Clearing the Decks

Here’s the way life works:

A writer about to begin a new manuscript will be immediately attacked by all types of distraction.

It can come via family, friends, work, computer crashes, a beloved pet suddenly developing melanoma, roof leaks, illness, weird weather, or some other crisis–short of a meteor hitting the Earth or imminent alien invasion.

I used to have a ritual that involved cleaning off my desk after the completion of each novel. It was a way of keeping the paper clutter under control and clearing the deck for the next manuscript to come.

However, these days, life is crazy. The things coming at me like mosquitoes vectoring in for the kill often leave me spinning in confusion. As a result, I’m almost afraid to tackle the mess lest I inadvertently create a new writing distraction.

My father would say that life isn’t supposed to be that way. But short of living in remote isolation–of finding a Walden’s Pond of my own–distraction is here to stay.

Steven Pressfield, author of THE WAR OF ART, writes about the problem–calling it Resistance. He says, in effect, that whenever a person is about to begin anything worthwhile, all sorts of barriers will immediately snap into place. It’s up to the individual–or the writer–to overcome them in order to achieve the desired objective.

(That’s kind of like what we put our story protagonists through, isn’t it?)

As writers, we tend to be dramatic and temperamental–or we would like to be. So it’s easy to let distraction or Resistance loom larger than it has to.

The key is to simply stay on track. To not get emotional, frustrated, hyper-sensitive, or dramatic about it.

This is, of course, easier said than done.

My two Scottish terriers are temperamentally opposite. One is hyper, nervous, super-alert, and imaginative. He worries about the things he observes in his environment. And he observes things in his environment that aren’t always actually there.

The other dog is laid-back, gentle, calm, and slow. He likes to look things over and consider the situation before he takes action. He’s highly observant but seldom distracted from what he intends to do. Once he’s in motion, it’s hard to deflect him. When he settles on an objective, he doesn’t abandon it.

To do our jobs well, writers need a combination of both these temperaments. We need the quick, vivid imagination and sensitivity in order to create settings and characters, to write dramatically, to generate the emotional and empathetic content necessary to bring our stories alive.

Yet we also need to stay calm, to carry on no matter what comes at us. We can’t let ourselves be ruffled or stymied or so frustrated that we abandon our manuscript partway through. We mustn’t pay attention to whatever is trying to distract us. We have to persevere and stick with our deadlines and schedules so that the work gets done.

Last night, Turner Classic Movies showed a couple of bio-pics about individuals who overcame huge obstacles in order to achieve their dreams. The first film was THE GLEN MILLER STORY. How closely it follows Miller’s actual life, I don’t know. But it’s a pretty good movie just the same. In it, Miller is trying to develop his special sound. He turns down secure jobs as a musician in order to search for the right arrangement of instruments that he keeps yearning for. And finally, he achieves it.

The other film centers around Mounty Stratton, a baseball pitcher who overcomes a leg amputation in order to continue competing in professional sports.

The point of both films–other than the chance to listen to foot-tapping 1940s music or watch Jimmy Stewart play baseball–is that nothing worthwhile comes easily. The Resistance and the distractions are always going to be there. It’s up to us whether we ignore them or let them defeat us.

Our best line of defense is to form clear objectives and schedules for ourselves. (I know! My creative side is already twitching at the thought of such discipline.) Whether we set a daily or weekly word count or choose a regular time of day when we will write, we need the structure.

On my office wall, I keep this quote from W. Somerset Maugham in sight: “I write only when inspiration strikes me. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

It sounds too regimented, doesn’t it? Too restrictive, too constrained. Our inner artist longs for freedom. We want to write when the mood strikes us, and maybe we haven’t a clue who W. Somerset Maugham is. (You should. Read him!)

I know from experience that writers who want productive careers in commercial fiction shouldn’t live in an emotional muddle. Waiting on inspiration is a good way to starve. And letting distraction get in the way–whether it comes from outside forces or your own inner doubts–is a sure route to achieving nothing.

As my writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say: “Get on with it!”

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