I was watching my 11-year-old daughter the other afternoon as she did what 11-year-old girls do: multi-task to the nth degree. All at once she was reading, listening to music, chatting on instant messenger, and still paying some peripheral attention to me as I asked her what she wanted for dinner and where she hid the Hershey’s Kisses. And it occurred to me: I can’t do that any more.
I mentioned in an earlier post how I’m not one of those writers who, like Dickens, can work while there’s a party going on around me. I can’t write at a Starbuck’s, or sitting on a park bench — and it’s not because I need my Own Place, necessarily. Rather, it’s because I just can’t shut out noise and external stimulus all that well.
I used to be able to. In high school and college, I could read and study and talk and listen to music and have the television on and I never had any trouble focusing. I could read Chaucer with Huey Lewis and the News throbbing on the stereo (What? This was 1988, remember!) or write a term paper with the television blaring all night.
It’s different now. When it’s time to write, I have to close the door. I like a wee bit of music, but I have to turn it down very low — and even then, the music can’t have any vocals. Mostly I play old jazz and blues over my computer speakers, using either the shuffle function of iTunes or tuning into Sirius Pure Jazz on line. But that’s the extent of the external stimuli I can take.
That’s not to say I can’t work with noise. For most of the ten years I worked in the U.S. Senate, I shared an office with three, and sometimes four, other people (despite what you might see on TV or movies, life in a Congressional office is decidedly unglamorous). The Senate floor played on the television at all times. Every phone conversation was held in the open, every colleague’s chat with another staffer occurred six feet away. The din and distractions were constant, and yet I had no problem writing speeches or memos, talking with constituents on the phone, and generally doing my legislative duties.
And yet, nowadays, as soon as it comes to writing, I’ve gotta reduce my distractions. Perhaps part of it is age — I find that as I’ve gotten older, I can’t even read a book with the television on. As my wife and I are getting ready for bed each evening, she likes to turn on Law and Order to help her wind down, and I generally sit back with a book. Despite my best efforts, my eyes keep flicking from the page up to the television, my ears keep trying to tune into the dialogue, and I soon find I’ve read the same paragraph thirty times so I just pack it in and watch to see if either Sam Waterson or that annoying blonde attorney is gonna blow a slam-dunk case in court again. (*glunk glunk!*)
Where was I? Oh. Right. I just made my own point.
I am getting better, though, I suppose. I did some of my background reading for Washington Irving while sitting in airports, for example, or while waiting for my car to be serviced, so I guess I’m not a total loss. And I can work right next to a window without finding excuses to gaze out of it for hours at a time (Stephen King in On Writing says a window near your workspace is a big no-no for that very reason).
Still, I doubt I’ll ever be one of those people who can sit in a cafe or park and pound happily away while I . . . hey, look! That dog has a curly tail!
So how about it, folks? What are your distractions? And how do you beat them?