Whether we like it or not, recent world events have forced most of us to hit the pause button. For some, that pause comes at a relatively decent place where we can stop and see it as an opportunity (if we can set aside our anxiety long enough.) For others, the pause has us teetered on the brink of a freefall that we cannot even begin to see the end of or how we will land.
No matter where we are, all we can do at this point is wait. Wait and stay home and see if that will be enough to flatten the curve.
It’s the ultimate dichotomy, isn’t it? We’ve been given this great chunk of time where the best thing we can do is stay home and tend to ourselves (surely a writer’s dream!) and yet we are so filled with uncertainty and stress and anxiety that we can barely focus on anything but the news and the horror of it all as it unfolds.
Waiting is often a passive state where we feel out of control. But waiting does not have to be passive. It’s possible, even healthy, to take this waiting period that we have been given and use it to do something proactive, life affirming.
When the world is on fire around us, there can be nothing more helpful for our mental health than to lose ourselves in the flow of something, whether it be a hobby, a craft, a passion, or a calling. It might seem an awful lot like fiddling while Rome burns, but once you’ve ensured that your fire alarm battery is working and watered your roof, really, what else is there to do?
Start a garden. Adopt a house plant. Sewing, knitting, origami, drawing, painting, book art, collaging with found things in your home, yoga. YouTube videos abound on an incredibly vast array of new skills—some we’ve longed to try for ages. Now is the time to do that, to lose yourself in that kind of being. Allowing yourself to find a way to create in a chaotic world—to enter a flow state of being—is the biggest gift you can give yourself. It gives your ravenous brain something healthy to chew on rather than junk food.
I want to be clear that I’m not talking about advancing our careers or hitting word counts or being productive. For most of us, this experience is a little too traumatic for that. I am talking about finding a path to escape, just for a little while, the unremittingly heavy burden of the time we’re living in, by losing ourselves in the act of creation. No pressure or strings attached.
Since most of us here are writers, that seems the obvious thing. For many of us, our ability to lose ourselves in deep focused work and the flow of creativity will offer a welcome respite. But how you might ask. How are we to do that with all the news events swirling around us and all the ugly news piling up?
It won’t be easy. We’ll need to work on strengthening our deep focus muscles first. Long before this current situation, they have likely been eroded by social media, 24/7 news cycles, and instant access to everybody. It will be hard, especially when all our brains have been so thoroughly trained to fragment and fracture and skip down rabbit holes. (Remember, there are a huge number of companies who make quite a lot of money ensuring we do just that.)
Fragmented brains are not healthy or helpful brains. They don’t help us with making decisions. They don’t help us with moving forward, they simply don’t help.
For me, the single biggest factor in whether I have a fractured, unsatisfying day is whether or not I get on the internet or social media before late afternoon. If I stay off, I can find deep focus and achieve a flow state. Not as long as I was able to before! But long enough to feel I accomplished something meaningful. The truth is there is no news right now that we absolutely must know the moment it breaks, especially if we are staying at home. That is the nature of this enemy that we are fighting.
You absolutely want to be available to family or friends who may need you, so turn off all your social media notifications and close your web browser. Calls and texts will still get through. You can also go Full Focus and put your phone on Do Not Disturb for a couple of hours each day. Tell your closest family and friends if they really need you to call twice in a row—that second call will ring through.
I know it sounds impossible, but there truly is an alternative to the steady consumption of bad news and having it take over our brains. However our focus muscle won’t rebuild overnight, so as we work on getting them back into shape, here are some ways to stay connected to our work in smaller chunks. Some are daydreaming type activities where you let your brain play in the world of the story and others are more organizing and gathering the tools you will need once you have shored up your ability to go deep again.
- Pick one important detail of a scene—either the setting, a piece of furniture, the way the light hits the room, an item of clothing, a meal—and describe it.
- Now find a way to imbue that same detail with a sense of meaning, either by using it to reveal character, subtext, or mood. What does your POV character notice about it that no one else would? How does she react to it based on her personal history?
- Construct detailed backstory/backgrounds for your characters; seemingly random details about their childhood, quirks, obsessions, peculiarities, etc. They don’t even have to be related to the story—just keep you connected to that character and allow them to become more and more real to you. What were their favorites stories growing up? Who told them? Who was the most beloved/feared/influential adult when they were young? Note: This isn’t something to be completed in one day, but kind of like adding to a pencil sketch a little bit each day or putting together a 1000 piece puzzle, a few pieces at a time.
- Are there some things that will need to be addressed eventually, but aren’t part of the main plot? That conversation between the protagonist and her sister, or between the protagonist and a subplot character? Or how they will react when they see [X] for the first time? Make a list of those and work on them as time and focus allow.
- Sketch out a floorplan or a map.
- Create a diagram of a complicated action scene or one with a lot of conversational parts.
- Write the bare bones dialog of a scene—think radio play script.
- Block out a scene’s physical beats, character actions, or logistics.
- Rough out a scene list of the next 6-12 scenes so you have a sense of where you’re going.
- Research the small details you’ll eventually need to know. What did carts look like in the 15th century. Were elevators around in 1900? Do houses in California have basements?
- Write about what you WILL write about, when you do have the time. (A story journal.)
- Worldbuild! It’s not just for fantasy and historical! Specific details make a setting feel more universal than generic ones, so begin constructing some of those details.
- Do a quick journaling exercise on how people feel about the town that they live in. Is it a hopeful place? Or a despondent one? A place where change never happens? Or a place that transforms people’s lives? Why?
- Now think of details that will imbue that town/location with subtext that conveys what you discovered in your journal entry. Peeling paint on a building can feel hopeless and abandoned, old and tired, busy and lived in, or the genteel aging of a once stunning exterior that has seen better days. Each of these convey wildly different places.
- How do people think about the nearby woods, vacant fields, lake, or old trestle bridge?
- Spend some time making a list of all the story decisions you can foresee. Pick one of those decisions and work through the possibilities and options. Circle the ones that feel strongest and have the most potential for dramatic tension and conflict.
- Move on to the next. You’ll be surprised how much it can help to have some of these laid out ahead of time.
- Pick a crutch word—probably an adjective—and using a good thesaurus, look up alternate words that convey the same things.
- Now brainstorm physical details or actions that can convey that same feeling without using any of the words. (Need a hint? Over the last few days, how many times have you obsessively checked your phone, washed your hands, donned latex gloves, or worn a mask. All of those show the very real fear you’re dealing with—and none of them require chunks of narrative to explain.)
The important thing to remember is that as a species, we have been through things far worse than this. We have survived. And within each historical tragedy, there have been people that thrived quietly. Not in terms of profiteering or pillaging or taking advantage, but simply because they took each day as it came and found what gifts could be scavenged from their situation. How do we know this? Because we have read their stories . . .
What tricks or tips do you have for achieving deep focus? If you haven’t been able to achieve a flow state, what ways have you been staying connected to your work?