One of the things, as a writer, that causes me the most distress is my monumental lack of focus. I recently wrote a post that dealt with the things I do prior to getting ready to write for the day. A large portion of that preparatory time is spent doing everything in the world but actually preparing to write. I’m more or less okay with this, because this is, technically, how I prepare. I hate most of that paragraph, but that’s basically the story. I get ready to write by doing nothing that really helps me get ready, but then I start doing it, so it’s all good.
The real problem, and the thing that starts stirring up the anxiety, is the loss of focus while actually writing. I’ll be bombing along and suddenly I’m like Dug, from the move Up when he sees a squirrel.
The next time I’m aware of what I’m doing, what I’ve done, a half-hour or so has been frittered away and meanwhile I’ve left Robin Berry in mid-sentence. (Oh, you don’t know who Robin Berry is? Stay tuned!) Can you imagine talking and right in the middle of a sentence just stopping for thirty minutes before the next word?
My characters know that pain well.
So, having identified a problem, how do I deal with it? That’s the real question. Over the years I’ve come to understand a lot of things that I’ve done wrong, or worse, am actively doing wrong. And over the years I’ve grown weary of my ability to spot the problems with no real inclination to do a damn thing about them.
Here is where serendipity comes into play. Because at just about the same time I became fed up with my lack of focus while writing, my wife told me about Breethe. It’s a guided mediation app. The issue at the time was that I was having trouble getting to sleep (again). There is a whole subsection on the app dedicated to exactly that.
If the concept of guided mediation is unfamiliar to you, let me offer this brief explanation. The mediation exercises on the app feature a calm, soothing voice, very often the voice of one of the founders of the app, a woman named Lynne Goldberg, whose voice, for me at least, is perfectly suited to guiding me into mindfulness. She will basically give gentle instructions on what to concentrate upon, while giving guidance and affirmation targeted on the specific issue you are hoping to do better at, whether it be sleeping, as in my case, or overcoming anxiety or becoming more successful in your endeavors.
And right away, as soon as I started using it… again for the specific purpose of getting to sleep… I began to notice one thing in particular. Built into every exercise I did was the realization that focus drifts. So at multiple times during the exercise Lynne reminds me that If my mind wanders all I need to do is acknowledge that it’s done so, and bring my focus back to the exercise.
Obviously, the same trick can be used while writing. If I’ve stopped writing because an Instagram notice from someone I like pops up, and I’ve gone to look and then posted a reply and then checked to see if my last post has gotten any likes… and suddenly the hour count has risen, but the word count hasn’t.
Rather than curse myself out, uttering the famous words, spoken I’m sure by every writer at some point (or multiple points), “Well, I just can’t get my head in the game today. Loser. Might as well give up!” I just say, “Hmm. Lost focus. Back to work now.“
One of the keys in the process, as reinforced in every meditation on the site, is that there’s no judgment necessary when focus drifts. The process is simply to acknowledge that the drift occurred and to turn focus back to the task at hand. In the meditation it might be to concentrate on the flow of my breathing, or a mental scan of my body to identify any sensations, either positive or negative.
In the writing it means that Robin can finally finish her sentence.
Anyone who’s hung around here at the blog for any length of time should know that I shy away from giving advice to anyone, let alone other writers. I live by a “You be you,” credo in that regard. But today I’m offering not one but two nuggets thereof. Here goes.
#1 Consider trying a guided meditation. If you don’t want to subscribe to an meditation app, most offer a free version or a free trial of the full version. And if you’re wonky about free trials (like the author) you can even find some for absolutely zero bucks on YouTube.
Before we go further I want to clarify something. At various points in my life I’ve heard objections, primarily from Christian friends, to the concept of meditation. This was more of a reaction to a specific meditation discipline know as Transcendental Meditation, which is associated with Eastern Religion, and is designed to be a spiritual experience. And, of course it is widely used in Buddhism as well, also not a favorite of the average Christian.
In the evangelical community TM is considered a cult, and this is where the resistance to the word (and concept of) meditation comes in. Which is a little strange to me since the word appears frequently in the bible. However the meditation is mentioned (six times in Psalms alone, and often in the New Testament as well) in the context of thinking about God. Meditating about God. Which is a good and worthy thing to do, regardless of your faith or lack thereof. If you’re a person of faith it will give you a greater connection. If you are not, it will work as a mental exercise.
None of that has anything to do with mindfulness meditation, which is all about relaxing the body and focusing thing mind. On the surface there’s really nothing spiritual about it at all. However if done correctly, there are times when it becomes one in terms of mind, body and spirit actively working together. As your discipline increases, as your focus becomes less likely to be broken, there is often a feeling generated that seems to go beyond the physical.
#2 Your writing time is precious. For many people it is also fragile. Spouses, children, friends, and even pets will vie for your time and often the interruptions are unavoidable. Aside from the lady on the TV commercial who is essentially ignoring her bleeding daughter’s calls from off screen, most parents will answer the call of a child without thinking twice.
But without question the interruptions that will ultimately irk a serious writer more than any other will be the ones they create themselves by losing focus. You get an email notification. Then it’s a text from Aunt Mabel, who always texts in upper-case. It’s whatever event, which if we’re being honest is actually very ignorable, by which you allow yourself to be seduced away from the writing. Before you realize it’s even happened you’ve lost a chunk of the valuable commodity known as time.
And here’s the advice: Don’t beat yourself up over it. Acknowledge that it happened, that you allowed yourself to be distracted, then turn the focus back where it belongs.
In my case, since adopting this attitude and these methods I saw change for the better almost at once. The first change was that my frequent distractions became shorter in duration. I would make myself aware that I’d lost focus before the loss became total, and I’d pull myself back. The next benefit was realizing that the distractions were becoming less frequent as well.
Here’s the real motivation, for me, to maintain, and when necessary, regain my focus is a simple fact that I’ve blogged about more than once: sometimes when I write it literally makes me feel strong. Muscle-flexing strong. Like the time I dreamed that I was a professional football player. I could see myself as though I was watching on TV, and although I knew it was me, it looked nothing like me at all. In fact I was a big-as-hell African-American guy with some very kick-ass braids. I will likely never look 1/4 as cool as I did as that guy. But how I looked was the smaller part of the overall coolness of the dream, because I could also feel that body from the inside, and I knew what it felt like to be that big and that strong.
Well, when I write I feel better than that, and I’m awake when it happens.
So to sum it all up, if you’re a writer I truly recommend that you check out guided mindfulness meditation, if only to learn this focus technique. Give a listen to one and just get the gist of what they’re like.
And if you’re not a writer, I recommend it just as much. There’s no one who can’t find some benefit in learning to turn their eyes inward, to examine one’s body using the mind, and yes, the reverse as well. The body can teach the mind a lot about itself.
I no longer have any qualms about admitting that through writing I’ve essentially become my own therapist. I am completely convinced that once a person gets the chance to have as their job the one thing they were placed on this earth to do, the word “work” becomes a complete misnomer. I’m not saying every time I sit down to write it’s easy. It doesn’t always go swimmingly. But so far every tricky section has been worked through. Every character eventually becomes real to me. Every setting can easily be seen in my mind’s eye. And when I know my characters and can see my settings, it’s just a matter of time.
So, today, I leave you with these three words: