Sometimes the most ideal writing conditions still don’t produce work. How do different types of creative distraction manifest, and how can they be overcome?
It is 4 a.m. I am up, but nobody else seems to be. My wife, Rachel, and dog will sleep until the alarm goes off. Our neighbours’ houses are dark, and the trains haven’t started for the day. I sit on the couch with a computer on my lap and a blanket around my shoulders. The only sound comes from my fingers on the keyboard.
In two hours, I will have to get dressed and leave for work. At work, my colleagues often look at me incredulously when I say I am writing a book. ‘How do you fit your writing in with your teaching and the rest of your life?’ they ask.
It is a difficult question to answer. I internalise everything, so it is hard not to read between the lines. I worry that what they are actually saying is: ‘It isn’t possible to do it all. You must be doing something wrong.’
I can write even when children are crying and families are yelling at each other. I can write from all sorts of locations, even somewhere awful or distressing, like an amusement park or a hospital bed. I can write on the toilet and in the bath. I can write when I’m ecstatic and, sometimes, when I’m depressed.
It hasn’t always been this way; I used to be distracted by everything. Every sound grated on my nerves, and every emotion switched off my imagination. This changed about a year ago, when I travelled to France.
My friend Elizabeth and I had attended a two-week memoir-writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed in Chamonix, Mont Blanc. I was a longtime reader of Cheryl’s ‘Dear Sugar’ column on The Rumpus, which I read with awe and admiration, and when her memoir, Wild, came out I became hooked on her writing. But despite the workshop with my inspiring teacher and classmates, which took place with a backdrop of the Alps that strongly resembled those in The Sound of Music, I struggled with my writing.
We spent our workshops learning the craft of memoir, writing in response to prompts, examining excerpts from writers such as JoAnne Beard, David Foster Wallace and Pam Houston, asking questions about everything from writing techniques to publishing our work, and workshopping our own nonfiction.
I found the latter intimidating to a level I hadn’t previously imagined possible. I had completed a degree in writing years earlier, so I knew what workshops involved. Perhaps it was the idea of Cheryl Strayed reading my writing that caused such anxiety.
When we were given a prompt, I wrote copious responses, but did not volunteer to share my writing. I was still new to nonfiction, which made me reluctant to delve into an intensely personal memory, transform it into a roughly written scene, and share it with eager classmates.
I found workshops intimidating to a level I hadn’t previously imagined possible.
Sometimes we were given a prompt to work on outside of class. These were often the most difficult, including one that truly stumped me: Write the truth about something you haven’t wanted to write. So back at the apartment I had rented with Elizabeth I attempted to respond.
I had sat on my bed (since French ski chalets don’t come with desks, just plenty of snow gear and framed portraits of alpine skiers) and tried to get into the flow. Nothing came, except some flat sentences. I even typed myself a piteous note. I went into the kitchen and retrieved a block of cheese from the fridge. That didn’t help, either. I stared out the living room window at the mountains and glacier. They made me wish I had signed up for the fiction workshop, where our scenic surrounds could easily become part of a story.
Eventually, the sun set, and I decided then to create the writer’s dream workspace. One so perfect that I even took a photo to drool over later when I returned to Australia. I went out to the balcony with a glass of wine, a bowl of olives, and my notebook, set up in front of the view, and started to write. Surely being tipsy would help with a painful prompt?