The Biggest Obstacle to Writing

What is the biggest obstacle to writing?

Lack of time, maybe. Lack of money. Lack of confidence. Lack of ideas. Lack of discipline. Lack of space. Lack of stamina.

According to American author and teacher, Joyce Carol Oates, the greatest obstacle to writing is interruption.

My heart leapt when I heard her say this. Yes. This is so true and it’s so underestimated.

Writing is not a switch on, switch off, process. When I sit down to write, my mind initially reaches for other things. I begin in a stilted, half-committed way. The words stutter onto the screen. I sip my tea. I peek at the overgrown flower bed outside. Have a think about something unconnected. Write. Think again.

It takes time to get down to that inner seam, that subcutaneous layer of consciousness, that focussed, but equally dislocated, frame of mind, where the original ideas and words slip through. They come slowly, at first. Then, given space and time, they build. Once the flow sets in, I work quickly. I know it won’t last. The stream will stagnate at some point. The words will turn flat and hackneyed and self-conscious and, eventually, fizzle out. But, by then, hopefully I’ll have harnessed some gold.

Unless, that is, I’m interrupted.

There’s a special kind of focus required, not only in the white heat of creation, but whilst editing too. For example, when picking up my work and trying to read it as a reader. This is a particularly precarious exercise. I need space and time to nurture the illusion. It’s impossible, of course, to approach the work I already know so well as a real reader would, but if I clear my mind, I can try. Putting aside my editing pencil, I allow my reactions to buzz around freely in my head and, only once I’m finished, do I jot them down. By then, hopefully, I’ll have harnessed some invaluable raw data.

Unless, that is, I’m interrupted.

Interruption kills momentum. It stems the flow. It breaks the spell. It clouds the vision. It shatters the focus.

That’s not to say, those things are irrecoverable. But, getting back into the zone takes a whole new effort and, often, a particular nugget of insight will be lost for good.

The problem is bad enough at the best of times, but, for so many writers, under Covid-19 restrictions, it’s been so much worse.

You can ask people not to interrupt, but they won’t necessarily comply. People genuinely just don’t understand how disruptive it is. They will find a reason why they had to just ask this one little question, check this one little fact, point out this one little outstanding issue. If it’s just for a moment, what harm can it do?

On top of that, there’s the anticipation of interruption which, for me at least, is almost as bad as the thing itself. A little portion of my mind is constantly listening out for it. I find myself hurrying through whatever writing task I’m engaged in so I can get to the end before the dreaded intrusion arrives.

With regards to this last dilemma, I’ve come up with a handy little remedy. During lockdown, I invested in a set of noise cancelling headphones. This wasn’t because my work space is noisy. I’m very lucky in having a relatively quiet writing environment. But, it crucially cuts out any hint of approaching danger.

When I’m plugged in, I can’t hear those footsteps shuffling past the study door. I can’t hear that phone ringing upstairs. I can’t hear the car pulling up outside. This is enormously useful because, even though these events might not actually translate into a positive interruption, by thinking they might, I’ve already lost my full concentration. But, by wearing these remarkable headphones, I finally do away with that excruciating anticipation.

An added bonus is that, should anyone make a half-hearted attempt at an interruption – should they call my name quietly, just to see – I won’t hear and I won’t respond. Which might possibly be enough to put them off and send them packing.

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3 Responses to The Biggest Obstacle to Writing

  1. Jan hopper says:

    I read so many books …. many of which leave me feeling pretty unimpressed – ok, there may be a few attention-grabbing chapters but overall I can’t get excited. Does this mean then that my expectations are too high or that the book genuinely just rumbles across the bottom with a few higher bumps along the way? After being an avid reader all my life I have arrived at the conclusion that getting a book published (unless you are an established author) is a bit of a lottery.

    I appreciate that the point of your blog is interruption and its impact on imaginative flow but after reading what you had written i started wondering whether all this hard work and analysis by the writer actually made any real difference when it comes to getting that first publishing deal. I don’t actually know ….. but my inquisitive mind leads me there nonetheless!

    • claudia says:

      Hi Jan
      I don’t think your expectations are too high. They should be high and, if you’re not feeling impressed by the books you’re reading that, to me, suggests a problem with the books, not you. There are so, so many books out there nowadays and, for me, many of them fall short. Although, I do think there’s some brilliant stuff out there too.
      When a book stays in my mind long after I’ve read it, that’s when I know it’s achieved something special.
      But, also, some books which are forgettable, can still be entertaining while I’m reading them.
      As far as getting published goes, yes, it is a lottery. Like all creative endeavours, getting recognition comes down to a lot of things – talent, hard work, perseverance etc etc – and, to a huge degree, luck. Some people find the luck, others don’t.
      You might well argue that all this analysis and agonizing is a waste of time, if there’s nothing to show for it. But, where’s the satisfaction in producing work that isn’t your very best, whether or not it gets published?
      I feel, as a writer, you just have to hope that if and when lady luck comes along, your work is in the best possible condition to meet her!

  2. Jan says:

    Very true re striving for your best regardless.

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