What to write when you can’t concentrate on writing

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14 April 2020
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Finding it hard to concentrate? We understand - and maybe we can help, too

Before lockdown, many of us will have yearned for time. And now, in lockdown, we’ve got all the time in the world. But for many of us, it’s not the writing time we wanted. We may have time aplenty but in these strange circumstances, where we’re safe in our homes while the horror and sorrow mounts outside them, our concentration span is non-existent.

This is a known response to trauma, which is what we’re processing at the moment, individually and collectively. Your creative energy goes into surviving. Simple tasks take time and drain energy. Time does strange things. Your writing mojo has curled up in a corner and isn’t coming out.

Seeing other people, whose way of coping with their strange, altered circumstances is to become super-busy and hyper-social on their online platforms (kitchen dancing videos! Facebook challenges!) can make you feel inadequate – as if you, too, ought to be joining in this mass surge of isolation-induced productivity. But that’s their way of coping. Yours may be different. There isn’t a right way, there’s just the way that works for you.

For many creative people, thoughtful introspection is as valid and useful a response as forcing yourself into being creatively energetic. Your work in progress will be there waiting for you when you’re ready to get back to it. In the meantime, the most important thing to do is to remind yourself that it’s fine not to be productive now, and it doesn’t make you any less of a writer if you’re temporarily lost for words – in anyone’s book, that’s a sane response to the unfolding crisis, and how should we be expected to make sense of something when it’s unfolding and we’re in the middle of it? Keeping up with developments as they occur is time-consuming, and emotionally draining.

That said, there will be moments in the day where you could nurture your creative energy. A tiny thing, a few words written and done with love, is worth just as much as making a 3,000-word dent in a manuscript. Why not try some of these?

1. Keep a diary

Write it in longhand, in the morning or before you go to bed. Whichever time works best for you. Don’t edit yourself, but write out your ideas, your fears, what has happened in your day and how you feel. Keep an open mind when you go to the page and be prepared to surprise yourself – you may think very little has happened but once you start putting the words on paper you may find one thought leads to another and before you know it, that’s a page filled. Writing in longhand is a physical action so that your hand is literally connected to the page, which makes you feel rooted to your writing.

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2. Perhaps a word or phrase might spring out from this journaling that sparks an idea

Maybe a very small idea. A fragment. Write it down. Fractured thoughts are a valid response to a fragmented time. Keep it (separately from the diary) with the other fragments of words and phrases that spring to mind. Perhaps don’t try to make sense of them now, but later on, you may find that these bits and scraps are actually the foundation of a new piece of writing.

3. Make a note of any ideas that you might like to write, but can’t quite muster the energy to do at the moment

You may find yourself coming back to the idea with another, connected idea. And another, and another. At this stage, don’t worry if they’re not cohesive. Give them time to grow into something.

4. Think of a theme connected to your current situation

It might be food, or nature, or worry, or gratitude – perhaps whatever most preoccupies you at the moment. Try, every day, to write a few words on this theme – a phrase, a line, a sentence, even a paragraph. Regard it as a work in progress, and don’t try to force in into a shape unless one naturally emerges.

5. Follow a writing prompt

Perhaps one of WM’s regular weekly coffee-break writing exercises, or the mini writing challenges that WM is providing during lockdown. Give yourself 15-20 minutes to do it and don’t worry if you’re not entirely happy with the result – it’s an exercise, and like that difficult pose in a yoga practice or challenging exercise in a gym routine, its purpose is to keep your mind and muscles in shape – in this case, your writing mind and muscles.

6. Create a new character and write in their voice

Who are they? What do they think about what’s going on? What are their concerns, and their coping strategies? Sometimes it’s easier to imagine what someone else is going through than find the right words to describe your own experience. If this idea works for you, you could either stay with the character and think about creating a story in their voice, or perhaps see what happens with a range of different characters. See if any of them particularly resonate with you and spark your curiosity to see how events unfold for them.

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7. Write about something very small

Describe a petal, a blade of grass, a spoon. A raindrop. A fingernail. Write round it. Try writing something very small about your small thing that perfectly encapsulates it: a haiku, a limerick, a single phrase, sentence or line of dialogue.

8. Be mindful that the emails you send and any social media posts you write are just that – writing

Take a moment to enjoy the process of writing them and another moment to check them over to make sure you’ve expressed yourself in a way that pleases you and will amuse, entertain or comfort the person you’re sending it to – whatever fulfils your intention in writing that post or message.

9. Write a letter

Talk to someone you know on the page. It may be a letter you decide to send, or type into an email, or it may be a letter to someone from your past, telling them something you wish you’d said at the time. It might be a letter to a past or future you, too - writing to yourself is a good way of reuniting with who you are if you're feeling disconnected.

10. Think about submitting something

It might be to a competition, or a publication, but there are lots of opportunities opening up at the moment in response to the strange times we’re currently living in. Perhaps the words that have come to you during this time might add to that creative record. It isn’t just other people’s words that will make sense of living through this crisis – why shouldn’t yours be part of the story that makes sense of it all, when we’re on the other side?

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