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Distraction, Focus, Silence


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David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

Not one person in a hundred knows how to be silent and listen, no, nor even to conceive what such a thing means. Yet, only then can you detect, beyond the fatuous clamour, the silence of which the universe is made. —Samuel Beckett

In her December post (“The Hidden—But Crucial—Mad Skill”) Kathryn Craft discussed holding fast to the creative spirit despite the overwhelming difficulties and constant, even essential disappointment one endures in its pursuit.

In particular, she provided a quote from Martha Graham that has continued to slosh around inside my head ever since:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

In my own November post (“Why I Am Not Writing”), I noted some of the difficulties I was having getting back into the daily habits required of a novelist. I won’t revisit those here, but in the interim I’ve managed to get back to my desk, only to discover an entirely different difficulty, one I can’t help but imagine I share with a great many of you.

I’m speaking of distraction. After five years of daily dread and doomscrolling, scratching the FOMO itch (Fear Of Missing Out) by constantly checking the news, I’ve found that I’ve developed the very bad habit of letting my attention swing like a weather vane with every stray thought.

This has only become more evident as I’ve tried to focus on writing. Joyce Carol Oates considers interruption a writer’s greatest nemesis. How unsettling, in my case, to realize the enemy lies within.

Following the advice of the Israeli historian-philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, I’ve returned to meditation, hoping to get a grip on this. But as anyone who meditates knows, it ain’t as easy as it looks.

There is quite possibly nothing more difficult for a flibbertigibbet like me than to sit still. Even when I do, it’s not as though tranquility magically descends. The Buddhists have a saying: the mind is a monkey. My mind is a whole forest full of them, chattering away in the trees.

Once, when we were in the car together, my late wife remarked that she could literally hear me thinking. “You have a very noisy brain.”

The constant flux of mental floaters we think of as consciousness—our thoughts, our worries, our plans, our fears—distracts from the deeper awareness Samuel Beckett talks about in the quote that opens this post, an awareness that requires silence. To be creative, ironically, being conscious isn’t enough. We need to sink into something deeper.

And as the Martha Graham quote suggests, the perfectionist need to be good, to do the job well, only impedes our ability to find that deeper, quieter place.

That realization has been particularly helpful in getting my focus back. For even when I manage to ignore the constant urges to check my email or Twitter or Facebook, or resist worrying about all I have to do before we move cross-country at the end of March—or succumb to any of the other digressive impulses that arise in my mind, like earworms—the doubts about the worth of what I’m doing, its quality, its merit, rise up as but one more level of distraction.

I’m taking heart in the fact that, little by little, the words are coming. As for their worth—that’s why the gods invented revision.

What has proven most distracting for you of late? What tactics do you use to “keep your butt in the chair”? What’s proven most helpful? What hasn’t?

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About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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