Nov 27 2011

The Art of Focus

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I’ve been a bit out of my element lately. Instead of spending time outdoors photographing the southeastern Arizona landscape (or … ahem … working on my novel), I’ve been in the kitchen, surrounded by bags of flour, Tupperware containers of sugar, chocolate chips, toffee bits, butter, cookie cutters …

The majority of my cookie cutters are made by Wilton. Click to enlarge.

I know… Cry me a river, Melissa. You’re surrounded by sweets! And you have the time to bake. Waaah. I hear you … no complaining going on here. In fact, I was delighted to realize that my baking endeavors provided some interesting insights about myself, and even about my writing habits.

All you need for your holiday sugar cookies: sprinkles, paintbrushes, icing coloring … patience, focus, lack of interruption, dedication, tough feet, a sturdy back …

And, of course, you need icing (and great-grandma Reatha’s Texasware bowl … and her KitchenAid mixer that is still functioning after all these years).

Naked Santa heads and partially iced snowflakes, houses, and gingerbread boys.

What I learned over my years of baking euphoria is that sugar cookies – just like all the good things in life – require patience and focus. A LOT of both. Oh – and did I mention hard work? Every time the cats came out to harass me in the kitchen, I had to shoo them away (too many times to count). Then I had to dig back in and refocus on the project at hand. Not an easy task for me since I was continually being pulled out of the ‘zone.’

The finished product was the culmination of one day of rolling dough and baking, and another two days of decorating. Yes, I become a bit obsessive about perfecting the decorations. Click to enlarge.

The sweet reward at the end of three days, however, made the labor of love all worthwhile … that first bite into a cookie that is almost too pretty to eat. The compliments of my husband’s brothers (three of four from out-of-town for Thanksgiving). The satisfaction of knowing that taking my time resulted in something of artistic value. The joy of doing something I love.

For Writers: My cookie-baking experience confirmed a suspicion about my own personality that had been growing since the first day of my social media hiatus at the beginning of November …

You see, on day one of my hiatus, I experienced the following:

  • A clear, uninterrupted focus on the task at hand (WIP)
  • A feeling of ease, knowing that it was okay if I didn’t respond to Tweets, read blogs, and if I didn’t post a blog for the first time in one-and-a-half years
  • An adrenaline rush as I buckled down and reacquainted myself with my characters

And each day, those feelings and that focus grew exponentially. So, naturally, I spent a portion of my two-week hiatus analyzing myself. Why? Why is it that I have an inability to transition between social media tasks and fiction writing when I am juggling both simultaneously? Surely I should be able to spend 10 or 15 minutes on Twitter per day, and a half hour reading blogs, then focus the rest of my time on my fiction. Right?

Any normal, disciplined person could (I have counted myself as both normal and disciplined in the past). I do this with other tasks all the time. So why is this so difficult?

When I stepped back to analyze myself, however, I realized a few things:

  1. I have always experienced the same difficulties toggling between freelance and fiction – esp. flittering back and forth on the same day. For me, this equation = lack of productivity.
  2. I have always been a writer who cannot focus on writing if the TV is on, or if music is playing.
  3. Even in undergrad, I was the kind of student who needed complete silence so that I could focus on my studies.

Hmm… My growing suspicion was being confirmed: As a writer (and a cookie decorator), I operate best as a single-tasker, void of interruption. I don’t do well when pulled out of the zone in either endeavor. Can I multi-task with the best of them in other areas of my life? Yep. But is it most productive for me as a writer? Not so much.

wonderful article about single-tasking on Liz Massey’s Creative Liberty blog quotes author Leo Babauta:

“Imagine … a single-tasking life. Imagine waking and going for a run, as if running were all you do. Nothing else is on your mind but the run, and you do it to the very best of your abilities. Then you eat, enjoying every flavorful bite of your fresh breakfast of whole, unprocessed foods. You read a novel, as if nothing else in the world existed. You do your work, one task at a time, each task done with full focus and dedication. You spend time with loved ones, as if nothing else existed … This is a life lived fully in the moment, with a dedication to doing the best you can in anything you do — whether that’s a work project or making green tea.”

Imagine writing your novel as if nothing else in the world existed…

What I realized after my hiatus is that Twitter and blogs … they are my TV or radio of distraction. That’s just who I am and how I operate. I need that complete silence. Social media pulls me from my creative flow, from the zone of creativity that I must cocoon myself in if I want to write well, write with passion, and write to completion.

Fortunately I am not alone. Author Kimberly Brock (The River Witch ~ May 2012) says, “Blogging and social media sort of throw my brain into a different gear, and then it’s very difficult to get back to the creative efforts.”

Yes! Yes, Kimberly! I agree. For me, fiction and social media require two very different mindsets (in the same way that my freelance and fiction do). To illustrate this point: during the first few days of my hiatus, I felt that I had to condition my mind to not wonder what messages I was getting, what blog posts I was missing, or what was going on with my social media friends. Look at all the distraction that was going on in my head while I was trying to focus on fiction. I do believe there is a ‘social’ mindset and a ‘writing’ mindset. At least for me… And I need to separate them occasionally.

So what my hiatus ultimately taught me is that, to achieve the kind of focus necessary in my creative endeavors, I need to take more scheduled breaks similar to my hiatus – away from social media.

I’ve made such wonderful connections that I would never, ever want to walk away completely (and, let’s be honest: it gets lonely when you isolate). But my hiatus taught me that what’s best for me, personally, is to spend focused amounts of time on my WIP, and focused amounts of time with social media.

What about you? Do you experience the same tug-and-pull of social media? Do you mind when authors and writers go ‘’off-grid” for a while and pop back in? How do you manage?

**You might find Liz’s single-tasking audio meditation helpful as well.

Oct 30 2011

Desert Hiatus

Melissa Crytzer Fry

It seems the creatures of the desert go on hiatus about this time of year. Tortoises no longer tuck themselves into their shells, rather they seek to tuck themselves beneath granitic or volcanic boulders in preparation for the winter months. Tarantulas burrow down into existing mole holes. Rattlesnakes occupy deserted gopher and squirrel tunnels. Giant Sonoran desert toads dig deep into the soil and hide away until the next monsoon season.

This baby desert tortoise showed up in July for hubby's birthday. Just a few short months later, he was seeking shelter for his winter hiatus. Click to enlarge.

You already know of my spider affinity from my last post. But let's just say that the tarantulas that roam our ranch hold an extra special place in my heart. Haven't seen one since the weather cooled in the evenings. Click to enlarge.

So, with all the desert critter withdrawal going on around me, I figured it might be a good time for me to disappear as well. This is tough for me, but something I feel I need to do so that I can make additional progress on my novel. Yes, despite the withdrawal I will surely suffer from not being on Twitter or visiting my favorite blogs for two weeks – or blogging, myself – I must do this.

This rattler didn't need to slither into a hole to hide; his camouflage did the trick. We found him under an old board near our construction site. Click to enlarge.

I must carve out uninterrupted Work-in-Progress time so that I can advance my 50K words, taking them to the finish line. What will two weeks bring me (provided no new freelance projects emerge)? I honestly don’t know. But it will definitely be a step or two closer to ‘done.’

This is actually a juvenile owl, photographed behind my house. Inquisitive little guy! Click to enlarge.

Who Gives a Hoot? I know you could probably give two hoots about my writing routine, but by publicly announcing this goal, I feel accountable. Some of you may want to know if, at the end of my mini-writing sabbatical, I’ve produced the goods. Imagine my shame if I didn’t deliver.

Thank you to Amanda Hoving, whose post first planted the seed that it is, indeed, okay to step away – and to Patrick Ross, whose ‘unplugged’ blog post added more fuel to the fire. Julia Munroe MartinNina BadzinCynthia Roberston and Natalia Sylvester all posted thought-provoking blogs about the importance of prioritizing writing, blogging and social media – as well as just how much time we need to write well (click their names above to read their fabulous posts). And I cannot forget Stephanie Alexander, who once reminded me, “We are not professional bloggers or Tweeters. We are writers.” Lisa Killian also played a role in assuring me that the creative surge will be well worth the time away.

As the sun sets on the horizon beyond one of the hills on our property, I wish happy writing to all. See you back in the Twittersverse Nov. 15 and here probably Nov. 21.

Note: If you see me on Twitter or responding to this post Mon., Oct. 31, I’m not cheating. My official first day of hiatus begins Tuesday, Nov. 1. Will get back to everyone after my sabbatical.