Distraction at the Gate

Today I’m going to talk about one of the most pernicious foes a writer faces:  Distraction.

But first, look over here!  A brief, shiny aside:

When I was young, a shelf of beloved fantasy novels sat just above the desk where I did my homework.  Whenever I spent time there, I liked taking down books and perusing them, re-reading favorite passages, spending time with the characters, letting the words and worlds fill me.

Naturally, this made it hard to finish my homework.

So one day, I came up with a solution.  I blocked off the books with a length of bright orange yarn and a stern admonition written to myself on an index card.  Now, a loosely-hung piece of yarn wouldn’t have thwarted anyone who really wanted to get at those books.  But it was enough to mentally check me and get me back on task.

Distraction has always been my nemesis.  It’s always guarding the door to the Land of Getting Stuff Done.  Ambitious magpie-brain that I am, I have to find ways to get past it.  This usually involves noticing my weak points and blocking them off.  As I got older and the Internet became a Thing, I started pulling network cables or shutting down my computer’s wireless when I needed to write.  I keep track of weekly writing goals and monthly to-do lists to help me stay on track.  I don’t always succeed–life happens when you’re busy making other plans, etc. etc.–but these techniques help me.

But Distraction can be a tricky beast.  For example, my main writing tool is an AlphaSmart Neo2.  It’s essentially an external keyboard with a tiny screen that shows 4 lines of text at a time. It only holds 8 text files.  There’s no internet connection, no lengthy boot-up time to allow my mind to wander, no other shiny bits or special features I can get lost in.  It’s been my latest tool for distraction-free writing.

(I swear I’m not being paid to say this.  Heck, the company doesn’t even make them anymore!  I had to find mine on eBay.)

But then it started to have a different and unexpected effect on my writing.  My rough first drafts started to get, well–rougher than usual.  More playful.  Characters made unexpected choices or revealed surprising aspects of themselves more often.  If I got stuck, they would break into bizarre slang (“Great Googly-Moogly!”) or sum up the scene with a sudden shattering of the 4th Wall, and I’d move on.

And I realized that limiting myself to a window of only 4 lines of text meant I wasn’t constantly backtracking to fiddle with earlier paragraphs or to shuffle things around or to make sure the current paragraph flows smoothly from the previous one.  My inner editor was shutting up, and I was letting myself play.

All this time, Distraction had been tag-teaming with Perfectionism!  Even when I was writing, the two of them had been detouring me off the path and into the weeds, where I’d be too busy picking at old words to write new ones.  They were the Heel Team from Writer Hell.  Here I thought that Perfectionism was a foe I always had to deal with later, a hurdle for later drafts.  But Perfectionism was standing at the front gates the whole time.

So, what is a person to make of all this?  Are writers supposed to avoid editing as they go?  Does everyone with an ambition have to cordon off their hobbies with yarn and stern index cards?  Turn off their Internet, buy some distraction-free retro tech and hike out to the middle of nowhere?

Well…you do what is right for you.  We all have our hurdles, our monsters standing at the gate between us and our goals, whether they be writing that novel or starting that podcast or trying out that new and super-complicated recipe you’ve been eyeing.  Even if money and time and health aren’t issues (and that’s a big if), we are endlessly creative when it comes to sabotaging ourselves.  There’s no magic bullet cure.  Just you learning to know yourself, finding your sticking points, and trying different ways to get around them, till you get where you want to go.

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