Carbon monoxide is deadly—mainly because it is fast. Relatively small amounts are fatal because it bonds with hemoglobin over 200 times faster than normal oxygen molecules. If there is enough in the air, every carbon monoxide molecule will bond with your blood because it wins every race, every time. If this happens enough, you suffocate, even in a room full of good air. Carbon monoxide is the most prevalent cause of poisoning death in the United States.
Is your writing getting killed in pretty much the same way?
I don’t know if you’re like me, but I tend to have to dig for good ideas. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that I have to prepare fertile soil, plant good research, water it carefully with thought, pull up the weeds and cut away false starts, and nurture my insights carefully—or else they never germinate into something healthy and nutritious enough to be worth sharing with the world.
That takes extended periods of time, and it takes focus. For that reason, I try to write in blocks, usually two or three hours at a time. If I can focus longer, I do. There is nothing better than to start the day writing at 8 am and then looking up to see that it is 2 pm and I have gotten several pages typed almost without realizing it. That is an awesome feeling.
And I think, in the last decade of writing, I may have done that twice—but that might be an exaggeration.
The carbon monoxide of the mind
I think my most focused, uninterrupted times of writing have been at the family cabin in the Rocky Mountains. The quality of the silence up there is almost palpable (when the neighbors aren’t shooting guns or racing their 4x4s, anyway). It allows me to sink into a deep trancelike state and just think. It’s sort of a writing coma. Just thinking about it makes me want to get back up there.
But that escape is something we don’t get a chance to do very often for a number of reasons. Instead I work in my office at home where my neighbor likes to have their noisy yard work done in the middle of the morning while they’re not there, and where the city decided to run construction equipment all day long to replace the water line in our street. Though I love silence, I have to admit that noise really isn’t a problem. In fact, one of my favorite places to work is in a busy café where the voices all mend into a gentle hum. (Smaller cafés can be a problem because individual conversations tend to stick out, and it’s hard to keep the crazy things people say from getting into your head.) I remember reading that J.K. Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book in a café. I’ll bet it was a big one—or at least a quiet one.
Nope. Noise isn’t the problem—though I would prefer to do without it—distraction is.
The habits and cravings that kill writing
Let me make a confession here. I am a bit obsessive-compulsive and therefore I like to check my e-mail, Twitter page, and Facebook profile—often. Worse yet, I love a good addictive video game. I love coffee and snacks, and I love to click on those obscure, odd boxes on the side of webpages to find out just what exactly that dog is doing or which of my favorite shows are getting canceled next season. I love to check the sports scores, the afternoon baseball game, to read about whether or not this is the year the Ducks will finally win a national title, or to find out who’s winning the latest Nadal-Federer match and to “just watch the end of this set.”
When my writing is at its worst, I find the urge to do one of these things grabs my attention at least 200 times faster than the next word I need to get down on the page. Heck, even cleaning the kitchen usually looks better than sitting down and writing the next sentence.
Such interruptions will kill your writing in the same way carbon monoxide poisons the body. Why? Because, in a race between distraction and digging in to write, distraction wins every race for your concentration, every time.
(Hang on a minute. I need to pet the cat.)
Okay, what was I about to say? It was really good—
Oh yeah. If you are going to write successfully, you need to protect yourself from whatever your carbon monoxide of the mind is.
Habits are just habits, and they can be changed
We all have our weaknesses, and we all have matters that can legitimately be more important than our writing. We have families. We have responsibilities. We’ve made promises. But we also have things that suck us in and don’t let us come back to the world until hours later. TV does that to me (I almost always regret I wasn’t reading instead), social media does that to me, and there is a very real reason I don’t download new games on my computer or iPad any more. I have things to be doing that are more important—namely writing.
I have so many really good ideas for books I haven’t taken time to write in the last several years, and I have so many really good excuses for why I didn’t have the mental real estate to get them done. The fact of the matter is, though, all my reasons are all just carbon monoxide of the mind. They’re excuses. I was being gassed comatose by my own bad habits.
If you really want to write, you need to come out of that fog. You need to find a time and space to write. Pick up the rock of a two or three-hour block of time and chuck it into a free space in your week. Then do it again, as many times as you can. Then don’t let anything else move that rock or take its place.
I remember reading where one author went to bed at the same time as his kids so he could get up at 4 am to write. Some turn off their phones and have programs that don’t allow them to check social media or e-mail again until they reboot their computer. Others take an extra hour for lunch and hole up in a coffee shop like J.K. As a high school teacher of mine used to say, “You are only limited by your own lack of imagination.”
I guess what I am trying to say is, if you want to write—especially if you want to write an entire book—you need to recognize your carbon monoxide of the brain—your writer’s kryptonite—and then carve out a time and a safe location that is free of that distraction. You need to create carbon monoxide-free, interruption-free space to let yourself think about what you want to write. Think and think and then write it down. Peel back the layers. Rethink and refine. And then don’t get up until the time you have set is finished.
And then do that again. And again. And again. . . .
That’s what makes you a writer—and that’s what gets your book written.
What’s your carbon monoxide of the mind? Or if that is too personal, where’s your writing space? Or how do you plan to create one?
I look forward to your thoughts!