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Life, Writing

Endless Distractions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m winging it this week.  The planned guest post hasn’t materialised – nobody’s fault, just one of those things.  And right now life is full of ‘those things’.

I’m finding it hard to keep all my plates spinning – maybe that’s why my eye was drawn to author David Mitchell’s piece in The Atlantic.  It’s called How to Write:  Neglect Everything Else.  Great click-bait (the title really got on my nerves) but it’s a thoughtful, wide-ranging essay and the part that resonated most with me was this:

Maintaining focus is critical […] in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.

Is your life that simple?  Thought not, and that’s the point.  Something has to give.

My focus at the moment, other than trying to be a ‘halfway decent parent’ (you only get one crack at that) is to finish the first draft of my new book by Christmas.  In theory I have far more time to write than many people but keeping to a tough deadline like this against a constant barrage of distractions and other commitments is not easy.  I’m making myself do it without asking myself if I’m in the mood (usual answer, no, but once I begin that changes).  And yes, other things are sliding.  My never fastidious attitude to housework has further declined to ‘(very) little and (not very) often,’ but since I am the only resident of this house who’s remotely bothered by this, that’s OK.

I’m about two-thirds through the draft and at this point if I could escape to total solitude on an island and stay with it every waking moment, I reckon I could get to the end in two weeks.  This is a tormenting thought compared to how it will actually get done.  Like most novels, mine will be written as real life permits, not in splendid, self-indulgent isolation.

And speaking of real life, David Mitchell said something else that made a lot of sense to me:

I do think there’s some relationship between maintaining focus, looking closely, and the act of writing itself. The more you practice really looking, the more convincingly you can build a set for a scene. You become used to looking at the relationships between objects and people and light and time and mood and air. […] it’s what you need to do to bring a scene into being.

If you’d like to see what’s going round in my head when I’m sitting in the car park at Power League, here’s a Pinterest board I recently made for the new book.  The board’s called Set in Paris, the novel is as yet untitled.

There’s likely to be more ad-libbing over the next few weeks so I hope you’ll bear with me.  Now if you’ll excuse me, j’ai 36 choses à faire.  (For those who don’t speak French, that’s the approximate number of things on my To Do list.)

How do you deal with life’s endless distractions?

Related post: Piece on Place for Jane Rusbridge’s blog.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


10 thoughts on “Endless Distractions

  1. Great post as always. I saw David Mitchell a couple of weeks ago on his Bone Clocks book tour and (aside from the fact he was charming, engaging, erudite, etc) I took away the overwhelming impression that he was absolutely knackered. He told us his wife keeps him grounded by making him stop writing to go & take the bins out… The writer’s life, eh.

    Posted by lynseywhite | September 30, 2014, 12:03
  2. I haven’t read the David Mitchell piece but you’ve made me want to so I shall, straight after I’ve typed this. I am afraid I become completely obsessive when I’m focused on something important. During the last 6 months, whilst doing my dissertation work, I shut down whole areas of my life in order to concentrate and get it all done to the best of my ability. But I don’t have children and, apart from the puppy, live on my own at the moment, so I please myself regarding cooking & housework. But both these fell away and I had one day where all I ate was 8 pieces of toast! Long term I’m aiming for a more physically & psychologically sustainable and sustaining (ie. healthy!) mode of operating. However when I’m writing I completely lose track of time often. Good luck with finishing your draft. You will. And you will find your way.

    Posted by Vicky Newham | September 30, 2014, 13:29
    • Gosh, Vicky, your ability to focus is terrifying! I suspect that if I were single I might be the same. Whenever I get extended time alone (rarely) I’m amazed at all the extra hours that appear in the day! But obviously I wouldn’t be without my family…
      All the best with your dissertation and lay off the toast!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 2, 2014, 16:28
  3. I too enjoyed his essay. It seemed surprisingly frank for a man to talk about distractions when historically male writers have had wives to feed them and keep the children away. At the Roald Dahl museum a couple of weeks ago, I had the same thought looking at Dahl’s preserved writing hut and reading about his fixed schedule. When I am deep in a writing project such as a novel, my family and dogs could quite easily starve but somehow I manage to feed them and occasionally I rush about with a vacuum cleaner or suggest they do it. My writing does become my main focus, I have to immerse myself in my fiction world which means many other things don’t get done but I don’t let it worry me, I do the essentials and catch up on things when I have time. The writing has to come first otherwise too much trivia pushes in. As long as everyone in the family is healthy and happy. And that includes me.

    Posted by Ruby Speechley | September 30, 2014, 22:29
    • Hi Ruby, you too have a fantastic work ethic which is all the more impressive as you have young kids. I suspect my powers of concentration are not the best and unfortunately I’m a very slow writer so the only way I can write a draft this fast is working on it almost every day. It doesn’t matter how – at least we’re getting books written!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 2, 2014, 16:31
  4. Hi Isabel, Just catching up on reading my favourite blogs and once again I’m struck by how our writing progress (or not) seems in parallel with each other. Thanks for your comment on my blog, which coincidentally was about me faffing about and finding it difficult to get into writing mode. And then your latest post about inspiration also seemed to relate to my need to hear other credible writers to fire me up in the same way that you too often attend literary events. One of these days we must meet in real life!

    Posted by helenmackinven | October 7, 2014, 14:31
    • Hi Helen, you’re so right and your little ‘(or not)’ made me smile. (There does seem to be an awful lot of not involved!) I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts and wish you lots of inspiration as you get stuck into a new writing project. I’m sure we will meet one day although I don’t know when – I haven’t been to Scotland since my 20s but I’d love to go back.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 10, 2014, 10:56
  5. Love the quote about seeing. I trick myself into writing when I don;t feel like it, by telling myself I can stop when I reach 500 words. Once I’ve done that i nearly always want to keep going – it’s getting started that’s the hard part. Also: get a robotic vacuum cleaner!

    Posted by annabelsmith | November 4, 2014, 08:40

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