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The Distracted Writer

by Christopher Gronlund on October 21, 2014

Manual typewriter on whiteI saw this recently — a word processor mimicking a typewriter that promises distraction-free writing.

Some writers use old, manual typewriters — and not just in the pursuit of hipsterdom, but to avoid distractions. Others grab a pen and paper and write longhand manuscripts.

On Sunday, I listened to this great interview with Robin Sloan again. In the interview, Sloan talks about Freedom, an app that prevents you from hopping online when you should be doing other things.

I’ve seen many other apps and methods created to keep writers offline while writing.

While it’s not a weird concept to apply the Pomodoro Technique to writing, it seems like it wouldn’t allow one to fully go deep enough to achieve great writing; especially when — in the back of your head — you’re probably thinking, “Only 25 minutes until I can check Twitter again!”

I don’t know why writers get so distracted, but it all got me thinking…

The Grand Curmudgeon (i.e. Jonathan Franzen)

Whether you like Jonathan Franzen’s writing or not, he’s almost become as known for being an outspoken critic of the Internet as he is for his big, boring books. (You can probably tell I am not a fan of Franzen’s fiction.) As much as I’m not fond of Franzen’s books (but the guy can craft some great sentences) — and as dramatic as he gets when talking about the Internet — if you put some of his rage aside, he makes some good points:

“Every good writer I know needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. And what the Internet brings is lots of vulgar data. It is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.”

Let’s ignore the curmudgeon-on-steroids branding of the Internet containing nothing but foul, unimaginative content (I will, however, allow you to point out that Franzen is anything but imaginative in his writing). With all that out of the way, let’s take a look at the part of this that matters.

Good writers do need to live inside their heads and spend time in solitude to produce great and lasting work. That’s not to say someone who’s online often can’t write a good book. I mentioned Robin Sloan above, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is, at least to me, a beautiful book. But I’ll admit that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is more ideas and emotion than heady prose you want to savor.

Back to Franzen…there’s bitterness in this next Franzen quote, as well, but some truth, too:

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

There are plenty of great writers with Internet connections, but I think they are writers who find it easy to disconnect. They are writers who take breaks from the Internet and other distractions. (To be clear: I don’t believe the Internet is inherently a distraction, but in the context of, “I’ll write after checking email,” it is.)

I agree with Franzen’s points: to write well, one must [generally] avoid distractions.

Breaking Away

I write well when I don’t look at Facebook. I’m at my best when I take complete breaks from social media. I use the Pomodoro Technique at work: focused blasts of 25-minute production, and then a 3-5 minute sweep of Twitter or Google Plus. Maybe even Tumblr. But I rarely need to roll the writing I do at work around in my head as I do with fiction. Technical writing is simply a task for me. While I have the best job I’ve ever had, it is not something I’d do if I were independently wealthy.

If money were no object, I’d still write novels, though…

And the best writing in those novels almost always comes on breaks from the things that distract me most in life.

The Strength in Solitude

There is a lot to be said for days, weeks, and even months of distraction-free writing — no word quota with a peek at what’s happening online as a reward. For me, writing is its own reward, and when I take breaks from most things online, I find myself coming up with my best ideas.

I read an Isaac Asimov essay this morning about how people get new ideas, and this is the line that stuck out:

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.

Even the writers I know personally who love Twitter and other distractions step away from it all when writing. For me, it’s as simple as turning my phone over so I don’t see my screen light up if one of 5 people I allow to text me actually texts me. (My phone has no other push notifications set. No sound or vibrations. In fact, recently, I noticed that when I’m home…something about our cell tower causes my phone to go straight to voice mail on the rare occurrence I get a call…which is fine by me. I freely admit that I am a bit extreme in this regard.)

If you love writing, why would you need “distraction-free” devices, apps, and methods? Why would you befoul that moment of writing by jumping online and looking at your social media feeds? How can you be even in the middle of a difficult passage and think, “Well, better go watch people getting hit in the nuts instead of working this problem out!” (I share this 4 minute compilation of crotch shots as proof that I am not above killing some time online. I’ve seen this compilation several times, and almost always watch it in its entirety. I say this with no shame.)

How To Avoid Distraction While Writing

So how do you not let distractions get the best of writing? Simple:

Love writing more than being distracted!

If you can’t do that, I question why you’d bother writing at all.

Sure, go ahead and tell me we can’t help it — that the act of going online is like a drug hit to the brain that we crave. You won’t get much argument from me; I have loved the World Wide Web since the day I first logged into the UNIX shell that came with my college account in the early 90s.

But the chemical rush I crave even more is that of writing well. It’s those moments when I surprise myself and leap up from my chair, point at the screen, and say, “Holy shit…I wrote that!”

I even love the struggle.

Maybe — especially — the struggle…because that’s where writers shine their brightest.

In Difficult Moments

Writing is largely not made in those brilliant moments, the times we feel like gods making new life that will change everything the world knows. It’s comes in the moments when we sit and struggle and it doesn’t come easy. Those are the moments that separate writers from people just wanting to write. It’s probably safe to say there are more of those difficult moments when writing a novel than the brilliant moments.

And that’s all the more reason to embrace the act and not let anything distract you from what you may not even know you’re capable of doing until you go deeper than most and come up with something great.


Writing as Hospitality

by Christopher Gronlund on September 28, 2014

Yesterday morning, I finished a big release at work. Of all the writing I do, technical writing pays the most bills. I write for a software company that serves the hospitality industry.


I like hotels.

A lot.

Even tiny motels where people try their best with what they have. I will always remember a motel on a mountaintop in Utah where the owner was hosting a family reunion when a friend and I stopped in, and how we were invited to take part in all the food and festivities in the courtyard. My friend and I were going to a juggling convention in Denver, so we performed for everyone.

It was a great exchange.

I view writing as a great exchange.

An Inviting Read

It’s a lot to ask a reader to spend 6 – 12 hours of their time with something you wrote. With all the other things a reader can do, for them to spend time with your book is a great honor — and I believe writers should be hospitable in their efforts. This is not to say that all stories should be a cozy hotel bed in a luxurious room; it simply means that even if you are writing an edgy story that it be written to the best of one’s abilities and to not be self serving.

It means not wasting a reader’s time.

To not write to the best of your abilities is like leaving a stain on the rug in the lobby. To not focus on the sound of what will be read in people’s heads or recorded narration is like letting the rattling ice maker near the elevators become a cacophony. To not make sure everything is in order is like allowing someone to check into a room that’s not been cleaned.

Doing One’s Best

If I serve you dinner, even if you’re a good friend and it’s a casual evening, I can only do my best. I know the food and drink do not have to be perfect — that my friends are usually just happy enough to be visiting — but I will go as all out as possible, even if I’m just getting you a glass of water.

And that’s what I do with writing.

To not consider the reader and to not make sure my stories are in order is to not be hospitable and value your time. It would be like checking into a hotel to a gum-smacking, “I-couldn’t-care-any-less-about-you; in-fact, I-wish-you’d-just-go-the-hell-away” person running the front desk at a nice hotel.

It’s not just a first impression — it’s care reflected in every nook and cranny, whether it’s a hotel or a novel.

When the visit or read is complete, the goal is to have given someone an experience they feel only you can give them.

Anything less, and you shouldn’t even bother…


Year Five

September 8, 2014
Year Five

Five years ago, I wrote the first entry for The Juggling Writer. Looking back at my earnest beginning, I hoped the blog would show people how to manage their time in order to get things done (life and writing in harmony). I know I’ve written plenty of entries focused on that very thing, but I’m [...]

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Why I Wake Up Early (Even on the Weekend)

August 29, 2014
Rise and Shine; Begin a New Day

I’ve written about mornings before on my main blog. It’s no secret that I like waking up early to write. But there’s a reason beyond the quiet that matters to me: if I get up early and make something I want to make before the world hisses to life and churns away, all the things [...]

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How to Come Up with Good Ideas

August 26, 2014
Cottonwood on the breeze

Yesterday at work, I had an idea for a blog entry. It was a great idea — at least that’s how I remember it. Because I was working, I wrote a note in a notebook (instead of putting it in Evernote), but today…I can’t find it. I hear a lot of people talk about keeping [...]

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Five Writing Lessons Learned from Podcast Movement

August 22, 2014
Podcast Movement Swag

Last weekend, I attended Podcast Movement 2014, in Dallas. Over 600 podcasters from all over the world descended on the area. (If you’re interested, I wrote about it here.) If you know me, you know I tend to be shy in groups. Even around people I know well, the moment there are four or more [...]

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My Writing Mix Tape

August 21, 2014
Blank cassette tape

My writing mix tape is blank — nothing but the sound of early morning darkness. Maybe the sound of the air conditioner or the heater, depending on the season. Sometimes it’s whatever creaking the apartment makes after settling and realizing one of its inhabitants is awake and stirring. It creaks and pops like a tired [...]

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Have You Written Today?

July 25, 2014
Have You Written Today iPhone 5 Lock Screen

Inspired by Austin Kleon’s cool phone lock screen, I made the lock screen you see here. It’s not that I really need the reminder to write, because most days begin with writing — and those day’s that don’t…I usually write in the evening. But… Some Days I Don’t Write I will admit that there are [...]

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How Do You Write?

July 16, 2014
Golden Gate Bridge

Getting from one side of a novel to the other… There comes a point in my writing process that I take over the living room for the day. Whether it’s bits and pieces of a story written on note cards, or printed sections of a manuscript color coded and spread out on the floor so [...]

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A Matter of Strength

July 4, 2014
Chisel and hammer

I didn’t get along very well with school. It seemed there was little encouragement for the things I did well and a pile of chiding and force put into the things I didn’t do so well. My schooling seemed fixated on pushing me to put 10 times the effort toward my weaknesses, while rarely encouraging [...]

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