Focus, interruption, and an overdue book

Writing a book is so hard. Well, drafting a book was relatively straightforward. But the post-review rewrite and edit has been brutal. It’s not that I can’t do it, it’s finding the time and space to have uninterrupted writing and editing that allows me to retain the whole book in my head while I finish it up. I keep finding myself having to go back and search the draft — did I say this already in this version? Every time I’m interrupted, it takes me time to get back into it. Every person that interrupts me is like “just this one thing”. And of course, there are my self interruptions. Johann Hari quotes research in his book on focus, which found that every interruption “loses” us 23 minutes of concentration. This seems to be even just momentary ones, that distract us from the thinking we are doing, or add another thing to think about to the heavy lifting we might already be doing as writers.

The addition of extra concerns is what really gets me. I kind of think if I do my 4 hours of deep work writing per day, I should then have the rest of the day to do other bits and pieces. But if those bits and pieces involve decision-making, long-term planning, and emotional labour, they take up way more space than the time it takes to do them. When I am doing my walking and thinking (important for solving book issues!) my brain is not naturally wandering to the book issues but is spending time solving all these other problems — house valuation, conference keynote organising, hosting interns, daughter’s exchange planning, preschooler’s temperature and rash.

I was supposed to be on writing retreat this week and I didn’t go because of budget issues. Removing myself from the concerns of other work and just focusing would have accelerated this end stage I think.

But the reality is, I don’t live in a world by myself without these other concerns. And it is very hard to say to myself and others that this book is SO important that I can remove myself from everything else to write it. It feels selfish. I know it’s not necessarily. What I really want is for someone to look after all those concerns, and plan my whole household, and say to me “get back to your office, I’ve got this under control this month”.

A room of one’s own… not quite, as it is in the laundry and by the back door and the toilet!

In the 1920s, English feminist writer Virginia Woolf wrote that women need “a room of one’s own” and an income to write, thinking of Jane Austen and other childless women with means, I suppose. In a response essay, Black American writer Alice Walker asked about those writers who do not even own themselves, such as Patricia Wheatley, a Black slave writer. Māori novelist and short story author Patricia Grace wrote at the kitchen table with pencil and exercise books, while attending to her 6 children and holding down a primary school teaching job. Pākehā New Zealand writer Joy Cowley wrote in spurts while her four children were at school, with occasional retreats. I don’t know about Woolf, but I’m pretty sure none of these other writers had their households or jobs cared for by anyone but themselves. One answer is “imagine what they could have achieved with full support!”. But another answer is, “would their work have been what it is without the experiences that shaped them?”. There are more answers too. But I keep getting interrupted.

For now, for me, my answer is to protect my 4 hours per day, as best I can. To gently repel interruption, and to return my attention as best I can. To carry out my other duties with grace, but to not let them take my writing time.

And to ask for an extension…

This work was brought to you with constant interruptions from kids, cats and more. Any errors are my own, but I blame it on them.

2 thoughts on “Focus, interruption, and an overdue book

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  1. Another enjoyable read. Love that subtle twist in the end particularly. Reading your writing always reminds me of the joy of reading and writing, which is more precious and luxurious to me then it has ever been. Miss it all. Btw hope your house evaluation went great. LOL.


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