Soft Focus

Focus is my eternal enemy in creativity as well as all other aspects of my life. Don’t worry though; it’s an enemy that I thoroughly  vanquish every day. Never has the dread spectre of focus taken hold in my mind without being banished in mere minutes to the outer reaches of procrastination and distraction!

In all seriousness, this is a big deal—maintaining focus on things I want to accomplish, even things I’m passionately drawn to, has never come naturally to me and my creative life is marked with milestones of guilt and disappointment at skills unpracticed, works unfinished, muses unheeded. I’ve tried all kinds of regimens and tricks to try and make myself do what I long to do, but always my idle, distracted self asserts itself and scatters the fragments of Dream to the winds as I fill my head instead with trivia, amusement and hipster pap.

I imagine I’m not alone. But if you’re entering these chambers today in expectation of some wonder method to revitalize your art and practice, I’m afraid I’m in the trenches right along with you, struggling to triage my own stagnant creativity. I can’t promise easy answers, but let’s journey together, and see if we can’t uncover a few insights, shall we?

First, the problem—I can think of several factors that continually stymie me in making art, or anything else:

Fear of failure. The thought of producing something crap paralyzes me, and I don’t produce anything at all. I think “wouldn’t it be nice if…” I wrote this thing, or drew that thing, but never do it. Or I start and don’t finish. I have preliminary sketches of comics, opening chapters of novels, and unharmonized lines of melody, all cluttering up box after box in what I laughingly call my study. If I finished them, they might be crap, so it’s comfortable, if depressing, to let them lie stillborn.

Plain ol’ lack of dislipline. Honestly, there’s one dimension of my problem that’s not terribly mysterious or existential: I’m lazy. Somehow I internalized a path-of-least-resistance mode of operation long ago, and to this day I shy away from anything that’s hard or labor-intensive. So another reason all those works of art lie comatose in apple boxes is that finishing them would be a lot of work–and they still might suck, bringing us back to the first point.

Distraction on an epic scale. We live in a world where whole galaxies of information, of entertainment, of sheer stimulus is available at a mouseclick. If I run out of books to read, I have DVDs. If I’ve exhausted that, my Xbox provides hours of gameplay. And if that bores me, the internet provides everything—games, articles, videos, widgets and doodads. I can pump my cortex full of all the hip in-jokes or nerdrage debates or funny animals or naked ladies my poor eyeballs can stand, and still not be sated. I can do this for hours at a time and still have plenty left the next day. I don’t have to dream, because the entertainment machine will do it for me, stimulating and stimulating and stimulating until I crawl into bed to rest up for another round tomorrow. Once again, the path of least resistance means making art, living story, are just too hard compared to funny things on YouTube. It’s like a diet of Hostess Twinkies—I’m receiving a sensation I enjoy, and my stomach gets full, but is it really nourishing?

I think it’s telling that we’ve started to speak of “information,” of “data,” rather than knowledge. Knowing is experiential; data is just a string of bits filed away, devoid of context. But like it or not, the “information age” is upon us; it surrounds us, these constant streams of stimulus, and I for one just—can’t—focus.

So what to do?

There are lots of possibilities:

Kill your TV. You can, of course, dam up the streams. I don’t watch ordinary TV stations; I just using the machine for playing videos or games that We select or control. I don’t know that I’m ready, though, for cold turkey. If you’re reading this, chances are you aren’t either.

Set a regimen. You can deliberately manage your time—budgeting time for idle entertainment, and carving space for creation. I’ve tried this, and I’m terrible at it. But I have found that at least building the expectation in your mind that you will sit down with that manuscript today, or you will pull out that guitar this week, helps—a little.

Find a support group. This is invaluable, I’ve found, actually. Finding a group of people who will do it with you, in a safe place free of judging in the moment (critique can come later), allows you to open up creative streams that are blocked from fear, and carve out a place in space and time where you will do something. The improv songwriting project Ink Brethren was more valuable than I can express.

Just do it. However you end up making time for art, make sure to do something. Do lots of it, and do it often. My perfectionist streak (see “fear of failure”) leads me to desire perfect jewels of creative beauty, springing full-formed from my poet’s soul. But really volume is what makes art—attempt after messy attempt, which gets ideas flowing so that the truly great ones can sprout and grow, and creates an internalized impulse through sheer “wax on, wax off” repetition, so that you’re living in that world of spirit and creative flow. That’s another thing I learned from Ink Brethren, but I have yet to really take it to heart in the rest of my life.

So that’s where I’m at. I’ve got some pretty heavy hangups, but also some promising tools, though I don’t use them all that well yet. What about you? What defeats and victories have you had on this road? What are YOUR tools? How are they working out for you? I’d love to know.

This road’s less lonely with two.




11 Responses to “Soft Focus”

  1. 1 timeLESS
    February 16, 2010 at 6:13 am

    Jeebs !

    little disclaimer, this kind of posts always make me kindof emotional, and as you will see i have trouble staying focused especially in that state. My post will come off as something of a rant, maybe it is, but it is sincere..

    Now here’s an issue i can so relate to. Im so easily distracted by anything at all. Im browsing the web 14 open tabs at the same time, switching, scanning, mid-sentence cut-offs, and so on. Soon as have my fix, i get bored .. time to read comics, watch movies, play games on xbox360. And the cycle never stops. As soon as i quit, something new has popped up, ready for me to consume.

    Right now there’s the whole world mapped out in all kinds of different variations for us to follow. So many things in fact, we CANNOT possibly keep up with it all. Information overload.
    Meanwhile the world is right there in front of me. For ME to interact with. Why then am i here scanning the web for fragments, easily digestible pieces of infotainment ?

    Only more questions.

    Its hard to find/have/create/maintain/grow community outside of the internet. (That instant but shallow gratification for community). Its hard to sit down and get to the core of ourselves. Its hard to find people that are willing ” to stand with you ” . We have no energy left for mythologizing ourselves and our experiences after repetetive days of going through disjointed social models.

    To create (or destroy for that matter) i need an environment (community) of trust and play.

  2. 2 Joel
    February 17, 2010 at 9:32 am

    I hear you, Simon–what you’re saying might as well be describing my own life! Which is hardly surprising, I guess, considering that I raised the topic in the first place.

    “Information overload” is exactly right, of curse. That phrase has become a trite cliche, precisely because it’s everywhere, all around us. I didn’t mean to pick on the internet so hard when I set out to discuss this, but the fact is that it does loom large in our thought lives and collective consciousness. While the net does continue to be a useful tool for information gathering and networking, I feel the answer to the overload problem includes finding ways to DISconect, to make mental space that’s uncluttered by the datastream. Practicing stillness, meditation or contemplation is totally valuable here.

    Valuable, but hard.

    A last point–storyjamming/roleplaying is ctually a wonderful tool for this community- and trust-building in the physical world. We have a means of creating and sharing Dream together, at a more comfortable rhythm and greater intimacy than Skype or Google provides. That’s something to nurture and grow, I think.


  3. 3 Joel
    February 19, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Another thing I just thought of that helps me–making lists. When I first got married, I found my wife makes lists for EVERYTHING–shopping, household chores, packing for trips–and it annoyed the crap out of me. I finally settled into a mindset of “OK, that works great for her, but not for me; I’m just not that kind of person.”

    But recently I’ve actually found that making a list of things I want to focus on helps me to really prioritize them like I want to. If I make a list of, say, forum and blog posts I want to write, and keep it by the computer, then when I sit down I’m much more likely to work on one of those things. It’s not a “MUST DO” list for the day; I’m perfectly free to let some stuff go for another time. But it helps me accomplish SOMEthing, rather than wanting to do everything and instead doing nothing.

    There’s no reason that couldn’t work for other writing I want to do, or other creative endeavors in general.

  4. February 20, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    True thing: Since getting my own computer, I’ve spent an average of 1+ hours a day on it. Which means, in the last five years, computer time has equated to around 5% of my life. Easily, at a minimum. More likely, it’s around 10%.

    Now, some of that time is creative, some of it is academic, some of it is social… but a great deal of it is absolute waste. In the past few months, I’ve beaten several inane flash games, participated in nerdrage debates, and recently I’ve gotten into compulsively searching for and filling out sweepstakes. Wasted time.

    I’ve tried to replace that waste time with work time, with serious creative pursuits and exercise and the like. But it’s not happening. And I think that’s because my brain needs time where I’m not analyzing, not investing, not planning… where I’m just wasting time.

    Walking through my neighbourhood at dusk, I notice that in most living rooms the television is on. And they’re watching dumb shows. And… a while ago, I would sneer and pull some elitist artiste bullshit and say “that’s not for me! I’m going home to do art and make science!” But, lately I’ve been finding that sometimes I need to go brain-dead.

    I have an active imagination, and a hyper-attentive brain. I invest a lot of energy into the stuff I care about… and after a while, I’m burnt out. I think that the wasted time is necessary, in order to get back to a full tank. I think that trying to stifle it, to constantly go-go-go… it leaves me feeling burnt out. That’s 2009 in a nutshell.

    One cool thing I’ve found for myself is unfocused, unanalytical, 100%-braindead art. I’ve found a couple artistic practices that don’t require or even invite a lot of critical appreciation. If you can find something like that for yourself, it’s really awesome… because when I do braindead art, it fills that same niche need that inane flash games and sweepstake entries fill. And yet, I don’t feel sluggish and worthless afterwards.

    For me, my braindead art: I am writing a poetic response to each wikipedia entry in the “Ga” section. That might sound like a lot of work, but for me it isn’t: idly clicking Wikipedia links, scanning or reading exactly as much as I choose to, writing exactly as much as I choose to, and then moving on. Since there are hundreds if not thousands of entries under “Ga”, there is absolutely no pressure to write good poems. Since the project is dumb in the first place, there is absolutely no pressure to keep going. Since a lot of the topics under “Ga” are uninteresting to me, there isn’t even a pressure to read critically. Some of the duller articles get a ten-second skim while I look for an interesting sentence to re-arrange and do paste-poetry with. That’s it. Totally brain-dead.

    And yet, afterwards, I feel charged up, and also accomplished… I feel like I learned a touch through osmosis… And I’ve actually written a few decent poems. There’s this one about a particular kibbutz, and another that’s a eulogy for some guy in the middle east, and a Lady Gaga poem. They’re all publishable work. Also, there are about 70 poems that I’ve written so far that are dumb bullshit. And that’s okay. It’s braindead art. It’s supposed to be dumb bullshit. It’s a step above pointless internet games, and that validates it.

  5. 5 timeLESS
    February 21, 2010 at 2:20 am


    I remember an article linked to on Ran Prieur’s blog; website (not linky) found @ http://www.ranprieur.com/ that talked about how some experiments had proven that making to do lists seemed to decrease productivity overall. While it seemed to help some people it only postponed real activity for most people. I just did a little search for that article but couldnt find it. Im not sure whether it would work for me or not.

  6. 6 Joel
    February 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Simon, I’d guess it all depends on how you’re making use of a list, and for what purpose. For instance, I’m not making a list to tell myself what I ‘have” to do, and I’m certainly not using it to pad my accomplishments with trivial activity. I can do that well enough on my own, thank you very much!

    Rather, I’m sitting down and asking myself, “what are the things I MOST want to do, that I’m aching in my heart to accomplish?” Then I write them as they come to me, until I’m satisfied I’ve identified my priorities. Then I keep the list handy, and proceed as usual, only the list repeatedly draws my focus to those 3 or 4 things I most long for, and I might work on one or two of them, even complete one. I don’t have to accomplish ALL of them (or feel guilty if I don’t!), just devote some attention to them so that they don’t slip away. I end up feeling a lot better about myself just by giving the muses wht attention I could spare.

    Joe, that’s a great point. “Wasted” time IS important to our psyches, I expect, much like dreaming time is important. Our efficiency-focused culture sometimes devalues leisure as a sin of the flesh to be mortified through daily regimens and organizational schema, but the truth is it’s good for our souls. That in fact is one of Stephen Nachmanovitch’s points in his book Free Play: “Galumphing”–playful action taken for no purpose other than itself–is a vital and nourishing part of life. And it’s certainly not doing us leisurely types any favors to saddle ourselves with guilt over how we “should” be spending out precious minutes and hours.

    I really like how you’ve harnessed this side of your imagination. Not only is it feeding that “braindead time” need, but it’s a great way to get some good “wax on, wax” off time of flexing and developing your artistic muscles. And it sounds like a lot of fun!


  7. 7 Susano-wo
    March 1, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Timeless! I’m not the only one!

    I usually have 4, 5 6, 20 tabs open. I read down a list of forum posts until my brain tells me I must switch. I switch to another tab, often in mid sentence! I do another thing. I open another tab.

    Eventually the big bang slows into a gnab gib, and I close my last tab. I feel drained and guilty. Time wasted on TV tropes, or hearing how you can, by RAW, build infinite food and water “traps” in 3.5 DnD. When I should be doing work (I only have access to internet at work right now…) or at the very least doing something more meaningful. (relearning and continuing further learning in Japanese, writing (both prose and… theoretical for lack of a better term), and studying said theoretical/technichal/philosophical subjects top the list)

    And in the end I realize its an addiction. Addicted to time killers. pathetic.

    It ends.

    Sorry. I know I just got pretty rambly, and I let my thought process come out as I posted. I am with Joel on the fear of failure, as well as the laziness. (well, if figures–we are brothers after all). And its the balance that is needed. Too much structure and efficiency is stiffing, but I think people like Joel and I will be lucky if we ever have to worry about imposing that much structure on our lives.
    So for now? its discipline and repetition. Banish guilt. It is, as fear, the Slow Death. Pressing onward, realize failures, adapt methods as necessary, but the Albatross of guilt must be cut from our necks.
    Again with the rambles, Oy Vey!

  8. 8 Joel
    March 2, 2010 at 11:47 am


    Judging is so ingrained in our thought patterns that it can permeate our lives without conscious effort to rewire our internal scripts. “I’m so stupid.” “God, I’m lazy.” “I was such a jerk this mornihg.” Even positive judgments have a subtle effect: “I’m a good person.” “You’re so smart.” “She’s really nice!” can set us up for failure; if you fail to be good, smart or nice, your whole identity is at risk, and in comes guilt once more!

    I’ve been exploring these concepts quite a lot in the last year, for instance in the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, and in my own life. One of the key culprits in this whole guilt cycle seems to be the word “to be,” and the concept behind it. When I focus on labeling myself and others, on nailing down just what everyone “is,” what kind of person they “are,” it tends to polarize my relationships. Instead of me being a person who did a thing, I “am” that thing. “good” identity-concepts become a lofty standard to live up to, and “bad” ones a source of shame and beating myself up. And I tend to try and shove everyone else into boxes as well, sorting out who’s an “asshole,” who’s “kind,” who’s “loving,” and so forth. Which as I said, tends to lead to a “with me or against me” sort of attitude.

    I wanna dump that fucking albatross straight in the ocean, man. I’m working on it, day by day.

    That kinda expanded beyond the specific topic at hand, but I’m OK with that. :)


  9. 9 Susano-wo
    March 2, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    “Instead of me being a person who did a thing, I “am” that thing.”
    Though its tough, since the aggregate of what you do can be quantified as what you are. Its fair to say that a person who carpents is a carpenter. Or that a person who murders is a murderer. Its the distinction between defining yourself by momentary actions and acknowledging something that you are. Which then create gravitation, drawing you toward them again.

  10. 10 timeLESS
    March 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Hey Joel ! Hey Susano-wo!

    thanks for taking the time to talk about this thing, it means quite alot to me !

    I have to admit that i don’t really feel guilty about spending time hunting information, getting distracted in the maelstrom of the digital world. I dont feel the need to become someone (always in the future)or to prove something. I dont really identify with many labels anymore and the question, who and what am i just makes me smile by its clever and hidden deceit. (like ninja, hiding in the open!)

    What i AM feeling is deeply involved in so many things at the same time that i feel lost by experiencing the enormity of what we’re getting ourselves into. I mean taken into account all the information and our experiences….. the ultimate RPG question: WHAT DO YOU DO? becomes so fiendishly difficult to answer.

  11. 11 Susano-wo
    March 8, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    yeah, the older(ok, older than I was) I get, the less I want to attach a label to what I am. I used to Self-Identify (as the kids say) with being an Otaku (Japanese Animation nerd to the uninitiated). But I started to realize that I did a lot of things just to BE Otaku. And I find that most Otaku do this. Its become actually pretty embarrassing, as I think of how I used to act. (damn, there’s that guilt again :P) So I stopped doing things to be weird, or nerdy, and I don’t like to call myself Otaku. I also don’t like to refer to myself as a gamer, though the appellation can be useful shorthand at times.

    In conclusion:
    “You need a uniform
    So you won’t be ignored
    You are affected
    And so you’re accepted”

    MSI(Mindless Self Indulgence)
    “You’ll Rebel To Anything (As Long As It’s Not Challenging)”

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