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Why You Suddenly Develop the Attention Span of a Drunk Toddler When You Try to Write

Prepare to be amazed, because I’m going to go all Miss Cleo on you (except, you know, minus the headscarves and sketchiness).

So I'm seeing you sit down to write something, or come up with a new name for something, or do anything creative at all really, and it’s like a switch flips in response to the blinking cursor on your page.

And this isn’t a fun switch, it’s one that makes your mind suddenly race with the 18,002 things that you need to do, like cook dinner or reply to e-mails or check Twitter, or Facebook that old friend, or call your grandma, or schedule your dentist appointment, or get some new curtains, or dust your baseboards, or renew your driver’s license, and then it’s suddenly 45 minutes later and you’re browsing the Anthropologie Home Sale section for curtains and wondering if any curtains are really worth £170, no matter how spectacularly pretty they are.

To be honest, a drunk toddler would probably have a better attention span.

So you look up, realize that you’ve spent 45 minutes on minutiae, and mentally kick yourself right in the prefrontal cortex (being that it’s a mental kick and all), give yourself a stern talking to, muster up your willpower, and go all “As God is my witness, I’ll never browse the Anthropologie Home Sale section when I’m supposed to be writing again!” Scarlett O’Hara style. And five minutes later you’re looking to see if you can find an imitation of the Anthropologie curtains on Etsy.

Yeah — been there. That’s how I know how it is when you sit down to write something and you get this “eueuhh” feeling in your stomach and the not fun switch goes in your brain. 

It’s a writer thing, it’s an artist thing, it’s a pretty much anybody who does creative stuff thing. John Cleese calls it creative uncomfortability. William Zinsser compares it to being examined for a hernia in On Writing Well. Other people use all kinds of birth-related metaphors, which I’ll just avoid entirely because the entire idea of childbirth creeps me out.

Unfortunately, as cringey as it is, how well you handle this creative uncomfortability has a huge impact on the quality and creativity of your work.

If you can ride it out, and not do any of the distracting things — just sit there and let your brain hamster wheel for a little while — after a bit, it starts to calm down and you often get into a very creative mode. 

This doesn’t happen all the time. It’s not some magical thing where you wait for five minutes and then you’re doing the best work you’ve ever done — but you often will do a lot better work if you just wait a little bit than you would if you jumped right in or if you got distracted and didn’t end up doing anything at all.

This is why a lot of times when you see writing that’s not been edited, the beginning is insanely awkward. Just like making small talk at a party. But then, once the person has been writing for a few minutes, suddenly they get more comfortable and their real person voice starts to come out.

But just when you think that you’re rocking and rolling…

This feeling doesn’t only happen when you first start to write something. Like a Whackamole, it keeps showing up throughout the process of writing, often when you hit breaks or even sometimes at the end of paragraphs.

When I got to this part of this post and was trying to think about where I wanted to go next, my brain was bombarding me with a desire to mess with headings, change the font on my website theme, get a glass of water, go to the bathroom, and read other people’s blogs to see what their headings look like. The good part is that you just have to do the same thing. Just wait it out for a few minutes. You’ll normally settle back in and keep on rolling.

I’m not going to bullshit you — this can be really really hard. As people who have grown up in a world in which production is largely tied to time, and in a culture that is very focused on being busy as a status symbol, just sitting and staring at the wall for 10 minutes while you’re in the middle of a writing session can make you feel panicky and really unproductive if you let it. Like they say in meditation, if you start going down that road, then try to just wait it out and remind yourself that this is just part of the process, and that if you need to stare at the wall for 40 minutes, then stare at the damn wall.

Don’t let yourself opt out into an easy solution just to get away from the discomfort.

I know, I know. But if you do take the easiest solution just to get the damn thing done, then no matter how amazing of a writer you are, or how smart you are, or how many pairs of red hot sexy underwear you have, your work just won’t be as good. Good work takes time, and you really can’t force it. You can create circumstances to encourage it though. The more time you can take to percolate on things, the more you allow your brain to just sort of wander around, the more likely you are to come up with really amazing work.

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