There’s an old joke-cum-truism about being a writer: the fear of a blank page.
I’m well familiar with that phenomenon – I’ve even written about it before.
What I haven’t admitted before, though, is that for me the struggle to put words down doesn’t end when the page is no longer blank. And lately I’ve begun to think that that struggle might be due not to anxiety, but to another species of brain weasel altogether.
A few nights ago, I had one of those dreams: the kind in which a story practically writes itself. It had stakes; it had a protagonist with motivation; it had a beginning, a middle, a climactic moment of rising action, and a satisfying conclusion. It was just what I needed to get me started on a new writing project.
That kind of inspiration, waking or sleeping, lights a fire under me like nothing else. I woke up electrified, brimming with potential energy.
Lying in bed, I ran through the events of my story, cementing them in my head. I relived the emotions the dream had inspired in me. I thought up embellishments to the setting, generated snippets of dialogue perfectly cementing the character relationships. I had a ton of material ready to go.
So over breakfast, I pulled out notepad and pen to write it all down.
For the first page or two, I scribbled like a maniac: notes and ideas on characters, setting, action, themes.
But the further I went, the slower my pen moved.
…and the endless distractions
Thinking about my story, living it, in the unfettered space of my head felt amazing. Trying to nail those mental impressions down into concrete words on paper felt something akin to wading through mud while being pelted with shiny things.
Anytime I hit a snag – and it didn’t have to be anything as hazardous as a potential plot hole, it could be something as simple as trying to think of that word I wanted, you know, the one that means something like profound but not quite the same… – as soon as I ran into a question I had to stop and think about, my forward momentum dropped to zero and I lost myself to the distractions bombarding my consciousness.
The neighbours are talking downstairs again.
What’s that bird that just flew by?
My breakfast bowl’s still on the table, I should get up and put it in the kitchen.
Ooh, my knitting’s sitting right there. Maybe I’ll just do a row or two – no! I want to finish this!
Ugh, thinking is too hard. Surely I’ve earned a break by now – I could just check out a YouTube video or two…
And so it was that I found myself sitting there, notes unfinished in my lap, unable to focus enough to keep writing, unable (and unwilling) to focus enough to give up and do something else.
Earth to E.H.?
Eventually I realised I’d hit a mental state I think of as disassociated, though it probably doesn’t fit the clinical definition. The best description I can come up with is that it feels like my mind has expanded out past my skull; like I’m floating around the outside of my head, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere: taking in everything around me yet making sense of nothing.
Trying to focus on what I wanted to write at that point felt like trying to bring a tiny, distant image into focus only to find that it’s abstract art.
I did manage to write down the rest of my story idea in the end. Once I realised what was going on, I was able to use my long-practised habits of slow, conscious breathing and mindfulness to bring the world back into the focus and slowly, in between much zoning out and wandering off, I got my ideas down.
But I haven’t done any further fiction writing since then. I have plenty of excuses – we’ve just moved into a new home and I’m literally surrounded by diversions: boxes to unpack, a neighbourhood to discover, furniture to acquire – but the reality of it is that Ijust haven’t been able to focus enough on writing to sit down and spend the time.
ADDventures in weasel identification
All this is one reason, though not the only reason, that my psych and I have started down a new avenue of brain weasel investigation: ADHD.
I’ve long wondered if ADHD could be part of my mental landscape, simply because the people I know who have it themselves are the people who make the most sense to me. They talk the way I talk – quick, disjointed, leaping from topic to topic and back again – not the mystifying way other people seem to find interest in a single subject for whole minutes at a time. They play the way I play – dabbling in a dozen different hobbies because where’s the fun in doing the same thing over and over? And they “plan” the way I “plan” – latching onto one vastly exciting idea after another, even though 99% of them will never make it past the first “what if we…!” conversation.
I have no problem with any of these aspects of myself, even if they occasionally make other people feel boring my comparison. But one of the other big diagnostics for ADHD is, to quote from the clinical source itself: avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort.
My downfall: sustained mental effort
And that, right there, is the struggle I face every time I try to write fiction, or blog posts for that matter, or to do anything that isn’t new and exciting and requires me to think, not in quick, instinctive mental leaps, but in bum-in-seat, one-thought-after-the-other, sustained concentration.
It’s another common joke among writers that you’ll think up a dozen brilliant ideas while out walking, only to forget them all upon sitting down to write. But is it common practice to need to stand up and walk around the room every ten minutes or so to bring one’s mind back to the story at hand? Because that’s how quickly I lose focus when you put me in front of a keyboard.
I wrote the end of The Miller’s Daughter while walking through a national park: literally sitting down every couple of minutes to bang out another couple of paragraphs, then packing my laptop away and continuing my walk while I figured out what to write next. It’s a system, of sorts, but it’s hardly practical for making writing a daily practice (sadly, I do not live in a national park).
So here’s hoping that my psych and I can pin down this particular weasel, confirm its identity, and figure out how to make it behave itself. Because I’d love to see how much I could write if sitting down to do so wasn’t so fiendishly difficult.