Managing Distraction

Alone Together

I recently saw an ad for the Freewrite, a “distraction-free” portable word processor–that is, one with no Internet capability. I immediately recognized it as something inspired by the old Alphasmart Neo, but hipsterized a bit with an e-ink screen and a bit morte of a Dieter Rams styling. I knew about the Neo because my friend Kent Peterson collects writing devices of all types, from fountain pens to typewriters to vintage word processors to actual contemporary computers, and he feels particularly drawn to the minimalist ethos of the Neo. Not to mention that they are available used for less than twenty bucks online sometimes.

The idea, of course, is that the Internet is always lurking round the boundaries of your mind, ready to grab your attention in its velvet jaws and drag it away from your story. Email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all just out of sight and ready to leap out!

So, this being what we call America, someone makes something that you can buy (online, of course) to keep you distracted from ads, blurbs, and the various come-ons of the commons.

Save your money. You’re already equipped with powerful software that will keep you focused on your tasks. It’s not something you can buy, either; it is nothing less than living firmware, refined by the hidden processes of evolution and the more blatant ones of culture over millennia. The brand-name? “Self-Discipline.” It needs but an act of will to initiate the program.

There is a learning curve, though, as any Zen master will tell you. But you won’t have to sit cross-legged staring at a wall to learn how it works. One thing that helps is to stay hungry. Literally. So here’s a plan….

  1. Establish a routine. Yes, even if this is contrary to your self-image as a free spirit moving with the flow of the moment. The flow of the moment is fine if you’re not trying to write a novel. If you are, you need to work. So choose a time of day when your brain runs well and dedicate it to your writing. If you need quiet, early morning is best; if you like a cocoon of social noises, evening in a coffeehouse might do. (Just be sure you’ll be someplace where folks will leave you alone. After all, the original social network is the village square, where everyone gathers to talk.) Choose a time, and keep it sacred. That is when you write
  2. Make a vow. You are writing on your laptop or desktop, many of whose features are bugs when you are trying to get work done. Do not check your email during this time, do not glance at your browser, leave your smartassphone in another room. Be faithful to your work for at least an hour.
  3. Stay hungry. Your ancestors walked miles each day in search of fruits and tubers. They didn’t eat till they put in the time. You shouldn’t either. If you’re a morning writer, no breakfast till you’ve hit your word count; if an evening writer, no dinner, or no drink, ditto. Starvation’s bad for writers, but hunger is good. And it means you have a reward waiting for you when you’re done, one that directly addresses one of life’s most fundamental motivations. This keeps your writing real, and helps you actually get it done.

Exceptions? Aside from emergencies, only one: fact-checking. Verifying a quote or a historical reference,; looking up a word in the Oxford to insure your character might actually have used it, given their age and background; checking whether such and such a plant or animal lives where you plot says they ought to. Aside from that sort of thing, if you don’t smell smoke and no one’s having a heart attack or pointing a gun at you, stick to your word processing program and keep the story going.

These “three weird tricks that the Internet doesn’t want you to know” will do it for you. Or will let you do it for your audience.

You’ve got it in you. You were born with it. Sit down and write.

Rick Risemberg


  1. I’ve been banging around in that statement, you’ve got it in you. It would seem so when you keep doing it, but going all the way back to five years old to figure out why the fizzle fizzed or got under the bell jar, or whatever, and worse, why anyone would care on the eve of more social chaos? Really just wanted to say I admire your site and publishing. Cheers.

    1. Some of the best writing has occurred on the “eve of social chaos.” Tolstoy, Twain, Dickens, Hemingway, Hugo, Wiesel, and hundreds of others in fiction; Arendt, Frankl, many more in non-fiction. There are tales that need to be told, and that the powers-that-be may not want told. Someone’s always cared.

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