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Helpless in the face of luxury

(I’m posting this to share my experience, not to solicit advice. If others want to share their experiences, too, I’d love it, but no advice, please.)

“It’s called willpower,” Colson Whitehead says in this PW article about… well, about many things, only one of which is the need some writers have of hiding themselves away in a hostage pit because they can’t handle distraction.

I’m one of those writers, and I freely admit that it embarrasses me. When the writing gets really difficult, I find it very difficult to focus on the problems and opportunities there, and all too easy to check my emails, or Twitter, or my LiveJournal friends list.

It used to be that I could hide at Starbucks. They charged for wi-fi and I’m too cheap to pay for my procrastination… then they backed down and offered it for free. Soon I was checking my emails, just in case something important came in, and are there new posts on LJ? Oh, what crazy shit has so-and-so said about books this time? An article on health care reform! It’s my duty as a citizen to stay up-to-date on politics, and besides I can read it while this funny video loads.

And don’t forget that I need things to blog about other than the usual I’m-tired-my-butt-itches crap. Links for the Randomness posts! Op-eds to disagree with! Movies to pick apart!

Except that I didn’t really need any of that. What I needed was time and quiet space to work. I don’t need a physically quiet space, but I do need one where my jump-around brain won’t latch onto something interesting and easy, like my Twitter timeline or the book I’m reading.

There was a Radiolab from a while back that talked about the bargains creative people have to make. It’s worth listening to, maybe while you’re doing dishes or something. For me, it’s helped me work out a new plan to increase my productivity: just like all those people who put A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE in their Netflix queue as something they’ll watch someday way out in the future while continually picking THE HANGOVER or DRIVE ANGRY for what they want to watch right now, it’s easy for me to plan virtue way in advance, but nearly impossible to grasp it in the moment. If I could be trusted to back up my own material manually, I’d crack the case of my laptop and pith my wi-fi connection. Since I can’t, I use Dropbox.

So I turn my laptop on the night before and set Mac Freedom for six hours. Maybe eight, but usually six.

That’s long enough for me to do my pages, then revise one of my old short stories for a self-pub collection I’m considering, and that’s it. I can reboot if I want to check my email at the library or whatever, or I can come straight home and wait for the timer to run out, at which point the household wi-fi handles all the backing up.

But that’s the best work around I can come up with at the moment. My brain has a hard time staying on task, and talking about willpower misses the point. If I’m hungry, tired, cold, or depressed, I can write. Adversity I can handle. What I have a hard time with, apparently, is fun, luxury, pleasure, and comfort. Those are the things that will ruin me.

Update: An article on the limits of willpower.

Mirrored from Twenty Palaces. You can comment here or there.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 9th, 2011 04:19 pm (UTC)
Weird, how our brains work. We're continually looking for things and spiralling out what ifs and connections, but harnessing them to a task that hasn't already made that "I have to do this NOW" shift and taken over our lives is weird. It's like we have to negotiate with our own brains, or trick them.
Jun. 9th, 2011 05:17 pm (UTC)
The Radiolab show explicitly deals with self-negotiation. It was pretty interesting, especially the part about Elizabeth Gilbert and Tom Waits.
Jun. 9th, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC)
Marking that--thanks for the link.
Jun. 9th, 2011 04:25 pm (UTC)
I need *time* -- time to focus on the task. I also need a relatively clear head from mundane concerns. One reason I generally ignore politics and news is because they INTRUDE. Since they're THIS world they yammer at me to DO SOMETHING, and that distracts from my actually doing the things that MATTER -- i.e., the stuff that either I get paid for, or the stuff that's my immediate duty (taking care of my family, etc.).

I know some writers who can sit down and start writing pretty much instantly, and then stop ten minutes later, and go back, and so on, banging out a few hundred words per day, every day, in between other stuff. I'm incapable of that. I have to get into the focused groove to write, and that means setting aside at least a few hours where I do NOTHING else. And preferably where nothing else distracts me. I can do some Usenet, some LJ, etc. in between chapters, to clear my mind of the prior stuff, but I can't do anything SERIOUS that isn't writing or it intrudes. I also can't have other noise intruding, so I always listen to music in my headphones when writing.
Jun. 9th, 2011 05:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, when I get interrupted, I have to start the thinking process over again.

But I'm okay with noise. When a Starbucks gets loud, I can use it to focus, because it gives me something to actively ignore. That's impossible at home, because my wife and son's voices pierce my attention.
Jun. 9th, 2011 05:19 pm (UTC)
Hello, you are me. Except that Mac Freedom doesn't work for me because I *turn it off* if I want to check something.

For myself, the most useful, focusing aid I've found is something C.E. Murphy started: the Word War room. It was something she had - a chat room, in the internet - in an earlier incarnation with writer friends. It got her started.

It works like this: You log into the chat room, hope that other people are writing (this is the time of day they usually do). Writing is usually done in 30 minute blocks. So a time is set - say :15, and we all write for 30 minutes, to :45. Then we post word count. We chat for 5 minutes or get coffee. And then we start again. Rinse and repeat.

I know it sounds silly on the face of it - but it works for me. The internet is on the entire time. I *could* use the 30 minutes to check email. But...I don't. I write. If I do this for six 30 minute sessions, I make my progress for the day.

I do not always need this; if the book is going well, I don't stop. But sometimes, when it's not...it's just too easy to get distracted because my mind is already wandering in sentence circles, because at that point, I'm boring *me*, and I want to not be bored.

Also, some people revise/edit/proof while in the room (they'll post page counts or chapters instead of wordcounts). If you want the URL (it's a tinychat room), I can post it. There are no conditions. You don't have to be a published writer (some are, some aren't); you just have to write.
Jun. 9th, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC)
I've tried this on Twitter but it was a solo thing and I was embarrassed by my low word counts. Would you email the URL to me? harry@harryjconnolly.com Thank you.
Jun. 9th, 2011 06:36 pm (UTC)
've tried this on Twitter but it was a solo thing and I was embarrassed by my low word counts. Would you email the URL to me? harry@harryjconnolly.com Thank you.

We work on the theory that some words are better than no words; wordcount's not a perfect measure of progress. What I find - and obviously this is going to differ for everyone - is that it's 30 minutes of focused writing, as opposed to sentences or paragraphs interspersed with distraction.
Jun. 9th, 2011 05:47 pm (UTC)
Alas, a 30-minute session is just enough for me to start. If I did that, I'd never actually WRITE anything.
Jun. 9th, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC)
Alas, a 30-minute session is just enough for me to start. If I did that, I'd never actually WRITE anything.

I trained myself - over the course of a couple of frustrating months - to write on lunch hours when I was working full-time. I did not get much useful work done for the first month, but eventually, my subconscious caved in, and when it did, I managed to write my first five novels during that time.

I'm sure this would not work for everyone; it was the time I had, so I had to make it work for me.

So leftover from that time is the ability to make use of that chunk of time *if* I focus.
Jun. 9th, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm pretty much the same, and yet lately I forget it EVERY DAY. I spend 30-45 minutes thinking, "What the heck is wrong with me? Why am I not writing? How can I be so useless?" As I stare at the cursor.

And then whatever setup I was internally going through finishes and I write just fine. :P Now that I think about it, I used to warm up by doodling in a notebook, having tea, and reading some (irrelevant) how-to books. Now I just angst. I need to put a reminder to myself somewhere...

I have used word war type things after I get started, though.
Jun. 9th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
I know several people who could use the freedom program. Once I start back to school it would probably be useful for me too. Thanks for posting about it, that is very helpful.

I tend to be kinda ... ferret like, when supposed to be working. Ya know the "Oooo shiny" syndrome? I cannot be around others when I have to get work done. I usually do better just me and the critters. They won't let me work too long in one stretch, but at the same time, I am not completely alone =p
Jun. 9th, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC)
I know some folks who prefer Concentrate, but that has a small cost associated with it.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 10th, 2011 02:26 am (UTC)
It's amazing how much time you can steal back from your life after you give up certain things like the internet, TV, fancy cooking, and so on.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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  • 14 Jan 2019, 21:47
    Oh, yeah, excellent point.
  • 14 Jan 2019, 21:46
    Oh yeah. Like the lawyers who get obvious really venal criminals off because it makes their success rate look good. But those are not the ones I am referring to in meaning well. These guys are mixed…
  • 14 Jan 2019, 20:37
    This reminds me of the time my wife was injured and the insurance guy handling her case did everything possible to deny and stall the payment. We had to put her surgery on a credit card because this…
  • 14 Jan 2019, 19:24
    The creepiest part is that some of them are actually well meaning.
  • 14 Jan 2019, 19:08
    Yeah. It's godawful what people will do when they have authority and no fear about using it.
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