The irony of this article is that it took me about 3 months to get to, largely because of brainspace issues.
I’ve been noticing something about myself on road trips recently. On the way out from the house, I tend to be largely quiet, to the point where my poor husband driving next to me sometimes gets a bit lonely (he looks forward to time for chatting and connection without distractions, which I love). It’s not that I’m tired—well, not just that I’m tired. I’ve just got so many thoughts rattling around up there. It’s hard to sort one out from the tangle to talk about, even if half the strands weren’t about imaginary things and hypothetical storylines he’d have no context for.
On the way back from vacation, though, I’m lively and talkative. I may have my quiet periods, but they’re shorter. When he asks me his signature question, “What are you thinking about?”, I can come up with a more concrete answer.
What does this have to do with writing and brainspace?
There’s a defining factor in all those thoughts crowding my brain after we first leave home. They’re all the things I haven’t had time to think about—all the things I haven’t let myself think about, lest I be distracted from what is more important (or at least more urgent) in the moment. In other words, creative things.
If I let myself think about my WIP then I am going to want to sit down and type instead of doing the dishes. If I don’t do the dishes I won’t have what I need to make dinner. But if I think of a great idea while I’m washing I’ll forget it before I can write it down because I know how busy I’ll be for the next three days, and then I’ll be upset I forgot. Better to just think about my to-do list until I know I’ll have some free time.
That’s me before vacation.
In the car, after maybe thirty minutes trying to identify anything worth turning back for if it was forgotten, after feeding the kids breakfast, I’ve run out of reasons to restrict my thoughts. It’s like a burst pipe in there.
Or: I have now done the dishes, made dinner, folded laundry, gotten the homeschooling done. I’ve jotted down all the things that need to be done tomorrow and through the week because I didn’t finish it today. I’m remembering I promised to set up a playdate there’s no time for and I’m quickly checking the set list for Sunday, just in case there’s an unfamiliar song I need to practice. If at any point I have free time—or even if I make the effort to stake free time—It’s so hard to push my WIP into focus. All my front burners are full.
Over the days preceding vacation, I’ve been forced to take my metaphorical pots off the stove one by one. There can be no trash or dishes left to attract roaches in the house. My laundry is folded and packed. All the plans for the next week or two are settled. Mental exhaustion can finally be met with mental rest and waking dreams.
Of course, it’s vacation, and that time is for family. I don’t do much writing beyond jotting down ideas and notes. But I actually could write. There are words to be written.
So, what’s the solution?
Obviously, I can’t just take a vacation every other week. Honestly, it would be stressful to be constantly getting ready or coming back, even if I could.
So, how do I clear the brainspace to write? How do I turn the rest of it off so I can think about what I want to? How do I convince myself it’s worth writing today when tomorrow is busy and further progress has such a slim chance?
The only thing that seems to consistently help me is routine.
Why? Because my brain is the type of brain that seems to need permission. If 1:00-2:00 is always writing time, then writing isn’t neglectful and ignoring the dishes isn’t unproductive. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now, and the rest is for later.
But it’s more than that. It’s hard to build a routine to begin with, after all, with my brainspace so crowded. The real magic trick is figuring out how to turn one part of my brain off and the other on – entirely.
I think of this problem as having certain modes. I’ve got to switch from housework/mom mode to writer mode. But there’s no actual switch. There is, however, something like a dimmer—a transition I can instigate, if I have some self control.
Here’s what I do: I make myself some tea or coffee. I take a few sips. I lounge on the couch and close my eyes and let my brain drift—let it flip through all the open tabs and satisfy itself that it hasn’t lost track of them. Then, when I’ve run out of those, I try to focus on my WIP. I try to visualize a character, a scene I’ve already written or one I’ve been pondering, anything. Even if I’m just concentrating on someone’s face. My brain starts to drift in that direction. Inspiration begins to light. I take some more sips of caffeine and open up my computer.
The self-control comes in because, sometimes, the 10 minutes I’ve set aside for that accidentally becomes a 40 minute nap. And then I have just enough writing time to get invested before I have to stop. BOOOO.
However, when I’m well-rested, when I’ve taken my vitamins, when I’m generally taking care of myself, this method has been known to really work.
Have I solved the problem?
Sort of. Writing this out for the blog certainly helped remind me of what’s worked for me. It also reminds me what advice I can try in the future, such as journaling and free-writing. I sincerely hope it helps you too. And yet, I don’t have a perfect, no-fail solution. As I said, sometimes my best ploy backfires into a nap (although, it’s not really backfiring when I definitely benefit; sometimes, you just need to nap).
Today, it “backfired” into writing this blog, because my brainspace was so occupied with how to clear itself to write on my WIP. Yup, trying to write a novel turned into writing a thesis on trying to concentrate on how to write a novel. Oh, well. But it needed to be done.
And therein lies my best words of comfort, or advice, to you. You don’t always get to write when and what you want. You don’t always get to focus the way you plan. But—just like some writers “procrastinate” on one WIP by “distracting” themselves with an alternate WIP—progress isn’t always linear.
What does that old song say? You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.
Self-discipline is important—dare I say it, critical to the writer. We do need to learn to bring our brains into submission and learn to order our thoughts. That’s honestly what writing is all about: learning to sequence and describe and explain.
What works for me may not work for you. We are all of us different, and all of us train ourselves differently. May this blog not be a set of instructions for you, but permission: permission to be human. Permission to fail. To succeed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Permission to figure it all out along the way. Permission to work it all out, then lose it all in the rush of life, but figure it out again—even if it takes more time than you think it ought.
About the Writer: Kathryn Tamburri (@KathrynTamburriAuthor) writes clean YA epic fantasy novels which seethe with slow-burn romance. You can find more of her writing tips on The Devo Blog at KathrynTamburri.com, and learn from her publishing journey by subscribing to her fun author newsletter!