Write It Sideways

Distracted? It Could Help Your Writing

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.

Unless you’re Emily Dickinson, dressed in white, hanging out alone in your room writing hundreds of heart-stopping poems, you probably find your writing life studded with distractions. I know I do.

For the purposes of this article, anything that’s not writing counts as a “distraction.” That means many distractions are actually very important ones. Working at your job, for example. Raising your kids. Calling your friends. Paying your bills. You wouldn’t want to give up many of your distractions even if you could.

Then, of course, there are the arguably less worthy ones. Television. YouTube. Even…though I’ve learned to love it…Twitter (I did say arguably).

I believe in trying to eliminate distractions while we write. Constant toggling between a Safari window and a Word document can sound the death knell for any work-in-progress.

But nothing can take distraction out of life. We’re all pulled in competing directions. Have you ever met somebody who claims to have a lot of free time? Me neither.

Yet people write anyway, usually in moments that, whether scheduled or spontaneous, are also stolen from a day clogged with other distractions. How can all this distraction be conducive to writing, a task that requires intense focus and inner reflection?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately because my own life is such an odd example of how more distraction and less free time can result in better writing.

I’ve always loved to write, but I can’t point to a whole lot of work from the earlier years. I dilly-dallied along with an essay or story here, a poem there. It wasn’t until my first child was born and I started losing sleep and scrambling for even an hour to myself that I really started to get serious about writing.  By the time my daughter came along not too long afterward, I was really ready to buckle down. I now write bleary-eyed late at night, for 10 minutes here or there in the morning, during naptime if I’ve actually managed to finish the breakfast dishes. Yet I’ve written more in the past two years than I did in the previous ten.

What gives? Can the large and small distractions of daily life, the assorted obligations that fracture focus, aid writing?

What’s Great About Distraction

It keeps you grounded.

Living in the world is hard work, but it’s the only real way to fuel writing. William Carlos Williams, the famous poet who also worked throughout his life as a family physician, emphasized the importance of engaging with the world.

“Writing is not a searching about in the daily experience for apt similes and pretty thoughts and images…” he writes in his book Spring And All. “The writer of imagination would find himself released from observing things for the purpose of writing them down later. He would be there to enjoy, to taste, to engage the free world, not a world which he carries like a bag of food, always fearful lest he drop something or someone get more than he.”

Williams also famously coined the much-discussed phrase “no ideas but in things.” Perhaps the messy task of living in a physical world is the very thing we must undertake in order to write authentically.

 It keeps your perspective fresh.

Working with different people, facing challenges, wrestling with new concepts—these interactions keep our brains in recalibration mode, continually stretching to make sense of our environment. What better exercise for writers than to work amid diverse perspectives, conflicts, and ideas?

“I’m constantly learning,” writes author Erika Dreifus in a blog post about the benefits her 9-5 job lends to her writing life. “I’m surrounded by people, and I hear their stories. I carry out a variety of research projects. All of this is good experience for any writer.”

It imposes restrictions, which can actually breed creativity.

I have no idea what I did with all that time, back when I had it. But I do know that having less time to write has made me more serious about writing. When it’s actually time to write, I gratefully plunge in.

A musician friend once told me about challenging himself to compose tunes that didn’t include certain notes on the piano.  Rooted in restriction, the resulting music felt particularly adventurous and unique. It was great creative practice, he said.

Maybe less writing time can function like a crippled piano—there’s music lurking inside that you’d never have found if you actually had all the keys.

Not writing doesn’t mean you’re not writing.

Have you ever found yourself working through your daily tasks only to feel the urge to write something down? Even mundane tasks spark inspiration.

Writer Susan Bearman reminds us in her post Finding Extraordinary Writing in an Ordinary Life to “remember that even when we’re not writing, we are. Our brains keep working when we do the laundry or watch our kids play soccer or take a shower.”

The life you live provides more than enough material to write about.

Making Distraction Work for You

  1. Prioritize your distractions. Going to work might be a necessity, but can you let the laundry wait one more day so you can write? Are you volunteering on a committee that you don’t really want to serve?  All distractions are not created equal. Pick a select few you can’t live without, and let a few others go.
  2. Schedule writing time, but don’t over-schedule it. Commit to a certain amount of writing per day, or a certain number of writing tasks accomplished each week, but if picking a specific time of day to write feels difficult, don’t worry.  Sometimes having flexible rules makes us more likely to follow them.
  3. Use distractions as inspiration.  Consider how characters, conflicts, and plot-lines could grow from your experiences. How can your life enrich your writing?
  4. Make the time you have count. When it’s time to write, just write. Consider disabling your internet connection, writing in full-screen mode, or setting a timer to manage breaks.

It’s easy to envy Emily Dickinson, and certainly we deserve to give our writer selves a little TLC via the occasional writer’s conference, class or vacation. Yet we can also challenge ourselves to move beyond feeling slighted by daily busy-ness (“I’d write more if I could!”) and start to make those distractions work for us.

Have your “distractions” from writing been surprisingly helpful? What strategies have you developed to deal with distractions?