There comes a time in every writer’s life when they realize that we can’t wait any longer. We need to get the book finished. We want nothing more than to see it come into fruition and we will stop at nothing until it does.
I’ve been at that point for a while now.
Knowing that my own work is my first priority really puts things in perspective. Everything else changes when I think about priorities and irony rears it’s pretty little head at every crossroads.
Lately there has been a lot of stuff happening in my humble, writerly life that would normally throw me off course or derail my work at least temporarily. I bring this up because it happens to all of us. We start a project and our office inbox fills up and we shirk our writing responsibility to field calls and present slideshows and type something as ambivalent as a TPS report… whatever that may be. In the long run we get waylaid and lose sight of our own goals to help everyone else meet theirs. Sound familiar?
It is important to realize when this happens and put a plan into effect that can prevent future attacks of distraction from having such a strong impact. One thing to make sure of is that we make it harder for distraction to find us and intercept as much of it as we can…easier said than written! A red flag for me, for instance is email. When I write my Gmail is closed, my chat windows are not onscreen and Internet Explorer is by no means allowed to peer at me with its sexy, little, blue eye from the corner of the screen. That’s right—I even removed it from the toolbar. It’s like that. I need discipline and the only one who will provide it is me.
Additionally I switch off my cell ringer and mute the house phone if I happen to be in the room with it. Without a doubt, someone will call when I have the best idea yet. What happens to the idea? It has now gone to a better place. It is lost like Oceanic flight 815, off like a prom dress, moved the hell on and will not be looking over its shoulder…ever. As I cough out the dust it left when it sped off, I inevitably curse myself and proceed to shut off the noise with purpose.
Another thing that happens is that family and friends seem to need us most when we have some really amazing scrawling occurring. I think about all the times I was writing with a friend in the house I grew up in only to hear the swish of an 80s jogging suit creeping down the stairs to see why we were quiet under the pretense of inquiries about dinner (no matter the time of day) and how many poems lost their place in the world. When I moved out for college I had an 11th floor room on East 10th and Broadway and like it or not the peeling, screenless windows were thrown wide for the ghetto heat and the East Village noise either enticed me outside or lulled me to sleep. Plus there was no Wi-Fi and my roommate’s word processor would not travel to a café by any means.
After undergrad, I floundered without a regular place to write. In a multitude of New York apartments I always managed to be more distracted than productive and went straight on to an MA with fervor. Our passion for learning may have run deep but holy shit do we dive right in when it means we can put aside the hard stuff. The book I’m writing now, for example, was first started around 1993. I can’t even make this up. I am the world’s greatest procrastinator if there is something else that I can be doing.
So why do we do this to ourselves? We may simply be afraid of what goes on the page. I say may because I, for one, do not ever admit that I am scared of criticism. I also refuse to think of my work in a negative light—which may be why it is still being made. But mainly fear of criticism and personal doubt wins the mighty marathon of distractors. I even do that thing where I put the book aside to read a novel that I happen to glance at as I cross the living room. I also work on an average of five things at all times so that I have the “I’m busy” answer at the ready with consistency. That said I know all too well I self-sabotage and have learned quite a bit about overcoming that nasty little habit.
Will I share the tips that work for me? Absolutely.
Can they work for you? Only if you make time for your writing.
1. Follow the advice of Uncle Ernest and find a clean well-lighted place. I have learned to rid myself of all desktop photos, knick-knacks and anything with words on it.
2. Plug in to what you need as background noise. While writing angsty poetry it was 90s alt-rock. While sketching characters atop a speaker perch, my baggy pants wearing, be-sparkled self wrote on napkins to the beat of NYC underground trance. When working on a Master’s thesis about the madwoman in the attic, I don’t recall much but I did creep around in the stacks ridiculously often.
3. Know who to avoid. If they truly support your work (even those people you love and don’t mind in your space) they will respect your need for alone time. If they don’t, go elsewhere. They will get over it eventually and can claim they were part of the creative process.
4. Listen to your characters. I recently re-read an amazing point made by Colson Whitehead that basically said your characters should be like stalkers who wake you, follow you and leave you wondering who is peeping out of your crawlspace. They even use your toothbrush.
5. Have a backup plan. Mine is simple. Wherever I go I have a notebook on me. When the Internet goes down, the pens come out blazing. And those blue Bic babies are a refreshing change indeed. Kind of like a delicious vegetarian meal in a world of McDonalds.
6. Make sure that when you get a lightning strike, kick-ass idea you write it down, take a picture or text it to yourself. The medium doesn’t matter. Use napkins. Use lipstick on a mirror and photograph it. Usually this occurs when it’s cold out, Starbucks is packed, its midterm season and the babysitter is nowhere to be found so if you happen to be home, pause no matter what and write it down. You will be so glad you did.
7. Think about what Aunt Virginia meant by a room of one’s own and go get one. Small house? No problem. Get into that garage. If you can find time to paint the kids rooms, build a man-cave and have a mudroom, you can create a small thinking space for yourself. I kid you not I have always had a closet with a light in it and a cleared off wall spot to lean on. My childhood room actually had a big closet, little seat and crayon all over the walls with lyrics and words that seemed random. Guess what? They are all in the book.
I hope these little suggestions help you find a moment of peace. I know in this process it is not an easy task to focus the mind on what it should be thinking. Thinking we have total charge of our brains is just silly. But we do have closets. Get in there and pull out the crayons! I recently heard a story about a mom author who hid in her closet while the kids slept in her uber-tiny apartment so the clacking of the keys were muffled. I have to admit that is one smart mama. Maybe the lucky seven I’ve shared are enough, but I must not neglect the golden rule. Do it anyway. When you overcome the “what ifs” as I have in the past year, you will be so happy you gave it a shot. So get to it. Grab your pens, laptops or whatever you feel like today. This year is gonna be productive!