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You’re sitting there, steaming cup of tea next to you, several hours blocked out for writing and…no words are coming. Worse, you can’t even seem to settle enough to get to any words.
What’s going on?
There is an obvious check-list to look at, the one involving emotional and physical issues: are you going through a very stressful time such as the death of someone close to you or a divorce or is someone you love seriously ill? It could be something less dire, like you’re afraid emotionally to go where you need to go in your story.
But there are many more times when none of these things are the case and we still feel like we can’t quite grab the writing gods by the tail. Here is a list of things we might not notice, but which can actually have a serious effect on our ability to sit and concentrate:
Having to go to the bathroom: Yes, this sounds funny, but I have noticed that if I have to pee, I have about a third the patience I usually have. I find myself trying to hurry through first-draft writing or letting things pass in editing I would ordinarily stop and work on because there just seems to be some sort of hurry to get somewhere… Why? My body is sending a constant “Hey—hurry up and get to the bathroom” signal. In my less-body-conscious, “get writing done” state, this translates as “I need to be getting through this page as quickly as possible.” You’d be amazed how fast focus returns after a bathroom visit. (And don’t get me started on sitting there being too hot or too cold…put on a sweater! Or take one off!)
Sitting too long in one position: Aches and pains sneak up on us. The longer we sit in one position, the more our bodies start to whisper, then grumble, then shout. Don’t wait for the shout. Get up every so often and swing your arms and walk around the room. Recent research in creativity shows that taking a short break every 20 minutes to let your mind wander around (not on the internet) and let your body move actually improves retention of information and allows the mind to make connections it otherwise wouldn’t make—like how the vase you spontaneously added in scene 4 now plays a pivotal symbolic role in scene 16 that you hadn’t even considered. Set your timer for 20 minutes and let your brain go on walkabout.
Hunger: Of course we know when we’re hungry. But more important than that is what our bodies do the longer we go without eating. We only have a limited amount of energy before we have to refuel. As we run out, the body starts sending that energy to higher and higher priority systems. No matter how it feels to us, writing a novel is not high on the survival scale. Our brains start to drift, we lose focus on our themes and character arcs and plot points and soon we’re writing that crap we know we’re going to have to re-write extensively later. Better to stop and eat even just a banana than push ourselves to some word or time goal at the expense of our story.
What You Eat: But wait! Don’t just eat anything when you’re hungry. This is a huge topic, but believe me when I say everything you eat affects your brain. What you eat before you try and sit down to write may affect you more than anything else on this list short of water (addressed soon!). Instead of trying to discuss all the things that negatively affect your ability to concentrate (short short list: simple carbohydrates like sugar, foods made with white flour, candy, soda, packaged cereals, etc. or foods with MSG, nitrites, nitrates, or other neurotoxic ingredients), here are some great brain foods you can eat that will support your writing. Look for complex carbohydrates that take longer to digest and don’t spike blood sugar the way the simple carbohydrates do: Fish, cottage cheese, vegetables, beans, chicken (organic), potatoes, yams, whole grains (brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and millet to name a few), dried apricots, bananas, plain yogurt, carrots. Have a meal (not a huge one) based on complex carbs and then hit the desk!
To-Do Items: writing writing writing writing dang it I have to get printer ink pause…refocus…writing writing writing what was it I had to get? Think think think think give up refocus refocus refocus kind of writing kind of writing Printer ink! Yes! And I have to get a new car no writing happening
I don’t know what your to-do lists look like, but if they’re floating around in your head and you’re trying to remember them over and over, they’re taking up valuable writing-connection space. Albert Einstein said he didn’t memorize his home phone number. One reason was because it was easy to look up and he didn’t want to waste brain space he could be using thinking about what he needed to be thinking about. It’s the same for us—you need to be thinking about your book, not re-remembering the things you need to do later.
Have a piece of paper next to you and when you think of something, write it down and get it out of your head, where all it’s doing is poking your story like that annoying kid next to you in the school assembly in fifth grade who thought he was soooo funny, and he wanted to make sure you heard every non-funny thing he whispered, and…writes on notepad next to article…
Noise: Obvious, right? Sure, if the noise is happening right when you sit down. But what about if you’re really deep in your story and then the noise starts? You may only be aware of it the way you would a gnat buzzing around your head, but that gnat is going to derail your story if you keep giving it even a part of your attention.
Try adding white noise—a fan or one of those cool radios that play forest scenes or water or something if you’re working at home or, if you’re in a café, break out the headphones and pick a song to put on repeat. The repeat part is key—the more you’ve heard the song, the more your brain relegates it to the background, where it masks that annoying business guy sitting across from you having a conference call in a café. Really? What is he thinking?
Water: Much like having to go to the bathroom and being hungry, the body also has a signal for when it needs water. But this signal can be much more dire. It is no exaggeration to say that the body runs on water. The neurochemicals in the brain are transported on water. The electrical connections in the muscles, including the heart, depend on water. All your hormones are transported in water. You can’t flush toxins without water. Blood pressure is dependent on having enough water to transport red and white blood cells and platelets. And that’s a very short list of how much the body depends on water.
So when we’re thirsty, our body sends us a very powerful message that all is not well. But not many people know what this message feels like. Yes, we will get a headache, but that’s like saying “Don’t worry about the horses getting out of the barn until they’re actually running by you in the driveway.” There are many earlier signals—one I notice is a strange tightness in my throat. In fact, if you find your brain wandering when you really are trying to concentrate, try drinking water first.
It will take about 20-30 minutes for your body to absorb it and send it where it needs to go, so you might actually want to drink water before you even sit down to write, and keep drinking it regularly throughout your time. Water, more than anything else, is the key to a full-functioning brain.
The next time you find yourself struggling at the keyboard, take a quick look through this list and try a few of the things on it. Hopefully, you’ll be back up and running in no time!
I love reading books about writing. I love workshops. I love classes and seminars. I love being in a room with other writers, learning a fresh new way to bring my stories to life on the page.
What I don’t love is how I feel about pretty much everything I’ve ever written after said books, workshops, classes, and seminars. Why? Because here I am in a class, untying the knot of my writing and realizing not just that something is not working in a scene, but finally understanding why it’s not working. Then I realize the thing that’s not working in that scene is why this scene, and this one, and oh this one too, isn’t working. It’s systemic!
One of the most important things we do as writers is continue to learn our craft. As much art as there is on the page, there is just as much, if not more, craft helping to bring that art to a new level. So this isn’t an article about scrapping classes and seminars because we as writers need these forays into the depths of our ability to create.
It’s about what we do when we know there’s a problem with a work we thought was finished, a problem we now know how to fix.
Eager interviewer: “Do you ever read your books after they’ve been published?”
Author (face resembling that of someone attempting to be nice to a person who has set a plate of drowned worms in front of them and encouraged them to “eat up”): “Well, you know…no.”
Internal Author response: “It is very clear to me that you have never, not once, had something published. Because if you had, you would know that the idea of re-reading something when there is no way I can fix all the thousands of things I would find wrong with it would fall somewhere lower on the list than cleaning beneath my car seats with my tongue. And I have a toddler. And a dog.”
We have a job where nothing is ever truly finished, in the sense of “Well, that’s absolutely as good as it’s ever going to get, and at no time in the future will I ever think it could be any better.” But obviously books get turned in and published. Where do you halt the re-writes within the realm of “never really finished”?
There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground in the answers I’ve gotten to this question from writer friends, and these are writers with successful careers and, in some cases, NYT bestsellers under their belts. Pretty much all of them say “Use what you’ve learned in your class in your next book. Turn the ‘finished’ one in.”
90% of me totally and completely agrees with them.
It’s that 10% that keeps screaming and throwing trash cans across the alley under my window at two in the morning. That 10% is the worst soccer fan on the planet.
So I re-write.
But why does that 10% win out over the very wise and correct thinking of the 90%? Because I know I’m not alone here.
A writer friend recently said she’s come to believe people who teach workshops don’t teach them to show writers how to be better writers—they teach them to get the writers to come to the next workshop. We laughed and we certainly don’t think that’s the sole motivation of teachers the workshop-world over, but that feeling in writers, that “There’s still something wrong with this story” feeling that does drive us to take classes forever, whatever that feeling is is very, very real and is much more responsible for many seminar sign-ups than anything else. It’s also what drives all these re-writes.
Turns out this article isn’t about the dilemma we face every time we learn something new about writing. No, this article is really about fear. Fear of turning something in that isn’t perfect, that someone could find fault in, that could get rejected, which we could see coming, because see all those flaws?!
That may be the biggest reason why nothing is ever “done.”
So to re-write or not to re-write?
The answer to that question doesn’t lie in what we do or don’t know about our craft. It isn’t found in our finally reaching such a pinnacle of perfection we disappear in a pink cloud of enlightenment.
It lies in the ability to say “This is good enough” and to be satisfied in that.
And the most important part of that sentence is not “good enough”—it’s “satisfied.”
There’s so much work to do behind that one word. It doesn’t mean “settle” or “I can’t make this piece any better”; it doesn’t have anything to do with the piece. “Satisfied” means “I am happy with who I am as a writer.” That is a crucial distinction. I may never be satisfied with a certain piece—it may need more work on the theme, the emotional arc, whatever. But I can be dissatisfied with a piece and still be satisfied with myself as the creator of that piece.
Fear is necessary, because it’s what drives us to write better and better stories. But there needs to be a healthy balance between fear and satisfaction and there are times when it’s out of balance. At those times, and we all find ourselves there, we have to look outside the piece, outside ourselves as writers, and root out the source of the fear.
When you do that, you’ve added yet another dimension to your ability to tell stories. The saying over the entrance to the temple of the Oracle at Delphi said “Know thyself.” Knowing the depth of our fears is the source of the depth in our stories. And creating a story with depth is truly satisfying.
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