The time has been cleared. Paper and pens are ready. Ideas are preparing to leap from your mind to the page. And then it comes: an interruption.
If you write in anything but complete solitude, you will identify with Dorothea Lawrance Mann:
“There is something about the sight of a person seated at a typewriter, or engaged in the composition of a sentence, which seems to invite interruption… A closed door means nothing, a locked door may be pounded upon, a telephone is no respecter of composition.
“Moreover, one of the strangest hallucinations of the ordinary individual is that though you may be busy when they hear the typewriter going, the moment the noice ceases, they feel free to talk to you. Yet as a matter of fact, as anyone remotely concerned with writing will tell, it is when the typewriter stops that you are planning the next sentence or developing the next idea, and it is the very time of all times when you do not want to be interrupted on any matter, urgent or not!” The Delmarvia Star, 24 January 1926
It’s no accident that writers seek solitary retreats. I love the story about George Bernard Shaw, who had a tiny writing cottage in his yard that he called “London.” When callers arrived, his house staff could truthfully say that he was unavailable, as he had gone to London!
Emilie Loring walked to the Boston Athenaeum each day and wrote from ten to two o’clock on the silent, fifth floor where she found “the privacy and understanding requisite to creative work.” I write each summer at a cottage in Maine where I am blissfully, creatively alone. I need only to awaken, focus my thoughts, and let them fly.
Nothing now between her and her chosen work. Life, liberty and the pursuit of plot-germs! At present her mind was as empty of ideas for stories and articles as a squeezed orange was of juice; but once she touched her typewriter they would come trooping along, she knew from experience. Fair Tomorrow
But the truth is, writers interrupt themselves as much as they are interrupted by others. Get up to fetch a glass of water, notice the kitchen needs cleaning, and off the mind goes, on a household “to-do” list. Or the place is too still, and you get up to hear your own footsteps or speak out loud to the empty room, just to hear a sound. It’s a pesky proposition: Too much distraction, and nothing happens. Too empty, and the mind begins to wander.
When an idea takes hold, there is little that can deter it, like a cheery, roaring blaze. But when it is just getting started, it’s fragile, and the slightest thing can extinguish it. The tinder must be dry, the spark applied in the right place, with enough air to let it take hold, enough fuel nearby of the next-higher size, to build it further. Eventually, the idea takes hold, and you’re off into the rewards of brilliant productivity.
It would be great if concentration were as resilient as a burning fire. Writers could work to get going, and then they’d be unstoppable. A little interruption would be nothing.
Unfortunately, broken concentration is more like melted ice. Sure, you can re-freeze it, but it’s going to take some time. In fact, there is substantial research to show that it takes about twenty minutes to regain concentration once it has been interrupted.
“No one has to tell me that no matter how one’s mind sparks with ideas, unless one writes, nothing gets written. I’ve learned that still living truth.” Give Me One Summer
Writing would all seem nigh impossible, if it weren’t for “flow.” In the groove, in the zone, completely absorbed, fully engaged—all are descriptors for the joyous, fully functioning state in which we do our best work. When the goal is clear ahead, and our talents are fully functioning, an interruption hinders but does not deter.
“There can be no vacation for my imagination while it is working with speed and precision.” Emilie Loring
Emilie wrote thirty best-selling novels in thirty years. When interruption gets the upper hand for a moment, I remember her advice:
“’Leg over leg the dog went to Dover.’ You’ll arrive if you keep everlastingly at it.” Give Me One Summer