So I roll into my office Monday morning, just itching to sit down and write. I’d had plenty of sleep over the weekend, and my head was buzzing with ideas about the book I’m working on—so many, in fact, that I had a mass of Post-It notes plastered to my hand. Some of the notes weren’t even legible. But a few said “Idea!” on them, followed by at least one juicy phrase. I knew I could make something out of them, I just needed a little time to sit, to sift. To think.
But when I opened the door to my office, my book’s “Writing Beast” wasn’t there. (You know the Beast I mean--whatever idea it is that you’re struggling to express in your writing.) Instead there were these…interlopers lounging around our cage.
In one corner was this Blog, almost breathless with excitement. It was talking in these high-pitched, staccato notes and launching tiny suggestions at me like a spastic tennis-ball machine. I grabbed each one mid-air (I caught a couple one-handed), and wrote them down in a flash before sticking them in a file. Ha! I thought to myself as the Blog Beast ran out of steam and slumped quietly in her corner. You’ll have to work harder than that if you want to distract me—I’m a writing coach!
The Blog Beast spit out one last idea in petulant reply, and I bent down to grab it before it rolled away. That's when I saw The Life Insurance Bill. A wise woman would have turned away immediately, but I hesitated. It was speaking in hushed, urgent tones and I wanted to hear what it was saying. Turns out The Bill was talking with The Budget I’d just drafted. They were tut-tutting my reckless spending at food trucks over the weekend and lamenting my failure to max out my 401k. They wondered how I’d survive retirement. Was I even going to be able to retire? When they realized I’d noticed them, both looked up at me with silent, pointed expressions. You can’t keep putting us off they said, in an eerie double monotone inside my head. It’s only going to get worse.
Within 15 seconds, every “Idea!” I had about my book was long gone. No matter which way I turned in my cage, The Budget and The Bill appeared magically in front of me, like those creepy twins in The Shining. Before I knew what had happened, I’d opened up my Excel file and rerouted all our disposable income to retirement savings. I’d also had several imaginary conversations with my husband, in which I failed to convince him that these new austerity measures constituted a rational and sustainable course of action. I was searching for some paper to write down my latest doomed argument when my fingers found a stack of Post-Its (“Idea!” “Idea!”). aw shit I thought, then I looked up the clock. I'd just whittled down my precious 90 minute writing session to a pitiful 20.
Ask anyone who writes regularly, and they’ll tell you to protect your writing time. But the thing we don’t always think about—the thing I forgot when I strolled cocksure into my office on Monday—is that you’ve got to protect your writing mind as fiercely as you protect your writing time.
When I’m writing, I need to be calm, courageous, and focused. I need to resist panic when the deadline’s only a week away or I can’t figure out what I mean by “the socially assigned value of contestation.” I need to keep plugging away at the problem, and devise a contingency plan (ok, ok, I think, if I can’t figure that out, I’ll cut it from this draft and save it for the next).
It’s not that I don’t feel any fear. On the contrary, I feel fear constantly when I’m writing. I’m terrified, for example, that my editor’s going to take away my book contract, or that someone will sit in the front row of my next writing workshop and roll their eyes at me in boredom and derision. So I need a way to make note of that fear, to gather up my courage, and do my thing anyway.
That calm and that courage are only possible when I’m focused on my Beast—that is, when I protect my mind from all the other things competing for my attention. Once I’d stopped wailing about my wasted morning (and I promise you, I wailed a long, long time), I realized that I was the one who let those other Beasts in the door—not that morning, but the night before. I’d littered my office with visual reminders of all my other responsibilities and worries. Sure, the book’s important. But it’s on a long list of things that matter in my life. If I want to be able to focus on it, it doesn’t pay to leave temptation lying about.
So here’s what I did with that last wretched 20 minutes of writing time: I cleaned up my junky office. And I kept it neat all week. Not because neatness is superior (some people thrive in visually busy environments). But because neatness reduces the number of Beasts in my cage when I open the door in the morning.
And heaven knows my Writing Beast is wicked enough—I can’t take more than one.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach