Friend of Writing #4: Stillness
Right now there are gerbils running inside of your head. Don’t freak out because they’re in mine, too. These gerbils run messages for us, which is cool. Most of these messages are a waste of time, which is not. And we have become slaves to the brain-gerbils, which is death to productivity.
For instance, right now a gerbil is running a message to me, informing me of how urgent it is to check my WordPress stats and see if my last post viewership has reached the double digits. I already obeyed the last gerbil, who told me I’d be a more effective writer if I got up and made myself a ninth cup of coffee. Before that was the “look out the window again and scan for the neighborhood stray cat and her kitten” gerbil. He visits a lot.
With all this scurrying, it’s hard to concentrate. You may want to KILL ALL THE GERBILS! Except you can’t do that, because these gerbils are Hydra Gerbils, and if you take one out, two or three more take its place. You cannot exterminate the gerbils.
You can, however, quiet them. I use meditation.
Meditation is simple. Not easy, but simple. Sit for five, ten, twenty minutes before you begin to write. Breathe. Focus all your attention on breathe in, breathe out. When your mind wanders, simply redirect it to the breath.
What does this do? It stills the mind. The gerbils get bored, take a nap. And then your brain is clear and ready to produce quality thoughts.
Meditation isn’t weird or mystical. It hasn’t carried me to some astral plane, at least not yet. But it brings clarity and focus, which are critical.
Enemy of Writing #4: WiFi
Shutting out distraction might be the great challenge for creative people in the modern day. So much technology and information is available today. It’s unprecedented. But that ease of access can be just as much a threat as an asset. There are so many things blinking and squeaking at us for attention, keeping one-pointed, dedicated focus on something is a lot harder than it was two hundred years ago. Tolstoy didn’t have to contend with Facebook or Twitter pulling at his attention. Today, we must make the choice to turn away.
I was going to make this Enemy be T.V. The “electronic teat” can take away valuable writing time and fill the mind with junk-food writing. But plenty of writers have piled on the “kill T.V.” message before. For decades. So I won’t bother.
Plus, I don’t think T.V. is as bad as everyone makes it out. In many ways, we’re in a creative peak of T.V. writing, with the number of high-quality shows greater than ever.
But anyway, WiFi. It’s like we leave the house, and are instantly dehydrated, in constant search for the next artesian spring. Must…get…bars… And once you do, you gaze into your phone, awash in a sea of electronica.
I suffer terribly from this. It’s soooo tempting, soooo easy, to re-check email, WordPress, Facebook, Yahoo, anything online. It seems harmless. It’s easy to justify. But if you allow those gerbils to take control, you’ll never have control of your own mind.
The Internet is a tremendous tool for writers. But when it’s not being used for active research, it’s a terrible distraction. There are all sorts of tricks—cut you network connection as soon as you sign on, stick to pen and paper, write in the forest where there is no WiFi… But I came up with an easier solution. I keep a notepad or piece of scrap paper by my desk as I write. Every time I get the “itch” to look something up online, I write it on the pad:
“Interesting War of 1812 lit.”
I’ve trained myself so that in place of actually visiting the site, I make a note to visit it later. I promise myself that on my lunch break, I’ll look all that stuff up. It will still be there. Of course, by that time, most of those curiosities are stale, and I don’t even bother, but I was able to keep hold of my focus during that time. Try it.