Lead me not into temptation

[September 2005] We’re all familiar with the many external things that can distract us from our writing. Some of them are worthy and necessary distractions—family, job, paying bills, eating, etc. In the coming weeks, we’re also going to have to deal with the fresh crop of distractions that comes with the launching of the fall television series. I know that writing is going to take a back seat the days that LOST is on, and possibly one or two other programs, though I try to keep the TV to an absolute minimum.

There are other distractions, though, that come from writing itself. Every now and then I get e-mail from someone with an exciting new project they want me to participate in. Then there is the flood of story ideas that comes part and parcel with our creative existences. I was driving to work this morning and a snippet of a song lyric triggered a chain of thoughts in my mind. Not a complete story—no, that would have been too easy—but rather the possibility of a story. One of those niggling little ideas that is bound to ricochet around inside my head for days at a time as it struggles to become a story.

We run the risk of overwhelming ourselves or spreading ourselves too thin if we take on every new project—internal or external—that comes along. Right now, I’m trying to finish a major round of revisions on a novel. I have periods where I get a lot of work done in a very short time and others where the project, the one that should be the focus of my attention, lies fallow for days and even weeks at a time. Why? Because I also write book reviews and columns and essays and short stories and…

And. And. And.

I’d originally hoped to have revisions done by the end of August. Now I’m hoping for November, and I’m not sure I’m going to meet that self-imposed deadline. I’m one of the more disciplined people you’re likely to encounter. Even when I don’t feel like it and could easily rationalize away sleeping in one or two mornings a week instead of getting up at 5:20 am to write before going to the office. Yet, I often find myself not focusing on the big projects enough.

For the past 10 days I’ve been writing an essay for a how-to book (finished), doing revisions for a short story accepted for an anthology (finished), writing a Cemetery Dance column (finished), writing book reviews for CD #54 (finished) and working on an essay for a magazine (nowhere near finished). My goal is to reach that blissful, nirvana-like state where “my desk is clear.” Of course, my desk will never literally be clear as it is always cluttered with books, CDs, marketing reports and other important little pieces of paper that remind me when things need to be done. Preeminent among these is my “To Do” list—a yellow notepad with deadlines or projects I’ve committed to on some level so they don’t fall off the radar. Some items have been on that list for months. But, to chisel out a block of uninterrupted time to get the next round of novel revisions accomplished, I need to free my mind of other temptations.

It’s SO hard. Projects come up with short deadlines that I desperately want to be part of. A short story concept pushes its way into my mind, demanding my attention. Besides, editing a novel simply isn’t all that fun at times. The major creative work is already done. It’s very easy to push it aside in favor of a short story. “It’ll only take a day or two,” the devil on my shoulder whispers in my ear.

Yeah, right.

One reason these side projects are so tempting is that finishing them is satisfying. I can cross it off the to-do list. Done! In a good month, I can cross off several things from my list.

The novel still lurks, and it’s getting a little bit pissy about being ignored. But I can cross one more thing off my to-do list: my Storytellers Unplugged essay is finished for another month!

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