Like incoming missiles, the events of the last month have left many people disoriented and disquieted. And why not? People of all persuasions have experienced the fallout of a bitter, divisive political climate, national upheaval, and a dark view of America’s underbelly. And that’s the short list. Add to that the death of a beloved songwriter (“Hallelujah”) and an equally admired journalist and the distraction is intensified. In the midst of all this, writers are trying to focus, concentrate, and produce thoughtful, insightful prose or poetry. That’s a tall order.
I first learned that writing was an outlet for emotion, confusion, and uncertainty when I was ten years old and agonizing over a fight with a best friend. I stayed up all night, writing a long (and probably ill-conceived) poem about a female martyr. I was no doubt the real martyr in this case, but writing my epic poem so captured my attention that I got over my hurt feeling and made a conciliatory gesture to my friend.
We write to understand the world around us; to delve into our own emotions; to come to terms with reality. We write to find the universal spark that unites us. It follows, then, that we should be writing now. I haven’t been, but I know what it will take to get back into the routine.
Mainly, it’s simple: resist the temptation to check the news, social media, or my email every hour in case “something important” has happened. After all, family and close friends have my phone number; they would call if they needed me. If a tornado is approaching, I’ll hear the siren. If I think I need a cute cat fix or a meme that makes me laugh, I can scroll my Facebook feed after I’ve added a few pages to my novella, or finished an essay that has been languishing too long.
I often think about Scott and Helen Nearing, who chose–and wrote about–what they called “living the good life.” They managed to be self-sufficient for around 60 years. What I most remember, though, is that they divided their day into increments: four hours for physical labor; four for intellectual pursuits; four for pleasure (usually music or reading). I assume the other twelve hours in the day involved sleeping, preparing and eating meals, everyday chores. I’m seldom that disciplined, but I’m impressed with how much they were able to accomplish.
A few years ago, while researching and developing a nonfiction book, I was able to keep to a similar schedule. I wrote for four hours (give or take) every morning. It worked for me, mainly for two reasons: I balanced my time, and I wrote early in the day before the real world diverted my attention away from my work. My creative capacity was much like a container that was full in the morning, slowly drained by noon, but refilled overnight. When I gave myself time between writing sessions to generate new ideas, I was eager to sit down at my desk. Then, after a generally productive morning, I was ready to face the rest of the day and any problems or pleasures it might bring.
Remembering that, it seems that if, like me, you’ve had trouble concentrating lately, the best plan may be to write before going down the media rabbit hole. If we can carve out time to write when our minds are more at peace, and less troubled by the tumultuous world in which we find ourselves, we can be more productive and–just maybe–do some good.