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Focus, and How to Regain it: A Lesson from the Trial Ring

Bodhi focussed [1]There I was, out walking with three canines on the lead, each wanting to go his own way. I gave the command, ‘Focus!’ I’d love to tell you that all three pairs of eyes were instantly on me, and three little bodies were ready to respond to the next instruction. That wouldn’t be quite true, but I did get their attention. Perfect obedience is unlikely to be achieved with my current crew of rescues, all of whom are either old and creaky or have chronic health problems. Or both.

I did have a lovely well-trained dog, Harry, with whom I attended the local obedience training club for four years. Some of you will know that I lost Harry under particularly traumatic circumstances about three months ago. Focus was a command I used to get his eyes back on me when he was distracted by an irresistible smell or an ambulance siren in the distance or a magpie up in the trees. Or he might have slipped into the ‘vague zone’ – dogs do sometimes get tired or bored with training and simply tune out. Focus is a particularly handy reminder for a short-legged dog, who has to look a long way up to maintain eye contact with his handler. It’s not such a stretch for border collies.

What has all this to do with writing, you ask?

I’ve had cause to doubt my own focus of recent times. That’s related to both writing and dogs. I’m writing this post three days before it’s due – too late to let it sit for a while, then give it an edit, as I’d prefer. I’m leaving for New Zealand to attend the national Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, Au Contraire [2], on June 1. I thought I would be as well organised as usual. But a week and a half ago, one of my dogs developed an eye ulcer that would not heal – this required a lot of care, numerous vet trips and, eventually, a visit to a specialist followed by surgery this morning. The timing could hardly have been worse; my stress levels went through the roof. And, of course, I communicated them to all five dogs. I hate leaving my little crew at the best of times; doing so when one of them is ill is so much worse.

Let’s not mention the short story with a submission date of May 31, and the novel I’m supposed to be working on, which hasn’t been touched since Zen fell ill. I sit here surrounded by memos to myself, lists of veterinary medications and dosages, convention programs, notes for panels, house-sitting instructions, road maps showing the way to the boarding kennels and so on. I don’t like being weighed down by all this stuff. I like to be on top of things. I especially hate the scattered feeling that comes with having a multitude of tasks to be performed in a limited time. The more that feeling grows, the less focused I become.

Most of us humans don’t have handlers to guide us through the obstacle course of daily life. We have to take responsibility; be our own handlers. So I tell myself that sometimes we just can’t do all the things. Not at the same time, anyway. Sometimes the practical arrangements are all we can manage, and the creative side needs to wait until we have the time and brain space for it. I don’t like lack of control. I am very uncomfortable when I feel the dogs pulling all ways and I’m mortified when they behave badly. I hate submitting work late. I hate being under-prepared for panels and workshops. It feels as if the work part of my life is also pulling all ways at once.

It’s time to tell myself, Focus. When a dog hears that, his attention is drawn sharply back to the task in hand – walk to heel, execute a figure of eight or whatever. My task in hand is to get the essential jobs done in the available time. My inner handler says:

1. Stay off Facebook and other social media except for essential communications.
2. Make all the lists into a single list. Cross items off as you complete them.
3. Set aside some future time for writing. Think how much you could get done on those long flights!
4. Where you can, delegate tasks to others.
5. Travel brings new ideas and experiences; this time it will also trigger memories. Take notes; use your five senses; find story potential in what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

I remind myself that during this stressful patch there have been many positives. I was granted an extension for the story; the specialist fitted us into his very busy schedule; my dog came through surgery well; I was invited to step in as a Guest of Honour at the convention, replacing someone who had to cancel. Best of all, I’m going home.

Travel may make me slow to respond to comments, folks – don’t take it personally. Put your handler’s outfit on for me, and share one essential command you would give yourself for managing your writer’s life.

Image: Juliet’s dog Bodhi. Photo copyright Glenn Ware.

About Juliet Marillier [3]

Juliet Marillier [4] has written twenty novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet is currently working on a new fantasy trilogy for adult readers, Warrior Bards, of which the first book, The Harp of Kings, will be published in September 2019. Her short novel Beautiful, based on the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, comes out as an Audible Original on May 30. When not writing, Juliet is kept busy by her small tribe of elderly rescue dogs.