The Three Sirens Which Lure Us Away From Writing: Distraction, Disconnection, and Doubt & How To Overcome Them
by: Lalo Rivera
The Call to Write
During high school, I discovered the poetry of Sylvia Plath and decided I wanted to be a poet. More specifically, Sylvia Plath held the distinction of being the first poet I came across who made me at all interested in poetry. Who made me feel like poetry could serve as a bridge to express the deepest parts of myself. Up until then, the poetry I was required to read in class didn’t have anything to do with me or my life. Then I read Plath’s poetry and so many of her lines sung off the page directly to me. Her line, “I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root” spoke right to the heart of the mopey teenager I had once been.
Poem after poem poured out of me during that time. Mostly about love and mostly about my mother. I wrote terrible poetry about my mother which amazed me in its ability to articulate the myriad of complicated feelings I felt about her. I reveled in finding the most interesting (read: maudlin and Plath wannabe) metaphor and similes and it filled me up with the self-satisfaction of having found my calling. And my creative writing teacher, Mrs. Siskovic, thought so too which definitely helped. At the end of Junior year, during college picking time, I decided I wanted to attend a college where I could study Creative Writing. I wanted to be a writer.
And so, I did that. I went to a four-year liberal arts college and majored in Creative Writing and, whenever I came home for Christmas vacations, my father, with great pride, told anyone he introduced me to I was home from college where I was pursuing a journalism degree. He could never quite wrap his head around creative writing. It was much more palatable to call it journalism. But, in spite of his questionable support, I forged ahead anyway. For the next four years, I wrote. I called myself a writer. I made no apologies about it. It never occurred to me to do so. I had the self-assuredness (i.e. obliviousness) of my age and the seemingly unscalable fortress of my ivory tower around me. I didn’t think about my destination. Practicality had not inserted itself into my nature yet and the program I attended did not provide any direction in that regard either.
The Fall from Write
Four years later, graduation arrived and I found myself faced with the quandary of my degree. Now that I had it, what was I supposed to do with it? Where was the office for writers I could show up to with my degree in hand? I had no answers and, by then, there were no professors for me to ask what to do next. So, I did what all college graduates have to eventually do, I got a job. And then I got another. Then another. And, as the years went by, I moved further and further away from my original ambitions of becoming a writer. Instead, I became a boat who’d lost its port. I became unmoored and disconnected.
I lost my way--unplugged from the channel of creativity so readily available to me all those years in college. As I moved further away from those college years, doubts began to arise. Maybe I was never meant to be a writer. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe I wasn’t as talented as I’d thought and as others had led me to believe I was. If I was a real writer, why wasn’t I writing? One evening a chance encounter with a palm reader sealed my fate.
I worked for a non-profit at the time which put on a fundraising gala at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. My employer provided its guests plenty to see and do at the gala: music, good food, fine art, people dressed up in fancy clothes, and of course the palm reader. He created quite the buzz. Everyone I spoke to told me to avoid him because he doled out bad fortunes. He told everybody who came to his table they were going to get into a car accident and not to bother trying to avoid it. Just a fact of life. Instead of running in the opposite direction as my co-workers counseled me to do, I decided to pay his table a visit. I felt intrigued and charmed by the idea of a troublemaking palm reader providing calamitous fortunes.
And with less time than it takes to nock and release an arrow at its target, those words pierced an Achilles heel I had not known I had. In that moment, I envied my co-workers. I would have much preferred a prognostication of a car accident.
With those fateful words the scales tipped; the well of creativity dried up. So, I convinced myself I must be meant to do something else with my life. I threw myself into my career. I filled my life up with distractions. I turned the volume way down on the creative hopes which had run through me for so long. It mostly became white noise in the background I no longer heard any more. Or so I told myself. But as with those moments driving down an isolated stretch of road where none of the radio stations work and all you hear is static, there are too those moments when a phrase of music unexpectedly breaks through. A snippet of song before the static comes back again. The same thing happened to me. A song with the same catchy refrain kept playing in my head: I want to write. I want to write. I want to write.
But the Sirens had done a fine job. So bewitched was I by their charms, I thought nothing of reaching out my hand to turn the knob on the radio. Click. And the radio was off. So many years passed in this way. I remained marooned on an island with disconnection, distraction, and doubt. Any desire to write, drowned out by the voices of the Sirens.
The Return to Write
But as anyone who has traveled these troubled seas before me knows, the voices of creative longing are not snuffed out quite that easily. Unexpectedly, it would rear itself up like a multi-headed Hydra emerging from the sea with a roar I could neither ignore nor shut off like a radio. It showed up and found me on my island where I’d convinced myself I lived a good enough life. The Hydra sowed the seeds of my discontent and asked me: Is this all there is? Isn’t there something more? You say your life is so good…and yet something’s missing, right?
And a fateful call with a psychic turned the tides of my life again.
My job, at the time, laid me off and the experience utterly capsized me. The logical thing to do would have been to get back out there and find another job. I was confident I would find one easily but something in me knew that path led in no direction I wanted to set my course to any longer. Confused and adrift, I decided to consult a psychic in the hopes of acquiring inspiration or clarity. During our call, she said many things to me but the one thing she said, apropos of nothing, was this: You’re a writer.
So, I heeded her order and her words proved to be right. I found a writing group being formed just when I looked to join one--a group I needed and a teacher I needed even more. And here’s what I discovered. Like Orpheus before me who survived the call of the Sirens by singing his even more powerful song, I too had my own lyrics of the conquering song. And like Orpheus’s Sirens who were outraged he had bested them and threw themselves into the ocean to plunge to their deaths, I imagined somewhere my own vanquished Sirens sitting at the bottom of the sea. And me, I am pulling out my pen and writing the melody to a song I had almost forgotten and lost: I am a writer. Yes, I am.
What’s Your Story?
Many of you have had your own rocky journeys of being blown off course. What’s been yours? What times in your lives have you had a firm hold of your maps and a clear destination in mind with points plotted from here to there? It was a time you will readily recognize when it all seemed so simple and clear. You had stories to tell, a book to be written, perhaps even a title picked out.
And then, something happened.
What did your Sirens sing to you and how did they hold you in their thrall? And, more importantly, what can you do to rescue yourself from the island you’ve been shipwrecked on? The island which has kept you from listening to the call that lives inside you to write?
Perhaps, you’ll find a group of writers to join. Perhaps, you’ll start a group of your own. Grab a friend and make a writing date. Or take a class. Or buy a new journal and some fancy pens. Whatever it is you decide to do, don’t wait much longer.
Your stories are waiting to be told.
Oh really? You thought you were going to hit the snooze button one more time?
No more snooze button for you! It's time to wake up and WRITE.
If you're not sure where to start, the first thing you can write is a SMART goal.
SMART goals, while they may not seem very glamorous or artsy, are a great way to develop a consistent writing habit. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Based. Several ways to set SMART Writing goals are:
Set a word count to write each day - then do it. 500 words a day x 365 days a year is 182,000 words, which is a hair longer than Catch-22. I read a story where author Fran Lebowitz was invited to an auction house to see a manuscript of Mark Twain's and the employee was waiting on a Twain scholar to tell him what the numbers scribbled in the margins meant. Fran told him that she was no Twain scholar, but she was a scholar of little numbers written all over the place. She told him Twain was counting the words - and she was right. Many authors set a daily word count as their "I'm done for the day!"
Set a page count to write each day - then do it. One MS Word 12 point Times New Roman page (with one inch margins) a day x 365 days a year is 365 pages, which is roughly the equivalent of Wuthering Heights.
Minutes or Hours
Set a timer for 15, 30, 60 minutes of writing each day - then do it. A word of caution with this method: If you are easily distracted you may find yourself pulled into "research," staring out the window, or taking quizzes to answer the burning question of What Ice Cream Flavor is Your Soul? However, if you are well versed in free or raw writing and can hyperfocus like a surgical laser, this could certainly add up over time.
Whatever is going on in your life, you can make time for writing. Maybe your life feels so hectic that finishing a novel in three months, or even six months, is not realistic. That's okay. One of the keys to get to a first draft of anything is to develop a consistent, daily, writing practice. And while 500 words, a page, or 15 minutes a day doesn't seem like much, those words and pages and minutes multiplied over time will add up.
When January 2nd hits, the atmosphere is bursting with expectant energy and shiny enthusiasm. All the fit-for-life old guard and dedicated gym rats sigh and try not to roll their eyes while newbies fumble around, don't re-rack the weights, and refuse to wipe down equipment. The regulars hang in there though, because they know by the time February 1st arrives, things will pretty much be back to "normal."
Why? Because people want results they can see FAST. And the first six weeks of working out the body is mostly laying new neural pathways in the brain, muscle fibers, and connective tissues. Even though there is a helluva lot going on, it's not readily seen. Thus, most people give up before the magic happens. By magic, I mean the transformative power of consistent effort added up over time. For the folks who grit it out past the six week mark, they might be a little surprised at what happens in week eight, and positively delighted when they reach week twelve.
So no more snooze, ok? You're too SMART for that.
Ciao for now,
Do you have a Writing SMART goal? Please share!