Focus, focus…

Earlier this week, I attended the last of this year’s Hampshire Writers’ Society (HWS) meeting. Whilst it was great seeing the books that had been published by member’s this year, it was – as ever – more interesting to listen to the guest speaker’s account of their process and life in writing.  This month it was Lady Antonia Fraser, author of a slew of histories and biographies as well as crime fiction. The discussion, an interview led by John Miller (another respected author) was well-guided and interesting, not least because it transpired that, like many writers, she loved books and knew she wanted to be an author from a very young age but had to struggled to have her vocation accepted.

What was most interesting, though, were insights into her process. Whilst she mentioned she had to have a schedule due to bringing up children, it was notable that she was very strict about the process: three hours, undisturbed, every day.  The key for her was undisturbed, no distractions, something that raised a flag in my mind as it connects with a whole load of experiences and scientific studies that have recently come to my attention.

There are a whole load of distractions from which a writer can suffer. There are two that Lady Fraser’s comments raised as being particularly interesting: noise and the so-called ‘writer’s block’.

Some writer’s claim they work best with music in the background: they even create their own inspirational writing tapes/playlists (depending on technology).  I can’t: when music is playing I tend to listen to the music so it interrupts the enmeshment with the world I inhabit in my mind and report upon. I also struggle with constantly varying noise from outside (and I live in a quiet village) or inside the house (such as loud music or a kitchen being replaced). This is particularly interesting as recent workplace studies (some of which are mentioned in BBC Magazine and Radio articles on office noise) have found that our ears and listening is still attuned to wilderness living. As a result, any out-of-place sound or variation in the noise level triggers an interrupt in our brain, launches an attention process saying ‘you might have to deal with this’. Noisy, open-plan offices then are not good for worker efficiency. However, the inverse is also true: if our surroundings are too quiet we cannot concentrate, either. I sometimes write with headphones on but nothing playing, a tactic which sometimes works but becomes too eerie when there is lots of quiet.

The trick is to have music that is designed to be soothing and calming and deliberately designed for background use. Whilst one programme I heard suggested pink noise, some of the ‘New Age’ soundtracks may be useful as well as the playlists and soundtracks used for relaxation by massage, reiki or similar therapists.

All well and good, but there was something else Lady Fraser said that reminded me of other conversations I have been party to: writer’s block. Lady Fraser’s attitude was that she does not have the time to be so-indulgent to allow writer’s block to raise it’s head. There is, she implied, always something to do for a book, whether research, writing or planning, and too little time to get it done. Comments from other author’s have hinted that the block only comes, for example, because a writer has not done enough research or has not thought about their novel or characters enough (same thing, really).  The work has to come first.

Where that meshes with my own understanding is in the area of ‘indulging’ in writer’s block. Time during which I can write is precious due to Pain Management, so I cannot allow it: if I am fit, I must write. Sure, I may sometimes suffer a slowdown in creative output but with one exception the struggle is always due to the factors already mentioned: external distractions/noise (huge, these), not knowing where the novel/article is heading (research), getting bogged down (planning) or becoming too immersed it upsets my sleeping patterns (which leads to pain) and, of course, pain, about which I can do nothing but apply Pain Management techniques.

That means my work pattern often switches from planning to writing, back to planning and outwards to writing, again (though planning is as much part of the writing process as research, I find).  The others are sometimes solved by taking a break from the major task for a while and doing something else – 100,000 words is quite an intensive load, after all. Writing exercises are one thing, but I am goal-oriented so prefer to couple such exercise with something else, such as a flash fiction or short story competition or a blog entry.  Even organising the Shipton Shorts competition is a useful exercise. The advantage is that the competition entries also act as a repository for story ideas that can later be developed, as well as being a dump for distracting plots as well as being a constructive output for exercise.

I don’t always enter what I write, of course. The purpose is to clear my head of distractions, after all. But doing so helps get me back on track: ideas for the major project of the moment fall back into place and are often jotted down whilst I take the sidetrack. It may even be that I discard the sidetrack and come back to the main project. Whatever the case, I return to the main project really quickly, often with more energy and solidified ideas. For me, the point is that writing time cannot be wasted, that when it is available, I use it constructively. Distractions have to be minimised.

I just look forward to when the kitchen is finished. Focus will be much easier.

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