On Focus

I used to take a lot of art classes when I was working on my degree in art back when I thought it was what I wanted to do with my life, because everyone told me it was what I wanted to do with my life, even though it made me miserable. If you’ve never taken an art class, they involve a lot of still-life drawing (which is when you draw something from life that is…still). My teachers would mock up these crazy still-life models, basically throwing every crazy prop they could get their hands on together until, finally, there was just this big pile of crap on a table. Then, of course, we proceeded to draw the pile of crap.

Every time we did these assignments, right before starting, I would stare and stare and stare at that pile of crap and have a mild panic attack. I never knew where to start. There was so much in front of me, this huge, chaotic mass, that I just could not get myself to focus.

Eventually I quit art, for completely unrelated reasons, but that feeling of not knowing where to start always remained with me, transferring from art to writing.

When it comes to writing, I have an overabundance of ideas. Ideas, for me, are like dust in the attic; it’s everywhere, you find it in the oddest of places, it gets in your mouth and eyes, and eventually you feel like you’re suffocating in it.

Unfortunately, in the grand scheme of things, ideas are worthless. As my favorite writer, Neil Gaiman puts it in an essay hosted on his journal-blog-thingy, “…the ideas aren’t that important. Really they aren’t. Everyone’s got an idea for a book, a movie, a story, a TV series…”

It’s almost entirely true (I haven’t asked everyone, so I can’t say for certain). Ask everyone you know. They’ll tell you their idea for whatever it is they think would make an incredible story unless, of course, they’re worried you’ll steal it.

The important thing about ideas is what you do with them. Every good writer (and everyone in my book is a good writer, just on different levels in learning the craft) knows that the next step after getting an idea is to develop it. Developing ideas is where the fun stuff comes in (that is, it’s fun if you love the process like a good writer should) like plot, characters, setting, etc. Certain ideas start you off a lot farther in the development process, for instance, maybe you know who all the characters are and what the plot is, you just need to figure out the storyline (the direction where everything is heading), flesh out your characters a little, pick a setting, then start outlining (if you outline, not every writer does…).

This is usually right around where I get stuck. I have the plot, I have the storyline, I know the characters inside and out, I can visualize the setting, and I have a rough outline – no problem; now its time to write.

Just as I’m settling in to my writing position (dressed comfortably in pajamas and slippers, a cup of tea, nearby snacks, music to match the mood of my work, and a new blank word document open on my laptop) I flashback to art class. I have a pile of crap in front of me and I’m staring and staring and staring, trying to figure out how to turn it into art. I don’t know where to start. Before my eyes, my story becomes this huge, chaotic mass and I cannot get myself to focus.

For just this situation, I have a sticky note above my desk with a single sentence written on it: Start with a brick.

The message is an allusion to a scene in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.

If you have never Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I highly recommend it. It has nothing to do with Zen (unless you count that it’s a book about the writer’s own philosophical inquiries and Zen is Japanese religion based on Eastern philosophy) or motorcycle maintenance (other than the writer is detailing a cross-country roadtrip on motorcycles with his son and two friends and there is brief mention at the importance of maintaining one’s bike). There are plenty of intriguing thoughts throughout the book (that I might talk about in later posts), and is, overall, very good food for thought.

In the particular scene of interest, Pirsig is reflecting on an incident between himself and a student when he was teaching at a college. Pirsig had given the assignment to his class to write a general essay about the college building. The student in the scene is distraught by the prompt’s unspecific nature, she complains that she’s been spending every day sitting outside of the building the essay is to be written on, staring and staring and staring at it, this huge, chaotic mass, and she does not know where to start.

Pirsig advises her to forget about the building. She’s being overwhelmed by its largess. He tells her, focus on a single brick and start writing from there. Though wary at first, the student follows Pirsig’s advice and, from a single brick, starts turning out page after page after page of writing.

In art, I always solved my problem the same way. First, I would take a deep breath. Then I laid down a loose, general sketch. Then I forgot about the still-life, and focused on one piece of it (a single brick); be it the apple in the right-hand corner, the candelabra slightly obscured beneath a scarf, or the wooden letter block at the top.

Transferring this solution to writing. First, I take a deep breath. Then I lay down my loose, general outline. Then forget about the story, erase it entirely from my mind, and focus on one scene (a single brick).

There are still a lot of other things blocking my writing (see “On Fear”), but when I remember to “Start with a brick”, I am at least able to focus and turn out page after page after page of writing.

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