Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The brain and focusing on writing

Thanks to a blog called Brain Pickings, I often end up reading books I would never have considered or thought useful. Today I ended up buying a book called “Focus” by Daniel Goleman. Initially I read the article (by Maria Popova, whose site it is) because it was talking about how needing10,000 hours to become a master at something is a myth.

But the article led me into thinking about how that 10,000 hours needs to include practice at mastering new and higher skills, otherwise you just plateau. Of course, I can’t help relating this kind of stuff to writing and my battles with procrastination. So far, “Focus” is giving me plenty to focus on! And I thought I would share some of it.

One thing I like to do when I am struggling to write is go to a café, where I find I can write quite freely without a problem, despite the noise around me. This is discussed early in the book, where Goleman talks about attention, specifically selective attention: “the neural capacity to beam in on just one target while ignoring a staggering sea of incoming stimuli.” It explains to me why writing in a café with a multitude of small combined noises is easier than being at home with two or three bigger distractions.

He talks about attention in a lot of different ways, e.g. how new terms have evolved to describe people who can’t hold a conversation without having to check their phones at the same time. “Pizzle” is a combination of puzzled and pissed off – how you feel when someone does that to you. “Away” is any gesture that tells a person you are not interested, so checking a phone is one of these gestures. 

He also discusses the two kinds of distractions – sensory and emotional. We’re used to tuning out sensory things like cars going past our house while we read, but emotional turmoil is your life can be so distracting that you can’t pay attention to anything, let alone the work you are doing. Those who can focus best are the people who stay on an even keel and don’t let emotional disturbance distract them. If you can’t do this, you end up in loops of anxiety. A study has shown that even top athletes are affected by emotional disturbance (hence Tiger Woods and how long it has taken him to get back to top level golf - that's my theory). So if you are having trouble focusing on writing, it could be very beneficial to look at how to control emotional disturbances in your life (and also look at whether you let them over-affect you). In fact, he says “the power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.”

He goes on to look at the effect of the internet and its constant bombardment of images, information, video, audio etc at us. It’s the enemy of deep reading – and here I would add it’s probably the enemy of deep writing. The momentary/constant elements and stimulation and movement of the internet is to the detriment of our ability to focus – “the shorter our reflections the more trivial they are likely to be”. Twitter, anyone?

He describes our attention as a pipeline, one with a limited diameter – multi-tasking splits what is in the pipe so nothing gets full attention. This led me to think about how distractions and constant sidetracking affects my writing and reduces focus. One thing I think was invaluable when I did my MFA at Hamline was the monthly deadline of packets of work I had to hand in that required sustained focus to achieve on time. I have also found that doing 30-day challenges with writing friends (writing for 30 minutes each day and checking in with each other) is great for focus.

Often books come to us just when we need to read them, even if we didn’t know it beforehand! This one popped up just when I was thinking about 2015 and my writing goals, and how to get better at ordering my time and focusing on what I was doing instead of being distracted. Maybe my subconscious was on the look out for something helpful!
I’m only a quarter of the way through the book so far, but already it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of how I use my writing time – I’m just now reading the section on day-dreaming, mind wandering and creativity, for example. 

So how was your focus in reading this? Did you get all the way to the end, or were you distracted? 
(This link takes you to Goleman giving a Google talk, and the book is currently $2.95 as a Kindle ebook.)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Creating my own Nanowrimo

How many of you did Nanowrimo this year? It seemed to me that fewer people I knew tried it, but maybe that's just in my part of the world. (For those of you who don't know what this is, you sign on - for free - to write 50,000 words during the month of November - see .)

When everyone else (I imagined) was madly writing away on their novels, churning through 1668 words a day, I was ... not writing. Well, I was, but I wasn't writing fiction. I was pounding the desk and rubbing my aching head and thinking I was probably more than a tiny bit crazy, and working on my candidature document. This is a thing you have to produce about your PhD project, and then you present yourself in front of a panel who quiz you to see if you know what you're talking about. (Considering I often feel as though I am talking gibberish about all kinds of things, you can see why this was nerve-wracking.) Plus I was writing a talk about verse novels to give at a conference.

Nothing was further from my mind than fiction writing.

Actually, I lie about that. Fiction writing was right there, like a friendly dog waiting to be patted (or written). The more I tried to placate it by saying, "Soon", the snappier it got. Finally, I decided I needed to make a promise. So I told it, "I promise that on the 15th of December, you will have my absolute full attention for a whole month." And it stopped growling at me. Yes, I write poetry and I love metaphors!

Tomorrow is the 8th. I have a week in which to tidy up my life (in more ways than one - my office could be a metaphor for the Apocalypse), finish the academic reading I haven't gotten to yet so I can get those library books back before more fines descend on me, file the 80 articles I have compiled so far and then find the 15,000 words of the novel I wrote on my retreat back in August. I know I printed them out, I just have to find them (see Apocalypse, above).

But during this week I plan to do more than just tidy away all things that have been interrupting my writing for the past 2-3 months. Just knowing that in seven days I will be writing again, I'm already thinking about the novel, the characters, and the plot holes that have emerged. I'm working through new plot ideas, daydreaming about the world I've created, writing down notes, collecting ideas. I want to hit the ground running, not just show up next Monday and go - Now, where was I?

That's the problem with having to put aside a novel for a long period of time. You have to find your way back into its world again, get to know the characters, wriggle back inside your main character's skin or brain, do some "writing around the novel" to feel its wholeness and real-ness again, in order to make it real as you write it.

Once I start on the 8th, I hope to keep working every day on it (probably even Christmas Day, yes), until I have a complete first draft. I have no idea how long it will be but it's middle grade so likely to be around 55,000 words or so. I'm conducting my personal Nano at a time that suits me, with a definite goal in mind. I've done 28 day challenges quite a few times, so I know now that with plenty of thinking time included, I can write 1000-1500 words a day with momentum. That's the key - make a promise and get writing, keep up the momentum and before you know it, you have a novel!