Writing Secrets: The insidious slide from contemplation to procrastination

 In How to write a book, Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

“Watching birds takes you out of yourself. It’s a flow state. Writing ideas come in sideways during such states. So perhaps it is a form of meditation.”

That’s Margaret Atwood’s form of embracing “boredom” creatively.

Last week I was discussing the importance of boredom in encouraging the flow of creative thought. Many writers on writing promote the idea of the “flow state” in writing breaks. It is, after all, impossible to retain focus for lengthy periods without allowing your mind to relax.

But using those breaks to check social media can damage the creative process. If you struggle to avoid those kind of distractions, do as Margaret Atwood does, or take a short walk or run, or do a few yoga exercises.

When I’ve struggled with a problem in my writing, a solution has often popped up “sideways” when I’ve been walking or running. Somehow, the physical activity occupies just enough of our minds that we’re not clamouring for distraction by other means. It allows us to relax and our minds to roam.

When I was writing my first books in the ‘90s, computers had screen savers. If I didn’t write anything for a minute or two, a constantly changing kaleidoscope of patterns and colours would appear on my screen.

I stared at that pattern, without focusing too hard on the problem I was facing in my writing, and ideas would start to pop into my head. I still hanker for that screen saver. Its benefits went far beyond the screen it was somehow saving.

That’s all very well, you might say. But, when does “allowing my thoughts to coalesce” turn into “I’m procrastinating by gazing at the sea and having deep thoughts”?

There are plenty of opportunities during the day (if you allow ourselves to use them) to think and day-dream: when you’re driving, commuting, standing in a queue, cutting the salad.

If you’ve been writing hard, and your mind needs a break, you’ll know it. And you’ll know when the ideas begin to crawl over your skin like ants and you’re ready to begin again.

If you’re using the writing time you’ve set yourself to allow your “thoughts to coalesce”, fine. But keep a notebook in your hand. Scribble down those thoughts and ideas. It keeps them from drifting into inconsequentials, like whether you bought enough bread for lunch.

It focuses the mind.

Jo-Anne Richards is an internationally published novelist with a PhD in Creative Writing from Wits University. Jo-Anne has published five novelsThe Imagined Child, The Innocence of Roast ChickenMy Brother’s Book,  Touching the Lighthouse and Sad at the Edges.

Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken has been rereleased, as part of the Picador Africa Classics collection. When it first appeared, in 1996, it was nominated for the Impac International Dublin Literary Award and chosen as an “outstanding debut novel” by a British book chain.

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