One of the things great actors have in common is an ability to focus. They are able to hold their character even when they have people adjusting their makeup or chatting about other things. While he was filming Death in Venice, Dirk Bogarde dined with director Visconti every day and had exactly the same fussy meal. The director understood. He wasn’t dining with the actor but with the character von Aschenbach. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson reported having lunch with Viggo Mortensen at the commissary one afternoon and calling him Aragorn, his character’s name, the whole time. Mortensen was so in character he didn’t notice.
Focus has been on my mind because this week Ireland was clobbered by Tropical Storm Ophelia. Not content with drowning herself, I suppose she thought she’d take some others with her. In hindsight, we got off fairly lightly, at least in comparison with places like Puerto Rico. Yes, there was a lot of damage, especially to the south and the west of the country, but in my little town we experienced nothing worse than you’d get at a Fianna Fail conference: power failures and a lot of wind.
For days we’d been warned of the approach of the Hurricane, later downgraded to a Tropical Storm, and I found myself repeatedly distracted. Not only did we get the doom-laden warnings from the Met office, but there were those wags on twitter who couldn’t be ignored. Like the lad who tweeted, “This is my first hurricane so I’m a bit of a novice. When do we start the looting?” Or the remark overheard at Dublin airport when a group of Americans arrived, “We’re expecting a hurricane, lads. Did you bring your guns?” Then there were the irksome tweets from the US (and more than a few UK sites) showing the approach of the storm with Ireland getting the brunt of the the damage. The caption? “UK faces onslaught by Hurricane Ophelia.”
In case you’re wondering, the small island to the west of the UK is Ireland. We are not England or the UK (other than the bit up north). Please try to remember this. Failure to do so could find you wearing a pint or ten of Guinness.
But there I am getting distracted again. See how easy it is?
So in the middle of the madness, there’s me trying to write. With the trees in the garden swaying like possessed hula dancers and the gale howling down the road taking the neighbours’ bins with it, trying to keep my eyes on the task at hand was no easy feat.
Focus means a few different things in writing. It can mean mindfulness or keeping your theme on point. For the purpose of today’s blog, though, when I’m talking about avoiding distractions, I’m referring to concentration. It’s an essential tool for the writer. If you’re a flibbertigibbet you may find it difficult to knuckle down even without a downgraded hurricane demanding your attention. You may lose interest half-way through the project. You may end up with a stack of unfinished stories. All of these come down to lack of focus.
So how do you stay focused?
Select one project and finish it before you go on to the next one. This can be hard to do but you need to make it a habit. It will eventually get easier.
Set goals. Use daily goals to make sure you get work done, and long term goals to ensure you complete your projects.
Set a schedule and keep to it. Hurricanes notwithstanding, if you’re a writer, write.
As much as possible, avoid distractions. That means turning off the TV or radio, stop surfing the net. Save them as a reward for when the job is done. You might also want to put the cat in the other room or, horrors, outdoors, and get someone to mind any little people. (Children, you twit. Not leprechauns. Jeesh!)
When you’re on a roll, keep going, even if you’ve already met your quota. Golden days of writing don’t happen often, so make the most of them when they come along.
At the end of each writing session leave yourself some breadcrumbs for your next writing session. By that I mean leave a few notes about what you want to accomplish next time you sit down with your project. This is particularly important if you are unable to return to the project for a few days. If you have to take a break for a short while, you’ll be glad you can pick the story back up without losing too much time trying to remember where you were and where you were going.
OK, there’s that job done at last. Play time!
I have a writer’s concentration: Intense but flickering.
~ Donald McCaig