Distractions

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I told Jenny I needed help focusing.

She sagely suggested I write a blog post about it since other people probably struggle with focusing too.

“You can’t start concentrating until you’ve stopped being distracted.”  From a quote I found on the internet, but I was too distracted to write down the author’s name for attribution!

When I try to focus on writing my novel, my main distractions tend to be:

  • Getting up and doing something else, like searching for food. Hence, the carbs photo.
  • Scrolling through Instagram.
  • Hitting Google Chrome. I start highbrow and eventually go lowbrow. The New York Times leads to the New York Post, and before I know it, thirty minutes are gone.

I needed some helpful ideas. The following are a few I might try.

Turn off my phone. Not just vibrate. Or lower the volume. Turn it completely off. Move it far away from me.

Turn off the internet on my computer. Or even certain websites. This one for Mac users looks like a good one.

Use a typewriter instead of the computer. No internet distractions on that old school device.

This blog post got my attention. The idea that we are addicted to wasting time.  I think there’s some truth to it.

I could try Write or Die.  That program would for sure scare me into focusing.

Or maybe RescueTime.  An app that breaks down how I spend my time online. That would probably be a reality jolt.

Set a timer for 10 minutes. This one I’ve tried, and it works. I tell myself, ok Caroline, for ten minutes, you can focus. Once ten minutes are up, I’m usually into the writing, and I set the timer for another ten minutes and so on.

Pump myself up with some self-talk.  Act like my muse works for me, and not the other way around. Think of my muse as a defiant employee and give it deadlines. Even tell the muse to show up at a fixed time every day and make that sucker get to work and into the flow.

Speaking of flow. That’s what we’re all after. To enter another world and lose track of time so that we can then create for the reader what John Gardner called in The Art of Fiction “a vivid and continuous dream.”

Why the mind struggles with sitting down and doing the work, I wish I knew! That might call for another post titled “Resistance.” This is a great book about that.

Anxiety, Finishing & Submitting

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Deckle Edge festival water, in case this anxiety workshop causes Jenny’s mouth to feel dry

I’m now back at home, calmly cooking bacon on this Sunday morning. But a few hours ago, I was waking up early, dressing myself in real clothes (as opposed to fake “athleisure” wear), and attending a writing workshop that I only signed up for late yesterday afternoon.

The workshop title? Overcoming Creative Anxiety: 5 Steps to Jumpstart Your Writing & Remain Calm

The instructor: Cassie Premo Steele, a writer who runs regular programs to help people (especially female people) push through all the reasons they cook up to avoid finishing and submitting their work.

I arrived five minutes before class time, which I thought would eliminate any anxiety that could be caused by rushing.

I was wrong.

The location had been changed, though I didn’t know it. A noisy Presbyterian congregation was gathering in what I’d thought to be our classroom space. I bumped into a classmate, another last-minute enrollee who hadn’t gotten the message. Her anxiety level was extra-high as she scurried down the block ten steps ahead of me, out of breath and fretting that she would be late for class.

I began to feel anxious about being so calm. Maybe I wasn’t anxiety-ridden enough for this workshop.

Just as my classmate had feared, we were late–but our soothing, confident instructor folded us into the mix with ease. She presented five stages of writing, from idea to submission, touching on the way anxiety plays into each.

It was helpful, not in a zap-aha-breakthrough way but in a why-of-course-I-know-that kind of way, which is better and much less anxiety-inducing. (Me to myself: See Maxwell, you haven’t been doing it all wrong!)

Three ideas I’ll be using right away:

1. When you’re stuck, set a two minute time limit and do something.  I teach this approach all the time in my writing classes, just used it in a comics class I took.  So why am I not using it to do things like find three agents or tackle that query letter or write that last scene of my book?  I have no idea.  But now that I’m reminded of how well it works, I’m using it more often.

2. Know your purpose and take a “servant of your message” attitude.  That second part doesn’t come from Cassie’s words, exactly. They’re the words we use at The Buckley School to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. It makes perfect sense that it can work for your writing, too.

The idea is to put the focus on how your work is serving an audience rather than worrying about yourself and what people think of you. You take your big, fat ego out of the equation.  At The Buckley School when we introduce this idea, people say, “but if my ego were bigger, wouldn’t I feel more confident?” But it’s your ego–your worry about self–that gets in the way. As someone who’s had to overcome a fear of public speaking in order to teach it, I know that taking a servant-of-your-message approach has been a huge help. I’m not sure why I haven’t applied the same approach to my writing.

Cassie explained her thoughts about purpose using examples. Here’s one: You lose sleep to care for a sick child and it’s a good thing, because you know your purpose. You lose sleep because of insomnia and it’s a bad thing, because you have no purpose and instead dwell on “what’s wrong with me.”

3. Think of submitting as getting the help you need to fulfill your work’s purpose.  This is a new idea for me. I like it. Cassie suggests you think of submitting as a 50-50 proposition: I’ve done my very best work. Now I need the help of agents, editors and publishers to find and serve the readers.  That puts it on a different footing, yes? You are not asking for rejection. You are looking for the right partner to help.

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Cassie Premo Steele (left) speaking with students after our workshop

Cassie’s workshop was part of this weekend’s  Deckle Edge Literary Festival, organized by the people behind Jasper magazine.  Cassie writes about and teaches this subject full time, and you can find out more about those classes and her work here.