In Praise of Distractions

Here’s my version of one of the more frustrating experiences for a writer. My wife is at her office. My son is at school. The cat is asleep on his pillow. I boot up my laptop, and, with a cup of strong black tea at my side, I settle in to begin the morning’s writing. A quiet house and plenty of uninterrupted time in which to work: What more could a writer ask for? Every component for a productive day of writing is in place. I have no excuses.

And then the words don’t come.

I’ve talked with many writers about their writing processes, not out of a desire to emulate them but out of curiosity. What do they do when the brain isn’t working and the sentences don’t arrive elegant and ready-made onto the screen? Everyone has a different answer, but the one I hear most often is that they tune out all distractions and hunker down until sentience finally crashes through whatever barrier the brain has erected and the words start to flow. They turn on Internet blocking software, which is the modern-day writer’s equivalent of barring the garret door and stuffing plugs into each ear canal. For the specified amount of time, these writers are in a procrastination-free zone, their surfing privileges revoked, in an attempt to meet their daily word count.

Apparently, this strategy works for them, and I’m glad it does. But this is what I do when good ideas and interesting plot developments play their cutthroat game of hide and seek with me: I take a break. Those are the moments when I need the Internet, or just about any other handy distraction, to take my mind off my inability to innovate. I check the baseball scores. I read a review of a film I want to see. I feed the cat. I go on Twitter and talk with friends about jazz or novels or poetry. Anything to help me forget that the perfect word is up there in the literary firmament and I can’t reach it.

It’s the darnedest thing: More often than not, after I’ve allowed myself two or five or thirty minutes to goof off, I go back to my manuscript, and there’s that word I was looking for, or the plot twist that moves the story in a more satisfying direction. It was in front of me all along. All I needed was to stop hunting for it for a while. All I needed was to allow myself to break my concentration and succumb to the allure of distractions.

Each writer has to find his or her method of working. The ultimate goal is to produce your best work. If blocking out the rest of the planet for hours on end is what works for you, then that’s what you should do. But I think some of us need to give ourselves permission to step out of the narrative, whether of a novel or a book review (or a blog post), and do other things when the magic isn’t happening. The agent Betsy Lerner once wrote that you could have all of Versailles to yourself and still not be able to write well if the ideas aren’t flowing. She’s right. All the more reason, then, to get up from your desk once in a while and check out the paintings or the Hall of Mirrors, to savor the beauty around you, until the ideas for your own contribution emerge from behind their hiding place.


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7 thoughts on “In Praise of Distractions

  1. I dont mind distractions, sometimes I think they help. But, when I’m truly stuck, I find shutting the laptop and switching to pen and paper can help me get out of my ruts.

  2. I do that once in a while, too, Anita. Sometimes, I print the manuscript I’m working on and take it somewhere other than my office: the kitchen, say, or a coffee shop–some place where there’s good food. That often helps me to solve the manuscript’s problems. And even when it doesn’t, I get a snack out of it. So I win either way.

  3. Sometimes I’ll hunker down, sometimes I’ll do as you do and wander off. Dog walking helps loosen the brain when it goes into lock-down, I find. Weirdly, some of my best ideas come in the shower. I write in the early morning, and after each session I take a shower and get dressed. Not infrequently some little nugget that escaped me during the morning’s session reveals itself to me while I’m getting clean. The trick is not to forget it before I can find a piece of paper and a pen!

  4. Thanks for your comments. Subhakar and Alex. I, too, get good ideas in the shower, or at other moments when it’s not feasible to reach for paper and pen. The worst is when I’ve gone out for a run. I’ll be three miles from home, my mind on autopilot, and that great, elusive idea will finally come to me. And it’s 20 minutes (I’m not a fast runner) before I can get back to my office to write the idea down. I’ve thought about running with a digital recorder in my hand, but, aside from the amusing figure I would cut, I reject doing this for fear that I won’t feel as if I’ve taken a break, I won’t stop thinking about my work, and the ideas won’t come. It’s a quandary. But that’s part of the fun of writing, no?

  5. Ah – I wish I was better at the hunkering down! All too often the distractions rather take precedence. But at the same time, often epiphanies on how a story should progress come when I’m idly staring out a window, or going for a walk, so perhaps there is method in the idleness after all.

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