temptations by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver 


Today I want to talk about rabbit holes, both good and bad.

Last month, I fell down a bad rabbit hole after reading about a forthcoming book and becoming interested in its author. Long story short, I started reading an advance review copy and looking into the author’s background in the hopes of writing a light, appreciative article of some kind.

The more I dug, the more red flags popped up, and I found myself chasing down a story about possible misrepresentation or even fraud. What started as a simple idea turned into a monster that was consuming me—and yes, the Internet helped, because there was so much out there to find. The story was inherently negative and risky, but I spent every waking hour making calls and doing online searches, determined to get to the bottom of things.

The good news is that an obsession can connect you with lots of other people who share your indignation. The bad news is that this new obsession took me away from my writing, my impending book launch, and much more. This wasn’t going to be a simple book review, after all. To do this job correctly—to write an expose or critical essay of any merit—would take many months, at least.

Cue Mary Oliver’s famous quote, above. Was this really how I wanted to spend my life?

If I were twenty-five, I would have sunk my teeth into this story and shaken it for all it was worth. Now more than twice that age, I realize I have limited time and energy. Mortality cannot be ignored.

I’d popped down the rabbit hole thinking I was facing a light two-week assignment, not a stressful odyssey that could swallow an entire year. It is painful but necessary to realize that one can’t do everything. The older we get, the more we realize the need to prioritize, and even so, we may not achieve our top-tier goals.

By chance, the very day I decided to put the story on hold I stumbled into an extremely strange story about another writer who fell down a rabbit hole of another kind and still hasn’t emerged.

Have you ever heard of Water for Elephants (2006)? The huge international bestseller by Sara Gruen, currently a Broadway musical?

In March, I read another of Gruen’s books, Ape House (2010), about bonobos, and found it unique and delightful. I looked her up.

Where was Sara Gruen’s latest book?

Where, in fact, was Sara Gruen at all?

Turns out, Gruen had started a new book that was due in 2015. In the same year, she received a letter from a California prison inmate named Charles Murdoch, a fan of Water for Elephants, who was serving a life sentence without parole for murder.

Gruen and her husband Bob became convinced Murdoch was innocent. This feature, written by a friend of Gruen’s for The Vulture, tells the tragic and convoluted story. Recruited into a noble quest to free a man she believed was falsely imprisoned (a reasonable assumption from the evidence presented), Gruen spent her wealth, lost her health, became the target of death threats, missed one book deadline after another, and spiralled into a crisis from which—evidently—she hasn’t returned.

Several times in the Vulture article, Sara Gruen makes it clear she wishes she’d never heard of Murdoch. Even the most noble digressions can wreck us—and in fact, perhaps the noble ones are the riskiest, because we resist abandoning them, no matter the cost.

I spent two weeks in March getting one foot stuck in a rabbit hole. Sara Gruen fell into a potentially bottomless pit and nine years later, hasn’t emerged.

Rabbit holes are dangerous. But at the same time, they can be fertile places for discovering new passions and unexplored terrain. How do we know the difference?

Gruen’s story is higher-stakes and a thousand times bigger than mine. But I see similarities. In each case, we quickly became zealous, even fanatical. Also, in each case and at different scales, we thought we were getting into something that would be brief. Do some research. Spend some money. Score a point for justice. Get in, get out. When is anything ever that simple?

Conversely, when I come up with a new novel idea—often while I am in the middle of writing another book—I don’t fool myself into believing that switching tracks will be quick and cost-free. I fully acknowledge that “shiny new ideas” are potentially self-sabotaging.

If I want to indulge myself in a brief hop into an unnecessary research rabbit-hole or take off on a new writing side-journey, I usually do this: I designate a period of time, from one night to several days. I allow myself to research, read, take notes. And then I put the new idea away. I do not allow myself to explore without limits, because I know the exploration could end up taking me away from my current work forever.

At the same time, I don’t ignore distractions and diversions entirely. To ignore a topic that seizes our interest (or inflames our fury) is to limit ourselves. We should always have our antennae up, ready for new ideas and compulsions. It’s especially helpful when we trust ourselves. We can write down new ideas and gather a few materials, then set them aside until our slate is clear.

Good, meaningful ideas can wait for us. Some causes won’t, but Gruen’s story is a cautionary tale. Are you being honest with yourself about the potential cost? Does your writing all too often take second place to your other commitments?

Do you periodically fall into rabbit holes that take you away from your current writing projects—or your regular life, altogether?

When do you know to ignore a distraction and when to indulge it?


Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of six novels, including The Deepest Lake, a suspense novel set in Guatemala that will hit bookstores May 7.

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