Writing Essentials–No Distractions IV

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. All those distractions that I’ve been writing about? Aren’t they all too often just a mask for the real issues, the distractions that originate from deep within ourselves? These are the ones that we are not admitting, are not facing. What’s often really going on is pure avoidance. We just can’t bring ourselves to face our work. Avoidance can come from many causes. Fear–of failure, of not measuring up, of exposure, of rejection–is common. My own avoidance comes mostly from dread of hard work. Because writing is most definitely hard work, even when it’s fun.

cagesAvoidance can also arise from a distaste for one’s current project. That may be a sign that the project should be shelved. Since writing is hard work, you should at least be working on something that engages you.  Entire rooms of books have been written on fear and other causes of procrastination. I can’t add anything to the help they might provide in overcoming the emotional roadblocks to our progress. What I will suggest, even urge, is this: locate the Christopher Fowler short story “The Cages.” It’s included in his collection Personal Demons. The story is a chilling and brilliant allegory for how we sabotage ourselves. For anyone who has ever wondered in dismay, “how did things end up like this?” this story gives an answer.

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Writing Essentials, No Distractions–III

sleepyWe’ve all been there. Ready (we think) to write, when we notice we’re (pick one) hungry, cold, itchy, achy, sleepy, hot or thirsty. Yet, there have also been times when I’ve been in “the zone” and any minor physical distractions have faded away. A couple of hours later, I’ll come out of my trance to realize I haven’t eaten in hours or that my back is aching and I need to stretch. In addition to physical irritants, there are the environmental ones. The garbage trucks roaring and rumbling down the street. Poor lighting. The message light blinking on the answering machine. Yet again, there are times when I have been in the throes of what I know is good work and I’ve become oblivious to a loud party in the next room. It’s all too easy to let annoyances become excuses for putting off our work. But they don’t necessarily have to be. A gripping idea, a looming deadline or a short window of opportunity to write can help us push through or ignore temporary discomforts. Barring those incentives, just start. Those distractions will always, always beset us. Fix them if you can, without, say, insisting that only a five course meal will do. Put on a sweater or open a window. Then just start. Procrastination, for any reason, all too easily becomes a habit, a pattern of behavior. At some point, despite whatever delays or annoyances we have, we just have to start.

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Writing Essentials I–No Distractions II

flyUnless you can retreat to a mountain cabin (and even if you do), there will be the danger of distractions. Even in the mountain cabin, there will be a buzzing fly or an aching tooth. Many writers like to work in a café or a library, to get away from ringing phones, pets and family members, who, as much as they love you, just don’t get it. That sometimes works for me. Truth is, I prefer the comforts of working at home. But, lordy, that’s where the distractions are everywhere, and sprout constantly. Yet, even at home, there are environmental changes I’ve come up with (some on the advice of friends) that, small as they are, have made a substantial difference in my ability to focus.

  1. I hid the Freecell icon. This is crucial.
  2. Each morning, I put my office trash can out in the hall, so when my superb husband goes around gathering up the trash, he doesn’t even have to enter the room.
  3. I got a standard wire in-basket. There I place every single to-do item that can wait. I used to leave them on my desk, where they constantly reminded me of little chores that needed attention. I had them on my desk because I was afraid I would forget about them if I hid them away. With the basket, I always know where they are, but they are still contained away from the work space. I can work without the nagging fear that I’ll forget to pay the cable bill or answer an invitation. Later, after work is done, I can go through the contents of the basket and deal with the pile-up.

My tendency had been to try to ignore those petty and almost imperceptible distractions, trying to believe I shouldn’t be bothered by them. Now I know it’s better to recognize them and find a way around them. Little things can make a big difference.


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Writing Essentials I — No Distractions

thumbnail_IMG_20170618_163810328 cat (2)My cat is old now and after his breakfast and a bit of play time, I can count on him to settle down in his basket by the window. But then, after a while, he wakes up and seeks me out to demand petting time. I’ve learned that, writing or not, I may as well give in. He will win. He always wins. He has his ways–persistence, pestering, entitlement, confidence, or simple obstruction. He’s predictable in his habits (aren’t we all) and I’ve learned from experience that the interruption will only last for 20 minutes or so. Still, it’s hard to regain momentum, to recapture where I was in my writing when I was forced to leave off. Life is full of such challenges. That will never change. It’s up to us writers to figure out how to deal with them.

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The List–For Now

There’s something artificial about any numbered list of “bests.” Criteria are fluid and subjective. You can cheat by allowing for “ties” and end up with more than the stated number. Or heck just make it the “50 best” say, rather than the 10 best or whatever. My own list of 10 all time favorite novels is constantly changing. I add new ones as I read them. I remember ones from the past that need to be included. But, for what it’s worth, here’s the list as it stands right now, in NO particular order.



Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keys

night flight


Night Flight, Antoine de St. Exupéry

tree brooklin


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith





color purple


The Color Purple, Alice Walker


age of innocence


The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton


The Circle


The Circle, Dave Eggers



The Wall 2


The Wall, John Hersey


grapes of wrath


The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck


Pere Goriot


Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac



cry beloved


Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton




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No Comparison Part III

Ivan IlychHaving made all those comments encouraging each of us not to compare ourselves with other writers, I admit to being the worst offender. It seems to be human nature to do this, and maybe there’s not really much we can do to control it in ourselves. In “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Tolstoy (that genius) writes “. . . the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, ‘it is he who is dead and not I.'” (Emphasis mine.)

DesiderataMy favorite quote in relation to making comparisons, however, is from “Desiderata,” Max Ehrmann’s classic poem. “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself.” In fact, nearly every line of this poem can be taken as advice for writers. It’s worth re-reading from that perspective, interpreting those lines as advice to authors. Try it.

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No Comparison, Part II

love machineThere is a famous incident about Jacqueline Susann. She was on an episode of The David Frost Show, which aired on July 16, 1969, promoting her novel The Love Machine. After a discussion of Susann’s appeal and business tactics, a critic, John Simon, spoke up. He demanded to know whether Susann was trying to write art or trash. Jackie did the best she could to counteract his apparently hostile challenge and the exchange became heated and snarling. What I wished then, and now, is that someone had brought up the obvious point. Those are not the only two choices and I refuse to be trapped into thinking they are. I refuse to accept what is a false dichotomy. John Simon, it seemed to me, was just trying to create a stir. Whether he intended to hurt Ms. Susann, I have no idea. But I would have wanted to ask him, “Okay, in which category do you place Kipling? Douglas Adams? Maeve Binchy? But mostly, why is there a need for categories at all?” compareVery few of us writers will end up in the same class as either, say, Toni Morrison on the one hand or [fill in the name of some trashy writer here] on the other. There’s a ton of great writing out there in between the extremes that will never win the Pulitzer or the Nobel but is still worthy and entertaining. My last post counseled all of us writers not to compare our output with others. Likewise we need to avoid denigrating the quality of our own work by wishfully comparing ourselves to Jane Austen or Philip Roth. I had a writer acquaintance a few years ago who had a very successful career writing romance novels. Yet she fell short of her own ambitions. “The novel I wish I could write is ord pepe 3Ordinary People [by Judith Guest].” Meanwhile, most of her friends would have killed to have had her level of success. Sure, we all want to be the best writers we can be. But writing quality, like quantity, is all on a continuum and we each have our place on it.

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