Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Topic 2: Dealing with Obstacles to Writing

Greetings from Writers at Work, the ongoing chat between Sandy Asher and David Harrison about, well, writers at work. Rules are simple. We select a question that is often posed and take turns (two each) responding to it. We also welcome guest blogs from published authors. For example, you’ll see comments below from Veda Boyd Jones, Amie Brockway, and Kristi Holl.

We also welcome and will respond to comments, questions, and topic suggestions from all.

Now we turn to our second subject. It’s about obstacles to writing, things that writers often have to jump over, sneak around, or tunnel under to reach that goal-on-high: finding time to write. In other words, “What kinds of obstacles—external, interpersonal, internal—get in your way and how do you deal with them?” It’s
David’s turn to lead off. Here we go.

Response 1: David

First, the external issues. Oops. Excuse me. Someone’s at the door. Okay, sorry. I’m back. Great. The phone. The phone is ringing. “The phone is ringing! Can’t somebody get the phone?” Sorry. The thing is, writers don’t have real jobs. Ask anybody. “Will someone get that phone!” Every thought we think comes at peril of instant annihilation by barking dogs, TV commercials, or the UPS guy. It’s nobody’s fault, really. Writing something well is the goal, but writing something at all is the best many of us can muster on any given day.

If the creative part of your mind is as sensitive to interruptions as mine, you know there is little room in there for your dog needing out or your neighbor firing up his lawnmower in the middle of a paragraph. Jean Kerr (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) set up writing headquarters in her car to get some privacy to work. Another author, I don’t remember who, built a pulley-rigged platform in his living room and literally rose above the distractions below. A friend of mine went to even greater extremes to protect herself from external obstacles. I don’t know if she’ll tell you about it, but it makes a great story.

I used to stay up late to write after my family went to bed. When the kids were older, and so was I, I switched to getting up early to beat the crowd. Whatever you have to do to write is up to you to work out. Just realize that few writers ever have the luxury of an obstacle-free environment. Somehow we all need to figure out how to answer the phone and still finish the same sentence we started.

How about those interpersonal obstacles? Families are probably the writer’s main obstacles. After all, families live together, share time and space, play together, depend on one another. When one of us – that would be the writer – keeps sliding down the hall toward the computer like Gollum sniffing for his precious, the scene is set. Feelings can be hurt on both sides. Chores that should get done don’t. Evenings that ought to be planned aren’t. Writing does take its toll. For that matter, so does painting, composing, sculpting, or any other endeavor that requires extended periods of concentration, quiet, and isolation.
Too bad we can’t have it all. The world loves beauty created by those who have the gift to make beauty by human hands. It’s the process that ticks off so many people. It’s not the principal of the thing. It’s the TIME it takes. Think compromise. Think establishing “safe zones” for your writing. Good luck on this one!
Sandy I’ll save the third section until my second round. So, over to you.
Response 2: Sandy

Hey, David –

“A friend” with a story to tell, huh? Okay, I will, but let’s back up a little first. Phone calls and ringing doorbells are obstacles to writing, of course, along with the dog scratching to go out and then scratching again to come back in. But these days I’d put email and the internet at the top of my list. Because there I am – at the computer, alone at last and with time to write – and the sirens start singing in cyberspace. Passing minutes turn to lost hours with amazing speed.

Next, there’s family. When the children were little, I was a stay-at-home mom and learned to write during nap times and then preschool times and then school times. As the hours expanded, so did my word count – poetry, very short stories and plays, longer stories and plays, and, finally YA novels and full-length plays. That was fine, because I was learning from the kids and the forms as I was growing as a writer. Obstacles can become challenges, which then become learning opportunities.

Then off the kids went, launched into their own lives, and Harvey continued leaving for work in the early a.m. and not returning until dinner, five days a week. Bliss!

Fast forward many years, and here comes the “friend’s story” to which you alluded, David. Harvey became a stay-at-home retiree. We moved to our small, historic townhouse in Lancaster. (People didn’t need as much personal space in the 1800’s. Jane Austen wrote on a tiny table in the parlor with her nieces and nephews running around.) In my office on the third floor, I could hear the microwave beeping on the first floor. If I wandered downstairs for a cup of coffee, still thinking about the writing at hand, I found my concentration shattered by the sight of another human being. Even one deservedly enjoying quite reading time in his beloved recliner.

How to explain to that non-writer that his mere presence was ruining everything? What to do about it, short of ending an otherwise happy marriage? The answer to the first question came with a Lancaster Literary Guild presentation by Francine Prose. She mentioned a grant she’d received that included a year’s office space at the New York Public Library to work on any project she liked, and she said she knew it would have to be a nonfiction project. She didn’t say why, but I understood. I waited until the Q&A and asked her. “Every day at noon,” she said, “a friend with the same grant who worked in a neighboring office poked his head in and asked if I wanted to go to lunch. Since I was working on nonfiction, that was no problem. I knew my notecards would stay on my desk, awaiting my return. But if I’d been working on fiction, I would’ve had to kill him. Nonfiction happens outside of you. To write fiction, you completely enter another world and any intrusion from anyone in your real life instantly destroys it.” I turned to Harvey. He got it.

So what did we do about our problem? We bought a second townhouse! Two doors away. This one’s really tiny, but big enough for Harvey to relax, read, watch TV, beep the microwave, and even do some writing of his own.

And they lived happily ever after.

Your turn, David. Let’s hear about the battles that go on inside, even when the outside obstacles take a break.

Response 3: David

Hi Sandy,

Good point about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. Up to a point, that is. When I’m into reading for a nonfiction book, making notes is fairly routine and allows for a certain amount of interruption to the process. But good nonfiction is far more than reporting, of course. To hold any audience’s attention for long, the writer must find ways to weave the nonfictional information into a narrative that interests the reader and keeps him or her turning pages. That’s when the storyteller in me takes the lead, and that’s when the usual need for peaceful thinking time clicks in.

Okay, now for the third part of our question about obstacles to writing: internal ones. For many of us, this is the worst culprit of all. Self-induced problems run the gamut and I’ll bet that everyone reading this will have his or her own list of reasons not to write. (If you have your own particular demons, let us know so we can share them.)

Here are some of mine. I need to clear my email. The inbox must be empty. Ditto the Sent box and the Delete box. I want my time clear of such obligations before I turn to my day’s work. I also check my blog about 200 times a day to make sure I don’t owe someone a response to a comment left there. By the way, Kate Klise suffers from the same need to clear her email as a requisite to writing. I drink coffee most of the morning from 6:00 on. It might surprise me to keep track of the time I burn between my computer and the kitchen, pouring or warming cups of coffee.

As the day progresses I wander the house to check on this or that. Maybe to look at the lake to see if the swan has returned. I’ll dig into a box of crackers and wonder if the salt is really all that bad for me. I suddenly remember that I owe someone a response so I stop for that. I make a list of things I need to be doing, like WRITING SOMETHING.

I check for email. Maybe an editor has responded to a query or someone has invited me to speak somewhere or . . . sigh.

I get down some words. Oh yes! Wow does this feel good. Why didn’t I put off all those other things and do this first? Will I ever learn? Sometimes at this point I take my pad to some other part of the house, outside even, to get away from this computer. But you know what? As disorganized as my system appears to be (even to me!), it’s my system, and it has been working out for some time now. I’m often congratulated for being so prolific. I smile and want to tell people, “If you only knew what I have to overcome each day before I write my first word!”

Before I send this back to you, Sandy, I want to share the remarks of Guest Author Veda Boyd Jones, a prolific author and frequent speaker on the subject of writing literature for young people. Veda, the stage is yours.

Sandy and David,

Great idea to keep a running conversation going by working writers. When I first started writing, I could only write from 1:00-3:00 in the afternoon. Jim came home from work for lunch, then headed back, and I put the boys down for their naps. Anyone with kids knows you can’t think when kids are tugging on you needing this or that. I needed silence and alone time to think and write.

So, I learned early on that there’s no waiting for inspiration to write. I’d read what I’d written the day before and then I’d start from there. It’s like listening to a book on tape in the car. You pick right up where you left off. I guess you just get in the zone, focus.

I also learned quickly to take pen and paper to Little League practice. In the car I was alone, even thought chaos reigned on the baseball field.

Once all three boys were in school, I set a routine. Do the breakfast dishes, laundry in the washer, sweep the kitchen floor, plan supper, all those everyday things, then I’d be at the computer by nine. Pre-caller ID, I’d answer the phone because it could be a family matter, but if it was a friend, I’d talk a bit, then say I had to get something finished.

I agree with David that everyone perceived that I didn’t work. (Did they think I just ordered books in the mail with my name on the cover?) Of course, I was a room mother, and I got stuck with the worst-behaving kids on field trips since I was used to three boys (although such good sons they are). Still, family does come first, to a degree. There’s such a thing as overindulgence that keeps kids from becoming self-sufficient. It’s absolutely a balancing act.

You can see that I had the luxury (and fatigue) of being an at-home mom, and that let me carve writing time out of the day. When I’m asked how to become a successful writer, I usually answer, “First, marry an 

Veda Boyd Jones, author of Nellie the Brave

Response 4: Sandy

Hey, David –

It’s nice to know I’m not alone, even though it’s the answer-all-your-emails-first club I belong to. Not only answer them, but hop to it and deliver anything anyone asks of me in those emails. But, like you, I get a lot done in spite of my email addiction, so I guess we club members could free up at least a little of our time if we spend less of it feeling guilty!

The internal obstacle I’d like to talk about is something like a taped message that goes on in my brain during the writing of first drafts. I start out each project in a state of high optimism: “This is a fabulous idea. It’s going to be easy, too! And everyone’s going to love it.” Off I go, then, scribbling or typing away with a big smile on my face. Roughly halfway, maybe less, into the first draft, the tape begins: “This is not going to work. This is garbage. Whatever made you think you could write? This is awful. Stop! Give up! STOP!”

I don’t know where that message comes from, but I do know other writers hear their own version of it. Another club we joined unwillingly, but there we are, in it together and wrestling with another obstacle to our writing. Some writers do stop and give up. As for me, I’ve come to think of that moment when the negative message clicks on as something like the wall that marathon runners talk about. Somewhere in the race you feel as if you will drop in your tracks if you take another step. But if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, sooner or later a “second wind” will kick in and carry you to the finish line.

So I keep putting one word in front of the other, with the message repeating on a relentless loop in my head, and eventually, I get an entire draft done. That entire draft, I’ve found, is a critical milestone. It’s easy to throw away the first few paragraphs of a story or even the first couple of chapters of a book. But an entire draft? Uh-uh. I’ve lived with the characters too long. I know them, I care about them, and I’m not going to toss them in the trash without at least trying to do their story justice.

The taped message in my head hates it when I get on with the second, third, fourth, or nth draft of a piece. It slinks away. Until the next project. It’s been visiting me for decades now, with no signs of weakening — a formidable foe, but not an unstoppable one. I just write it down!

My turn to go first next time, David. I’ll be taking on “How do you deal with rejection?” And do I ever have experience in that area!

But before we go there, let’s hear more about obstacles from Amie Brockway and Kristi Holl.

Hi Sandy and David,

I would love to figure out how to make use of your new venture. What gets in my way?

Today, it’s 327 emails that have to be answered, deleted, or otherwise dealt with. I keep meaning to tell you, Sandy, that I’m reading your book about writing and rewriting. I read it while I eat–that’s multitasking, right? It’s a wonderful book, and I’m sure it will help me.

I’m trying to get to my two writing projects, and I thought I had pretty much the whole day today to focus on them. But, here it is 4:30, and I still have 21 unread emails and a whole stack of emails for which I have promised to try to get this or that done today.

I don’t know.

I made up a time budget, and it has 34 hours in a day. I tried multiplying that times 5 days and spreading it over 7 days, and if I remember correctly I ended up with 4 spare hours.

Guess I won’t be trying to blog anytime soon.


Amie Brockway is producing artistic director of The Open Eye Theater, Margaretville, NY. Her plays include adaptations of The Odyssey and The Nightingale (both Dramatic Publishing Company). The theater’s website is www.theopeneye.org.  

Dealing with Distractions

During the early stages of a writing project, when you’re gathering ideas and deciding on your approach, it’s useful to daydream and be unfocused in your thinking. However, there comes a time to focus, to fully concentrate on the work, as if you were putting a beam of sunlight through a magnifying glass to concentrate its power until the paper it touches bursts into flame.

Why focus? When you focus, you’ll accomplish writing projects in half the time, and your concentrated efforts will produce better work. Focusing also builds momentum and enthusiasm, urging us to move steadily toward finished stories, articles, and books.

Being able to focus is critical. As Stephen Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) says, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Getting Sidetracked

What keeps us from focusing? Distractions. They have always been with us. Agatha Christie once said, “I enjoy writing in the desert. There are no distractions such as telephones, theaters, opera houses, and gardens.” While our modern-day distractions may have changed a bit (emails to answer, faxes coming in, the World Series on TV), the result of being sidetracked by them remains the same. We don’t finish our writing. We don’t study guidelines and mail that manuscript. We don’t follow up on marketing tips. If we stall long enough, we may quit altogether.

So how do we deal with things that take us away from our writing? Try adapting the Serenity Prayer for this purpose: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the distractions I cannot change, courage to change the distractions I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Wisdom to Know

What are some distractions you cannot change or ignore? Sometimes it’s a sick child or spouse or a crisis with a friend. Sometimes your boss gives you an overtime assignment with a “now” deadline. There may be a project that needs to be attended to without delay, like your teenager’s last-minute college entrance application. This type of interruption or distraction you have little control over. You grin and bear it.
However, we need wisdom to know the difference between the distractions that are unavoidable and those we allow. Chances are, you’re your own worst enemy when it comes to distractions that keep you from writing. So take courage! Change what you can in order to focus on your writing.

1. Use an answering machine to screen calls. Better yet, turn the ringer off altogether so you’re not tempted to pick up when you hear your best friend’s voice. Then return calls at lunchtime or when you’ve finished your daily writing stint.

2. Isolate yourself as much as possible from the traffic flow. I now have my own office, but I’ve written in family rooms and bedrooms and dens. The family room was the most difficult with constant interruptions of TV, kids, and doorbells. The more you can shut the door on distractions, the easier you’ll find it to focus.

3. Take note of your own personal distractions. The blinds in my office are pulled because I look outside every time a car/garbage truck/motorcycle/UPS truck/bus/delivery truck goes by. I also remove all chocolate from my workspace. Even hidden in the back of a drawer, it calls to me while I work and distracts me, whether I stop to eat it or not. Nice weather tempts me to go out for a while, so I don’t put on makeup until late in the day. I know I won’t show my face in public without it – so I’ll stay home and write instead.

4. Leave the mail alone. Reading letters and email and surfing the Net can be a major distraction. It interrupts your flow to stop and sort the mail. And if your mail contains rejection letters, bills, and bank statements, it can create an instant slump. So get the snail-mail if you must, but stash it in a basket until the end of the day when you’re done writing. The same is true for email. Leave it unopened and unread till late afternoon (unless it’s a response from an editor!).

5. For non-emergencies, make your family wait. Barter with your family for writing time. When you’re finished, you’ll make popcorn. When you’re finished, you’ll play catch. When you’re finished, you’ll go rent a movie. (Just be sure you actually follow through on your promises!)

6. Leave home. If home is too chaotic sometimes, take your work to the library or a park or a cafe, somewhere quiet with no phone and a minimum of distractions.

7. Organize your workspace first. Arrange your workspace before you begin writing, to ensure that you have everything you need. Don’t run out of paper halfway through typing your chapter. Keep things within reach. Even finding a new ink cartridge or box of paper clips in your supply closet can distract you. Before you know it, you’ve spent half an hour rearranging the closet shelves.

8. Silence can be golden. Are you as distracted by noise as I am? I run a fan on high speed for white noise, and during school vacations I also use earplugs. If traffic bothers you – or if you’re in a quiet neighborhood where twittering birds distract you – close the windows during your writing time.

9. Change your schedule. Get up earlier and write when the world is still asleep. Phones don’t ring. Kids don’t interrupt. Your spouse is still snoring. (This works equally well if you’re a night owl and can write after the world shuts down for the night.)

10. Eat healthy meals at regular intervals. Avoid the distraction of a growling stomach or a hunger headache. If you’re always thirsty, keep cold drinks within reach. A mini-refrigerator in your office, filled with bottled water and fresh fruit, an keep you from constantly running to the kitchen.


Take time to study yourself, discovering your own favorite distractions. Once in a while we have absolutely no control over interruptions. However, most of the time, we (consciously or not) use distractions to keep us from having to face the work and anxiety of putting words on paper.

The next time you sit down at your keyboard, close your eyes and imagine yourself as that concentrated beam of light focused by the magnifying glass. Then open your eyes, hit the keys, and set the world on fire!
Visit Kristi’s website at www.KristiHoll.com

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