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Posts Tagged ‘focus’

I’m back from the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, and what a lovely five days I had! After all the hullaballoo of looking for a place to live, I was even more ready than normal to have time away from my cell phone and the logistics of my life. Whenever stress would intrude (say, from an e-mail from my current landlord), I’d go outside and look at the lake–sometimes rippling in the wind, sometimes a perfect mirror of the clouds overhead–and I’d feel much, much better.

It's hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

It’s hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

While my writing focus has been much improved this year compared to last year, I’ve been noticing as February progressed and the house search continued its grim plod that it was gradually worsening. It was taking me longer to get started writing every day, and I was taking more and more breaks. By the time I actually found my soon-to-be home at the beginning of last week, my focus was so shaky I had lowered my daily word count goal. So I went into Rainforest this year worried about my ability to produce.

I’m happy to say I was as productive as I hoped to be, which gave me food for thought. Why, I’ve been wondering, am I so much more productive and focused at Rainforest than at home? And is there any way to replicate any of Rainforest’s effects?

Factors that make Rainforest work so well for my productivity:

1. It’s remote, with no phones or cell reception, and very spotty internet connection. Without much communication from the outside world, it’s much easier to focus.

2. I clear the decks for the trip, which means for the most part I don’t have real world concerns intruding on my time or focus either. (Real concerns can range from daily dog care to doing my taxes to planning this social activity to going to appointments to doing chores.)

3. The word count board builds in accountability to my peers. This works better than an announcement on Twitter would because there’s a more tangible feeling of community and that we’re all in this together. I see people writing constantly, and conversation often revolves around how the writing is going that day.

4. I have extra motivation because of the resources used to take the trip, which ends up giving me the feeling that I’d better make this time count.

5. Because I have lofty (for me) daily word count goals, I tend to engage in less general shilly-shallying while ostensibly writing.

6. My writing day is more structured with meals and activities than it often is at home.

Some of these factors are hard to duplicate at home, most notably #2. I have to spend a certain amount of time each day dealing with life stuff, and sometimes that amount of time is much higher than I would ideally want it to be. So it goes.

Today, though, my first day back writing at home, I experimented with #5, otherwise known as the Shilly-shallying problem. And lo and behold, since I am now less accustomed to shilly-shally after a few days of better writing habits, I was able to cut down a great deal on the procrastinating that can accompany writing. And this on a day when I had a great many stressful life concerns piled up and demanding attention. Key to this, I think, was encouraging the belief that I could write my words in spite of what life was throwing at me, as well as remembering what it felt like to take those concerns and put them off to one side for a while and very deliberately doing that during my writing time.

I’m going to keep playing with that, and soon I’d like to experiment with #6 and see if adding a little more structure might help my productivity as well.

What has helped you become more productive?

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One of the things I love best about being a writer is the wonderful necessity of feeding my muse.

Don’t get me wrong; I do my very best not to follow my Muse’s fickle whims. I try to write a prescribed amount of words regularly. I try not to start new projects if it will mean leaving an already started project unfinished. I force myself to write when I don’t feel like it.

But that doesn’t mean my brain doesn’t need feeding while I’m engaging regularly in the creative process. In fact, it can be positively voracious. And the more I feed it, the happier my writing process tends to be.

Favorite Ways to Feed the Muse:

1. Travel. Yes, I know, I am constantly singing the praises of travel, but I am hard pressed to think of anything that delivers a bigger punch of Muse deliciousness. New places and cultures, new experiences, new people, the beauty of nature, art treasures, learning about history, eating amazing and sometimes strange foods–travel has it all.

2. Doing something I haven’t done before. Because we don’t need to travel far from home to have new experiences, whether that be going to a new place in the area or trying a different restaurant or taking a different route for your daily walk/jog. In a couple of weeks, I have tickets to go see my first magic show, and even if it’s on the cheesy side, I am fascinated to be having this experience. (Plus, I get to wear a cocktail dress. Double win!)

3. Going to museums. Because at most museums, I learn something new or see something beautiful or experience something different (see #1). Next on my list? The Disney museum in San Francisco.

4. Experiencing story outside of my own writing. This can be anything from novels to movies, TV series to theater, role-playing games to video games. Sometimes I need to read a certain kind of novel, and other times I really need a different vehicle to experience story. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of plays. Good, bad, or wildly uneven, it’s all grist for the mill.

5. Finding another creative outlet. Even though my current focus is on writing, I feel so lucky to have spent so much of my life practicing and studying to be a musician. Sometimes there is nothing my brain needs as much as becoming entirely focused on something creative but DIFFERENT. Very very different. A quick thirty minute voice practice session and I can come at a writing problem in an entirely different way. Which is similar to

6. Moving the body. Exercising, dancing, taking a walk around the block, or jumping up and down for twenty seconds, all of these activities pull us back into our physical bodies and give our brains a chance to work on a subconscious level.

7. Talking to people. The more interesting people we surround ourselves with, the more likely our social time will prove to be inspirational. You never know when an off-hand comment from a friend will trigger a thought that turns into a blog post, the perfect telling detail, or a solution to a tricksy plot problem.

What our your favorite ways to feed your muse?

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I’ve been learning to play the game Go for the past few months. For those unfamiliar, Go is a strategy game that originated in China at least 2,500 years ago. Like many strategy games, it focuses on controlling territory. Its rules are fairly simple, and it has a huge number of possible combinations of moves.

I was sitting in a cafe playing Go yesterday, sipping on my pumpkin spice chai and pushing my brain through the equivalent of a complex gymnastics routine. And as I struggled to choose my next move, I realized how so much of what I was learning on the board could be applied to life.

Photo by Chad Miller

So without further ado, a list of insights inspired by playing Go:

1. When there are a huge number of possibilities, it’s harder to decide what to do next.

2. Sometimes focusing in tightly on one area means you lose sight of the big picture. This can end very badly.

3. Cultivate humility, because there is such a large number of possible mistakes, as a beginner you are bound to make a whole lot of them.

4. Feeling cocky is usually a sign that something is about to go horribly wrong. (If nothing else, it tends to lead to a loss of the necessary focus.)

5. Sometimes you need to play further out than you feel entirely comfortable with.

6. If you get stuck playing a largely defensive game, it is harder to achieve any of your real goals.

7. It’s easy to become distracted, either by something shiny or by your opponent. This also makes achieving your real goals more difficult.

8. Mistakes and experimentation are both necessary in order to learn and improve.

9. The entire board can change very quickly when you are inexperienced. Situational awareness is invaluable.

10. To become a strong player, it’s better to play with and learn from more than one person.

11. You have to find balance between risk and safety and between expanding outwards and consolidating what you already have.

12. Discomfort is a sensation that can be practiced and settled into.

I suspect I’ll be learning a lot more from Go in the coming months. Maybe soon I’ll even graduate to a larger board!

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I spent a lot of time talking about writing last week, which meant it was an incredibly happy time for me. It also means I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about writing, and the process of becoming better at something, and what it really means to engage in and spend your time on the pursuit of mastery.

What I’ve found is this: There is the big picture, the goals/dreams we are pushing ourselves toward. In writing, this might be having a story bought by a certain magazine, or getting an agent, or getting a book deal, or getting into a certain program, or reaching a certain sales goal, or a hundred other goals. These goals can be a positive force in our development, keeping us motivated, focused, and business-minded, as long as we can stay resilient enough to weather the disappointments.

When we achieve one of our goals, we experience a spurt of joy. It is very exciting. If you are me, there might be clapping and bouncing and maniacal cackling. There is a time to savor the achievement.

Similarly, when we fail to achieve one of our goals, we experience a spurt of sadness and disappointment. If you are me, there might be sulking while playing solitaire or making loud “Hmmph!” noises. There is a time to lick wounds and regroup.

If everything in our process is basically working, then either way leads to the same result. The work. The practice. The study. The craft. The art.

Photo by Darwin Bell

The good news is wonderful; the bad news sucks. But what really matters is what happens in between these peaks and valleys. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re a musician, you play. If you’re a painter, you paint. If you’re a chef, you cook. If you’re an entrepreneur, you come up with and implement ideas. And always, you are working, practicing, and striving to become better.

The bursts of joy and sorrow can be intense, but they don’t last. What does last is our relationship to our calling. The words. The story-telling. The breath. The process.

This is what it means to seek mastery.

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I have devoted my life to the pursuit of excellence. The Greeks called this areté, striving for excellence, living up to the best of one’s potential, and facing challenges with courage and persistence. I wanted to be the best student. I wanted to become a skilled singer. I wanted to travel around the world. I wanted to be an effective teacher. And now I want to be a masterful writer.

Areté has been one of the driving forces of my life. I care about people and relationships, I care about my health (only because I can’t get away with being indifferent to it), and I care about excellence. That’s not to say I don’t have other interests, passions, and concerns, but these three things I think about every single day.

Here’s the thing about mastery: it tends to be all-consuming. It requires commitment to make your practice one of the highest priorities in your life. It requires patience and fortitude while you struggle to improve. It requires the willingness to be bad (especially when starting out) and the strength to fail.

J.S. Bach--an undisputed master of musical composition.

Mastery takes time. It’s not easy to achieve, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about (or they’re looking for a snappy headline that will drive page views or book sales). I used to have voice students come in for lessons, expecting to become fabulous singers with a month or two of lessons (and barely any time outside of that devoted to practicing). Guess what? They never became fabulous singers. They learned some basics, and that’s as far as they went. (Strangely, parents understand this about their kids and usually (although not always) insist on more commitment. Adults were by far the most egregious in terms of thinking singing would be an easy skill to acquire.) Sure, some of my students could skate by on their natural skills for a while, only to eventually arrive at the realization that if they wanted serious chops, they’d have to put the effort in.

Mastery takes focus. I’ve always hated it when people ask me what my hobbies are. The question triggers me to think about how I spent my time. For years, the real answer was: I sing in different genres. I play the piano. I love to sight-read. I compose and write songs. I adore musical theater. I think about educational theories and new ways to help my students learn. I think about the psychology of singing.

Nowadays, I write and I read. I analyze and research and think and learn. I go to bookstores and conventions and signings. It’s not that I have no interests outside of writing, but I have to dig deeper to unearth them for casual conversation, and I have a tendency to relate my other interests to writing in one way or another. Have a bad experience? Well, it will be useful for my writing sometime down the line. Like RPGs or theater? Well, they let me study different ways to structure stories. Travel? Broadens my horizons and lets me envision worlds outside my daily one.

Mastery takes diligence. I love this example of Steve Martin. He devoted himself to learning how to perform live comedy and play the banjo. Then he changed over to making movies. Then he changed over to writing fiction. Then he began to focus some more on the banjo again (and won a Grammy for his efforts). The article (which you should go read because it is super interesting) posits that his success is due in no small part to his practice of diligence.

Commitment. Time. Focus. Diligence. And the dream of someday being able to accomplish what you can only imagine right now.

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