Distractions by Sam Jordison

A Guest Blog from Sam Jordison. Sam has been earning a living as a writer since the year 2000. He is the author of five books (including the best-selling Crap Towns and Sod That! : 103 Things Not To Do Before You Die ). He also writes features and articles regularly for the Guardian – and has written for most other national papers in the UK.

If you’re like me, a deal of your writing time will be spent doing nothing – or, worse than nothing, letting yourself be distracted. You will wake up in the morning with the best intentions, have breakfast, make coffee, turn the computer on, do some washing up, check the internet, think about having a cup of tea, check your email, have that cup of tea, go to the shop for some bread, tidy the front room.. You will do anything, but concentrate and get those words out.

If you’re like me, you will also feel guilty about thus frittering away your hours. Time is limited – and writing time (since most of us have to earn money doing other things) especially precious.

Even so, the first and best piece of advice I can give is not to beat yourself up. Sometimes, it’s better to do nothing than to do lots of bad writing. Once you’ve set something down, it’s hard to delete it, after all. Sometimes too, doing nothing is an excellent way to get the sub-conscious working. If you can’t get the juices flowing in front of the screen, walk away. And I really do mean walk. Put your shoes on and leave the house. The best ideas often sneak in under the influence of gentle exercise and when your brain is otherwise engaged. (And when you are inconveniently far from the computer. So remember to take a pen and paper.)

Of course, having said all that, there does come a point when you have to square up to the blank page and slog it out. When you have to shut yourself off from all distractions and simply write.

And by “distractions”, of course, I mean the internet. It may be wonderful for research and for self-promotion, but otherwise the internet is one of the modern writer’s greatest enemies. For every half useful article, there are three million pictures of kittens, all just waiting to get their little cute claws into your valuable time. They pounce most especially whenever you reach a tricky section of writing, or can’t quite find the right word, or can’t quite bend your metaphor into shape. It’s so easy then to click away from your word processing programme, check for email, maybe read a bit of The Guardian, look at facebook…

In fact, I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve allowed myself to become distracted even when writing these few words. Just two sentences ago, I paused to play computer scrabble with a friend in Australia. Now, as I wonder how to shape up my next sentence, I’m considering looking away again. But this time, my distractions shall be limited to looking around the cafe I’m sitting in.

(… It’s on Chancery Lane, if you’re interested, and has little to recommend it other than a useful plug point for my laptop and the fact that it isn’t raining as much in here as outside. Which means, I can quickly get back to work…)

You see, I’ve started running a programme called Freedom (http://macfreedom.com/). This marvellous creation prevents me from getting online. I simply boot it up, tell it how long I want to be unable to connect and then it shuts me off from the outside world. Suddenly, it’s like the pre-1995 golden age. There’s just me and my word processor.

Or at least, that’s how it will be for the next ten minutes. I only set Freedom going for short periods of time, just in case I have a real need to do some research on google, and because ten minutes of sustained writing is a psychologically attainable target. I find that the knowledge that I only have to keep going a for a short distance makes me redouble my efforts. The best comparison I can provide is having the finish line in sight at the end of a cross-country race. You might as well sprint, because you know you can stop soon…

… But here the analogy breaks down because pushing yourself as you write doesn’t eat up your energy as immediately as it does when running. Sometimes even, it opens up a previously locked sluice and words start pouring out.

This article is a case in point. Believe it or not, my ten minutes of internet freedom have now passed, but I’ve been able to keep going. And that leads me conveniently to my final few words of advice. Just as it is sensible to leave off from writing when you find can’t get the words down, when you do manage to open the gates, try to keep going for as long as you can sustain a good flow. But no further. Exhaustion may not hit the writer in the same way as it hits the runner, but we can still dry up. Hemingway famously said you should always try to use a little water in the well to return to the next day. Knowing when to stop is almost as important as knowing how to start.

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  • “Sometimes too, doing nothing is an excellent way to get the sub-conscious working.”

    Totally agree with that, Sam. It’s fascinating how and why it works, but it does. I’ve often come across plotline problems that seem irresolvable. I’ve put them to one side and not consciously tried to sort them out, not even thought about them, and hours or even days later a solution appears.
    Of course the conscious mind then has to do a bit of work translating ideas into words – but no one said it was easy.

  • I’m another Writers Workshop editor, and I completely concur with Sam’s recommendation of Freedom. I think there might be a PC version as well (and hopefully even one for Ubuntu). I was recommended it by another working writer, and I usually stick to the default forty minutes of zero internet. I know another author who’d been procrastinating on their novel for months. I recommended trying Freedom, and they finished that book in a fortnight. So, again, yes – highly recommended.

  • Skylark

    My version of ‘Freedom’ is our local library which has wireless internet access but if you sit up in the furthest corner amongst the reference books, it doesn’t work properly. So it’s just like having the internet turned off. I write much better at the library than I do at home. But it’s not always possible to get to the library so at home I employ the ‘switch off the laptop’s wireless’ method. Not so good because it relies on my self-control not to turn it back on again! Some days it’s easier than others 🙂