Most of us visit more freely than we write, so here’s something that I do when I can’t get my mind to focus on my writing.
I write an email to someone. I talk about the weather, what’s happening in town, what my kids are doing, how I’m feeling, what’s lately been frustrating, successful, or unaccounted for. When I’ve said all of what’s buzzing in my mind, I quit. I don’t send it; that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to give my mind a venue to express itself, to get all those thoughts competing to be front and center in my consciousness out in the open and expressed, and to let my mind sort itself into a simpler state. It’s like straightening a cluttered room – my thinking will have more order, more sense of priority, more things taken care of, better mental acuity, and I’ll be able to focus more on the task of writing creatively.
John Steinbeck, when writing East of Eden, created a loose-leaf, custom binder notebook to hold his writing paper (which was large – like 11 by 14 or something). Every morning, he’d sharpen his pencils and then write a quick letter to his friend, the editor of his publishing house. He wrote the letter on the left-hand side of the notebook pages as they were laid out in binder fashion. He reserved the right-hand side of the pages (which we call the front; he never wrote his creative work on the back) for the novel he was then writing.
Writing these quick, informal letters was his daily warm-up and prepared his mind for doing the creative writing of the novel.
The editor would only get the letters whenever Steinbeck periodically mailed in a handful of papers to the editor’s office where the novel would be transcribed into typewritten pages, so the content of the letters could be weeks old. In case you’re interested, a large number of letters written across his life were compiled and published in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten.
I don’t write my letters as often as I used to, but I’ll do it if my brain is really fuzzed out or I’m can’t get my mind to settle down. I write to my mother, although she passed away years ago. I write her because I could say anything and everything to her, something that I find myself unable to do with existing friends; they always want to talk, whereas my brain just needs to dump information and move on.
If, by the way, I can’t get my mind to settle down and focus, I know that it’s not a writing day; I do something else.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.