These tips for dealing with distractions as a writer are inspired by a parable about James Joyce, and will help you develop the productivity of a writer like Stephen King. Learning how to deal with writing distractions isn’t just about turning off the internet or writing in pomodoros.
In Writing Habit Mastery: How to Write 2,000 Words a Day and Forever Cure Writer’s Block, S.J. Scott describes how to establish a productive writing routine and environment and find time to write – even if you have a full-time job. You may not have the natural discipline it takes to write every day; you need to learn how to minimize distractions and interruptions, create a mental mindset that inspires you to write, and deal with lack of motivation that distracts you from writing.
The following tips on dealing with writing distractions are inspired by a story about James Joyce, told by Stephen King in his famous memoir On Writing. I featured his book in 7 Writing Tips From Stephen King – but I neglected to mention his parable about the late great James Joyce.
The Parable of Writer James Joyce
A friend came to visit James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’
Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): ‘Seven.’
Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.’
Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”
5 Tips for Dealing With Writing Distractions
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What do you think James Joyce was distracted by? I think he was paralyzed by perfectionism, but I don’t know much about James Joyce as a writer. And it really doesn’t matter why he struggled to write – what matters is why YOU struggle to write.
Figure out the source of your distraction
If you already know you’re a distracted writer because you want to write perfectly, read 4 Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism for Writers. Otherwise, isolate the source of your distraction. Do you have kids, cats, cat videos, or a killer conscience that is telling you to do something else with your time? There are endless sources of distraction, but only a few that tempt you not to write. Your first step towards learning how to deal with writing distractions is to know yourself. Why aren’t you writing?
Change your perspective about the things that distract you from writing
“In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways,” writes Stephen King in On Writing. “It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making sessions with other oysters.” King goes on to describe the problems with writers’ workshops, but I think his point on how to deal with writing distractions is clear. As long as your distractions don’t derail your writing, they can enhance it.
Schedule your distractions
Today, I’m working all afternoon with Big Brothers – I help with their teen mentoring program in elementary schools in Vancouver. I also work on-call at a safe house for women fleeing domestic violence, and I volunteer weekly as a Big Sister. I walk my dogs three times a day, and practice my flute for an hour a day most days. I go to band practice, church, and home group. Yes, I feel like I’m too busy to keep up with my new blog schedule and theme – Putting Parables Into Practice – yet I’ve been more productive than ever! Why? Because I control my distractions. I schedule the ones that are important to me and I say no thank you to friends, movies, serious housework, and other activities that disrupt my writing schedule.
Learn how other writers deal with distractions
I have always been most inspired by Annie Dillard’s practical tips on how to deal with writing distractions:
“Let the grass die,” she said. “I let almost all of my indoor plants die from neglect while I was writing the book. There are all kinds of ways to live. You can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.”
You are going to die, fellow scribe. Do you want to die with your book or dream of being a writer still inside you? Or, will you die knowing that you scared up the discipline it takes to pursue your goals?
“If you want to take a year off to write a book, you have to take that year, or the year will take you by the hair and pull you toward the grave,” said Dillard.
Ignore your life
In Overcoming Distractions While Writing at Home, I encourage distracted writers to screen calls and avoid answering personal ones during writing time. Be firm with your kids or partner: you are writing and unless the dog is on fire, you’re not to be interrupted. Meet your friends for lunch or walks only during your scheduled distraction times. If you make exceptions, make sure you’re not permanently disrupted by changes in your routine.
“The important thing is not what we write,” James Joyce tells Arthur Power in Conversations with James Joyce, “but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously.”
As always, fellow scribes, I welcome your thoughts on how to deal with writing distractions.