The Periphery: Preserving Your Writing Time (and Focus)

October 17, 2018 § 6 Comments

lizmBy Liz Matthews

The anatomy of my eyeballs is in trouble and I’ll need laser surgery to widen the canals.

“Don’t look this up on the internet,” my ophthalmologist says to me twice during my initial consult.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “my imagination is worse than the internet.” I don’t tell him that I didn’t even Google ‘what’s the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?’ before this appointment. I don’t explain that as a writer, I prefer to linger in this hazy space, on the periphery of truth and fact.

On the same morning that I learn I am among the 10% of the population who has small eyes, I also hear on the radio that in today’s culture, we are distracted every eleven minutes, and that it takes twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. No wonder. No wonder when I finally catch up with my college roommate or talk to my sister who lives across the country, I can’t focus afterwards. No wonder when I finally sit down to write, my mind is too crowded with not just to-do-lists, but also conversations, the idea of a full inbox, and voices that say about me, “you don’t really like to text, do you?”

In my writing workshops, I encourage my students to write on the spot about something they know nothing about without using Google. “May I just look something up quickly?” one of them asks. No. It defeats the purpose of the exercise, to imagine what it feels like to be, say, a miner or an opera singer. Now I will also share that it would take some time – more than twenty minutes – to recover from that distraction. If we allow ourselves the opportunity to always be distracted, how can we be creative?

I am in the process of revising a novel that involves a high school student who spends a lot of time in the art studio. I have been trying to get in touch with a woman from my hometown who became an art teacher at our high school. We exchanged a few emails, but didn’t land on a date to get coffee or even talk on the phone. A few weeks later, I run into her at a mutual friend’s party. I tell her that her voicemail is full. Should I email her instead?

“I rarely check my phone or email, but keep trying me.” She is unapologetic, which is unfamiliar and inspiring. She is also a fine artist – a painter – and a mom to two small children. She is not teaching right now so she can spend more time on her art. “Just keep trying my phone. If I’m free, I’ll answer.”

I replay this conversation in my mind for weeks following the party. Here’s a different approach for how to stay focused to make creative work. Even if we sneak in phone calls here and there, we have to take into account the time it takes to process these conversations. We have to allow room for how these external voices will inform our work, will continue to distract us. We can still ensure our family’s safety, still be accessible, without becoming Google or Wikipedia or Alexa – always available to answer questions, to provide small talk responses on text.

At the party where I run into my old high school friend, she says, “I’m curious what you wanted to ask me about teaching art.”

“Just about the classroom, the type of kids who take art these days, the assignments you give. Do any of them have nose rings?”

She explains about the self-portraits she assigns, how the middle school students aren’t mature enough to stare at their reflection for long periods of time, how this assignment is best suited for high school students, who know and understand themselves better. I imagine my sixteen-year-old self, staring at my reflection. The teenager who doesn’t know yet that her eyes are considered small, that her teeth will become crooked again, and that nearly three decades later, she’ll still want to write. I also recognize how useful this anecdote is for the teenage character I’m working on, who is struggling with her identity, how this assignment could showcase some interior monologue as she considers her reflection. I wonder if this exchange would have come across through email – or even over a phone conversation. As we make eye contact, I see this friend as the teenage artist who painted murals in the art store in the center of town. She also always knew what she wanted to be.

I tell my writing students that it’s important to quiet your mind before writing, to take a walk, meditate, wake up early, do whatever you need to do to be open to your creative voice and to silence your judgmental voice. But now I have this to offer – think about what you do before you sit down to write. Think about how you procrastinate. Maybe you shouldn’t make that call until later. Maybe you shouldn’t be so vigilant about cleaning out that inbox. If someone needs to reach you, they will reach you.


Liz Matthews received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2008. Her writing has been published at The Rumpus, Brain Child, Quality Women’s Fiction, and Town & Country online. She lives in Connecticut with her family, and teaches writing at Westport Writers’ Workshop.





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