Monday, August 13, 2012

The Distractable Part

I pluck fruit from under leaves of distraction
When I was in high school, I had an extremely conservative teacher who encouraged a formal approach to studying.  “Sit upright in a desk,” she would say, “and make sure you work in absolute silence.” 

So what did I do?  Each afternoon I went home, said hello to my parents, went downstairs to my room, dropped off my backpack and then headed straight for the stereo system.  At the time I was obsessed with opera (I’m a geek, I freely admit), so I turned on Carmen or La Traviata, cranked up the volume, and then worked steadily for hours getting through all my homework.  Besides developing an ability to sing along with large parts of Carmen, I also graduated at the top of my class, so I never felt bad about ignoring my teacher’s advice.  

This work method has stayed with me ever since.  Nowadays when I sit down to write, I first check my email, take a peek at Facebook and deviantArt, just to get those things out of the way.  Then I sort through my music options, pick something which appeals to my mood for the day, turn up the volume, and work happily for as long as possible. 

While I respect my teacher, I politely disagree with her on her idea of a good work environment.  See, the problem with silence is that it leaves room for boredom.  Our brain is a natural multi-tasker, I think, and so even while we’re focusing it on some project or other, the unused part of it starts looking for an occupation.  If I’m not careful, for example, I’ll work for fifteen minutes on a story and then think, ‘I wonder if someone posted an interesting status on Facebook,’ or, ‘Maybe there’s a new painting or poem on deviantArt.’  And off I go to check, even though it’s only been a short time since I last checked, and the likelihood of anything new is faint. 

My distractable part likes some music in its corner!
If I turn on a Mat Kearney album (he’s my latest music craze), though, then that bored little section of my brain goes off in the corner and hums along to the songs, quite happy and content.  That leaves the industrious part free to get on with business.  Sometimes I get so absorbed, in fact, that I’ll look at the clock once and then the next time I do an hour will have gone by without interruption or even the faintest temptation to browse the internet. 

Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone that you all have to go buy Mat Kearney albums and listen to them as the one sole way for getting lots of writing done.  I’m not even saying you should listen to any music while you write.  I only mean that usually writers and artists need an extra something thrown into their work environment to amuse the distractable part of the mind and hence focus their labors. 

Artists are known, after all, for their odd requirements for inspiration.  I always remember reading in college that the poet Schiller needed the smell of rotten apples if he wanted to get work done (the only thing I can say about that is…yuck).  That is a rather extreme distraction, but people do rely on a particular room, or a particular time of day, or a particular little activity to spur them on to creativity and productivity. 

It’s easy to make excuses when your hobby and passion also happens to be hard work, as in the case of writing.  I know on days specifically set aside for writing I’ve been guilty of wasting time with little chores (my room gets so clean when I’m procrastinating!), or interminable internet browsing, or a sudden movie that just must be watched.  I’m sure other writers know what I mean. 

However, if I sit down right away and start my chosen music, it becomes my signal that I’m serious.  I’m really going to write, not fritter time away on random distractions. 

Granted if you aren’t working under any kind of time constraint, then such a signal may not be necessary.  You can just write for as long as you wish, whenever you wish.  On the other hand, if you have to balance writing with work and the need to eat and sleep then when a chance to write comes up, it seems such a pity to waste it. 

I like to imagine my metaphorical race happening here!
That’s why I recommend training yourself to obey the stimulus of whatever little trick you need to keep yourself focused.  If you must drink tea or coffee or wine while writing, let pouring a glass be the signal which sets you to work.  If you need to sit outside in order to feel inspired and not get absorbed in household chores, then open your notebook or laptop as soon as you get outdoors and start right away.  If you’re like me and love background music, then have your work ready to go when you push the play button.  I’ve always thought that we writers are a bit like racers: we need a gunshot to tell us when to get started.   

This post may not seem the most original – the subject of the quirks of writers and artists is well covered, after all – but I just wanted to mention that even those quirks can help us balance our creativity in the midst of everything else.  My practice is to make mine not just a helpful environment, but actually a spur, a sort of jumpstart for the writing mindset.  


  1. I pretty much need quiet and solitude so I can "enter" the imagined world of my story to observe it and live in it. I rise in the very early morning to get this so that even the street outside is quiet for me. I am one who couldn't abide distractions while writing (or even re-writing).

    Curiously, when I'm at the office (working for the man to pay my bills) and inspiration strikes, it seems to be in reaction to all of the distractions and demands. It's as though my creative self has reserved these little insights as a reward for doing what I must to pay the bills and giving me a little break from the slog of it.

    1. Interesting comment - thanks for leaving it! I agree on the solitude part, but even when I was getting up early in the morning to write in the serenity and stillness, I still turned on soft music in the background. Those are just the differences between individual writers, I guess.

      I've also had the experience of receiving inspiration in the midst of work and other activities. It's definitely a reward, I agree.

  2. As you say we all have our quirks for getting things done. Sometimes I like quiet and other times I just push all distraction aside, especially if I'm attending a particular boring monthly meeting which gets me a free gym membership...(that I haven't used much...but that's another story). I have learned though that if there is a spark of an idea I really should write it down - no matter where I am or whatever the time is...because if I don't I could and have lost ideas. So there are pens and paper in almost every room. In the car...And if perchance I forget the most necessary equipment I'll use what ever is at hand...including those cute three packs of crayons and the reverse side of a paper place-mat. After all one doesn't want to offend ones' muse. :)

    1. When I was on a trip once, I met a friend of a friend who was horrified I was a writer and teacher and didn't (at that moment) have any pen or paper on me. I thought he had a good point, so I've made a point to always have them in reach ever since. It's very useful, I agree, for jotting down those fleeting inspirations which the muse sends, even at the most inconvenient times!

    2. I suppose it would be or rather could be beneficial to have one journal for that sort of thing -ideas and such. But the thought of all of them in one place having a chance to get lost all at once is a scary thought too. So the happy medium for me is a more or less unorganized folder in the brain. (I do have a separate craft/arts hard copy folder...somewhere.) I'll jot that idea on a hard copy...and if I don't use it within the day it tends to get lost anyway. So I try to make a quiet time for writing, something, anything - usually in the morning everyday. I keep thinking one of these days I'll get organized...but what I really want is to win the lottery and hire a personal secretary to do the paper and leg work. :) *sigh*