Rules for a writing playground

Confession: I am not good at focus, but who can blame me? The world, with it’s fascinating ideas and moving objects and beautiful ghastly beasts jumping from branch to branch outside my window, is distracting. Everybody complains about being distracted these days, I know, but I REALLY struggle with focus.

How is it then, that people like you and me who have the hardest time focusing also have this superpower called hyperfocus? It’s as if our fairy godmothers, who saw us struggle with attention, also bestowed upon us the power to become rapt with an idea, to dive into a task, and to allow the entire world to fall away and for hours if not days on end.

Thank you, Fairy Godmother, but I’m confused.

If this gift of hyperfocus is so great, how do we summon its powers to do our bidding when we want it? What are the optimal conditions for intensely focused, prolonged attention?

I’ve learned that to be free to do my best work, I need to set boundaries.

Photo of my actual home office door

Boundaries seem dull, but they actually free me to play. I’ve learned that if I build a secure enough fence, I can take my attention off leash and let it run around with all the other puppies and not worry about getting run over by a car. Distractions become less distracting. The fence does all heavy lifting for me.

Today, as an experiment, I will build a park fence: Write only about rules for writing for twenty-five minutes.

Ready, set, GO

  1. Write for 25 minutes.
  2. No stopping, looking things up on the internet.
  3. No looking at the phone for any other reason than to see how much time there is left on the timer.
  4. No getting up out of your seat.
  5. Only write rules for writing. No other meandering is allowed, unless you are explaining what you mean by the rule. Explaining “what do I mean by what I just said,” is fine.
  6. Editing is prohibited. No going back and checking to see if what you just wrote is good enough because right now it’s all good as long as you stick to the rules above.
  7. Do your best not to look at the rules above. Right now you are writing. No looking back. You are like the lady in the old testament who isn’t allowed to look back or look things up on the internet lest she turn into a pillar of salt. That’s right, you can’t look up whose wife she was or complaining that she didn’t have a name just somebody’s wife. You can look stuff up on the internet and insert hyperlinks later.
  8. That’s right, did you hear me? No looking up her name, I mean her husband’s name, on the internet, because you know what that means, you’ll get lost and this isn’t the time for getting lost. This type of writing is the boring kind. And by boring I mean the drilling down kind.
  9. Drilling down is permitted and in fact encouraged during this kind of writing.
  10. Remember that later you will go back and change your mind about the rules. Not now. Changing one’s mind requires one to have a mind in the first place. This isn’t about having a mind. This writing is about writing.
  11. Looky there! We’re all the way up to eleven. But forget that. Stick to the rules. Only write new rules, so for eleven the rule is to be present to the ideas that flow from your head now.
  12. Another thing to remember–and remembering is okay, as long as you don’t get too lost in remembering, but stay present to the task of writing–is that memory is unreliable. Check your facts later. For now assume that everything you are writing is the truth.
  13. Keep writing even if you don’t feel like it anymore. Feeling like it is for sissies. You are not a sissy. What is a sissy? Someone’s sister? Someone’s little crybaby sister? What’s wrong with being someone’s self-expressed little sister? Or somebody’s wife who looked back? Don’t brothers have feelings too? Who wants to read sentences that have no feeling. Never mind all that. The point is not to give in to your feelings. Or is it?
  14. It is permissible to question, and even encouraged, to argue with oneself. Perfectly fine. Who else can keep up with you like you can keep up with you? So yes, argue with yourself. Your inner editor will clean up the aftermath of the bloodbath from the battle that was you and yourself arguing with each other later.
  15. Is it even possible to have an argument with yourself? Who is you anyway, and how is that person different from yourself? These questions have no meaning. Disregard rules that have no meaning.
  16. A plan is nothing but a thought. Maybe rules are too. Especially rules made for yourself to test yourself to see where your writing goes. The rule here is to keep yourself from getting lost in what a rule is or by UNPACKING overgeneralized abstractions that have no basis in reality. In other words, don’t waste your time unpacking empty suitcases.
  17. When you find yourself writing abstract fluff that has nothing but a weak metaphorical link to the physical world, then stop. That’s right STOP writing about dog parks and unpacking unless you really are at the playground with an empty suitcase. Instead, pause, and write about physical, concrete phenomenon you are experiencing at the moment. Maybe it’s the clicky clackity sounds coming from your keyboard or the sound of your breath. The unreal brightness of this day. The ticky noises the house makes. The cars whooshing by. The quiet sigh as you wait for next rule to come to you.
  18. Write with gratitude for being able to write. You have a body that, to some extent, works. Your fingers respond to your command. Your thoughts become visible on a screen. Can you hear your voice in your writing? Listen. Don’t stop writing. Listen. Again who is doing the writing? The listening?
  19. Stop daydreaming about what’s possible in the free world where writing self-imposed writing constraints don’t apply and you can go to the refrigerator or the bathroom or look stuff up on the internet or look at your phone. There are plenty of squirrels right here right now on this side of the fence. Go get ’em!
  20. One last rule: enjoy the writing, or at least be open to the possibility that joy is waiting for you and for your readers. And maybe that openness is enough.


Still stuck? Maybe it’s time to ask for help.