So I’m walking toward my office one 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 was working on. So many, in fact, that I had a mass of Post-It notes plastered to my hand. Each one said Idea, Idea! on it, 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 stepped into my office, there were these…interlopers lounging around.
In one corner was my Blog, almost breathless with excitement. It was talking to me in these high-pitched, staccato notes and launching tiny suggestions at me like a spastic tennis-ball machine. I grabbed each idea mid-air, wrote each one down in a flash, and stuck them in a file. Ha! I thought to myself. You’ll have to work harder than that if you want to distract me—I’m a writing coach!
The Blog 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. It was speaking to the Budget I’d just drafted, in hushed, urgent tones. 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. Would I even be able to retire? When they realized I’d noticed them, they 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, Idea! I had about my book was long gone. No matter which way I turned, the Budget and the Bill appeared magically in front of me, like those creepy twins in The Shining. Before I knew what was happening, I’d opened an Excel file and mapped out how to reroute 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 paper so I could write down my latest doomed argument, when my fingers found a stack of Post-It notes. Idea, Idea! they wheezed out, and I thought, aw shit. I looked at the clock, then sucked my teeth in disgust. I'd spent so much time anxiety-budgeting that I’d whittled down my precious 90 minute writing session to a pitiful 20.
How do we maintain focus during a writing session? In a world where it’s normal to wear digital disruptions on our bodies, how do we keep from getting distracted? Ask any writing coach, and they’ll tell you to protect your writing time. And yes, you might need to close your office door or put up signs to let friends, family, and colleagues know you shouldn’t be disturbed.
But the thing we don’t always think about—the thing I forgot when I strolled cocksure into my office that Monday—is that attention is as precious a resource as the hours of your day. Which means that after setting aside time to write (and after managing to actually show up for that time), you’ve got to protect your writing mind as fiercely as you protect your writing time.
The way to do so is to create a refuge for our writing—a space that protects us from the mental and emotional disruptors that can derail our writing practice. It might seem funny to focus on where we do our writing, instead of the willpower we bring to the work. Doesn’t it somehow seem like focus goes hand in hand with adulthood? Like we should be able to plop down and concentrate at the drop of a hat? That’d be lovely. But in fact, the setting in which we do our work shapes how settled, satisfied, and productive we are. So, when you reconfigure your office into a writing refuge—rather than a space for all your faculty work—it’s easier to achieve the extended focus we need to get and stay immersed in our manuscripts.
There are four features of a Writing Refuge that help a writer concentrate and make progress—even when time is short. One key feature is that it’s free of mental distraction. Think of your writing mind like a ball of yarn or a finely knit sweater: you want the space you’re entering to be clean and smooth—you don’t want your attention to get snagged on anything that will take it away from thoughts of your manuscript.
This is exactly what happened to me when I got waylaid by the Budget and the Bill. And it happened because I’d let my mental interlopers in the door—not that morning, but the night before. My writing space is multi-purpose: it’s where I pay bills, make online purchases, book travel, renew subscriptions—you get the idea. I do a whole host of non writing-related tasks there. Instead of clearing away the evidence of this work, I’d left it behind. In doing so, I turned my writing space into an obstacle course.
I’m not saying that our writing spaces have to be neat or clean. Many writers thrive in a visually busy environment and there’s some evidence that a cluttered space can lead to better, more creative ideas. Instead, I’m saying that our writing spaces should serenely direct us toward our writing, and away from our other obligations and concerns.
So, if you tend to find yourself similarly distracted when you start writing, take a quick look around your office. If you’re not there now, then see it in your mind’s eye. Are this week’s response papers piled on your chair? How about the overdue travel reimbursement form for that conference you went to last month? The clothes you ordered online from that place whose return-by date you’re afraid you’ve already missed? Whatever it is that’s in your office asking you to do something other than write has no place in your Writing Refuge.
Luckily, you don’t have to spend the next two weeks reorganizing your office to turn it into a refuge. Nor do you have to permanently scrub it of all other signs of faculty life. All you have to do is temporarily tuck away anything that calls you away from writing. If you love pretty file folders and already have them in place, slip the offending papers inside and close the drawer. If you favor a more carefree style of organization, tuck the distractors under the desk or in the closet. Dump them in a shopping bag if need be, and close the top with a binder clip. Do whatever is necessary to remove them from sight.
And if none of that works? It may mean that your office just isn’t the right place for you to write. One department chair I know literally has to leave their office in the middle of the day to write: there are too many aspects of their administrative role that cannot be put away—not the least of which is their own expectation that they be available to others when they’re in that space. Their solution therefore, is to remove themselves to a café or a carrel; to build their Writing Refuge in those alternate spaces, and use their office solely for their leadership work.
Building a Writing Refuge can attune you to the ways that you—like me—may be tripping yourself up without even realizing it. And it increases your ability to focus on your work, by optimizing an aspect of our writing practice we don’t always think about explicitly or clearly.
Goodness knows that writing’s already hard enough. Let’s give ourselves and our Ideas! Ideas! a fighting chance.
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