Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any.
~Orson Scott Card
Seasonal Affective Disorder, a winter affliction, has a summertime counterpart. I call it SDD: Seasonal Distraction Disorder. The outdoors beckons. Flocks of visitors descend. We want to play, and we want to get things done – active, physical chores - before winter sets in.
What’s a writer to do?
When he’s working on a book, author David Vann maintains his momentum with a disciplined schedule. He guards a few quiet hours of solitude every morning so he doesn’t lose touch with his project.
I do my best to follow his example. But though writing weaves close to the soul, though we need it deeply, there are times when we simply have to focus on other priorities. Within the past month, both my children got married. I considering pressing forward with my projects, writing daily, preserving momentum. But I realized I’d simply be too distracted. I set my writing aside and focused on flowers, brunches, and ceremonies.
Still I feared losing momentum. What if I couldn’t recapture the initial excitement that spurred me to the page? What if I lost touch with my inspiration? Maybe I should have plodded forward, writing a little each day, regardless of how distracted I felt or how crazy-tired I was.
Not necessarily, says Joyce Carol Oates. Applying yourself too doggedly to your work can be “like striking a damp match again, again, again: hoping a small flame will break out before the match breaks.”
No matter how busy or distracted we get, inspiration is always at hand. If you believe with Oates in the Surrealist notion that life is a “forest of signs” for us to interpret, there’s nothing seasonal about inspiration, and there’s no need to drop out of live to pursue it. Henry James dined out two hundred times in a single season, eavesdropping on conversations that inspired The Turn of the Screw. Eudora Welty claimed she heard the most amazing things at the beauty shop, inspiring her story “
Traveling? While driving in the
Adirondacks ,E.L. Doctorow saw a sign for .
He was struck with the sudden conviction that everything he felt about the
mountains was contained there. The novel Loon Lake resulted, a story of “a palpably
mysterious wilderness, a place full of dark secrets, history rotting in the
forests.” Loon Lake
When you find yourself distracted, consider all the ways you might get inspired again. Joseph Heller begins simply with an intriguing first sentence. Joan Didion explores an image that fixes itself in her mind. James Joyce believed in epiphany, “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or of a memorable place in the mind” (Stephen Dedalus). Joyce collected seventy of these epiphanies in notebooks, using them as raw material for virtually all of his important writing.
When SDD strikes – or any distraction, for that matter – don’t despair. Your momentum may stall. But it will return. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll find or recover inspiration, even when it seems you’re doing everything but writing.
Try This: Among the writing prompts Joyce Carol Oates uses in her Princeton fiction workshops, this one’s especially helpful for rekindling inspiration in the “forest of signs” that’s within our own families: You will “interview” an older relative, asking questions, eliciting answers, and then, in presenting the speaker’s voice, removing yourself entirely from the text.
Check This Out: Essays collected in Joyce Carol Oates' The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art touch on inspiration, failure, self-criticism, reading as a writer, and why we write. It’s a slim but thought-provoking volume.