Question: Sometimes I sit down to write a piece about a particular moment or experience, but once I start writing I struggle to maintain the focus of my work -- it seems like there are a million things I want to say. How do you figure out what exactly you are trying to stay, and keep your writing focused on conveying that message?
What a fabulous question!
I sat with this question for a while before writing my response. In part, because this is something I also struggle with, and I'd like my response to stay on message. What I realize, in mulling this over, is that there are a few tools I use to stay focused in my writing, but there is one that stands out as most important.
First, when you are sitting down to write about a specific memory/experience/subject, it will likely happen in one of two ways: the words will tumble out of you at record speed and you will scramble to catch them all -- OR -- sitting down to write will be like stumbling upon a desert oasis only to discover it is a mirage of words and memories and you haven't got a single thing to say. However it happens, writing in this way cannot easily be forced. When I sit down to write, I spill. Somewhere between a journal entry and a college essay, I push everything onto the page in that first draft. Because the number one tool I use for staying focused in any piece of writing is this: I edit.
Nothing comes out perfect the first time. Even the most inspired of pieces can use a little polish to make it shine. It is one thing to write. It is another to practice the art and craft of writing. And the craft requires discipline, precision, and cultivation. It might be as simple as reading your piece out loud -- something I do with everything I write. Usually I find that I've missed a word in my furious typing, or a spelling error I didn't notice before. I will (with especially emotional or intimate pieces) often set writing aside for a day, a week, a month. Taking some distance from the exact words helps me see them with new eyes. Having multiples drafts of a piece can sometimes even lead to new work, because the things we edit out of one writing might be the perfect introduction to another work.
Second, when I am working on pieces that require me to dig deep emotionally (almost everything I write), I make sure that I have the space to go into those emotions while I'm writing, and the support and self-structure to come out of those emotions and practice good writing aftercare. For me, it is essential to take care of myself when I write hard stories. Because I am responsible for a family, because I have a lot of plates spinning and not a lot of time to get really down and dirty in my emotional processing while I'm writing, I am very cognizant of what I write and when. This might seem a little extreme, so let me give you an example.
I'm working on a few projects right now about particularly emotional times in my life (namely my childhood, and my first abusive same-sex relationship). When I structure my writing time during the day and week (because I do plan time to do nothing but write -- or I would never stay off social media), I look at my entire schedule. I know that if I write about my childhood before bed, I'm more likely to have resurfaced memories appear as nightmares. So I try to schedule my writing time on this project for the morning, when I can do the work, and then shift my focus into the rest of the day and shake off the sadness and release the memories before sleep. Knowing myself this way, I can practice really safe self-care and still get my work done.
This doesn't mean that it's all sunshine and puppies when I'm done writing. Sometimes the emotions and the thoughts carry over into my day, and I have to take some time to use writing to process through them. That's okay, too. But having a project or specific focus, and then scheduling time to work on that, helps me stay focused on the message and story I'm telling in that moment.
Lastly, cut yourself some slack. Writing is a practice, a craft. But we write because we have something to say. Sometimes, allowing ourselves to drift from what we think our message is helps us find the core of what we actually want to say. I confess: this blog post alone has had three iterations in 24 hours. One I scrapped completely (to be saved for another Q & A post). One was set out by the post's title, and as I wrote it realized the answer is something different. And, honestly, better. Which is how we get here. If I had forced myself to stay with the original post, I wouldn't have been happy with this answer, and you would have known that I was struggling to stay focused. Allowing for this shift, and trusting it, is part of learning ourselves as writers. That sometimes, the words really do know better than our complicated minds.
I'd love to hear how YOU keep focused, when you're writing, and when you're editing. leave a comment below! Got a question about writing, personal ritual, finding your way through the forest of your mind, or anything else? Send it along! I want you to be part of this Q & A.