hile I type this paragraph, I’m thinking about ten different things. At the top of the list is an email I’m expecting from an editor. Before I forget, I decide to check to make sure it hasn’t arrived. Fifteen minutes later, I’m nowhere closer to being finished with this paragraph. I have, however, managed to update my Twitter and Facebook accounts, watch a movie trailer, and read three blog posts. Oops.
Does this sound familiar?
Keeping up with the ever-changing publishing industry encourages us to be Internet-savvy, but at some point, our addiction to seeking out new information can damage our ability to focus. In case our digital distractions aren’t enough, each day we add our quest for writing time to a to-do list full of our other errands and responsibilities. It’s no wonder we’re having trouble focusing!
For writers, stress from juggling too many distractions manifests as difficulty in writing, plotting, and brainstorming, and can contribute to writer’s block. As creative people, isolation can help us calm our minds and break through blocks. Read on to learn how taking a distraction-free break, even an hour at a coffee shop or thirty minutes behind closed doors, can give you the solitude you need to center yourself and get back to writing.
Creativity, Writer’s Block and The Zone
Shelley Carson, Ph.D., is an adjunct faculty member at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology. She is the author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life and frequently blogs about creativity and the mind on her Psychology Today blog, Life as Art. Dr. Carson’s understanding of how creative minds work can help writers understand writer’s block and give us the tools we need to find our writing zone.
“People who are quite creative are also very drawn to novelty: novel objects or situations, novel aspects of common objects, and novel ideas.”
(Photo: Shelley Carson, Ph.D.)
Understanding Your Creative Mind
According to Dr. Carson, highly creative people are drawn to new ideas, can change their level of focus with ease, and are more mentally disinhibited.
Let’s start with the first characteristic of highly creative people, our attraction to new ideas. Dr. Carson explains, “People who are quite creative are also very drawn to novelty: novel objects or situations, novel aspects of common objects, and novel ideas.” In fact, highly creative people are biologically rewarded when they discover something new. It may be subtle, but it is enough to encourage us to seek out novelty. So really, creative people are attracted to distractions!
Our attraction to distractions is not the end of the world. As highly creative people, we are also capable of changing our level of focus from one thing to the next. As Dr. Carson puts it, “the ability to rapidly shift attentional states may allow creative people to focus on a task but still be aware of novel things in their environment that could enhance their performance of the task.” We can check emails, update Twitter, and still work on our manuscript. It is possible. That doesn’t mean this is the optimal way for our brains to work; it just means we are capable of doing it.
The final characteristic of creatively-minded people is that they are more mentally disinhibited. “This allows them to access more of the ideas and associations generated below the level of conscious awareness,” says Dr. Carson. In short, our ability to make connections where others may not is part of what makes us good writers.
“Reduce the amount of stress in your life, and you’ll reduce the amount of time you spend mentally blocked.”
Facing Writer’s Block
If you’ve ever sat at your word processor, staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor, then you understand the term “writer’s block.” Writer’s block is the opposite of the flow of words writers aspire to achieve in their writing sessions, and it is connected with our busy lives that are full of distractions. Finding quiet time and solitude is a necessary step for writers grappling with writer’s block.
We are all familiar with the balancing act involving home and work tasks, regular stresses, and never-ending to-do lists. Although we are capable of handling multiple tasks at one time, it often isn’t the most effective approach. In addition, experiencing a long-term elevated level of stress can negatively affect your health, causing a variety of problems from depression and anxiety to high blood pressure and obesity.
Not only is stress bad for your health, it’s also bad for your writing. According to Dr. Carson, “Stress and anxiety cause a specific type of focused attention that tends to kill [the] flow of ideas.” Reduce the amount of stress in your life, and you’ll reduce the amount of time you spend mentally blocked.
However, reducing stress is easier said than done. Writers with children, spouses, pets, jobs—or all of the above—are not always able to put these potential stressors on hold. Time away from responsibility and distraction is precious. To make time for yourself, you first need to make it a priority.
Dr. Carson’s Tips for Breaking the Block
- Ask yourself “what if?” questions that are pertinent to your writing. Then write down the most outlandish answers to these questions—as many as you can think of—to get the writing juices flowing.
- Envision the words you write as a stream that is emanating from your creative source. Envision the stream as fresh and free-flowing.
- Write fast. Don’t worry about finding that “one right word.” Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling.
Going with the Flow
The opposite of writer’s block is the writer’s zone, an optimal state where words and ideas flow onto the page. Understand how writer’s block is possible, and you are halfway to understanding how to get into the zone. With this knowledge, you can reduce the amount of time spent staring at a blank page and increase the amount of time spent writing.
Part of getting into the zone is based on your location. Dr. Carson encourages writers to create an environment that minimizes stress and distractions and to find activities that boost your mood. She says, “Research on creativity indicates that creative ideas flow more easily when we are in a defocused state of attention or when our mood is on the upswing.”
Find locations to write that you find relaxing. Or, when you find yourself blocked, try an activity that you enjoy. Take a walk, grab your camera and look for inspiration, visit the zoo, go for a drive—it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it helps you step back from stress and helps you relax.
Writers seeking to get into the zone can take steps to make the process easier. Writing preparation, such as brainstorming, character building, and plotting, can help take the planning out of your writing. Preparation can also help by preventing you from stopping to look up information. With research and pre-writing out of the way, you can focus on writing.
“This means no email, Twitter, Internet, BlackBerry, etc., distracting me in the background. It means me and the story.”
(Photo of Therese Walsh by Gary Hodges)
When author and co-founder of the Writer Unboxed blog, Therese Walsh, faces writer’s block, she takes the time to remove all distractions before getting to work. It is good advice for writers seeking to get into the zone. “This means no email, Twitter, Internet, BlackBerry, etc., distracting me in the background,” she says. “It means me and the story.”
Dr. Carson’s Tips Creative Inspiration List
- Make a “creative playlist” of inspiring music.
- Spend time in sunlight or bright therapeutic light (such as a lightbox).
- Take a walk.
- Spend time in a place of natural beauty.
- Do deep breathing exercises.
- Breathe aromas or fragrances that you find uplifting.
The most important thing a retreat can provide is distraction-free writing time. As long as your retreat has this key ingredient, you won’t need a big budget or a large amount of time for it to have an impact on your writing. Make any retreat a regular part of your writing process, and you’ll give yourself the opportunity to focus your writing and get into the zone.
Writing retreats cover the gamut. There are retreats in tropical locales that promise electricity for laptop-users and yoga at sunrise. Some retreats invite successful authors to speak to the writers. Others consist of nothing more than a writer and her work. So, which is the retreat for you?
There are two primary types of retreats: solo and group. In general, solo retreats are best for writers seeking time away from all distractions (including other writers). Group retreats can provide opportunities for solitude but also time for group brainstorming.
Going Solo: Retreats for One
Writers thrive on time alone. In fact, according to Dr. Carson, it’s when they get their best work done. Solo retreats can range from quiet time behind closed doors to an isolated cabin in the wilderness. The most important aspect of the solo retreat is distraction-free time that enables you to focus 100% on your writing.
As a creative individual, isolation can help you reach the optimal zone for writing. Dr. Carson explains that creative individuals need time alone to process their thoughts. According to Dr. Carson, research has found that creative geniuses were often ill as children. “The assumption is that extended childhood illness allow a child to develop a rich internal world and an independent way of thinking.” Even if you didn’t grow up in isolation, as a creative person you need quiet time to develop the imaginary lives and times of your characters.
“I spend so much time wishing that I had big blocks of time when I could just sink into the story and write, that my writing retreats are always just totally by myself.”
(Photo of Katherine Center by Brett Chisholm)
Best-selling author Katherine Center uses solo retreats to get writing done. As the mother of two small children, her writing time is a premium. When Katherine has deadlines to meet, she will book a week in a hotel or borrow a friend’s vacation home, so that she can concentrate on writing. “I spend so much time wishing that I had big blocks of time when I could just sink into the story and write, that my writing retreats are always just totally by myself.”
If you can’t escape to a hotel room or borrowed vacation home, there are other options for solo retreats. Mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig, also a mother of two, faces the same challenge of finding time to write. For busy moms, Craig recommends shutting the door every once in a while. “You tell the children not to knock unless there’s an emergency,” she advises. “Tell them you’ll write until the little hand is on the three and the big hand is on the six. And then you’ll be free to play Old Maid.”
Craig also recommends finding ways to carry your solitude with you, to a coffee house, a library or a diner—any location away from distractions. She’s even been known to hunt for locations without wireless Internet. “Someday I’ll try to go on a fancy retreat...maybe one with actual other writers there! But for now and with one child still in elementary school, I’ll take what I can get.”
“Tell them you’ll write until the little hand is on the three and the big hand is on the six. And then you’ll be free to play Old Maid.”
(Photo: Elizabeth Spann Craig)
You can create solitude by closing your door, but what about the ubiquitous Internet access? One tool that may help is Rescue Time. Rescue Time is a free automated time-tracking application. It records how much time you spend using various applications such as your word processor or Internet browser. You can even block yourself from specific websites, or set alarms to notify you when you’ve surpassed daily time allotments on a site or application. Use a tool like Rescue Time to assess how you are using the Internet and you might find yourself motivated to spend less time surfing and more time writing.
For writers who want a stronger form of Internet regulation, there are other applications that may help. Writer and editor Ricki Schultz, founder of The Write-Brained Network, uses an application called Freedom to force herself to disconnect from the Internet. Freedom, an application that works with computers running on Mac or Windows operating systems, locks you away from the Internet for a specified length of time. The only way to get around the Internet block is to reboot your computer. “It's just too easy to click on my bookmarked websites whenever I hit a lull in my writing,” Schultz admits. “I use Mac Freedom because it prevents me from doing that and forces me to figure out whatever's got me stuck.”
Dr. Carson’s Anytime, Anyplace Retreat Tips
- Have a specific time and place where you can write without interruptions.
- Turn off your cell phone, Internet access, and other electronic distractors.
- Have a ritual that acts as a portal to “the zone” such as listening to a particular piece of music, reciting a motivating sentence, or drinking a cup of herbal tea.
A Meeting of Minds: Group Retreats
While solitude can provide an excellent opportunity to get work done, group retreats encourage brainstorming and foster social connections. Discussing scene ideas, plotting character arcs, and brainstorming new story ideas with a group of writers can be more effective and more fun than doing it on your own. Also, talking with other writers can help you find the support you need from those who are facing similar challenges.
Dr. Carson suggests that while creative minds thrive on time in isolation, they can also benefit from time spent discussing ideas with a group. The best group retreats are those that include both solitude and group exercises. She explains, “If a retreat gives individuals solitary time to address creative dilemmas and then group members bring their ideas together, they can feed off each other’s ideas, elaborate, and combine them.”
“After a day of solid work, it’s so much fun to come together and discuss our breakthroughs and our wrestles with the muse...”
(Photo of Kathleen Bolton/Cassidy Calloway by Patrick Shanahan)
Author and Writer Unboxed co-founder Kathleen Bolton (published as Cassidy Calloway) attends a group retreat each year. The retreat is small, usually just two other writers and Kathleen, and includes her co-founder Therese Walsh. They find a rental cottage near their homes with enough space for each writer to have quiet and solitude. Bolton appreciates the time she can spend writing, but also enjoys the time with her fellow writers. “After a day of solid work, it’s so much fun to come together and discuss our breakthroughs and our wrestles with the muse,” she explains. “The free-flowing wine and chocolates aren’t too shabby either!”
Walsh finds the same benefits from their group retreats. During one of their retreats, she typed the last sentences of her debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy. Walsh read the last lines to her fellow retreat writers, sharing the emotional moment with them. “The whole thing was special, because as we all know, writing can be a mostly solitary venture,” she shares. “To have friends beside me for that milestone was pretty special.”
Katherine Center joined Karen Walrond, a photographer and author of the upcoming book, The Beauty of Different, for Lovebomb, an annual artist’s retreat held on the Oregon coast. The year Center and Walrond attended, the retreat consisted of fourteen artists, all women. Each day they had time alone to work or relax, and in the evenings, they met for dinner and group discussion.
Walrond found the time spent talking about the shared challenges one of the most valuable aspects of the retreat. “True, deep friendships have formed because of this,” she explains, “and in the year between visits, we use each other as sounding boards for business decisions, as well as celebrate each other’s successes.”
“... we use each other as sounding boards for business decisions, as well as celebrate each other’s successes.”
(Photo: Karen Walrond)
Group retreats do not have to take place in a rental cottage or vacation home. Author Ellen Hopkins will ask her family to vacation for a long weekend. Then she’ll invite writer friends to her home for an impromptu retreat. For writers who do not have a house large enough to accommodate a few writers, she recommends finding a weekend home rental. “Just discussing your work with people whose opinions you trust,” she says, “can help you past blocks, plot problems, etc.”
Kathleen Bolton encourages writers without the budget for a large retreat to consider taking a Saturday to write with friends. Invite them over to write without distraction and spend the day completely focused on work. “The objective is to free yourself from distractions and have only one thing to worry about: your writing.”
Kathleen Bolton’s Retreat Tips
- Find the right digs for your retreat.
- Make sure your writing companions are as serious as you are.
- Minimize distractions.
- Bring Plan B (extra batteries, power cords).
Your Turn: Retreat Planning Made Simple
A formal retreat sounds great, but where do you start? Lucky for us, WOW! has articles on everything from choosing a retreat location to feeding hungry retreat participants. Take a look then get started planning your own retreat.
- Taking Your Muse to Exotic Retreats by C. Hope Clark
Considering a destination retreat? Read this article first. Clark shares a list of exotic retreat destinations and tips on how to make retreats more affordable.
- How to Create Your Own Retreat by Karon Goodman
Find out how to prepare for a retreat, develop quality content, and take advantage of organizational short cuts that will keep your retreat running smoothly.
- How To Run a DIY Writer’s Retreat by Lisa Tiffin
Retreat planning 101: Lisa Tiffin covers location, activities, speakers and sustenance (the edible, versus literary, kind). Take a glance and you’ll be well on your way to planning your first retreat.
Bridgid Gallagher is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She depends on a well-loved set of headphones for mini-retreats in the city. With her headphones on, Bridgid can be in a crowded cafe, a too-quiet library or a busy airport and still manage to slip into the zone. You can find her at Inky Fresh Press, a blog collaboration written by and for new writers, or by visiting her website at bridgidgallagher.com.
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