I know the jokes about writers. We work in our pajamas, for one. We’re obviously at home too, so we ought to be able get the laundry done while we work. And since our time is our own, it’s only logical that we can run the dog to the vet, clean up the dishes, remember those birthday cards, have the repair guy in when the refrigerator starts making that noise like it’s housing a sick cat. And the thing is, I think most of us partly agree. It is only logical. Intrusive and crazy-making, but logical. It all needs to be done, even if it means something is always banging on the door of our writing time.
For a while, I tried clearing the decks daily before I started writing. I was quickly reminded of Betty Friedan’s astute observation, “Housework expands to fill the time available.” And I’ve noticed the “…expands to fill the time available,” principle applies not only to housework but also to the business side of the writing life: e-mails, reading The Author’s Guild communications and Publisher’s Lunch, primary sources of information for authors, and the increasing responsibility publishers expect authors to take for marketing. Having other things caught up in order to be able to fully focus didn’t work for me, because things weren’t ever caught up. Doing a bit of it and then turning to my writing leaves me with too divided a mind, leftover ‘to-dos’ jumping around my mind like antsy cats.
For me, it’s become a matter of steering myself past non-emergency distractions during time I’ve designated for writing to go directly to the work. It’s almost like putting on blinders. My aim is to get myself to flow, that state of complete focus in which one’s self disappears, energized and merged with the work. Everything else drops away and, for a while, nothing else matters. While creative artists have always known about these productive periods of being in the zone, it was named, studied and written about starting c. 1975 by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, my fingers were on the right keys), Ph.D., author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1990.) If I remind myself of this concept, and tell myself to concentrate on going there until that experience has run its course, I’ll finally get up from the chair—reeling, surprised at the clock, satisfied, happy—and then maybe I’ll get that mail taken care of. Or that laundry. Or attend to another job, as so many writers and artists do. Depends on the day. And now I also keep a written list of junk tasks and errands that need to be done, my goal being to ignore it until a designated half-day to run around town. I admit that as the list grows, items on it can start to eat at my mind like mice that find the spilled birdseed on the garage floor (on the list to clean up). If I let it go too long, the mice take over and my mind—which I’d love to be an orderly, organized, uncluttered house—more resembles a tenement, littered, infested, crap-filled. So I have learned not to let the list become a three day project instead of a half-day.
And I’ve learned that to live as an actively creating writer means making conscious choices about how I’ll do that. Internal reward—the experience of flow, for example—may be the primary gratification a writer gets between publications. And that can be years when the publications are books. So I’m arranging time to maximize my best, most joyful experience.
Do you have a way of approaching the creative life that has (or hasn’t) worked for you? Do you experience flow? I hope you’ll share your experience.