September 19, 2018
Another entertaining piece in this occasional series by Matt about the challenges of writing… or not
There is a fly buzzing somewhere in the room. You can hear it, but you cannot see it. You stop what you are doing and turn your head away from the task at hand and attempt to search it out. Whilst looking, however, you realise the buzzing has stopped. How odd… You turn back to the task at hand, the page before you, and you consider the next move. You find that a part of you longs for it to begin again. Then you hear it. A gentle thud suggests it just dozily bumped into the window pane in an attempt to flee and thus you jerk your head to the window in a swift movement. On and on this little routine goes, this little dance between yourself and the shadow-fly. Eventually you simply abandon your task and take to searching for it. You intend to swat it, to erase it, to free your mind up. There is a slipper in your hand and you silently patrol the room on high alert. If it buzzes again you will get it.
You just wait for the buzz. It has done its job.
We all have flies in the room. Those little annoying creatures that distract us from being productive. Now, sometimes, this takes the form of an actual fly, but more often it takes the form of something else. Social media is the 21st century culprit for many people. The constant connectedness we feel, especially whilst at our computer desks, means that distraction is never more than just a double click away. The Twitter feed… the news page… the YouTube video that you were told you had to watch because it’s the funniest clip ever made and simply cannot wait. Oh, have I got any emails? No? Let me check my spam folder… Oh, I’m on Google now, let me type my name in and see what that entails…
Procrastination is not quite the same as distraction but they are cousins who get a little too close during the family Christmas dinner. To procrastinate is to actively seek out means by which to defer work, whereas distraction is the fly buzzing in your ear when you are trying to focus. It’s like being told there is a chocolate digestive hidden somewhere beneath the water biscuits.
I will admit I have fallen prey to both, like most of us have. Even writing this piece, I have procrastinated by scouring Spotify for the perfect soundtrack to writing, and have been distracted by the sounds of Richie Rich playing on the television in the next room. While I can close the door to Richie Rich (thankfully) there are other distractions that are trickier to shut out. There is the constant desire to have a break, to begin reading my book, or to make a cup of coffee. All serve the same function in delaying the time I have to sit down and write this piece.
So what advice can I give to people in the modern age who wish to minimalise distraction? Whilst procrastination is something that cannot be advised upon easily (it’s simply a mindset), there are means I take to reduce the amount of distraction while I write. I still procrastinate, but I know I’ve done my best to ensure that when I do, I cannot blame anyone but my own ping-ponging attention span.
1) WRITING SETUP. When I write, I use a program that utilises a full screen mode. Word has a full screen mode, but there are still distractions, even then. You have banners inviting you to fiddle with font type and size, to adjust spacing between the lines and to even change the font colour for crying out loud. No, these are not what I want to be staring at me, winking their devilish winks and luring me into distraction. I am writing this with Ulysses, which is a markdown software which aims to make writing solely about the words. You have to go through two different menu clicks before you can change anything other than font size (and even that is simply a keyboard shortcut and not a glowing neon button). When in full screen mode, the whole of my screen is black and white, the page and the words. There are no windows, the internet may as well be a distant memory, out of reach. Now, when I write, I am simply as one with the words.
2) BACKGROUND SOUNDS. I find it very difficult to write in complete silence. I think most people do. This is why so many aspiring novelists tuck themselves away in coffee-shops; the clattering of mugs, the generic hum of conversation and the burr of the coffee grinder stop your own thoughts from creeping in, making you less self aware of what you are doing. And, if I have learned anything, if a writer pauses for even a second to consider that they are actually writing, they halt, like the bee who was wondered how she could fly and then fell from the sky. Any one of these sounds, isolated, could be a problem, but melded, their sweet cacophony produces an almost zen-like environment, and you find yourself sinking down, away from awareness, and you lose yourself.
I appreciate that not all writers can, or even want to, do this. At almost three quid a pop, that would make writing your novel fuelled by coffee-shop visits a bankrupting endeavour. Fear not, because there are means by which to aid this, and not all of them, thankfully, rely on you actually having to fire up the internet. You can, of course, go to YouTube and search for rainstorm music, or anything like that, but there are apps (some free, others very cheap) which you can fire up which emulate a variety of soothing situations. The one I use, Noizio, has adjustable bars for ‘Deep Space’ (great for writing that SF epic), ‘Coffee Shop’ (great for bringing you Costa without the cost), and even, bizarrely, ‘Farmyard Sounds’ (great for… writing that stable boy/ lady of the manor romance?). You are at risk of procrastination when you begin playing with different combinations. For example, mix a bit of Deep Space with Farmyard and you have Cows in Space.
Outside of this, I would recommend movie soundtracks which closely match your chosen genre. Lyric-free music is always recommended, as you wish to avoid music that means you can be easily distracted by.
3) DISCONNECT. Oh, how easy it is to simply click the little wi-fi icon in the top corner and deactivate your system’s connection to the internet. Simple, but we rarely do it. This not only prevents you from easily keeping updated on your feeds, but also prevents the annoying notifications that pop up, the digital equivalent of a mermaid’s siren song.
There is a fly in the room. You can hear it, but you cannot see it.