Writing requires an enormous amount of concentration. Mustering the willpower to fend off the multiple distractions that can get in the way –family obligations, ordinary household chores, the lure of email and the non-stop alerts emanating from your favorite social media apps –can be a struggle for anyone trying to get words down on the page.
In the two and a half years that I’ve been interviewing writers on my podcast about their writing processes and habits, I’ve listened to them share a wide variety of techniques for tackling time wasters and getting their writing done: Writing first thing in the morning; writing in timed bursts of 8 to 25 minutes with short breaks in-between; writing while listening to music or the sound of falling rain. Writers develop whatever hacks and workarounds they need to make sure they get their work done.
It’s encouraging to know that even the best writers struggle with the same problems of getting into a state of “flow” – and staying there long enough to get enough usable words on the page–that the rest of us have to deal with. Writers like the celebrated Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October.
Writing in The Guardian a few years ago, he explained how, after finishing an opening chapter to his new novel in the summer of 1986, he had made no further progress a full year later. He found the distractions from the popular success of his second novel –“career-enhancing proposals,” invitations to travel abroad, and dinner and party invitations – consumed the time that he needed to work on his next book.
So he and his wife decided on a radical plan that would allow him to focus entirely on his writing:
I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash.” During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.
The plan worked. At the end of four weeks, he had a draft of what would become his most successful literary masterpiece, The Remains of the Day. Of course, he continued to refine it before and after he submitted the manuscript to his publisher. But the first draft was done, and within an extraordinarily compressed period of time.
In his article in The Guardian, Ishiguro also shared what he fed his mind prior to sitting down to write during the Crash, like books on British servants and guides to the English countryside in the 1930s and 1950s. He even shared the titles of the movies and music that inspired some of the key characters and scenes in his novel.
Once he had had his fill of research, though, Ishiguro was ready to start writing. But his sentences didn’t just flow out of his head and onto the page with utter perfection, as we might enviously imagine. No, he wrote with the aim of just getting words out and onto the page, regardless of how they sounded or whether they even fit into his story:
“Throughout the Crash, I wrote free-hand, not caring about the style or if something I wrote in the afternoon contradicted something I’d established in the story that morning. The priority was simply to get the ideas surfacing and growing. Awful sentences, hideous dialogue, scenes that went nowhere – I let them remain and ploughed on.”
The lessons are clear: Block off substantial chunks of time, shut-down all potential distractions, and write as quickly and un-self-consciously as you can. And then, only then, start rewriting what you’ve written.
This process may not help you win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but it will help you finish your writing so you can share it with the world.
And that’s something to be proud of.
This article also appeared on LinkedIn.