Thursday, July 10, 2008

I Can't Write Until I...

“Writers never want to work, never. They all find any excuse not to sit down and look at an empty sheet of paper or a blank monitor -- the room’s too hot or too cold -- they have to go to the toilet -- pencils need sharpening -- the typewriter needs a new ribbon -- the keyboard needs cleaning -- the pictures on the wall need straightening — the wastebasket needs to be emptied — or it’s lunchtime."
~ Andrew J. Fenady, A. Night in Hollywood Forever

Although Andrew Fenady may be speaking only for his book's main character -- a detective-turned-nonproductive-novelist -- what my blogging colleague Linda Stone calls "deceptive distraction" is an issue for most writers.

It certainly was an issue for a fellow Albuquerque author who recently lamented to me that a certain computer game was keeping him from starting his next book. It's an issue for me, too, as I try to juggle the seemingly competing demands of creation (working on the sequel to my novel, The MoonQuest) and promotion (marketing my two existing books).

It's not always easy negotiating competing demands, let alone dealing with the reluctance many writers feel about writing. (Canadian writer June Callwood once said, "I hate writing. I love having written." )

Sometimes, it's not time to write. We're not ready for the story, or it's not ready for us. Sometimes, too, we need a break from writing to regain our focus. Linda Stone calls such breaks "receptive distractions." (I'll be writing about both those situations in future posts.)

But if you've heard yourself utter any of the following, you probably are dealing with neither timing nor focus. You're dealing with distraction:

• I’d better check my e-mail/voice mail...

• As soon as I [insert task here], I’ll be able to write without worrying
about it.

• I can’t write on an empty stomach. I’d better get a snack...or fresh coffee...or...

• Let me just see who this is on the phone/at the door/in this new

• Let me just respond to that tweet from Twitter; it's only 140 characters...

• That bathroom floor and [insert anything here] is disgusting. I’d
better clean it first...

• Oh, I really need to call [insert name here] before I can start.

• I can’t write until I [insert distraction here]...

• Let me just look that up on the Internet, then I’ll be ready to write.

As I tell students and coaching clients, writers often have the cleanest windows, floors, fridges and toilets, the most up-to-date filing systems or the best record for returning calls or emails because, in the moment, just about any task seems more palatable than sitting down to write.

If you fall into that category, here are seven suggestions to minimize distraction and procrastination until you have completed your day’s writing (or, at least, your first installment):

1. Keep all Internet-related distractions out of sight and earshot until after you’ve written. Don’t check your e-mail. Don’t open your web browser. Turn off all e-mail, Twitter, instant messaging and other notifiers that flash, beep or ping.

2. Don’t answer the phone or check voice mail. To avoid temptation, turn off your phone’s ringer and your cell phone while you’re writing and, if you use an answering machine, turn off the sound so that you can’t hear who’s calling. (Don’t cheat by looking at the caller ID screen!)

3. Don’t open the morning paper or your mail. Don’t check to see if they have arrived.

4. Don’t open your checkbook to pay bills or visit your online banking site.

5. Don’t start that book you’ve been meaning to read. Don’t pick up that book you’re a few pages from finishing.

6. Don’t pick up a sponge, mop or cleaning rag.

7. Don’t do anything unrelated to writing.

Again, perform no task or errand until you have written. If that has proven impossible, keep pen and paper or laptop by your bed and don’t get up until you have written. That was how I got through the first 100 pages of my first draft of The MoonQuest.

Another benefit of making writing your first assignment of the day (other than getting it done!) is that you won’t waste time during the rest of the day doing all the things you normally do to avoid writing.

What kinds of distractions to you succumb to? What strategies have worked (or not) for you? Please share them here.

And when you're done, close your browser, free yourself of all potential distractions, open a fresh page in your word processor (or pick up pen and paper), and start writing. Anything. Just do it. You can write. Now.

~ adapted from The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write


Greg Halpen said...


My distractions come disguised as the swift inner-critic, intelligently expressing that it's OK to edit while I am writing.


So, today I am writing with reckless abandon.

Reading your posting woke me up a little more in my ever evoling process of owning the writer within!



Jeremy Neal said...

Good tips, and I agree that many writers I know have a hard time getting the actual words down on paper. They make tons of excuses and make themselves "busy" doing other things. One thing I might add to your list is that it is helpful to create a writing schedule and stick to it. Two hours every morning (4-5 days per week), three hours every night, whatever a person prefers, but there must be a commitment to habitually writing. It doesn't mean you can't write more often, or when inspiration strikes. And, it doesn't mean that the stuff you write will always make the cut or ever cross a publisher's desk. If you don't write when you're not inspired though, then you're not going to have a very productive career.

Mark David Gerson said...

Greg: Glad to see you're owning your innate creativity. Love that critic, and let him know that he can be retrained to serve you heartfully when it's time to revise. Meantime, keep on writing in the flow!

Mark David Gerson said...

Good points, Jeremy. All I'd add is to be careful not to let any schedule become harsh and punishing.

It's also important to be flexible, not sticking with the same routine just because it has worked in the past and remembering that what works one day may not work the next.

Of course, what's most important for any writer is to keep writing -- however, whenever, wherever!

That_One_Guy said...

haha Exactly! The thing about writing for me is that I cannot do it until there is something consistent that I think about when I am (usually) in bed. I do not write many ideas if they have not been spun for a bit. But during the day (especially when trying to have a socially acceptable schedule, nine to five, perhaps) all of the above distractions take the cake. So when is the time to complete ideas?!!! Oh, writers.