Dealing with Distractions as a Writer

I have had a problem since I started writing seriously in high school, and that problem is called computers.

I’m part of a dying generation of people who had to build their computers from the ground up, learning how to operate one of these machines back when DOS was the only option for filesystem activities. Come to think of it, the only thing you really could do was create, update, and delete files.

Times were simpler back then. (But hey, isn’t that what every generation says?)

Windows came along and I taught myself ANSI C from a book I got from the library down the street. This was just when I started high school. I was convinced I would be a computer programmer (a game developer, more specifically), and I spent the next four years learning C, C++, OpenGL, DirectX, and who knows what else.

Eventually I got into PHP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, and then the world changed and now here I am with PowerShell, Node, Go, Ruby, Java, JavaScript, C++17, and C# that I use at some point every month. If I did a count I would say I am proficient in about 24 different computer languages or paradigms, and use probably 3-5 on a day-to-day basis.

If my goal in life was to leave behind a bunch of programs and software that will be out-dated as soon as I’m dead, then these all might be great things to know. But the truth of the matter is that I don’t really care about the things I build with these tools–I really don’t. I only care about the process. I love solving complex puzzles, I love teaching people how to build and use tools, and I love creating technical documentation for code that helps people be more productive. But I really don’t care about what I am building, only that I am building.

The process of programming is exciting, and it’s also the #1 distraction I deal with in my writing. I know that the stories matter. I know that nothing survives but the stories. I also know that there is no greater skill, no greater thing we can leave to future generations than great stories that we tell. But for some reason I am constantly drawn away from my art and toward the complex architecture of computer information systems design and tool-building. I don’t know why. I’m not sure I care to know why. These hobbies, these distractions, are things that I just live with, and I know I’m not the only one.

Part of me wonders if distractions like this are actually our subconsciousness begging our frontal cortex for some time to process. There is some support to the argument that sleep is a necessary function to solving difficult problems that require a lot of mental processing power, and most of us know that feeling of being mired in a plot hole and then waking up to an out of focus (but still there) solution. Maybe distractions like programming are my brain’s way of letting my conscious mind focus on something else while my subconscious mind “sleeps on it.”

Or maybe I’m confounding two things. Distractions may be necessary to take the mental processing power away from our problem for a short period of time, while sleeping is meant to make improvements to the mental computer inside our skulls to help solve these types of problems better and more efficiently in the future. This idea supports the hypothesis that may new writers hate hearing: it takes about ten years to really start your writing career. That’s not just ten years to write things that form your portfolio (although that’s important, too); that’s ten years to train your brain to think about the types of macro- and microscopic thought threading necessary to be a successful writer.

Our natural destination here is writer’s block. Are distractions meant to steer us out of the hole that is writer’s block? Or are they actually a subconscious strategy to keep working on the problem while doing something else? Perhaps it has more to do with what you’re being distracted by than that you’re being distracted. If you find yourself wasting 30 minutes scrolling through shitposts on social media, maybe that’s bad distraction, whereas if you find yourself writing something else, storytelling in some other way, perhaps that’s a type of productive distraction that our hustle-and-bustle work-till-you-die economy forgets about.

When talking about writer’s block we also have to talk about productivity, because we as writers are measured not on the depth of our internal struggles but on the product of those struggles. I’m talking about word counts. If we aren’t churning out the words, then we aren’t writers. After all, writer’s write. (I’m a firm believer, by the way, in that being the ONLY advice necessary to new writers). If we’re being distracted from writing, is it a distraction that still allows us to workout or storytelling muscles? If it is, then maybe–just maybe–the word “distraction” isn’t appropriate. Just like when you go to the gym and workout several muscle groups at once, maybe writer’s block and distractions are actually just our brain’s way of “working out” different mental muscle groups for a more fuller mental health.

Thinking about the lack of productivity while I am distracted as a beneficial thing instead of it being something that is stalling my word count goals (even though it technically is) does help. The whole adage of taking ten years to develop a writing career really is something I think we all need to remind ourselves, especially in these times where we are constantly pressured to churn out more stuff faster all the time. It’s work work work all the time! And the sick part is, we reward this type of behavior. We need to stop. We need to sit back and take a breath, and give ourselves smaller word count goals. Smaller monthly goals. Of course those of us who are writing for a living and paying the bills exclusively with our writing income cannot afford to slow down; we are mired with the unique challenge of having to churn out content as fast as possible while subconsciously working on our own storytelling.

But we’ll get our stories written and we’ll get our goals met if we just give ourselves permission to not keep up with the appearances of today’s output-worshipping culture. We can have a very productive day without any tangible outcomes. Ironically, it’s called being a writer. So help me flip the script. Give yourself and your writer friends permission to have some days where you aren’t berating yourself for missing word count goals. Maybe you only wrote a sentence; maybe only a few words. As long as you were thinking about your story, consciously or subconsciously, I really do think that it’s still being written–just in your head and in a way that your conscious mind is still figuring out.

If you find yourself getting distracted and not writing, stop and listen to your body. What’s going on? Are you still thinking about your story when you stare at a blank wall? Are you mindlessly turning off your brain because you’re wiped out (that’s okay to do, you know) or are you working out storytelling muscles in a different way? You wouldn’t do bicep curls to work out your calves, so of course working out different storytelling muscles isn’t going to look like writing words.

Dealing with distractions as a writer may be as simple as reframing the distractions as either working out different storytelling muscles or just cooling off. It’s okay to do both; sometimes you need to just think about nothing. Go shoot a bad guy in your video games. Go for a run. Go listen to that awful podcast your friend recommended. But you should always remember how to workout your storytelling muscles when you’re not actively working on your stories. Read a book. Read several books. Write flash fiction in a genre you don’t normally write in. Play interactive fiction games. Change your format; if you write novels, write a short screenplay. Watch some shows and try to think about plot structure and character development. You can be productive without making a product. Give yourself permission to flex your mental muscles sometimes.

And for the love of everything in the universe, never stop creating.

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