Focus is a Relative Term
When we think of writers, at least these days, and we discount the spontaneous ramblings on social media sites or blogs (!), we imagine the artist or journalist, confidently hunched over a laptop, tapping away while the camera pans around him or her, simultaneously showing us some things about the writer’s life and personality, as only a movie can do. This a great idea since, as David Koepp said of creating Stephen King’s dysfunctional writer, Mort Rainey, from the book Secret Window, watching a writer is boring. Therefore, he used the still space around Mort to give us a peek into the writer’s world and even his brain.
Once the camera has drifted around his solitary cabin on a lake, over the future garden plot and up through the secret window, we see a thirty-something man in a torn bathrobe, hair disheveled, playing with a Slinky, sitting at his desk, not typing but staring at the one paragraph he finished. We are not impressed, except by his slovenly dress, but his sloth strikes us. This is a guy with writer’s block…the horror! This just makes a character’s job even more boring.
And how many minutes can the audience take of establishing shots and clever peeps into the mind of the writer, no matter how delightfully batty he is? Essentially, the director must now do what the writer does: either invent a plot, portray one or use memory (flashbacks) to show how our anti-hero ended up as he has. Therefore, we see his past (I would write “SPOILERS!” but this is not IMDb). We see a recent, huge fight with his wife and her lover, Mort screaming in their faces, a fade-out/in to his life now, alone in their summer cottage, napping almost all day, consumed with alternating depression and rage. At some point, we begin asking how this will be resolved; whether he will make up with the wife and get back on track with his writing, or go completely nuts and do something horrible (this is a King novel, after all!).
Like a good writer, the director teases us a bit with alternative outcomes. He has Mort intimidate the new boyfriend. He also stands up to a mysterious hick from Tennessee who has accused him of plagiarism. The wife calls to see how he is, obviously still in love. Things are looking up!
And this is where some writers might draw the line. Life cannot be constructed, much as people think it is. Stories are also not necessarily produced according to a strict timeline or even done at a steady pace. Some stories occur in a writer’s mind, are tried out and shelved. Some never make it past the scribbled notes on a napkin or in a notebook. Other’s jump out, seemingly fully fledged, ready to help the writer to bring them into the world. And then he or she simply loses interest, focus or gets distracted. Years or decades go by until the writer feels the story crawling around in his head, like an “itch”, as Nabokov said of Lolita, and he puts pen to paper again.
What no one ever seems to admit is that sometimes writers get bored, even with their own work, no matter how good it is. I submit that perhaps it is not really boredom in some cases, but simply the desire to work on something different, or the difficulty in focusing on one work to the exclusion of all else. Too often, the authors who experience this become self-accusatory, like Mort, deriding their inability to stay on one task as some sort of failing. And yet people in other jobs who complain about this are not frowned upon but given sympathy. They are told to diversify or even to switch careers. They take refresher courses to add to their fields. Why must writers then be put in harness and expected to plod along the same path until some end point? To me, nothing stifles creativity more than that, To me, the realization that one is bored is just a start. The next step is to reject the implied failure therein and look for a solution. Some writers do diversify, dabbling in various arts such as acting, music, film-making and so on. But what if an author really, really wants to write?
In this case, the dreaded phenomenon of Attention Deficit “Disorder” can actually be a lifesaver. Once the author realizes that working on one piece alone is counterproductive, why not jump from one work to another, perhaps even in the course of a day or an hour? What if having music playing (not that unusual) frees the writer to be more creative while practicing his or her craft? And for that matter, why not watch a movie or TV, surf the Internet or read other people’s works, in-between stabs at your own novels and other writing? It works for me, far better than that nose-to-the-grindstone approach.
This way reminds me of the stories of artists’ colonies in the 19th Century. Lines between different types of art were less rigid in those days. For example, George Sand was inspired by the music of Frederic Chopin, who was inspired by the paintings of Delacroix. Artists, especially in Europe, loved to gather and share their particular philosophies and aesthetics, often through demonstrations of their artistic media. Somehow, the 20th Century seemed to push artists apart, lionizing the solitary writer, like Hemingway or Salinger, shuttling painters off into galleries and studios while locking up musicians in studios or on stage. What we ended up with were often sterile, cold and lonely views of artistic vision.
So, what is my message here? I think writers, especially those who abide by schedules or rigid notions of what constitutes “productivity”, should reevaluate their techniques, especially if they find themselves in Mort Rainey’s shoes, or simply feeling “blocked” but realizing that they are bored. I would also counsel parents whose children have trouble focusing in class to investigate letting them branch out and perhaps try writing or even completing other work while listening to music or surfing the web. There is no more reason to force a student into one way of learning and communicating than there is to chain a writer to completing one book at a time.
Consider one of the men who is often considered the greatest Renaissance artist-architect-writer: Leonardo Da Vinci. He was known for having trouble finishing his works. Was he dissatisfied or just distracted from completing one project by all the other ones crowding his mind? I like to imagine him running from an easel to his drafting table and, tiring of that, taking a long walk to look for fossils or draw a map. Imagine what he would do now with the Internet, television, films, YouTube and a smart phone. He is often called a “polymath”, but what if that is the same thing as what we call ADD? How different would our education be of those kids who have it? I would like to think that they would be treated like Da Vinci. And we would never think of medicating them to dull the creative urge, simply because they don’t fit into the same rut as everyone else.