Friday, May 8, 2015

You've Gotta Choose! Five Tips to Prevent Distractions from Becoming Derailments in Your Writing Life

A friend told me a great story about a long-distance swimmer.  In one of his swims, this athlete ran into a school of jellyfish.  He'd bat them away, then another would smack him in the face.  It slowed him down, and for a while he considered stopping the swim.  But other than a few small stings, the jellyfish were just a distraction.  He switched his attention back to his swim and finished it. 




We all have jellyfish in our lives.  Things that distract us, that could become derailments and often do.

One favorite is mental junk food.  A writer friend recently posted a cool video on his Facebook page.  The video was interesting, educational, even useful for my teaching someday.  I watched it, browsed additional links, had a blast. 

An hour later, I looked up.  This "righteous" distraction had taken an hour out of my writing time.   By foregoing my choice, I'd let it become a derailment.

Anyone with a serious goal, like writing a book, needs to make good choices.  So I surveyed colleagues, all professional writers, to learn their favorite way to keep such distractions in check.  

I gathered five tips to try.  They worked.  They're offered as your writing exercise for this week.   

But before I share them, I wanted to pass along a wonderful article  from the New York Times Opinionator blog.  The write of this article is undergoing chemo for breast cancer.  Her kind and persistent friend comes by, tries engage this writer in a knitting project.  "Knitting is fun," the friend says.  "It calms the brain, it's creative, it'll take your mind off your chemo."  She's right.  Knitting is a cool antidote to any frenzy or distress.  This writer says no, then she thinks about why.  Her mother comes to mind.  A brilliant and accomplished woman, this mother died before she completed a biography she was writing.  Why didn't her mother finish her book?  The writer realized the mother didn't finish anything.  She always got distracted.  But worse, she allowed each distraction to become a derailment. 

The writer says that she chooses to write, and by making that choice, she has to say no to other things.  Like knitting.  Even though it would be fun, and it would make her friend happy.  Writing feeds her.  So she stays the course.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Here's the list I gathered from colleagues and pros who stay the course.  Each of these five tips have kept a writer going long enough to finish and publish a book (or many books).  Check them out.  Choose one to practice this week, as your weekly writing exercise.  See if it helps you! 

1.  Write first. 
Before you get involved with your day, touch in with your writing.  Get out your notebook, your notes.  Look over your project, even for five minutes.  Jot down an idea about what you might write next.  Open your computer and bring up your current chapter or file.   If you have time, take one sentence to another stage.  Just one.  It'll get your creative brain engaged.   

Why it works:  Writers who put in writing time before paid work, email, or other obligations are telling themselves that their writing takes priority.  It may require skipping the news or the walk, the latte or the email a few mornings a week.  When I tried it, it meant getting up early and getting permission from my family to hide out in my writing room without saying good morning.  Nobody died, and my writing took on a new shine all day.

2.  Leave before you finish.  
I think Stephen King popularized this technique, called "linkage" in his book On Writing.  He leaves each writing session with a sentence unfinished.  Literally, stops in the middle of a sentence. 

Why it works:  The mind abhors a vacuum.  An unfinished sentence in your writing will drive you crazy until you get back to it.  When I tried it, I couldn't wait to get back to my writing the next morning.

3.  Limit your writing time--use a timer. 
A very prolific writer shared this tip.  She sets a kitchen timer for 30 minutes at the start of her writing session, tells herself she must stay in the chair, with no mental junk food or other distractions, until it rings.  She says it usually takes her 15 of those minutes to get into her writing.  By telling herself she has to stay in the chair, but by knowing she can flee after 30 minutes, she finds her crazy critical brain eventually settling down. 

Why it works:  Limits often allow bursts of creative energy.  Remember that saying, "If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person?"  Same theory here.  Tell yourself you only have 30 minutes and you'll use every minute.  When I tried it, I found I didn't even crave distractions after a while, and often (usually) I wrote past the timer.

4.  Set a satisfaction point for each writing session. 
Before you begin, decide what would make you feel satisfied with that day's writing session:  Maybe it's a number of words, maybe it's a number of pages edited, maybe it's tackling a character interview or a certain kind of research or transcribing notes or freewrites.  Make it reasonable. 

Why it works:  Writer Brene Brown tells us that we build confidence in ourselves by keeping our promises.  That involves setting the bar low enough to actually leap it.  When I tried it, I found that meeting my satisfaction point each day gave me renewed trust in my creative stamina.  Each point I reached, where I was satisfied with the result, built that confidence.

5.  Plan what you'll write about the next day. 
Many pro writers I interviewed used this tip:  Before they end a writing session, they write down notes, ideas, or questions to jumpstart the next session. 

Why it works:  When you sit down tomorrow, it's much easier to have someplace to start--not just face another blank page.  When I tried it, I found I kept my writing in my awareness the rest of the day, and I kept coming up with new ideas, as if a creative faucet had been turned on.