Last week, I attended SNL’s “Craft of Composing” panel, which included expert writers from the school's faculty, staff, student, and alumni populations. Near the end of the Q&A, an audience member asked the panelists how they “unstick” themselves when they’re writing. Among journaling, “writing trash”, and the “Just Do It” approaches, one of the panelists talked about a writer they knew who would spend time vacuuming, brushing their teeth, vacuuming again, brushing their teeth again, vacuuming again…you get it. In “Bird by Bird”, Anne Lamott talks about deciding it’s the perfect time to floss just as she sits down to compose what she calls her “sh*tty first drafts”. What’s up with teeth cleaning and the writing process? I never in my life pictured those two activities overlapping in a Venn Diagram -- until I got to college, started writing for a living, and realized that other people have the same bizarre habit. Distraction.
I can relate. I have never cleaned my house so thoroughly as when I have had a huge writing project looming. Where tumbleweeds of cat hair coasted between piles of old textbooks and bags of clothes that need to go to the dry cleaners, now an intoxicating Pledge scent lingers and the cat slides across the freshly waxed hardwood floors when I call her for supper. And, yes, I can see my reflection perfectly in my polished – and blank - computer screen.
A friend of mine who also writes for a living told me that when she works from home, she’ll sometimes take two showers in a day, almost as if the shower is her only escape from the madness of composing. I read in a Mental Floss article recently (yes, yet another “Distraction”) that taking a hot shower releases dopamine in our brains. Scientists gathered that this must be why so many creative thoughts just happen to appear in that very private place. (And, sadly for us writers, the only place that’s not conducive to writing. But never fear: someone created a waterproof notebook!)
After reflecting on this over the weekend, I realized that I tend to clean – like a lifetime employee of Happy Maids - not just when composing, but also when some life-wide problem needs to be solved or some painful stressor needs to be managed: coming down from the adrenaline rush of a heated argument with a family member; waiting to hear back from the doctor about test results; coping with the unexpected death of a loved one. In these times, my hands are prunes from washing dishes, washing floors, washing counters, washing my hair, washing my face.
If you search “distraction in the writing process” on the web, you’ll find a lot of “avoidance” language and tips for “overcoming barriers”. Some of my favorite composition theorists have entire articles and books about how students can best “stay focused on their writing tasks.” All these best practices involve some sort of Jedi Mind Tricks that you need to play on yourself to prevent you from wandering over to your kitchen or shower and keep you chained to your notebook, working until you get it right. I have never been able to master those tricks. I’ve even repeated the “Use the force” mantra to myself -- to no avail.
I argue that distraction is not a barrier to overcome but a necessary part of the process of overcoming. In fact, I think it’s a good idea to let distraction happen, and that, perhaps, between drafting and proofreading, there is a bubble in my writing process flowchart that says “clean the kitty litter” or “turn off your computer” or “go be”. The key is accepting our natural need for distraction. Our brains want it. Our bodies want it. Our spirit wants it. It is a primal switch to keep us creative, to keep us from going over the edge, to keep us clean, to keep us healthy, to keep us human, to help us cope -- to keep us “unstuck”.