Sometimes the most ideal writing conditions still don’t produce work. How do different types of creative distraction manifest, and how can they be overcome?
It is 4 a.m. I am up, but nobody else seems to be. My wife, Rachel, and dog will sleep until the alarm goes off. Our neighbours’ houses are dark, and the trains haven’t started for the day. I sit on the couch with a computer on my lap and a blanket around my shoulders. The only sound comes from my fingers on the keyboard.
In two hours, I will have to get dressed and leave for work. At work, my colleagues often look at me incredulously when I say I am writing a book. ‘How do you fit your writing in with your teaching and the rest of your life?’ they ask.
It is a difficult question to answer. I internalise everything, so it is hard not to read between the lines. I worry that what they are actually saying is: ‘It isn’t possible to do it all. You must be doing something wrong.’
I can write even when children are crying and families are yelling at each other. I can write from all sorts of locations, even somewhere awful or distressing, like an amusement park or a hospital bed. I can write on the toilet and in the bath. I can write when I’m ecstatic and, sometimes, when I’m depressed.
It hasn’t always been this way; I used to be distracted by everything. Every sound grated on my nerves, and every emotion switched off my imagination. This changed about a year ago, when I travelled to France.
My friend Elizabeth and I had attended a two-week memoir-writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed in Chamonix, Mont Blanc. I was a longtime reader of Cheryl’s ‘Dear Sugar’ column on The Rumpus, which I read with awe and admiration, and when her memoir, Wild, came out I became hooked on her writing. But despite the workshop with my inspiring teacher and classmates, which took place with a backdrop of the Alps that strongly resembled those in The Sound of Music, I struggled with my writing.
We spent our workshops learning the craft of memoir, writing in response to prompts, examining excerpts from writers such as JoAnne Beard, David Foster Wallace and Pam Houston, asking questions about everything from writing techniques to publishing our work, and workshopping our own nonfiction.
I found the latter intimidating to a level I hadn’t previously imagined possible. I had completed a degree in writing years earlier, so I knew what workshops involved. Perhaps it was the idea of Cheryl Strayed reading my writing that caused such anxiety.
When we were given a prompt, I wrote copious responses, but did not volunteer to share my writing. I was still new to nonfiction, which made me reluctant to delve into an intensely personal memory, transform it into a roughly written scene, and share it with eager classmates.
I found workshops intimidating to a level I hadn’t previously imagined possible.
Sometimes we were given a prompt to work on outside of class. These were often the most difficult, including one that truly stumped me: Write the truth about something you haven’t wanted to write. So back at the apartment I had rented with Elizabeth I attempted to respond.
I had sat on my bed (since French ski chalets don’t come with desks, just plenty of snow gear and framed portraits of alpine skiers) and tried to get into the flow. Nothing came, except some flat sentences. I even typed myself a piteous note. I went into the kitchen and retrieved a block of cheese from the fridge. That didn’t help, either. I stared out the living room window at the mountains and glacier. They made me wish I had signed up for the fiction workshop, where our scenic surrounds could easily become part of a story.
Eventually, the sun set, and I decided then to create the writer’s dream workspace. One so perfect that I even took a photo to drool over later when I returned to Australia. I went out to the balcony with a glass of wine, a bowl of olives, and my notebook, set up in front of the view, and started to write. Surely being tipsy would help with a painful prompt?
But as I discovered during the workshop in the Alps, it wasn’t just the working space that was proving to be a problem. Memoir writing can be heavy, so avoidance does not only seem tempting at times but essential. I was writing about topics that included my sexuality and gender identity, the death of my grandparents, the bullying I had experienced throughout my schooling, and my mental health. It was easy to convince myself that I needed – no, deserved – a break.
As well as socialising during those weeks at the workshop, I procrastinated by taking long hikes in the wilderness looking for ibexes. At one point I ran off a mountain in a tandem paraglider with a Frenchman.
There was the constant lure of the internet, too. I missed Rachel, and my family and friends back in Australia. I searched for and connected to WiFi whenever I got the chance. When I sat down to write, it seemed to always coincide with the perfect time of day for Australians to be awake, online and free to talk.
It didn’t help that I was connecting with the loved ones I was also writing about. Social media can be both helpful and harmful to writers, especially those writing about their lives. There’s nothing like writing a scene and then receiving a notification that a key character is trying to chat.
Every time I had sat in a French café, drinking in free WiFi as my chocolat chaud grew cold, I felt ashamed. I couldn’t understand why I was distracting myself in a place like that, surrounded by natural beauty and quirky Alpine culture.
Eventually, the day arrived for workshopping my piece. Cheryl was a fantastic teacher, guiding the class through a gentle but critical process. She began each person’s manuscript workshopping session with the questions: ‘What did we all love about the manuscript?’ and ‘How can it be improved?’
My workshop turned out to be the most useful moment of my writing career. Cheryl and my classmates made sense of what felt like chaos, delving into the 20 pages of partial essays and vignettes that I had mashed together and submitted with my application. From these pages, they identified a piece that needed to be separated from the rest and published as an essay. More importantly, they found the start of my memoir.
I left class that day feeling thrilled and terrified of what lay ahead. It all seemed so clear, in some ways, but I also doubted my ability to write the book we had talked about.
At the end of the workshop, Elizabeth and I travelled by train to Aix en Provence, and we used the time for writing. After spending a full day travelling with no internet connection my mind was forced to work differently, shifting back to the ‘old’ way of writing. I found it comforting. I looked over my pages of notes, and at first spent some time procrastinating by shifting things around, but ultimately I wrote a significant amount of new material.
We arrived at our Airbnb in Provence, which came with a sink full of dishes and a toilet that had not been cleaned in some time. To Elizabeth’s horror, it turned out that there was no air-conditioning, either. On the plus side, I noted, there was a speedy WiFi connection. I plugged my charger into the wall and checked what I had missed since I had last been online. It wasn’t until writer’s block returned that I began to reflect on my internet habit.
I don’t want to come across as anti-technology. I disagree with the moral panics over smartphones. Of course, the internet can be a horrific time-suck: sometimes I intend to go online for one minute to look something up and find myself lost, hours later, down the rabbit hole of irrelevant browsing.
Sometimes I intend to go online for one minute to look something up and find myself lost, hours later.
It is also a source of deep inspiration; a research tool that provides access to a wealth of resources. And it can be efficient: instead of squinting at microfilms, waiting to access the heritage collections at a State Library, or digging through piles of second-hand books and spending too much money, we have instant access.
But as a writer the internet is just one of many distractions in our lives. Some of these distractions are inescapable: the needs, obligations and responsibilities associated with survival. When I’m immersed in writing, I forget what being human requires of me and go hours without remembering to eat, drink water, go to the bathroom or sleep. But when I am not immersed and want to procrastinate, I clean the house or cook an elaborate meal.
This is the real problem: finding both the time and the motivation to write for hours. There has to be enough time to truly sink into the work and become lost in it.
Back in Aix en Provence, I was sprawled on the couch in our overheated apartment. We had spent the day in Cassis, a beach close to Marseilles. We were sleepy, salty and sandy. I logged into Facebook and scrolled through people’s photographs and statuses about life back home. I felt incredibly fortunate to be in Europe, away from the stresses of everyday life.
A day earlier, we had toured the region and had seen fields of lavender and sunflowers. Even though I hadn’t written about the experience, I could feel the beauty seep through all of my senses. I wondered whether I would have been able to achieve the same growth and inspiration without the workshop or travel.
While I hadn’t been writing much since the workshop ended, I knew that everything I had absorbed during my time in the Alps was feeding my creative practice. I was waking up each morning bursting with adrenaline, inspiration and motivation, which surprised me. It had been a long time since I had felt so good.
As I reflected on this, I remembered when I first read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as a teenager. I had painstakingly written out the quote ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ and stuck it above my desk.
There are a few things I would add to Woolf’s sentence. In my case, I fell in love with and married a woman. Many writers have joked to me that they wouldn’t mind also having a loving and supportive wife. There are no gender roles in our household. I know heterosexual couples that work hard to avoid this, where both partners have the right to make decisions, and where no assumptions are made about who is responsible for which task. Then again, I know other couples where this is not the case at all. Even in 2017, the place for many women, it seems, is in the kitchen, not at the writing desk. At best, writing is considered a luxury for after midnight when the children are asleep.
Thinking about systemic issues like uneven household duties and responsibility for raising children, I judged myself for being so privileged. I didn’t have children distracting me from my writing. I could afford to travel and, most importantly, chose to remove myself from my responsibilities and obligations. Also, despite the discrimination, isolation and homophobia I often experienced as a queer woman, I love being queer. The more out and honest I am about myself, the happier I feel. This, in turn, allows me to write freely and bravely.
However, mental illness could deplete my self-confidence. I had travelled to France with depression and an anxiety disorder. I am generally high-functioning, so I am able to interact as though as I am merely shy and socially awkward, rather than suffering. Throughout the workshop in Chamonix, I had tried to act and write as though I was not depressed. The only day of the program where I didn’t feel depressed was on my workshop day because Cheryl’s feedback gave me a sense of confidence and hope. On the other days, I felt worthless, and berated myself for having flown all the way there. So when I am struggling with depression and anxiety, being a writer can require a level of energy I am often not able to access.
The more out and honest I am about myself, the happier I feel. This, in turn, allows me to write freely and bravely.
A few days before we left Provence, we went to see Cézanne’s last studio. After locals informed us that the walk would involve a steep hill, we flagged a taxi, which turned out to be a welcome reprieve from the stifling 34-degree day.
The studio is listed on the official tourist map of Aix en Provence, and in all the guidebooks. I had read a bit about Cézanne, including the fact that he was shy and rather hostile to other artists. He worked in his studio daily from early morning to evening, only stopping to dine in town.
His studio was small and crowded. It contained a ladder, drawers filled with old photographs, fake fruit, a plaster cast cupid, and vases, bottles, pots and plates, all of which Cézanne used for his still-life paintings. The items had been arranged and curated lovingly; it felt like Cézanne had invited us into his home. The room reminded me of my grandparents’ homes, now long gone, decorated with art and tchotchkes.
After we finished examining these items, we headed downstairs to sit in the garden. Cicadas chirped from surrounding trees. Upstairs, I had noticed the unique light pouring into the room despite the drawn blinds. Cézanne was fortunate to have the natural world serving as paint, palette and canvas, and sitting on a bench in the garden I felt a peace and stillness I hadn’t realised had been missing.
Since my trip to France, I often think back to my travels, and especially the places that reverberate with solitude, peace, and reverence for nature and light. It can be so hard to find the mental clarity and concentration at home, surrounded by all the objects that you associate with stress and everyday life.
Many people tell me that the only place they get work done now is on an aeroplane, and they attribute this to the usual lack of an internet connection. If we are so desperate for this space to work without online connection, why do we salivate over WiFi?
I’ve heard others worry that technology stops us from being ‘in the moment’. This has led to a new set of commodities. Now we apparently need apps to ration our internet usage, adult colouring books and corporatised meditation sessions to keep us in the present. I have come across specialised studios for yoga and mindfulness meditation that cost an eyebrow-raising amount per month. Depending on one’s financial situation, some can afford tools that supposedly counterbalance what technology is doing to our minds. What about other people? Is a walk in the park enough to counter connectivity, distraction and stress?
Is a walk in the park enough to counter connectivity, distraction and stress?
I have heard the argument that some writers don’t need tools as they have discipline. There are organised writers who schedule every day in blocks to ensure that they spend the time needed on writing, research, administration and promotion. I know others who book a hotel room and work uninterrupted for a day or two and then return to ‘real life’.
Of course, having the financial ability to escape – whether to a hotel room or to another country – is a luxury that most don’t have. There are others who read an incredible number of books and sit alone with their thoughts, disconnected from the internet and any other source of communication, until they find that magic flow of words.
During the Chamonix workshop, there was collaboration and encouragement, which are far more important than the internet in the creative process. There was a strong work ethic, because we felt the shared urgency to write. Back in the real world, as an artist, unless you have a hot desk or fellowship, or you work as an in-house writer, you end up working alone. And while Virginia Woolf seemed to think that having money and a room is all you need, it also requires discipline and motivation that is harder in today’s competitive, interconnected world.
Working in another country, of course, had its distractions. They were simple: buying food, figuring out the language and communicating with home. The pressures of going to work and paying the bills were removed – or at least put aside to worry about later. I have tried to implement this in my writing routine back home. I put boundaries up and restrictions on my commitments, when possible, to ensure that I find the silence and stillness that makes it possible to enter that creative space. It involves saying no far more than I feel comfortable about.
When I find the time and space to work, usually early in the morning, late at night or on the weekend, I shut down my social media apps. I play music that helps me move into the right mental state for the piece I’m writing.
Another simple solution is one that most writers are lectured about early on in their career. Keep reading. If technology is distracting me from reading, I find ways to use technology to promote reading. If reading seems hard, it’s possible my brain has atrophied from constant Snapchatting, then shut off the outside world and find a way in. As Jeanette Winterson says, ‘The language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.’ We need to become more familiar with the unfamiliar. I read writing that moves and inspires me. This may seem obvious, but I still hear writers sheepishly admit that they aren’t reading enough.
Six months after the trip, I was commissioned to write a piece. It was difficult enough to write, since I wasn’t coping and had low motivation levels. Procrastination, avoidance and distraction had turned out to be more serious than I understood back in France. I was determined enough to manage to write the piece in the end, but couldn’t bring myself to promote it after it was published, despite knowing I was expected to share it. I didn’t even tell my wife that my piece had been published; she eventually found it online.
As I begin working on the final chapters of my memoir, I think back to many of the lessons learnt in France. I remind myself that my classmates, and Cheryl Strayed, thought that my story is worth telling. I mull over the way I struggled to push past the depression to write, and how much that wounded me at the time.
Procrastination, avoidance and distraction had turned out to be more serious than I understood back in France.
Now I put a lot of time and effort into maintaining stable mental health. As I speak to agents and publishers, I think about the effort that goes into looking like writing is easy. Or, if not easy, achievable. I wonder how published authors manage to converse on talk shows or at writers’ festivals looking breezy and confident, as though writing their book didn’t cause something inside to rupture and break.
In Cheryl Strayed’s most famous ‘Dear Sugar’ column, she replied to Elissa Bassist, who was then an emerging (and struggling) writer. In her fierce response to Bassist’s letter about being depressed and worried about failure, Strayed says:
As my 30th birthday approached, I realized that if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you ‘have it in you’ is to get to work and see if you do.
Writing can be, and usually is, a struggle. It makes sense that we seek distraction, a way to escape pain and suffering.
Maybe we can, though, ultimately work with WiFi connected. Maybe we don’t need to do what Jonathan Franzen told a reporter he did, which was to remove his WiFi card from his computer and block his Ethernet cord with a broken cable. Maybe we can use the internet to connect to our communities – the eccentric, obscure, beautiful people whose hearts beat fast over the same things – and inspire ourselves to find the silence and stillness inside ourselves.