My nine-year-old son is so much like me, it hurts. He’s sensitive and earnest; he dislikes conformity, even when it’s in his best interests; he can be literal-minded and pedantic; and when he’s anxious, he tends to adopt a “my way or the highway” mentality that’s the very epitome of unhelpful. He’s also curious, creative, intelligent, strong-willed, and has a social justice streak a mile wide.
There are pros and cons to this similarity. We understand each other without needing to put in any real effort, but, on the other hand, we drive each other nuts in a way that no one else in the world can. Because we’re so similar, I often find myself having to give him advice and guidance on situations that either I’ve faced in the past, or that I deal with every day. Thus, in the crucible of parenthood, I find myself learning at least as much as I’m teaching.
In fact, it’s my son that I have to thank for my new writing motto.
The Eternal Sunshine of the Creative Mind
If there’s one thread that seems to tie all creative people together, it’s that we’re interested in everything. A word, a phrase, an image, a scent… anything can lead our minds on a whirlwind journey of curiosity. That’s a wonderful thing — especially in the Age of Google, when answers are but a few key-strokes away. But it can also make focus and productivity a billionty times more difficult. Especially in the Age of Google.
My son’s mind works in the same way. We recently had a conversation that started with him asking a question about why some people measure in inches and we use centimetres, which veered into a brief history of the French Revolution, paused on the apocryphal tale of Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake!”, took a side-route to the meaning and etymology of the word ‘apocryphal’, jumped to an overview of Les Miserables, and finished with a discussion about the difference between justice and law. At the end of it all, neither of us remembered if his original question had even been answered.
Come on, we’ve all been there.
But as cool as boundless curiosity is, it’s important to be able to tell your creative mind to take a breath. Just for a minute. Just long enough to actually get something finished.
Stop, Collaborate and Listen
My son has recently started scouts. He loves it, but he struggles mightily with the expectation of quiet conformity. Everyone wears the same uniform. Everyone does the same thing at the same time. Everyone has to tie the same knot. Even if they have a million questions about why that knot exists, why it has to be tied in that specific way, who invented it, and what do you call this completely different and unrelated knot, anyway?
During yet another conversation where I was trying to explain the benefits of listening and joining in with the group, my son said, “So you’re saying I should just tie the darn knot?”
I nodded. “Tie the knot first. Then ask your questions.”
He nodded, apparently content as long as there was still time for asking questions.
“So what are you going to do next time you’re told to tie a knot?” I asked.
“Just tie the darn knot.”
“And what are you going to do when the leader says it’s time for parade circle?”
“Just tie the darn knot.”
He gave me a cheeky grin, and the phrase hung between us like an invocation.
Just Tie the Darn Knot
It was only afterwards that I realised how often I get distracted while I’m writing; how often I could use that same advice. Once I hit The Zone, I’m fine. It’s getting there that’s the problem. So often, I’m distracted by… stuff. What are we having for dinner? Did I remember to pay that bill that’s due today? I’m hungry. There are dirty dishes on the sink, and washing them is suddenly the most important thing in the world.
Even when I manage to block out those real-world distractions, my mind doesn’t stop. I have a great idea for a completely different story. This would be easier if I stopped writing and went and found a picture of my character. How many words have I written so far? How many pages is that? What would my manuscript look like if I changed the formatting? Maybe I should go back and rewrite the first chapter.
Over the years, I’ve found lots of ways to stay focused. Setting deadlines, writing for set amounts of time per day, cutting off the internet… And they work. They do. But, at the end of the day, what I really need to do is put my questions and curiosities on hold and just get the job done. I need to stop wondering and just write the damn scene.
I need to just tie the darn knot.
This is your Brain on Knots
With this motto to fall back on, I find myself less distracted — although significantly more prone to internal arguments.
Maybe I should do some more research on the mating rituals of ravens. No. Just tie the darn knot.
Did I say my protagonist was wearing a t-shirt or a jacket? It doesn’t matter. Fix it in post. Just tie the darn knot.
I should wash the dishes. They’ll be there later. Just tie the darn knot.
Hey, it works for me.
What about you? Do you have a motto that helps you stay focused and on track?
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