Monday, October 26, 2009

A Host of Distractions

Nerve pain is a bitch.

About two months ago I herniated a disc in my back.  The L5-S1 disc to be precise.  I don’t mention this to garner sympathy or complain randomly.  This event has drastically affected, among other things, my ability to write.   It, along with other events, has led me to consider the daily distractions that can pull a writer away from their passion.  And that is a subject relevant to this blog.

The Writer’s Burden

Writing well takes a lot of time and effort.  It requires devoting a significant amount of your free time to a pursuit that may well yield nothing.  It can be a frustrating, even depressing, pursuit. 

The joy writing can bring is often long delayed, and unexpected.  It may be years later when you read something you wrote and think, “That is really good.”  Or when someone compliments you for something that entertained of enlightened them. 

At those moments writing is worth the struggle.  Up till then it is obsession that must drive a writer.   Yes, obsession.  There is no better word to describe what brings someone back to a work that demands so much and offers so little for such a long time. 

But obsessions are rarely all-consuming.  I am obsessed with my story, but I  have also always been prone to letting outside forces dictate the amount of time I spend on my obsession.

The Wasteland of Distractions

The new TV season has always been a dreadful time for me to try and write.  For many years the start of the new season pretty much brought all my writing attempts to a screeching halt.  Fortunately, TV these days is bad enough that relatively little draws me to it.  I suppose I should thank reality shows for the amount of dreck cluttering the airwaves, but they are so god-awful I can’t bear to say anything nice about them. 

For the last year or two I maintained a schedule that let me write fairly regularly.  At least several times a week, about 10-20 hours total.  Not as much as I would like, but enough that I felt good about the progress I was making.   I even managed to keep this schedule when new episodes of my favorite shows were airing.  Quite a feat, if I do say so myself.

Then I hurt my back a couple of months ago and my schedule went to hell.

At first glance, you might think something like this would let me spend more time writing.  After all, I can’t stand for long, nor can I lay down.  I practically live in chairs, and one of the few that doesn’t make me feel worse is the one at my computer.  While there, why not write?

There are a few problems with this chain of reasoning, namely pain, drugs, and treatment. 

Oh the Pain, the Pain

Back at the top I said nerve pain was a bitch.  Back when my pain was at its worse it felt like a wild animal was trying to rip my leg off.  Perhaps there are those able to focus past that kind of agony, but I am not one of them.  Crafting a single sentence became extraordinarily difficult, often require many long minutes just to piece together a few words. 

And then there were the drugs to control the aforementioned pain.  If you are looking for a good way to reduce a groan man to a drooling idiot, I can heartily recommend a cocktail of Neurontin and Percocet.  Together they pretty much destroyed my ability to perform any task taking more than a few seconds to complete.  Granted, I was so high that my imagination took flight and I had great ideas and insights into my story.  But I lost much of my ability to put any of those thoughts on paper.  On top of this, I had a host of bad reactions to the Neurontin which resulted in more time spent with doctors.

Which brings us to treatment.  Treating a hernia goes through several stages, all of which takes time; both for the treatment itself, and in recovering afterwards.

First there was the time it took to see doctors, and the time spent recuperating from the terrible chairs in most waiting rooms. 

This was followed by the (wasted) time in physical therapy that in my case actually made my hernia worse.  

Then I had surgery.  No only was this not pleasant (a significant understatement on my part), it took quite some time to recover from.   The surgery, however, did (eventually) relieve much of my pain. 

With my pain reduced I was able to begin going to a gym where I could do water exercises designed to strengthen my back.   It took long hours to find the right gym, and I now spend many hours each week there. 

When I am done exercising I return home, often so tired and in enough pain that writing is the last thing I want to do.  Instead I take my narcotics and play a game or watch some TV for a couple of hours, then go to sleep in my chair. 

Yes, I still can’t lay down for any significant period of time.  My sleep is still fitful, and I am tired most of the time.  All of which reduces my ability to write fiction.

Is All of This Going Anywhere?

I have not been able to write on my story for many weeks now.  I have been able to write about it in blog posts, but that is not the same.  Writing a blog post is easier than fiction writing where you must worry about characters, plot, descriptions, and so forth.

My desire to write, as always, is still there.  The obsession has not diminished.  But the lost time caused by all these distractions is dramatically increasing the frustrations writing incurs, and further delaying the rewards that normally inspire me to keep pressing forward.

A while back, Nicole and I began a regular exchange of writing and editing.  It was certainly beneficial to me, and surprisingly enjoyable.  This exercise forced me to do something every day, especially on those days when I wanted to set the effort of writing aside.  Unfortunately, events in her chosen career have made it impossible for her to continue this exchange for some time to come.  I mention this to illustrate that while my tale may be singular in its details it is indicative of a broader pattern affecting all writers.  Namely the tendency for outside forces to interfere with the work and joy of writing.

This is not to imply that I intend to stop writing.  My point here is not to throw a pity party, but to illustrate how easy it is for life to disrupt the effort required to produce a work worth reading.  Telling a story in its entirety becomes a quest with hardships that encourage you to turn aside.  Perseverance is required to push through to end.  Perseverance, and obsession.


  1. I understand your pain. I have had debilitating back pain on and off for the last five years, and when it is at its worst, I found it difficult to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. I personally think you have done a good job in trying to work through the pain.

    All the items you wrote about as distractions are completely true in my book. The hardest thing for me is writing when I don't have any inspiration. There are things I do to boost inspiration, like watch a movie or read a book in the genre I am writing, but I prefer the soundtrack route. Nothing gets my spirit going faster than well placed music. Unfortunately, it is also a big time waster, trying to find the perfect music to set the mood and ending up listening to music for hours. Sometimes it can be tough to just sit there and write.

    The gym is a huge distraction for me as well, but in a different way. Yes I am sore and tired by the time we get home. But my mind is, for lack of a better word, dulled. I have focused on the exercising, making sure I am not pulling too hard this way or straining too much that way. And then in the pool, my mind just goes completely blank. When we get home, I might as well be a baby, for all the brain power I am able to pull together. Nothing against a good work out, but it kind of takes the drive out of me.

    But, as I have told you many many times, Brant, this too shall pass. Your back will get better, and then there will be a whole new list of reasons why you aren't writing as much as you would like. Then you can put out a 'Host of Distractions' take 2.

  2. Host of Distractions 2: The Revenge! (This time it's personal.)

    Lack of inspiration doesn't help, that is certain, but I put that into a different category than being prevented from writing.

    And Music is a HUGE boon. I have made special playlists of songs I find inspire me to write. I have often thought of doing a blog post just about that subject. Maybe challenge others to offer up the lists of songs they listen to while writing. I'm willing to bet we each have our favorites.

    And the Gym numbs my mind too. At the end of a workout I feel drained and in need of rest. I know it will get better, but right now is is a hurdle that must be overcome.

  3. For you, lack of inspiration may be different. You can actually get yourself to sit and write something everyday. I myself find it nearly impossible to write anything worth keeping unless I am inspired. For examples, I would refer whoever reads this to look at my post on how I wrote the first two chapters of my book. This latest chapter I slogged through without much inspiration, just a nagging idea. I wrote it in pieces because I had a hard time over the last month getting inspired.

    Waiting for inspiration is a BIG hurdle for me.