Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reining in a scattered mind

I spent all day yesterday at a meeting/symposium thing for work.  As I sat through the morning lecture, trying not to squirm, and then through the afternoon discussions, trying to keep my mind from drifting away from a very important conversation, I thought again about focus. I've been meaning to write about it ever since Sarah's excellent post on the subject. Now that I look at it again, we do have a lot of similar coping mechanisms, even if the details differ.

One of the most interesting things I learned from Sarah's post was that ADD is in part not having enough stimulation to the brain. I've been thinking about it, and maybe my mind works that way a tiny bit. I often like to play minesweeper while watching tv because I get too twitchy otherwise, and I swear, if I could do cross-stitch or play Tetris during meetings, I would be a lot happier – and I'd absorb a LOT more. But alas, that sort of thing is frowned upon at work, so I resort to drawing endless spirals on my notepad and trying not to squirm.  

Here are the coping skills I've gathered throughout the years.

1) Routine and tradition
Having a set schedule definitely benefits a scattered mind like mine. My ideal pre-writing routine is to make a cup of tea and sit outside on my backyard patio for a few minutes thinking about what I'm going to work on that night.  Alas, there's this funny disconnect in my mind so that I somehow believe that routine takes up too much time. Of course, when I don't utilize my routine, I end up spending ten plus minutes playing on the internet, assuring myself that I'll get started any second now.

2) Stopping to take a deep breath.
Even once I've got my bottom on the couch and my hands on the keyboard, I still can freeze up searching for that ever-elusive moment of flow. Sometimes it works just to be stubborn and forge on putting words, any words, on the page.

But sometimes I need to stop, take a deep breath, and take my eyes off the computer. To remind myself of the grand scheme of the story, or maybe to realize it's time to stop beating the poor scene to death and move on. Sometimes it helps to visualize the scene I’m supposed to be writing, to go through it in my head like I'm watching a movie. It's actually kind of fun, and I end up with details to add to the scene that I'd not conceived of before.
(Does anyone else like to imagine the movie trailers for their stories, or is it just me?)

3) Holding myself accountable for distraction.
I went poking around the web a month or so ago looking for ideas on how to improve focus. One tip I found was to take a small piece of paper and set it next to my working area. Every time my mind wanders or drops out of focus, I draw an 'x' on the piece of paper.

Seems rather obvious, right? But I was actually surprised how well it worked. Not only did it make me aware of how often my mind wandered (lots of x's on the paper...), but it also held me accountable for it. The piece of paper gives me something concrete to focus on, something to shoot for, and maybe that's what I needed.

4) Music. 
I have to have music in the background at all times. But unlike Sarah, I can't stand Baroque. I have an active hatred of it, as a matter of fact. If I knew anything at all about musical theory, I could probably say something intelligent about structure and composition. All I can say is there's something about it that's profoundly irritating. Maybe it's too sprightly.  Maybe it's the… is rhythm the right word? No, but there's a rhythm-type-thing that bothers me the most about Baroque.

And every time I think about Baroque, I think of this. Thanks a lot, Disney.

Anyway, I much prefer Romantic era music, like Tchaikovsky, or Debussy, or Dvorak. I also love modern composers, like Clint Mansell and Philip Glass. For me, the best music for writing can help me get into the mood of the story I'm writing. I have a whole slew of industrial/darkwave music for when I'm writing horror or dark fantasy.

And then there are some songs that are inspiration on their own, either because they invoke a picture I like, or a hopeful or dreamy mood. Or sometimes, because they're just so amazing inspires me to create something of my own. 

Do any of you have any songs like that, that make you want to create?

Here's one of my favorites, a collaboration between modernist composer Philip Glass and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar:


  1. Great tips. I definitely have a distracted mind too. I especially love the putting an X on a paper everytime you get distracted. That might be a lot of X's for me.

  2. Sabrina, your section on routine made me laugh. I've done the same thing - skipped my trusted "warm-up" only to spend an hour on the Internet. I love the X on a paper idea. Sometimes I keep a paper nearby just to write down distracting thoughts. If I write down "termite inspection," then I don't spend the next two hours researching companies online. Although I also don't end up ever scheduling that termite inspection... Hmm.

    As for music, I have to clarify that Baroque isn't inspiring; it's regulating. Whatever it does, it's a brain thing and I become completely unaware of the music. I'm not thinking about it at all. If my brain is already in a good place and I want music that inspires me, I'll probably go for a soundtrack of some sort. I also get a lot of inspiration from songs with lyrics, but not WHILE I'm writing :)

  3. Awesome ideas. Sabrina, I think we have a similar brain. I dig Phillip Glass, and I loved that painter from last week. You are exposing me to a cool world of inspiration, and I thank you.

  4. @MaryAnn - I do this at work too, and I try to hide my paper whenever people come in. I mean, I suppose I could always bend the truth as to how long I've been making the X's...

    @Sarah: Ah, I see! For me, I need the calm understated melody of Romanticism or Modernism; nice things in the background to provide soothing noise but not distraction. I do agree that inspiring music is to be used at different times than regulating/soothing music.
    I also like the idea of writing down the scattered thoughts for later, though as stated above, I already have many small papers floating around my house.

    @Sheena - What a lovely compliment; I'm so happy those inspired you as well.


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