Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

7 Distraction-Fighting Strategies

Creativity requires focus, but what if you can't?

Office JoanMazza.comA blank screen or sheet of paper glares at you, insisting you produce something now. Meanwhile, a lot of other voices are calling out, "Pay attention to me!" Suspect a lack of focus if your gaze wanders to the bookshelves over your desk, or your mind keeps drifting off to future plans, or you leap to answer the phone on its first ring, thinking, "Great! A reprieve!"

How can you best access your creativity and get the words flowing?

Whether or not it comes naturally to you, focus is a matter of deciding to pay attention, and then strengthening your focusing ability by using it. When I interviewed an array of experienced writers, I found they regularly use a variety of techniques to get and keep themselves focused on their work. Here are seven strategies:

1. Set up some structure. Mystery novelist Sue Grafton, who works within a confined structure with her alphabet mysteries, claims they concentrate her creativity. It can feel a bit constraining, she admits, but she is highly productive and always knows what's coming next. "The skill," she explains, "is to take the rules and push them as far as you can."

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To try: Plan a series of stories or articles that conform to a theme, or create structure by writing a piece that is based around numbers or bulleted items.

2. Fiddle with forms. Poet Alfred Corn often assigns his students rhyming verse forms such as sonnets. He claims that the focus needed to fulfill such requirements "leads the psyche to uncharted areas," and that writers then realize they know more than they thought they did.

To try: Choose to work in a form that's new to you, whether a poem that rhymes, an op-ed piece that must be limited to 600 words, or a short story written in present tense or with no passive verbs.

3. Listen hard. Some writers don't begin writing anything new until some scrap of sound "serves as a kind of irritant around which the pearl grows," as poet Ed Ochester puts it.

To try: Pay attention to the auditory tidbits your brain is tossing up in the middle of the night or when you're out walking. Take notes on any stray sounds or phrases that seem to be calling to you.

4. Converse with your characters. Science fiction novelist David Gerrold suggests "sitting down with a character" and asking what he wants, what he likes, what he's afraid of, and what he needs you to know.

To try: Write out a conversation with a character you've just invented. Imagine looking into his or her eyes and asking pointed questions. "Press" until you get answers!

5. Search out "the silent center." Some writers find focus and flow by performing walking meditations, doing yoga, taking a bubble bath, or working out at the gym.

To try: Find a way to quiet your internal voices and integrate this meditative space into your daily life. It might be as brief as a sixty-second interlude of emptying your mind and listening to the silence that remains. Or try daydreams-to-order.

6. Lose your perfectionism. Rest assured that most successful writers produce numerous drafts and toss out page after page of less-than-superior work before they're satisfied. The key is to not let all those required edits paralyze you into giving up. Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler tells about all the work he did prior to ever getting published: "I've got five unpublished ghastly novels, forty unpublished dreadful short stories and twelve godawful full-length plays."

To try: When you delete paragraphs from a story, novel, or piece of nonfiction you've written, move them to another file (or keep the cut snips of paper). At the end of the week, count up all the words you wrote and didn't use and celebrate your productivity. See my previous post on "trivializing the task" to avoid perfectionism.

7. Invest yourself emotionally. Passion makes for strong focused writing. And when you're excited or genuinely amused about what you're writing, your attention is more focused. When I used to be bored by an article assignment, I sought out ways to enliven the material for myself, even if sometimes my favorite anecdotes got cut later. Once, in an article about writing, I tossed in a few lines about the time my ex-husband, while apparently sleepwalking, used the kitchen trash bag as a toilet. That was such fun that I was able to write the rest of the article quickly.

To try: If there is a subject that makes you squirm, inject a bit of that topic or its accompanying emotion into whatever you're working on. Also see my post on converting obsessions into passionate creativity.

[Thanks to poet, author, and photographer Joan Mazza for the use of the image above, of her own home office.]

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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