One of the things that I’ve been working on lately with regards to my writing life is focus. Of course, I haven’t tackled the other issue related to writer’s block, fear, but I’m getting there. For right now let’s focus on … focus.
As I’ve noted before, the first thing that I got to work on was creating a writing space, complete with flickering candles and music cued to set the scene of what I’m working on. Quite often I play the scores from movies, sometimes I go with straight classical, and then there are the times when I just want to hammer out the prose and I go with electronica. I can never seem to write with words being sung in the background as I find those words often crop up in what I’m trying to write.
Then there is Tai Chi, the ancient art of fighting in slow motion. Just kidding, don’t tell my Sifu that I said that. But I’ve found that, aside from the health benefits, it has really helped me to bring peace to my mind before I sit down and write. You spend the entire time focusing on breath and the memorization of steps. You can’t help but forget your troubles. And there are folks from all age groups in the class, so it is very accessible to writers both young and old.
The Tai Chi also relates to something that one of my writing group partners from NaNoWriMo had suggested, and that was physical activity jumpstarting the writing process. For her it is getting up and dancing, but I’m not much of a dancer, witnesses or no. For you it could be yoga, jumping jacks, maybe even a little cleaning. There’s something about getting the blood pumping and oxygen circulating that helps one think clearly. Just don’t go overboard to the point of exhaustion and “I need a short nap before I can write.”
So working on focusing was something that was already in the forefront of my mind when I happened to catch NPR’s Marketplace and an interview with Winifred Gallagher about her new book “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.” It was a very interesting interview that you can read or listen to here. She talks about the need for humans to realize that not only can we only focus on one complex task at a time, but that we also have a limited amount of focus that we can spend from day to day and in life overall. She asserts that, “(y)ou have enough attention for a 173-billion bits of information in your whole life. It's life money; it's like cognitive cash. And you've got to spend it carefully.”
She suggests that when you are sitting down to get serious work done, you turn off all distractions, cell phones, pagers (does anyone still have those), email popups, the internet, anything that might distract you from what you’re focusing on and get down to work. Doing so will free you up to be the most productive that you can be. She would like us all to aim for 90 minutes of uninterrupted time. The idea is that we can only focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth. What you’re doing is paying attention to one thing and then jumping to the next while you ignore the first and vice-versa. And if you really pay attention to how multitasking works, you’ll notice that when you try to go back to the first thing, it takes you a moment because you’ve derailed your thought process.
(If you’d like to hear me make a snarky comment about her detractors on national radio, tune in to Marketplace on May fourth, 2009 and catch the mail section. They rang me up and had me read a comment that I posted to the site so that they could play it on air during their mail montage Tuesday.)
This has been echoed before on Writing Excuses when they’ve talked about habits. As writers we have a tendency to think of things that need more research, and being that we do our work on computers, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of surfing the net while doing that research. “Well, I found the name of the islands that the U.S. conducted their nuclear bomb experiments on, but while I’m in this window I might as well check to see if anyone has commented on my most recent Facebook status,… and check my email,… and look up names from medieval England,… and check my calendar,… and, you get the point.
The point of all of this is: stop kidding yourself. If you want to create something great, or in my case, passable, you need to focus.
So here’s the question: What do you do to help you focus? What’s your routine? Better yet, what traps do you fall into that steer you away from the task at hand? Please share so that we can all learn from each other. After all, that’s what this blog is all about, sharing in the learning process that is writing.
My son, the ultimate distraction going for a ride in his new red wagon along the canal and the family farm.