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How (not) to Focus When Writing

by Travis Besecker
Author of 'Lost in Infinity: Deja Vu Redux'

Lost in InfinityThe guidelines for this guest piece were vague. I love vague. 'Any topic is good as long as it's writing/book related,' I was told. Someone with a brain that wanders freely such as mine needs direction, boundaries and discipline to maintain focus. I love vague, I have a strong aversion to boundaries and discipline was never my strong suit.

Two minutes into writing this post and I'm already miles away from any intended target.

According to an article I found on the internet, whose validity is questionable at best, the most effective way to maintain focus is a multi-step process which begins with adequate sleep and ends with making sure you are passionate and happy about the task you're performing. Sprinkled in the middle were mini rewards for your hard work and dedication, finding the right music and isolation from distractions. After reading this article I clicked on a link in the footer attached to an x-ray image of an abdomen filled with what appeared to be die-cast Lord of the Rings characters. Two hours later I was buying a t-shirt from Think Geek with a schematic for the 'Serenity' Series 3 Firefly silkscreened on the front. Obviously I had read over the original piece with uninspired vitality.

Returning to the article on focus, reading that the most important element was a good night's sleep I immediately began combing through mental space for an excuse to find something else to do. I hate sleep. Sleep is the enemy. Sleep is overrated. Thomas Edison once wrote, "I never found need of more than four or five hours' sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream. It's real sleep. When by chance I have taken more I wake dull and indolent." I find this comforting.

As many people do, I push everything to the limit of excess and more often than not well over the threshold into the realm of obsession and misguided addiction. Much like self discipline, moderation was never my strong suit. After a life of chronic insomnia, I've embraced the waking world and run screaming from each and every opportunity for rest. Even when the insomnia is at bay, I would prefer to drive my mind into euphoric fits of caffeinated lucidity than wake from an eight hour slumber.

These are the moments when I am at my most creative. Those are the instances when I can strip off the paradigms of modern society and run bare-assed through the meadows of Things That Ought Not Be Thought. Sleep deprivation is cheaper than illegal drugs and alcohol only numbs and never elevates. When I'm on the brink of collapse and seeing faces in the shadows I tend to think so far outside of the box, I'm through the next room, out the front door and either face down in a ditch or hitchhiking alongside the interstate on-ramp. There are obvious drawbacks to writing in a state of near sleep bordering on madness. Spellcheck and grammar-check are pointless. When I do meet my deadline and pass out, the collection of thoughts and sporadic moments of clarity are more of an outline for something finished than an actual coherent product. It's more a means to an end than the end itself.

Passion and interest in the task you are performing? That may help with focus but it does very little for the type of creative thinking I thrive on. I'm never more alive than when I'm digging a stone tunnel through rock bottom. Depression and misery fuel my need to create. Happy me does not touch a keyboard or pick up a pen. That desire comes from a deeper and darker place. Happy me spends time with family, laughs at pointless jokes and waits patiently in line.

At the same time, I don't want to read something someone wrote in their free time about something they love and are passionate about. I want to read something someone slaved over under mental duress because the only way they could survive was through purging the written word. I want to see how far down the rabbit hole someone fell before climbing back out and told the tale.

I never write because I want to. I write because I need to. There must be a deadline looming, either physical or mental, that drives me where I need to go. I focus under pressure. I buckle down and find an affinity for the final period. Sometimes it's a date on the calendar, other times it's mental collapse because I haven't slept in three days. It's not always pretty and it's never polished but it's a pattern I must repeat.

I'm not going to even weigh in on the points regarding mini rewards and picking the right music. As an adult, life isn't measured in participation trophies and my choice in music would in no way help my focus or stimulate creativity. The only suggestion I found relevant in the article was isolating yourself from distractions. Sort of. There is a fine line between a distraction and a muse; between a hinderance and a stimulant. I love isolation. I long for the peace of solidarity without the worry of committing a social error. Cutting myself off from the rest of life is an important part of my process. I lock my office door, stuff a towel under the crack and throw myself head first into the process. No contact with the physical world. The imaginary world of the internet and social media don't count. Reading people's darkest inhibitions or twisted musings 140 characters at a time is more like flipping the channels on a television showing nothing but millions of 'reality tv' sitcoms… enter 'stimulant'. My immediate family within the vicinity, unknowingly and more importantly, unintentionally making me feel guilty for putting myself in this state and/or choosing to spend time away from them rather than with them? - That's a 'distraction'.

The morning after (or afternoon or night depending upon how long the crash and reset takes) begins step two in my writing process. The clean up. This is where I start sifting through the written vomit looking for a tethered thread to pull and string the bead of insanity together. In essence I end up looking at a pale yellow 1974 Chevrolet Nova drenched in blood with a corpse, minus a head in a garage… waiting for The Wolf to come direct before Bonnie comes home from work at 9:30 in the A.M. After going through and picking up the bits of brain and skull I have to start scrubbing the vinyl and mopping up the mess. Every once in a while the whole thing is way too far gone to try and repair in which case I drop the sponge and run for Mexico.

What was the point of all of this again? Something writing/book related? An article on how to focus? I have no idea. The guidelines were vague.

I love vague.

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