Monday, March 3, 2008

Writing through Distraction

Freewriting's open, free-form structure is great for the office, the beach, the classroom - anywhere you go that allows only snatches of time to write your story. Since the free-write is usually not intended as a marketable story, you don't have to worry about typos or smudges or whether you can concentrate enough to make the story "good." But it still takes concentration to write, especially to "get in the groove" and write fast.

This is where your real-world setting can pose some problems - the distractions around you may threaten to short-circuit your creative process.  Fighting the distraction often makes things worse - using these distractions to your advantage, on the other hand, can actually help generate new ideas.



Sometimes, the air conditioner is just too loud. At the beach, you just can't take the glare of the sun in your eyes. And then, of course, there's the chatter from two cubicles down - it's nearly impossible to tune-out a conversation in-progress. For human curiosity, people talking provides too much interest. It's worse even than CNN. When you want to be writing, your mind locks-in full attention on people you don't know and don't care about simply because they're producing words.

But don't worry. You can free-write through such distractions. The key, first of all, is to relax. Writing may feel important at times, but it's rarely important enough to stress over (essays, term papers, and grad school applications excepted, of course...). It's a constant struggle for me, but I've found that placing too much importance on the words themselves hurts the work itself. When I feel pressured to perform, I begin writing words because they sound right, not because they are. Distraction then pushes me over the edge. Perfection in writing is an impossible goal - thinking about it while the AC churns is a headache waiting to happen.

The next trick - and this works really well for freewriting - is to write the distraction into your manuscript. Write about the air conditioner's grim rattle or that too-hot sun - you'll think about it less once you've written around it. I used to think this was a funny idea because I've always been good at tuning things out. My younger brother is autistic, so I grew up learning to read and study while he gave my parents and babysitters hell the next room over. But I can't tune out everything, and I can't control when and where distractions arise. One night, after a very stressful week, I set all my hopes on an hour of writing at Barnes and Noble. That was to be my "unwind time" when I could catch up with the story I hadn't worked on all week. But then there was a very large, very loud man having a one-way conversation with his wife and the entire rest of the bookstore coffee shop. I couldn't ignore him, and I already had a headache from the rest of my week - so I wrote him into a free-write. It wasn't a flattering portrayal, but the writing went on. Strangely, as I wrote more about him, I stopped hearing him talk. It was as if the mind processed his existence and then moved on to other concerns - namely writing.

But then there's the big question: what do you do when you can't write a word? When staring at the page makes you sick? When the AC and the sun and those yapping coworkers simply will not go away? Or, worse, what about when there's no physical distraction? When you're busy worrying about your taxes and your health insurance and the upcoming visit with your mother-in-law? How do you tune out your own mind?

Sometimes you don't. Instead you start writing a journal entry. You call up a friend and gripe. Or you break out the old 1040 and start filling in rows of numbers for the IRS. At some point, you have to resolve the personal distractions in your own life to allow your mind to focus on creative pursuits.

Sometimes, though, even that isn't enough. It's worse, of course, when you're working under a deadline, when you know that you have, say, one week to finish a story for a class. The days get whittled away as you sit at the keyboard contemplating the blank screen, your blank life, the blank career prospects for creative writing. You contemplate ugly notions involving your computer and the window.

That's the time to go outside. Call up some friends and hit the volleyball court. Catch a movie. Stroll on over to the local pub and start talking with random people about random things (if the people are no longer so random, then you know you're a regular). The key is to get out and live a bit. Let the brain rest. Let the ideas simmer without too much thought. Later, when you get back to your page, you'll find that the story is still in there, still ready to come out. It just flows a little better when you're relaxed. And, of course, a beer or two never hurt - never enough that I remember, of course.

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