Focus is a wonderful thing. I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person, so I’m either totally focused or there are enough butterflies in my head to trigger a fair-sized tropical storm. I’m realising that focus is definitely a double-edged sword. It can be my best friend (when I’ve got a deadline to meet), or my worst enemy (when I can’t see the wood for the trees).
Forcing a sense of focus isn’t that hard – like most things it’s a learned skill, similar in process to a meditative state, a narrowing down of thought processes – a funnel through which concentration, ideas, some skill and sheer bloody-mindedness somehow fuse together to produce a half-worthwhile first draft.
I can sit at my laptop, induce a sense of focus and write a few hundred words. If the words are non-fiction – the bread and butter stuff that actually earns me something – there isn’t a problem. But if I want to write good prose, something original and potentially mind-blowing ( I live in hopes of this happening) then forcing the focus is counter productive. I’m writing the first draft of this in a noisy bar, in a proper notebook with a pen in my hand and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc close by. I had no intention of putting pen to paper here, and I certainly didn’t feel the need to focus on anything but lunch. Then I had something of a lightbulb moment….
All my writing life I’ve beaten myself with the stick of discipline. Daily word targets and schedules, on the days when I’m free to write, have been the drivers of my industry. I think I’ve got it wrong.
I took out my pad and pen to write a list of all the little research tasks I want to accomplish in the next couple of weeks. Read some fairy tales (unusual stories in a lovely slender book with tissue-thin pages that I found in a flea market). Research minor Victorian cults and goddess images. I caught myself thinking about the time I would need to do all this as a guilty pleasure. Fire burning in the hearth, cups of coffee, feet up on the sofa, tucked under a blanket, books and notebooks all around. And I realised I needed to embrace this part of my work, to dive into it and swim through other writers’ words without guilt, without rushing through the experience.
Research, just reading, thinking, living – just being – these things aren’t a distraction from the writing, from the focus. They are the writing. Without them, words are sterile. Good fiction comes from interpreted experience, and life isn’t a sideshow that happens when I’m not writing. Life IS the writing.
My ‘focus’ is a contradiction – a distraction from what really matters. I need to take my time, spend some days in unproductive endeavours. It is from here, not from some imposed discipline, that my best writing will emerge. A couple of posts back, I wrote about ‘true words’. I had no idea how to find them. Perhaps,after all, they will find me.