A simple trick for winning the war with distraction

Here's a quiz. You hit a snag in something you're writing at work. Do you:

a. Power through and keep going? b. Get up and walk around? c. Click away to your e-mail or the Web?

I'm guessing C. That quick and easy avenue of escape is so pervasive it's part of the rhythm of the day. Type, stall, click away. Type, stall, click away.

You bend the idea you’re trying to shape back and forth like a paperclip wire until there’s a tiny snap. Okay. Enough of that. What’s on the web?

Many minutes later, Facebook checked, the great and powerful Google oracle consulted, e-mail scanned, you’re back. Same spot, same task, just a little bit farther behind, a little more stressed. The enemy—distraction—is winning. Sometimes there’s hardly a contest.

Maybe it’s always been like this, but getting stuck was probably more fun when people typed their attempts on paper, looked at them with a shake of the head and then yanked the sheet from the roller and wadded it up. (Typewriter talk is so visceral, no?) A ring of big white wads around the desk was some kind of measure of time and progress. And when the pile got big enough, you could shoot baskets into the trash can.

Now, we just silently click away from what we’re doing, sometimes many, many times a day. And there’s not even a satisfying mess to show for it.

The clicking would make sense if we were lab rats getting a food pellet. Or the fresh inspiration of a real break. But no, what we have here is a time suck. More info bits crammed into a brain that seriously doesn’t need another status update. And now there’s even less time to write the important stuff—our own.

Distract yourself with .... yourself

But here’s a secret: You can have your distraction and your writing too. The trick? Don’t fight distraction, don’t declare war and don’t stop. Just do it a little differently. Distract yourself with yourself.

The truth is, you need a balance of breaks and concentration to get your work done, and you’ve worked out a way to do that. You push a browser button that takes you somewhere far away and creates the illusion of a break. It just doesn’t wind up feeling like one.

So here’s something to try: Click away to yourself. Create a button for your browser toolbar that takes you to a file you create for your own writing. Google docs works well for this. And if aesthetics is a hook that will keep you coming back, try a serene setting like Ommwriter (on a Mac) or Zenwriter on a PC (more on those soon).

What will keep you distracted by yourself? If you’ve been away from your writing for a while and the blank page does not make you squeal with glee, type a prompt onto your “distraction”/”vacation” page when you create it. (There are dozens of prompts here  and some wild ones here.) Or take a few lines from the last interesting work you did—an old poem or essay or story. Just a taste to remind you of what you sound like. You, the real you, the one who writes.

You might get hooked

Then, keep clicking back to that page. Stuck? Distracted? Fine. Leave the problem for a minute or two or five or ten. Click away to yourself. And let your mind tinker with your own thoughts, your own writing.

You’ll recapture the time that’s been dribbling away. And you’ll be seeding your own work daily. Even hourly. Do it for a day. Then for another, and remind yourself if you forget.  I’ll bet you get hooked.

As for the work you’re supposed to be doing? You know that’ll get done. It always does. But alongside it, you’ll be building a writing life of your own. All with “distraction,” and stolen time.

Are you battling distraction? What works for you? Let's chat in the comments.

Image by turinboy via Flickr.

Your writing's trying to tell you what it wants—tales from George Saunders and L.A. spring

It’s the equinox as I write this, and I’m caught up in the way this moment in Southern California tips us into full bloom. Last night I walked through a friend’s front yard while he gave me a tour of the “orchard” set against two side fences. It was a scattering of trees, some mere twigs dotted with blossoms, one already heavy with grapefruit that reflected back gold in the flashlight’s beam. “That’s a pomegranate, and this is a peach,” the friend said, pointing to a couple of newly planted sticks (to use the fancy horticultural term). A few weeks ago, there was nothing to see. Just bare wood too slight to hold up the word “trunk,” and a few twig-like branches. But something happened, a swelling of buds and petals and scent. We knew it would come. And with luck and cultivation, we’ll see the pomegranates and lemons and first-year peaches later on, too.

Those predictable rhythms don't hold for people and pages, though it would be handy if they did. What we see, sometimes for long periods, are fragile-looking twigs stuck in the ground. They’re the projects we tuck into stray spaces and build from the words left at the end of long days of trading our energy and imaginations for money.Time passes, sometimes a lot of time, before what we have looks like much, or we notice the nubs of buds on what we feared might stay dormant for good. At our best, we persist, staying in conversation with the work, pushing it, then letting it lead us.

George Saunders, talking to a stalled story

In L.A. last month, the fiction writer George Saunders mentioned just that process.

Once, while waiting for a bus across the street from the barber shop in his town, he decided to take on the barber.

saunders quote“He was one of these guys who checks women out fearlessly—and even after they bust him he keeps looking,” Saunders remembered. “We had just had two daughters, so I was a new feminist and I thought, ‘What an irritating [jerk].’ My first idea was, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna write, but I’m gonna nail that guy. So I did.

“I wrote what I really thought was some fun inhabiting of this perverted guy…. I did that for about a year, and I had some pretty funny bits, but the story stalled, and I think it was because I knew too much about him. I was going to crucify this idiot. That was my plan.

“The story said, ‘All right, go ahead, but you’re not gonna be interesting doing that. So at some point about a year into it I went, ‘You know what? I’ve gotta somehow make this guy more sympathetic because as this story stands, it’s just kicking him. So then it’s the magic moment when you go, okay, how do I make this [jerk] more interesting?

“Well…  Hmm…. And then you start titrating in bits of yourself, which you were already doing, but now you’re being a little more sympathetic. Not being the most subtle writer, I said, ‘Oh yeah, he doesn’t have any toes!’ That was my way of doing it. But that did the trick … and suddenly it came alive. So I didn’t know that I was out to humanize him, but the story teaches you that. The story’s very stubborn. And it will say, 'Go ahead, write as much as you like, but I’m not movin’ until you show a little sympathy.' And that can happen again and again.”

‘A year later…’

There’s so much to love in how the process evolved, from the original mission (“I’m gonna crucify that guy”) to the more complex (and toeless) version the story wanted. I’m sure Saunders says that often his students: “The story teaches you.”

What struck me most, though, were the toss-away words: “I did that for about a year….” He repeats them, too. “So at some point about a year into it….”

The process can—and often does—look like that: chipping away, experimenting and keeping the conversation with your work going for weeks and months and years.

That doesn’t happen when you simply put the manuscript away and “think about it,” which usually means “wade through guilt, bemoan not having time to work on it or feel flattened by the soul-crushing, 5,000-pound boulder it’s become.”

It doesn’t happen either when you keep ideas locked in your head without making a move to get them on paper where you can start the exchange, however slow, that will move you forward and bring blooms to those awkward little sticks.

Time to amp up the conversation, don’t you think?

One writer I know felt dogged for more than a year by stories she wanted to write. When we talked about them, and she gave herself some “getting reacquainted” sessions to feel her way into the work, she realized that she was actually excited about an entirely different project. And she wouldn’t have known unless she sat down to reach toward the vague shapes in her imagination and pull them into the light.

My guess is that she just would’ve stayed frustrated and blocked and cringing whenever anyone said, “So how’s that writing going?”

The speed of the work you do isn’t important, but the constant conversation and tending are.It’s spring, beautiful writer person—such a fertile time. Feed your work. Talk to it and consider what it wants. Do a small writing practice daily. And as always, let me know if I can help.

(If you want to revisit the George Saunders story in context, you can hear it here, courtesy of the wonderful Aloud program at the Los Angeles Central Library. The photo of blossoms above is by Sterlic, via Flickr.)

Running dragons, and other mascots for a busy life

There are stories that keep me coming back to my small-scale writing practice in busy times, rather than "waiting till things calm down." One comes from the wonderful poet Marie Ponsot, who shook me awake in a workshop at the 92nd Street Y when she described how she continued to write during the years she was rearing her children—six boys and a girl. I picture her with a pen and a scrap of paper, baby balanced on her hip as she tries to calm a 4-year-old who’s chasing a toddler, the ambient chaos of blooming, moody, needy beings filling her household. That’s the rough version of the scene, if you double the number of little ones.

In the midst of this, she wrote in a Chinese form called "running dragon," which uses two- and three-line stanzas, small bursts of description as the “dragon” leaps from stone to stone. She built her pieces two or four or six lines at a time.

'It's easy to keep writing ... in whatever time you have.'

Ponsot wasn’t visible to the publishing world as she was tending her tribe, but she was writing all the while. Here’s a bit of a 2003 interview she did with Bomb magazine :

Bomb interviewer Benjamin Ivry: “There was a span of a quarter century in which you didn’t publish a book. Obviously you were very busy taking care of your kids and working, teaching English in the SEEK program for disadvantaged students at Queens College as well as translating and scriptwriting.”

Marie Ponsot: “I was very busy. It’s really that I was entirely out of all those professional poetry loops. That’s worth saying, because it’s easy to keep writing without tremendous agitation in whatever time you have. If you don’t imagine yourself as a career poet but rather as a person who writes poems, you can just go on doing that.”

We writers with busy lives are all “people who write novels” or “people who write memoirs” or “people who write poems,” and all of us can tap the wise impulse to keep writing in the time we can grab. Small scenes, “sudden fiction,” bits of dialog or description—they’re all available to us in short spans of time. And from there, we build, no tremendous agitation required.

I summon my own form of “running dragon” during weeks like this one when I’m spinning in busyness—starting projects, nudging others along, doing research for what I hope will become a book one day, oh, and doing my taxes. In the midst of it all, I grab 10 or 15 minutes and make notes, do my observation practice and write down lines, or shape a couple of paragraphs.

The dragon keeps running. The work takes shape.

(The Bomb interview with Ponsot, who turns 92 on April 6, is full of treasures for poets, fans of the Beats, women looking for inspiration and writers who occasionally fear that “it’s too late to start now.”  The blog item that describes the running dragon form is also rich with insights from Ponsot. And if you missed them, you can see suggestions for trapping wild bits of time here, and tips for making good use of them here.)

Image by Steve Loya via Flickr.

Following the mystery: We're all going to Graceland.

My DVR decided recently that I needed to watch a documentary about Paul Simon and the making of his “Graceland” album. It was a happy accident—I’ve loved those songs for years. They accompanied me on a long-ago train ride that wound along the edge of the country from Seattle to Washington, D.C., days and nights of staring out at snowfields, swampland and kudzu until my face looked back at me clearly from the glass and told me that what I’d left behind was broken, but I wasn’t. Graceland underfoot

It was no wonder I couldn’t get enough of lyrics like these:

There is a girl in New York City Who calls herself the human trampoline And sometimes when I'm falling, flying Or tumbling in turmoil I say Oh, so this is what she means She means we're bouncing into Graceland….

I’d always just assumed that some logical process had produced those words—a pilgrimage to the land of Elvis, perhaps a break-up. The writer was sparked by something he wanted to express and searched for the words to say it, artfully. Isn’t that how such a song would come to be?

Actually, not at all. Simon explains that as he worked to match lyrics to pieced-together tracks of music recorded with African musicians, he played with “certain sounds that became words. Sometimes those words formed a phrase and the phrase was interesting. Sometimes the phrase was banal. Sometimes it didn’t make any sense, like ‘I’m going to Graceland,’” which he used as a placeholder because it fit the music well.

“I kept singing this chorus, “I’m going to Graceland, I’m going to Graceland,'" Simon says. "And I kept thinking, ‘Well that will go away, because this song is not about Elvis Presley…. But it wouldn’t go away.

“Finally, I said ... I’d better go to Graceland—I’d never been. I’d better make that trip and see if maybe there’s something about this that I’m supposed to find out.”

Slowly, it came clear that “the song was about a bigger meaning,” he says.“It was a metaphor for a state of grace. I was taking an absurdist lyric for which I thought I had no place … and finally saying, Well, maybe it does….”

I find this account comforting and inspiring. Sometimes, we back into meaning. It glimmers around the edges of a phrase or image that sticks in the mind and won’t let go. Inconveniently, it doesn’t make sense. The opposite of the “lightning through the pen” image of creativity, it’s not delivered fully formed. Or half-formed, even. It’s a wisp, a problem, a distraction. You can easily it brush off, push it away.

Or you can give in and follow it to Graceland.

(The documentary, if you’re interested is called “Paul Simon’s Graceland Journey: Under African Skies.” It may show up again on PBS. Some segments are available on YouTube, and a 1997 documentary, “Paul Simon: Graceland,” parts of which are used in the new one, is streaming on Netflix. It’s worth a look, even if you’re not a fan, for Simon’s articulate account of what it’s like to be drawn toward a beautiful mystery, then—with a mixture of willingness, doubt and persistence—to find out what it wants to be. Lyrics above are copyright Universal Music Publishing Group.)

Image by Whatnot (Jack Keene) via Flickr

10-minute writing excursions

So you've found a small slot in your schedule for writing, a bit of "transition time" between activities that will give you a foothold as you build a writing practice. How will you switch gears from life or work craziness to “writer’s mind”? Try this. * Start by closing your eyes and taking a few slow, deep breaths and exhaling completely. That can help you come back to your body when your mind is whirring.

* Shift your focus to your own voice.

If it’s one of those, “I’ve got nothin’” days, fill yourself up by closely observing one thing, whatever your eye lands on or your ear picks up, and describing it in as much detail as you can. That requires actually soaking up those details, and directing your mind to the challenge of finding words that evoke them. It’s an easy way to break a thought loop and wind up in the present, seeing.

(That’s why I mention it so often. If you’re feeling distant from writing, one of the great fears is that the basin is empty, that you’ll dip in and come up dry. Knowing that you can replenish yourself with what’s at hand can be a great relief.)

If you’ve got an Internet connection, you can click to a place like http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/ (that may take a subscription after a certain number of visits) or http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/ or http://news.yahoo.com/photos/ and click through a photo gallery until an image resonates. It shouldn’t take long. Fall into a photo and write from there—a description, a list of questions or a few lines of a caption that reflect the story you see or would make up about the image.

If you’re collecting the lines you’ve been writing in one place (a good idea), you can pick up where you left off, or begin to connect images or voices or impressions. Rearrange words. Make something new.

If you’re developing a piece, you can go there and spend time with it. Add details or questions. Look at it. Keep it in front of you and your mind will keep working on it. Tinker, add what comes to you, and don't forget to play.

Do you need and want longer stretches for writing? Sure. But if all you've got are tiny windows, why not check out the view?

Next week: Tech tools that make it easier to work with "drop by drop" bits of writing.

Magical things: Worlds in the shape of horoscopes, & more

A small handful of writing inspiration: * 12 gentle, miniature worlds in the shape of horoscopes.

* This ingenious word game for poets and others. (Be sure to read the "recipe" if you want to play.)

* These simple instructions for seeing the world in a new way.


Walk down the hall. Look out the window. Have you ever noticed that when you stop working on your own writing, you close off a certain kind of seeing? I find that I don’t look at the world quite the same way, and instead of a soft, open focus that lets in serendipitous bits of conversation or pauses to appreciate the morning light setting the jacarandas aglow, I have tunnel vision. A mission. A destination. A deadline. With everything filtered through that tight, focused urgency.

Part of making more room for writing involves letting the mind’s fist relase into a space where something new can be seen, recognized, felt.

In a recent piece on the Tin House blog, Nick Flynn, the poet and memoirist (“Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands”) described his process this way:

“Before I sit down, I need time to wander in the unknown for awhile, either psychically or physically, somewhat aimlessly, yet in a state of awareness, allowing seeming distractions to build up some energy, maybe around an image or idea or sound, until something reveals itself: a pattern, an echo, something that resonates with whatever it is I think I’m supposed to be working on. If I simply sit down and focus, nothing unexpected reveals itself.”

Today, try wandering. Then write down what you notice.