Last updated on June 8, 2017
Writing… how do I centre myself for it? What does it take to clear my mind? There’s no secret really. Mostly it’s a matter of being disciplined with myself.
Eva left this question on the blog the other day. As I started to write back, I found the answer was too long for a pithy reply, so wrote it into an article for everyone’s benefit. This was Eva’s original question:
“I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing.
I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my ideas
out. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to
be lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints?”
Great question, right? I don’t think this in an uncommon experience among anyone who writes, beginning writers especially. The outside world is a persistent intruder that gets in our heads and pulls our focus and it’s a pain in the ass. I think of it as the gigantic, too-tentacled kraken working to wind its appendages around us, squeezing the creativity out while pulling us under an ocean of distraction that we work to slay with our pens. Though maybe I’m just a bit too melodramatic for my own good.
To answer Eva’s question, what you described with your first 10-15 minutes spent working to figure out how to begin is no different from anyone else, so you have no reason to feel you’re doing anything wrong. It’s just a practice thing. And really, let’s face it – that first sentence is always the worst. But once we get that one out it usually starts to flow.
When you may be also working an outside job and have family or any number of other things going on around you and then you want to sit down to write in your free time, let’s be realistic. It does take a bit to pull your mind in away from those things and close out those distractions. The important thing is to learn to bring yourself into focus faster and allow those other things, outside distractions, to drop away so the only thing in your mind is what you’re working on.
Back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and I was a radio broadcast announcer, I spent the rest of my time commercial writing, script writing and freelance writing. I was reeeeelly busy and had to write at the drop of a hat to churn out copy for clients. Meeting multiple deadlines meant I didn’t have the luxury of time to “get in the zone”. This experience taught me to bring myself into instant focus.
A trick I used when I started writing was to listen to music. I still use it today.
Depending on what I’m writing, I listen to different kinds of music. Personally, I find a variety of music facilitates my getting into the right frame of mind or emotional state, so the words can flow. When the headphones go on, it’s my way of closing the office door. And it works even if I’m not in an office – I could be on the subway or a park writing longhand. That white noise music barrier prevents reality from invading my fictional universe. After training myself to focus that way, over time, it became easier and easier. Now, I’m at the point where when I have only a free hour, once I slam the headphones on and crank up the tunes, I’m immediately centred and can start to write.
Something more about music – I do also create specific playlists for specific pieces of writing. I always have stories and scripts in various stages of creation and construction, so I could be working on a long story for years as I ebb and flow with the ideas or until it’s ready to be born. Having to maintain that same brain space over that length of time? That’s tough. For me, specific songs lend themselves to the exact brain space and emotional state I need for particular storylines. As I find each song that strikes me, I throw them into a playlist and label it for that story. That way, even if it’s six months before I go back to work on one particular piece, the moment I hear that music, it clears out every unrelated thing and I’m right back in that brain space without wasting time.
The music could be just an associative memory trick. Maybe. I’m no expert there, so I’ll leave that to someone smarter than me to figure out. The part I care about? It works. Definitely worth giving a shot.
Recapture your frame of mind
When I started writing long fiction, I had trouble getting back into the exact frame of mind I was the next time I sat down to write. I’d end up staring at the last paragraph I stopped on, struggling to recapture that moment and going nowhere. It was tough. Different day, different mood, different distractions – hard to be who I was the day before, right?
Around that time, I read about a trick the writer Sylvia Plath used to quickly get back in the exact brain space from the previous day. She wouldn’t end off a paragraph at the end, but instead, stopped writing for the day in the middle of a sentence. Crazy, right? But I figured, what did I have to lose? So I tried it. And for me, it worked. It allowed me to pick up the thread of my own emotional energy in the half sentence and it snapped me right back in there. This saved me a whole lot of time wrestling with my emotional and head space, so I could continue forward without changing the timbre. I’ve heard from others that this particular trick doesn’t work for everybody, but it does work for some people. Give it a shot – it could work for you, too.
I think the right attitude is a crucial element in getting down to writing straight away. If you let yourself off the hook by blaming other things – didn’t have the right atmosphere, didn’t have the right pen, keyboard, time of day, didn’t wear your lucky socks, etc – this contributes to procrastination. Which perpetuates an inability to focus. Don’t let yourself do that. Take responsibility for your creativity. You’re in control of it. When you sit down to write, go in knowing you’ll produce something and then let it flow. Some writers hold themselves to daily word counts or number of pages the must produce before they call it a day and that’s another thing you could try.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what trick you use, but that whatever it is, it allows you to align yourself in a moment so you get the words out. Practice is key, so see what works for you. A serious approach may get you producing words, good words, much sooner after you sit down.