Tag Archives: Hyperfocus

Picking up from roughly where we left off…

Hello blog, it’s been a while. May is always a bit of a crazy month. I’m not sure whether this is to do with seasonal shift or whether it’s a pattern I learned at school when it was always exam season, but the anxiety and depression always seem to squeeze a little bit tighter in May. It was also the Month of Many Deadlines, so between one thing and another I didn’t get anywhere near WordPress. But here I am now. Hello again.

There are plenty of things I’ve been meaning to write about, but I’ve been in the grip of depressive thinking recently. I get to the stage where I can’t face writing about anything because I’ve got the Demon in my head telling me that no-one is remotely interested and there’s no point in writing. My energy diminishes, so the act of writing out my thoughts becomes considerably harder (I am eternally grateful that I had solid plans to work from for my freelance gigs). It’s a significant danger sign for me, because I am always in the mood to pick apart my own psyche unless I’m getting depressed, and I have to be quite far gone before I lose the will to write.

Which brings me, by means of a completely seamless and not at all clunky segue, to the subject of a quote I see doing the rounds on Facebook. It’s attributed to Dorothy Parker, but I have no idea whether this is accurate and I am being too lazy to check. It goes like this “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Apparently many of my writer/aspiring writer friends agree with this, at least to the point where they’ll re-post it. I see an extreme version of this sentiment in some of my ghostwriting clients, who want their name on a book without the hassle of actually writing it. For me, it’s the other way round. I love writing. I really enjoy the actual process of stringing words together and typing them into my laptop, watching the word count rack up. Writing longhand is even better. There is something so incredibly beautiful about putting ink on a page. I like the sensation of forming letters, I like watching the ink turn from wet to dry. I never write with cheap ballpoints if I can avoid it,  because it’s a waste of an experience. Gel pens, fountain pens, rollerballs – those are delicious to write with. When I learned that my husband had a favourite type of pen, my heart skipped a beat.

When I write, my brain calms down a bit. My head no longer feels like a browser window with dozens of tabs open. My focus narrows. I never get as far as a single tab, whether literally or metaphorically, unless I’m in hyperfocus, but I get closer than when I’m not writing. I create a playlist for each project or I put on a film or a series with the right voices to help me get absorbed in the task. I don’t answer the phone (any excuse). I feel more settled.

Then I finish whatever I’m writing. That’s when we ditch the calm and move onto the storm. Goodbye enjoyable act of crafting words, hello maelstrom of self-doubt and anxiety. That’s when I have to actually read whatever I’ve written and see all the flaws and clunky bits staring back at me. It’s horrible. It’s so much easier when you just don’t finish things, which is why I have a “Bits and Pieces” folder. All my favourite stuff is in there. The half-formed ideas that live in that folder are the best ideas, because I haven’t got round to destroying them yet.

I get over it, of course. When I’m writing for other people I don’t have the luxury of all this anxiety. When it comes to my own work, I freak out a bit more. Especially when I write plays, because then I have to hear what I’ve written at some point. Then I sit in the audience and second-guess the reactions of everyone around me. I do all the things I tell everyone else not to do, like measuring the reactions my piece gets against anything else I’ve seen recently and trying to work out whether I think audiences are the best people to assess my work or whether I think they’ll enjoy anything that’s dressed up the right way. It’s fun. My demons get some healthy (for them) exercise. I get to question the extent to which the demons really live in my head and to what extent they’re part of the tortured artist persona that I love and loathe in shifting measure. (Some days it feels like actual mental health torment, some days it just feels like I’m a bit of a wanker. Both statements are true. Sometimes concurrently. Like I said, fun.)

If I were able to skip straight to “having written” without the actual writing bit, I couldn’t do it. All the anguish and none of the good stuff where I spend days in front of the keyboard, wandering the internet to find the music and snippets that keep my brain ticking over, doing stuff with words? Hell no. The angst! I can only imagine.

The next post will be more upbeat. I wrote a play for the Fringe – my first commissioned play, I get paid for it and everything – and now that it’s had a couple of drafts and there are actors involved I’m starting to like it again.  There are things I’d like to say about it, and I should get in practise before August rolls around and I have to start telling people to go and see it.


Buzz buzz

My mum had a fantastic way of describing me – “her head’s full of bees and they’re all buzzing”.

It’s true. The inside of my head is a noisy place. Now it has a name and I know a bit more about Attention Deficit, distractability and hyperfocus, but having lived with it so long and never having experienced anything else… it’s just my brain. That’s just what it’s like.

On the one hand, as I’ve mentioned here before, the hyperfocus element can be remarkably useful. It has led to some fantastic writing binges. It can also lead to some horrible bouts of writer’s block. I’m not sure how other people experience writer’s block, never having been in anyone else’s head, but for me it’s not a lack of ideas. If there’s one thing I have never been, it’s lacking in ideas.

No, for me writer’s block is the sensation of being trapped beneath an avalanche of ideas, trying to claw my way out. I feel like I’m trapped in that moment of inception, it just happens again and again and again. I end up with snippets scribbled on bits of paper, random pages of notebooks, Word documents – I’ve got a whole folder where most of the documents don’t contain more than a sentence or two, because I can’t get past that stage.

When that happens I have a couple of options. If I don’t have a deadline to meet and there’s no strong contender forcing me to work on it, I can give in to the randomness for a while. I read, go on long Wiki walks, watch films, listen to music, watch my cat, hang around in busy places. I keep my notebook to hand (or at least in my handbag) and scribble things down in the hope that at some point one of them will demand my attention. The important thing is to keep going, because when I stop, when I try to ignore the ideas and not work on anything I get stressed and upset. My idea of hell is a long train journey with no pen, netbook or phone to make notes on. When I’m really in the depths I feel better if I have my fingers on a keyboard for as much of the day as possible. It’s just comforting to know it’s there. It used to be a notebook and pen that gave me that comfort, but times change…

The other option is to try and force a writing frenzy. I can pick one of the existing ideas from the Folder of Single Sentences and try to find the right place in my head for it. I need its soundtrack or a particular physical location that I can work in, or I need the right voices in the background.

(Voices in the background are why I watch TV while I write. My television has never been tuned in and probably never will be because the voices can’t just be random, I need particular ones and I need them until I’m done. When I was younger I would achieve this effect by watching the same film over and over again. When I got a bit older I discovered American television with its massive long seasons, so now I’ll happily put a box set and settle down to 20+ episodes of the right voices. The voices keep the bits of my brain that aren’t working on writing occupied, which means they don’t whine and tug at the sleeve of the bits that are. I have no idea if this makes sense to other people, but trust me – I struggle to work in silence, as my every school report can attest.)

If I can find the right sounds and feelings, I can trigger a writing binge that will either last long enough to flesh out an idea, taking it to a place where I can continue to work on it bit by bit, or I’ll finish the first draft in one go. The latter makes my life much easier, since it means I have a sense of actually having finished something. If I don’t finish the draft all at once, it means there’s a strong chance of my becoming distracted by the sound of the other bees and moving on without ever getting it finished.

The partial first drafts annoy me much more than the single sentence ideas. This is because every time I try to trigger a writing frenzy on the same subject, it becomes a bit harder. I struggle to recapture that initial fervour. Those bees don’t buzz as loudly as the new, shiny, unlistened-to bees.

The best feeling comes from the organic, unforced frenzy, when I simply get caught up and can’t stop. But those are comparatively rare, and we all know that the work can’t be dependent on perfect conditions or nothing ever gets done.

For the past couple of months I’ve been struggling with the buzzing. Perfect conditions certainly aren’t happening, and forcing the frenzy hasn’t really been an option as it’s my busiest time of year and I can’t just drop everything because the characters are chattering. So mostly I’ve been writing reviews. Reviews have deadlines, structure, discipline. These are not usually things that I like.

Yet something is working. Despite August being busier than any other month, despite assuming that my creative writing would have to take a back seat to reviewing and performing, I find I’ve done more work on existing ideas in August than I did in the previous three months combined. I have some material for the as-yet-unnamed children’s novel. I have a much clearer idea of where the current play is going and a new completed 15 minute piece. Randomly, I have a plot and the beginnings of a script for a webcomic.

Constraints bring clarity. I should know this, it’s one of the things I say all the time in Affectable. Sometimes having that discipline in one area of your life frees you up to be creative in another. I wouldn’t say I’ve found exactly the right balance yet, and considering that there’s a lot of emotional stuff going on at the moment (dead parents, as ever) I don’t expect that I will in the immediate future. But I feel closer to it than I have done previously, and I’m enjoying the constraints of having to marshal my thoughts and present them in a way that makes sense to other people. That goes beyond just reviewing, that goes for blogging too. As we approach October I’ll be interested to monitor what effect the ninth anniversary of my Mum’s death has on my creativity and my ability to blog here. I might set myself a couple of challenges in this regard.

We’ll see. I’m certainly not committing myself to anything publicly at nearly 2am and under the influence of the Fringe. I have a tendency to convince myself that I’m invincible at this time of year. There’s been sunlight and theatre and nothing can possibly ever go wrong. Best to wait until my feet touch the ground again before I say more.


The Jump to Hyperfocus

I’ve been really pleased at the number of people who got in touch after my last post! This is what I mean about not feeling alone – there are plenty of us out there, and it’s a hell of a lot less lonely if we talk to each other. This isn’t specifically a mental health blog, but before we move on to other things I’d like to look at one aspect of the craziness in greater detail, since it plays an important part in my creative life and always has, even though I didn’t have a name for it until quite recently.

Adult ADD is one of my newer diagnoses, and I got it courtesy of a psychiatrist who worked with me last year before I moved back to Scotland. I went to her to address some self-destructive behaviours. During those sessions I had reason to show her a couple of my notebooks, and what she saw there prompted her to ask if I had any of my old school reports. I had. She read through them and asked me to do some tests. Based on my writing and my ridiculously high test scores, she concluded that I have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

Let’s get two things straight before we move on. First, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding psychiatrists and I can understand why, but this particular shrink had nothing to gain from this diagnosis. She already knew I’d be leaving her practice shortly to go home, and there was no-one for her to hand me on to because believe me, for treatment of Adult ADD there is no-one. (Well, almost – there’s one specialist in the country and he’s busy enough not to need my custom.)

Second, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding ADD itself, mostly because it has a very unhelpful name. Just to be perfectly clear, I don’t care whether you think ADD is real, made up, overdiagnosed or anything else. If you think it’s fake, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to consider whether you have it, or indeed to read further. Are we all happy with that? Good. 😉

Inevitably, you say Attention Deficit and the image that comes to mind is of schoolchildren running riot in classrooms, off their little faces on blue Smarties until they’re rounded up and Ritalin’d into doped obedience. I’m not like that and never have been. Even as a child I only ran around like a maniac very occasionally. I was much more likely to be the one sitting under a table with my nose in a book, which is not what people associate with ADD.

This is where misunderstandings about ADD kick in. It’s not that we can’t concentrate on anything. We can. It’s just that we struggle more than we should to concentrate on things that don’t grab our attention. Think of it as a sort of river of concentration – it flows, and when it encounters an obstacle (in the form of something tedious or too challenging) it changes course. Yes, obstacles can be worn away or the river can be dammed and rerouted to work round it, but those things require time/effort. When it’s not obstructed it can be pretty powerful and fast flowing.

So while I might have been a bookworm, I was an ADD bookworm. I loved reading, so I charged through books at an alarming rate and unintentionally taught myself speed reading. That’s hyperfocus. When I go on three day writing benders, I don’t do it as an act of will, I do it because I write a paragraph, hyperfocus kicks in and it’s just… done. Before I realise it. I go online to dig up a couple of parapsychological terms for a scene I’m writing and surface several hours later having read everything I can find on the Dyatlov Pass incident. I’m full of theories about the demise of a group of cross-country skiers and I’m already figuring out the budget for when I turn it into a piece of one on one theatre. I’m not a single word further forward with the play I was actually writing.

That’s the trouble with hyperfocus – it’s focus to the exclusion of all else. That’s the ‘deficit’ bit of Attention Deficit. It’s not that I can’t concentrate on anything, it’s just that when something grabs my attention I completely forget about everything else, and I mean everything. Up until a few years ago I would forget to eat. I’d get lost in whatever I was doing and not even realise I was hungry until I was on the point of fainting. I’m not quite that bad these days, but it’s taken me a while to get to this stage.

Hyperfocus can be extremely useful in creative terms, and I have to admit that when I’m in that state I absolutely fucking love it. Honestly, it’s a beautiful feeling. Even if I eventually discard or shelve the resulting work, the process is a blast. However, it always leaves me with a pile of undealt-with tasks – unopened mail, unanswered voice and emails, undone housework and missed appointments – and since I’ve just poured all my energy into hyperfocus, I lack the reserves to deal with all of this. That’s the dangerous bit, because the hyperfocus grows stronger and more frequent when I’m on the downward spiral into depression and the feelings of inability to cope with life that follow a period of hyperfocus can easily contribute to the low moods and catastrophic thinking symptomatic of depression.

I don’t know where I’d be without hyperfocus. Perhaps I would have developed the thing that other people call a work ethic, rather than requiring these episodes to be kickstarted by either inspiration or an imminent deadline. Perhaps not. Perhaps I’d be better at keeping on top of domestic and professional admin. I’m never likely to know, since the ADD is not going anywhere. Without access to specialist advice I’m unwilling to medicate for it, since I’d rather stick with the devil I know than mess around with my already untidy brain chemistry. (There is a theory that ADD can be the result of failing to absorb dopamine correctly, which would make sense since chemical absorption was never a strong point of mine. Still, no specialist, no dice.)

Before I embraced the Scenic Route I used to try to create routines and structures for myself. This meant calendar, diary, watch and To Do list. I’d force myself to stick to it for a while, and then hyperfocus would strike and I’d lose track of my careful schedule and end up feeling really miserable and useless. All those moments of being told that if I couldn’t perform tasks according to someone else’s schedule I’d never be anything other than a failure would replay in my head, triggering downward spirals and mental collapse. It wasn’t helpful.

Over the past year, since accepting the Scenic Route for what it is (by which I mean ‘a suitable path for me’, not necessarily ‘a path I’d recommend to anyone else’), I’ve loosened that schedule a lot. I don’t even check my diary on a daily basis now. My Google calendar is not synced to my phone. I don’t pack my days full any more, and I use my deadlines with care instead of setting them arbitrarily for everything. It’s a bit more relaxed, so my schedule can (up to a point) respond to my moods rather than my moods and mental state being ignored if they don’t happen to fit my schedule’s requirements. I’m not yet ready to pronounce this experiment a total success, because I’m still recovering from the era of heavy scheduling and there’s been so little sunlight that I’ve had many barely functional days recently, but I’m going to continue with it for now because I’m happy and because it’s my life to experiment with. I suspect that once the depressive fog lifts the new routine (or lack thereof) will let me be much happier and productive than hitherto. For now, who knows? I’ll post the results as I figure them out. In the meantime, it’s nearly 2am, marking the end of my usefulness for today. Bedtime, scheduled or not, and tomorrow I’ll see whether spilling all of this out into the void clears the way for writing any of the more creative stuff that’s currently cluttering the headspace. The next bout of hyperfocused non-stop writing is overdue.