Time is On Your Side: On Writing Through Distractions

Lately I have been thinking about time to an almost insane degree. About how it works. About how more time can be squeezed into each day. Sometimes when I’m really tired I start to hallucinate that minutes are like those blocks in Tetris and in those moments I believe that if I just concentrate hard enough I can figure out how to fit them more efficiently into place. How many more things can be done at a time? How many minutes am I wasting and what could be wedged into them? My students want something about how to not get distracted, should I search and search or just write my own and how long will it take and will it be worth what currency of time was spent?

Related: I have been having trouble lately with clocks. I had a watch and it kept breaking– the band would untether at random moments, flinging away mid-gesticulation. I kept fixing it but it kept breaking and finally I gave up. I had an alarm clock for my bedside table. It too is broken, but still sits there beside my bed, silent. I use my phone as an alarm clock instead and every morning I wake up and look at the clock and it says 6 and it’s not wrong, so in a way I wonder how urgent fixing it could be. This was fine but then something happened to our stove and it had to be unplugged and when it was plugged in again, you guessed it, the clock didn’t work and now it runs much too fast and no matter how many times you reset it, it can’t seem to slow its frantic new pace. Probably it’s recording perfectly how time passes in some other galaxy, or something, and I want to respect its new project, no matter how incomprehensible it seems to my simple mind. There was a wall clock that stopped, too. Eventually my daughter had to do a time-telling project for her first grade class and I watched her fill out a worksheet that asked, “How many clocks are in your home?” She wrote, “One, but it’s broken.”

Am I getting distracted? Or am I pushing towards a metaphor? Because it seems to mean something, doesn’t? Or at least it would in a short story. The woman never had enough time for anything. In fact she didn’t have any time at all. But the woman couldn’t really stop time, or make it move faster or slower. In the end, she only had, on a good day, a few actual human hours in which to write. And then it was terrifyingly easy to spend those hours instead surfing the internet, tracking the much-greater-than-her-own successes of her friends, reading think pieces about productivity. And it wasn’t just the Internet. There was laundry to do. There were people to see. There were piles of clocks to be fixed….

You asked me about avoiding distractions in order to write. Okay. It’s a big question — perhaps the question — for our age, in which the air itself bristles with information. You all have full-time jobs, some of you have children: time is limited. I imagine you sit down to write in the morning before work or in the evening after work or on the weekends when you would rather be bicycling or sleeping or however it is people unafflicted by the need to create get to spend their free time. But, as someone once said (or maybe it was a someecard I saw posted on Pinterest) being a writer means having homework for your entire life. There is always some work that wants to be done, some work that you want to get done. It eats at you until you sit down to write but then inevitably when you do sit down to write you are tired and easily distractible and you fritter away your time and fail to curb that appetite for creating. This feedback loop can be crippling. It can disguise itself as something else, and you might start to believe you can’t actually write. We don’t want that. You don’t want that.

I asked the internet how to help you, and I couldn’t find any good essays on this specific topic, so I asked my writer friends who were, what do you know, distracted by Facebook, to share their advice. I will share their comments here.

A lot of it involved avoiding the internet (though it was so helpful it gathering these comments, so — you know). The internet is amazing and fresh and new and easy, in other words, the complete opposite of the piece you’ve been wrestling with.

“Turn off your Internet before you sit down to write. Don’t turn it on until you’ve done 1000 words. Do this every work day and four months later
you’ll have a draft.” –Damian Lanigan, novelist and television writer

This can involve actually going to another location, moving your body away from the distractions.

“I write in my truck parked down by the river. No joke! The internet sucks!” — Samantha Hunt, author of Mister Splitfoot and other novels.

“Seek out those rare, precious places that do not have wi-fi (the only way I finished my first book proposal was by working at the UCSF medical school library, where I was not a student and could not access their network). I also find first thing in the morning, before checking email or ‘net, is a good time to do 30–45 minutes. And I remind myself it’s not supposed to be easy, and that most people give up.” — Tara Austen Weaver, author of the memoir Orchard House

“That is my strategy also. I go to a coffee shop that I know has wifi, but they HATE telling customers the password and I’m too embarrassed to ask. And so I will drive 10 minutes farther to work there.” –Sari Fordham, writer and professor at La Sierra University

“Hurray for coffee shops…and also churches. New York City can be so overwhelming, and sometimes you can pop in and sit and meditate and think/consider/take notes in a church — of course not if there is a service. I often write on the go, finding times in between, in the cracks, so this is one way.” — Sari Wilson, author of the novel Girl Through Glass

“I have a friend who lets me use her house sometimes and I made her promise not to share the wi-fi password with me.” –Amanda Mays, poet and editor-in-chief of Anchor + Plume Books

“Change in location sometimes works for me. When I really can’t focus, I leave my apartment and go to the NYU library.” –Amy Poeppel, author of forthcoming debut novel Small Admissions

Or it can involve moving the distractions away from you:

“There is a very handy app called “Self Control” … turns off selected sites for however long you want. That and a quiet room — “ Rhian Ellis, author of After Life, a novel.

“I work on two computers, a desktop and a laptop. The laptop is where I keep open all of my distraction pages, social media, stupid media, etc. the desktop is where I do my actual work. I give myself mini-breaks, like catching my breath, to run through the stuff on the laptop. Then I turn back to the horrible unfinished think monster on my desktop, deal it a few effective slashes, punches, jabs and hair-pullings, then take another quickie. Not having it all on the same screen helps for some stupid reason. There’s a trick for everything, isn’t there? That’s actually my religion.” — Jim Schutze, journalist and true crime author

“This is what I do, too! (Phone: distractions. Computer: work.) I also use Freedom. Religiously. And when working in earnest only allow myself ten minutes of FB, twice per day, and only look at email twice per day, too.” –Joanna Rakoff, author of the memoir My Salinger Year and the novel A Fortunate Age

Several people also recommended:

-The Pomodoro Method, which involves writing for 25 minutes, then taking a 5 minute out-of-your-seat break.

-The 52/17 Method, which involves, you guessed it, writing for 52 minutes and then taking a 17 minute break.

-Momentum for Google Chrome

-Freedom

-Timer-tab

-Trello

Rituals can also be really important. Get woo-woo with it.

“Sometimes staying focused is a matter of being able to center and get started. Rituals work for me. Before I start to write, I must have my coffee or tea at hand, light my incense, and light a candle. Sometimes I throw in a little saging. Yeah, it’s woo-woo, but I’m about to finish a fourth novel using this method.” –Ronlyn Domingue, author of The Keeper of Tales trilogy

“I would do an experiential exercise prior to sitting down — ideally, vigorous exercise like jumping jacks. If not, then breathing. 4–7–8 breathing is an invaluable technique and easy to learn. If concentration is really hard, scribble nonlinear art and big-ass letters on a white page, by hand, with no rules.” — Michelle Sydney Levy-Blaustein, blogger at Mommy Theorist

But also I would add that getting too dependent on rituals can be crippling. Remember what Sari Wilson wrote about writing on the go? Sometimes I think the key to being able to write and also have a life (work/partners/kids) is not being too precious about your writing time and rituals. I recently had a Facebook exchange (yes I was supposed to be writing, yes I see the irony) with a poet who just had a baby and wrote that she couldn’t write until the house was clean. I got very upset. That sounded to me like a mother who would never, ever write again. You have to be flexible. Can’t focus with the laundry pile there? Turn to face the other direction. The laundry gets done eventually, I promise. Carry your manuscript around with you. Revise while waiting for toddler ballet to finish. Don’t be precious.

Related to that (I think): Move around.

“Try being ambulatory — step away and walk around a bit and think about your writing.” –Lori Richmond, children’s book author/illustrator

Or don’t.

“John McPhee tied his bathrobe belt to the chair he was sitting in.” — Andrea Behr, copy chief for the San Francisco Chronicle / “He also set a timer and stopped writing (even mid-word) when it would go off.” — Lauren Haldeman, author of the poetry collection Calenday

Start small. Tell yourself it’s okay if you just write a little bit.

“Write a sentence a day. It will get you to your desk. It will keep the work in your mind. You will probably succeed. And you will almost surely write more than a sentence.” –Kevin Fenton, author of the memoir Leaving Rollingstone and the novel Merit Badges

“We are creatures of habit. Start slow or at least with a sense of ease. Give your self 15 to 20 minutes to start and work up to an hour of solid writing. I don’t put a word count limit on myself. Beyond writing for an hour I don’t say I’ll write more…but once I’ve got the habit established the duration of time I give to the writing increases. And for heaven sake always carry a notepad or journal with you.” — Brett Gastineau, writer and teacher

“Writing is an endurance activity. Don’t set yourself up to work four hours a day right away — start with a dedicated 30 minutes and work up from there, like an athlete trains.” –Catherine LaSota, writer and development director at Electric Literature

But stop while you’re ahead. Hemingway famously suggested leaving off in the middle of a sentence so that you always know where to start the next time. Similarly:

“Stop for the day when it is still going well. If I keep writing until I get stuck, I don’t want to pick up again the next day, have to force myself, and then start clicking around on FB. (This requires a bit of metacognition, to know at what point to stop before desperation sets in…)” — Nicole Hartounian, author of Speed Dreaming and Other Stories, editor of Underwater New York

OR then again:

“So funny. I have had great success with the opposite. After finishing my allotted writing time or word count I keep going until I get stuck. Then I focus on the problem I need to solve as I fall asleep. Often a solution, or at least a next step, presents itself by morning.” — Jessica DuLong, fireboat engineer and author of the memoir My River Chronicles

Let yourself be proud of yourself.

“Celebrate the milestones along the way, because no one else will. You wrote a paragraph today? You wrote a paragraph today! You found a book that is helping you with character development? Huzzah! Usually it takes a long time to write something that will ultimately have meaning in the world, so taking the small accomplishments as pleasures will make you much happier (and hence, much more focused on, and committed to, your project) on a daily basis.” — Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, author of the forthcoming June and other novels

Related to this:

“Remember that every moment is doing a word search puzzle, except you don’t know the word you’re looking for and the puzzle is the whole dictionary. Just look for the one right next word. Then repeat. Keeping the task discrete and manageable is key to not getting overwhelmed, and therefore, distracted.” –Tracy O’Neill, author of the novel The Hopeful

Onward, brave writers! Write like a shark lives: moving forward as if stopping meant certain death. I’m not sure if that’s true about sharks but Woody Allen says it in Annie Hall; I would fact-check but surely I would get distracted and I am running out of time.

“Don’t stop to read over what you’ve written every 5 minutes. Keep writing until you have a solid rough draft. Getting the words out and onto paper is half the battle.” — Emily Brown Weaver, children’s book ghostwriter

“Also, when I need to get things done (like now for instance) I imagine that Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit is standing next to me with a gun to my head while saying, “She would have been a good writer if someone had held a gun to her head every day of her life.” — Tara Lindis-Corbell, writer

But maybe the last word should go to Brenda Copeland, St Martin’s Press executive editor, who said, “I drink to oblivion. Five minutes before oblivion I’m very focused.” Just kidding, don’t tell anyone that advice came from me. Or from Brenda, for that matter.

In all seriousness, what I want to tell you is this: nobody cares if you write.

I know that sounds harsh, and I mean, of course I care if you write, because I’m your teacher and this class is a lot more work for me planning-wise if you don’t write. But really. No one is going to hold you accountable but you. If that seems hard, then take classes, take workshops, join a writer’s group. Get a killer book deal where the editor is salivating for your next draft. (I’ve never tried that one but it seems like a solid plan.)

“Context is more powerful than will power. Best solution that I know of is to construct a life in which writing is part of the context, in both small and large ways. Externalize, externalize, externalize. It’s too hard to do it on your own. You need someone else setting deadlines, someone else holding you accountable and making sure you produce. Someone other than your mother or your cat, usually. This is pretty much the reason why I exist, as a writing coach. I provide this for people. And I need it myself and my writing group is pretty much the only thing keeping me going most weeks. I’m too afraid they will call my bluff and kick me out so I have to submit something every now and again. And so I have to write, and focus. Context.” — Nancy Rawlinson, writer, editor, teacher and writing coach.

In lieu of these things, or perhaps in addition to these things, you have to make yourself write. You have to believe it is worthwhile. Or at least you have to know that you will feel better, you will learn things about yourself and literature and people and the world, if you write. You have to know that without writing, your story or essay or book will never get written.

This is what I was trying to say earlier when I got all distracted about my clocks. Time works in weird ways. Treat time the way New Yorkers treat space: believe you can fit into that little bitty square foot whatever needs to be fit. Oddly enough, by paying a lot of attention to time (I will now write for 15 minutes, I will set a timer and not get out of my chair for 52 minutes, I won’t look at the internet until my timed app allows), you can escape it. And there is no better reason I know to write than that moment when time ceases to exist.

Senior Editor, Forge @ Medium // Bylines: New York Times, Oprah, Slate // Latest novel: Unseen City https://bookshop.org/books/unseen-city-9781662028106/9781597

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