Monsters in the Sea of Distraction (Rescuing the Muse)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have attempted to cast my tiny vessel out into the Seas of Distraction, to traverse their waters and find myself triumphantly on the other side, one step closer to my Muse locked away in her dragon guarded castle. Every day I tighten the ropes that hold my little raft together and push her out into the unrelenting waves. Each time I set out the sky is a bright and cloudless blue. By the time I make it fifty feet away from my isolated shores, they have darkened. Gray clouds heavy with rain roll in from the horizon, bleed across the sky as the wind rallies it forward. Each time I cling to my little raft as the waves pummel me to the wooden deck, intent on knocking me down like set of bowling pins. 

I can feel a stirring in the waters around me, a shadow moving beneath the frothing surface of the sea. I cling tighter to my vessel, squinting through the salty spray flying back at me from the bottomless abyss. I am afraid to look, hoping and praying that the movement I catch out of the corner of my eye is just a trick the water is playing on me. But no, I have spotted this beast from the safety of my shores, turned my head away time and again when the serpent of the sea railed against the Earth. The shadow circles slowly, not quite touching my vessel, but I know it is only a matter of time. I know she is waiting, sizing me up; the mouse that has come out of its hole to play.

The slap of flesh against water electrifies the air behind me. I whip my head around and just make out the tip of a tentacle slipping back below the waves. She is toying with me now, waiting to see how I will react. But there is nothing I can do from here. She is too large and I carry no weapons. So I do all I can; I cling to my raft and pray she gets bored. 

Another slap echoes to the left of me. I close my eyes and refuse to look. Why watch my own destruction when I am utterly helpless to change anything? The raft jars as the next slash hits closer to home. A hefty jab pushes my sorry excuse for a boat high in the air, and suddenly I’m flying through the salty sea spray before plummeting back to the frigid waters below. The waves wash over me, flooding into my lungs, tearing me from the little wooden deck that is my only salvation. I find myself sinking into the sea, unsure of which way is up and which is down. I kick and thrash, desperately searching for the sanctuary that is the open air. But I can’t find it before everything goes dark.

I awake with fresh air in my lungs and an expanse of twinkling little lights speckled across an expansive blackened sky. Not even the slightest breeze is ruffling my clothes, which are stuck to my body, crusty with sand and dried salt. The storm has once again passed. I know without even inspecting my surroundings that I am back on my island. Driftwood settles on the beach beside me, carried in on a lazy tide. The remnants of my tiny ship, my only companion in this desolate place. Tomorrow I will collect the pieces, lash them together, and try once again. Perhaps I will only get through one wave, perhaps I will finally make it to that distant shore. But for tonight, I will lay back in turn my face to the stars. I have not given up, no, not yet. 

The funny thing about a bad habit: it doesn’t want to let you go. My Digital Detox: well, let’s just say that I have fallen off my raft a couple of times in the attempt. It’s harder than you think to release a lifeline when you are afraid of drowning. I thought that this journey would be a simple one: declutter my mind by simplifying my life, rekindle the spark of inspiration with all that fresh space. I thought a week away from Shop Titans and Facebook would give me the clarity that I needed to focus on my goals. And yet, what I learned: the distractions are merely a symptom of what is truly wrong. To cross the Sea of Distraction you have to understand why you decided to swim to that little island to begin with. And this, my friend, is the most terrifying monster of all.

It is never an easy task to look within yourself and search for your own monster; that little gremlin within you that’s constantly fighting your every push towards success. I buried myself in distraction to keep my brain from turning to the one thing that could cripple it. I left my mind intentionally shallow because I was terrified of how deep my waters could go if I allowing myself to truly explore their depths. It can be a dark place at times, diving into the heart of your own soul.

I used to be laser focused, I could do it all: work full time while taking a full load of college courses, walking the dog every night and maintaining my relationships while still keeping up on my TBR pile. I could finish a first draft of an entire novel in less than a month and still have some energy leftover to edit. I could kick ass, take names, dance backward in high heels and smile about it the whole time. Granted, I worked myself to the point of panic attacks, so I can’t say it was always healthy. But I could do it. I could put my head down and work. And now? Now I keep myself so busy with mindless activity that I never stop to think my own thoughts. It was safer that way, I reasoned. If I didn’t slow down, then I wouldn’t have time to feel everything, I wouldn’t have time to consider whether I had truly dealt with the demons I claimed to have slain already.

My biggest problem when breaking away from distraction? The silence it left me with.

When you slow down and stop staring out at all of the shiny things in the world, you are forced to look within yourself. If you are anything like me: you perhaps have a few boxes that haven’t been unpacked yet. When you slow down, you are forced to open up those little cardboard nests and delve into what they have to offer. You will be tempting to shy away, to turn up the music as loud as you can and shut your eyes so you don’t have to look. But if you do that- the monster will just toss you back into the sea, and you’ll be starting back at the beginning; do not pass go, do not collect $200.

My distractions stem from events that took place a year ago. I was on a very particular path, one that filled me with the most immense joy I have ever know. And then the world shattered and swallowed me whole. Suddenly everything I had been so sure about went up in flames like it had been drenched in gasoline. I was left standing there in shock with the ashes raining down around me like snow. I spent the next year rebuilding, recreating a version of me I could live with. But there was a portion I didn’t touch, a piece of my future I still couldn’t sort out on my own. I spent the next year in a self-imposed limbo: too terrified to ask myself “What now?” What would I do if I path I had planned for my whole life eroded away, what would I do if I could never find it again? I didn’t want to answer the question. So I didn’t let myself ask it. I turned away and looked at something else until the desire for questioning had passed.

I built up these tiny habits all in an effort to fill the silence that my brain desperately wanted to use for thoughts I wasn’t ready to explore. I became too good at my own game, running to distraction until I began to veer towards it without any prompting, building habits out of nothing; habits that still don’t want to be fully broken. I pretended it wasn’t a problem until I couldn’t pretend anymore. When you fill every crack with something loud and shiny, you begin to lose focus. The distractions sapped away the thing that I prized above everything else: my spark, my voice, the creativity that makes me feel like I’m actually engaged in this life. It was time to break the cycle and face the truth I had hidden from.

I’ve been fighting this monster for several weeks now. Truthfully, I expected to be well on the path to adventure, the Muse nearly in my grasp. But I didn’t anticipate the strength of the beast I had created. One day I will be great: allowing my brain to wander in the silence, phone away, words pouring from my pen onto paper, rediscovering the things I was once so passionate about. And then other days I am lost in the sounds, filled to capacity with everything bright and shiny. I am playing a tug of war over my own attention.

And yet, a few days ago I think I may have finally made some progress. After a week of near-panic attack moments I found myself on the verge of tears for no apparent reason as my partner and I drove to his parents’ house for dinner. I was staring out at the trees and the river as we drove towards the town of our childhood, and something cracked inside. Finally, I spoke up, filling the silence in the car with the questions I was too afraid to ask on my own, “What do we do now, if this never works out for us? What will happen if I have to find a new path? What kind of life will help me find a new happy?”

I didn’t have an answer that night. But we started talking over milkshakes from our favorite drive-thru. It was liberating in a way, facing these questions that had haunted me for a year- but facing them with someone beside me, someone who knew how to turn my worst-case into something less scary, someone who had survived the same heartbreak I had when the earth shattered a year ago. Saying it out loud made the fears less powerful, it dulled the pain because it acknowledged that it existed.

I still don’t have an answer to my question. I still have no idea where my path is going to lead. But I’m finally learning to take steps towards something, even though I’m entirely sure what that ‘something’ is. To defeat the monster you don’t have to come up with the perfect solution. This isn’t that kind of story. To slay the beast you must simply stand your ground and face it. You have to surrender to silence and learn to live in it again. You have to stop hiding behind screens and noises and shiny things.

The first monster you will be forced to face as you wade through the Sea of Distraction: the one you created yourself, the one that is keeping you locked on your island. Good luck, my friends, it is an unrelenting foe.

The Sea of Distraction: Digital Detox, Day 1 (Rescuing the Muse)

The Adventure Continues: Rescuing the Muse (Creativity Quest)

The fire burnt down to embers as we tossed and turned through the night, each pretending to be lost in our own dreamland to avoid speaking to the others. Admitting we were afraid of today could have broken our resolve, kept us shivering on this lonely island instead of taking the first steps to find our Muse, locked away in a distant tower. Now that the sun is beginning to creep above the horizon, we sit, staring blearily at one another. The moment of truth has come.

We douse the coals, though there is nothing left on this island for the flames to dance with; we used every last scrap to build that puny little boat we expect to sail on. For the past week we toiled away with the driftwood that washed ashore, lashing it together with bits of rope braided together from the sea grass. Our vessel is small and shoddy, but she floats; and as castaways in this dangerous sea, we could hardly expect more. Every day as we toiled away we kept our eyes on the horizon, half hoping our daring Muse would have found a way to rescue herself and come back to us. But alas, we must be the heroes of this story.

We take a deep breath, look out at our island one last time, and step onto our tiny craft. Pushing out into the roiling waters that have surrounded us for ages, stealing our motivation and locking us in this solitary place. It is time to do the unthinkable, my friends; traverse the Sea of Distractions. Few make it across these waters; many find themselves flung back on the shores they tried to leave. But not us: for we know the secrets to these waters, we know where they get their strength. And we know how to fight.

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

A Digital Detox in the Sea of Distraction:

It is no secret that one of the largest enemies in the fight for creative control is the technology we wield like modern-day wizards. Our devices can be the perfect little weapons for mass distraction, siphoning our mental energy into clickable games, social media, the constant bombardment of alerts and notifications. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think our techy sidekicks are evil; far from it, much like Kylo Ren, they have the light and dark sides coursing through their veins. What makes all the difference is how you decide to channel that energy. And I will be the first to admit: it is far easier to channel that energy towards distraction instead of creation.

Now, I tend to be a bit leery of studies that lump all screen time together; as someone who works at a desk when I’m not moonlighting as a super hero (or villain?), I will automatically clock in nearly eight hours of ‘screen time’ just from work alone. And not all screen time is created equal, in my opinion. I do most of my writing on a laptop because I have an easier time keeping up with the flow of the mental story I’m working through than when I am putting pen to paper. That being said, I know that I have a lot of room for improvement.

The brain is pretty astounding in its ability to adapt to new experiences. This skill is known as neuroplasticity, and it is the reason we can readjust so easily to a changing world. In 2008 a study conducted at Dundee University in Scotland found that adults who grew up in households with black-and-white TVs were more likely to dream in black and white. Younger participants who grew up with screens full of technicolor almost always dreamed in color. This is a small change, but it just shows you how susceptible the brain is to the evolving technology in the world around us.

It used to be an insult when someone compared your attention span to a goldfish: and yet, new studies are indicating that in the future this could be more of a compliment. According to a study done by Microsoft, the average human’s attention span was calculated to be about 12 seconds back in 2000. Today it is more in the range of 8 seconds. To give you a frame of reference: a goldfish clocks in at 9 seconds. We are going the way of the guppy. While many things could contribute to these numbers, it is true that there has been a steady decline since the invention of the smartphone, and anecdotally many people would agree that they noticed a difference when they started relying on their gizmos more (at least I have).

The term ‘popcorn brain’ has even appeared in recent years to describe the effects of too much screen time and over-connectivity. Popcorn brain describes the way we can become so hooked to the electronic multitasking that we are often expected to do, that we begin to crave the fast-paced way we can bounce between topics. The fallout from this: the slower-paced ‘real world’ can’t hold our interest in the same way that it once did. Ever find yourself reaching for your phone when you are waiting for someone to come out of the bathroom, or standing in line: the slow-paced life just isn’t catching your interest anymore. Pop, pop- so goes your adrenaline-craving brain.

So how do you fight your favorite frenemy when tech is the way of the world? I’m not saying to completely disconnect: that’s not feasible, and in many ways it’s not necessarily ideal. There are so many positive things that can come from our techy world, so many avenues of inspiration available to walk our Muse down. No, the trick is to attempt to be a bit more responsible with our tech lives; to use our powers for good, not evil.

Step one in the Digital Detox is very simple: lift your eyes from that screen and take stock. How much time do you spend on distractions? Can you allow yourself to just sit somewhere for five minutes without pulling out your phone and idly scrolling? Is there a particular app that you feel you may have an unhealthy attachment to? Or perhaps one that makes you feel better about the world around you?

Try not to laugh at this next suggestion: you can even download an app to help you keep up a tally of your usage. You might be surprised at how many times you unlock your screen, how many minutes you spend scrolling through pictures you aren’t really looking at or glancing at headlines when you never read the articles. Often times there are patterns in your day that you might miss without the visual pie charts staring you in the eyes.

What did I learn about my own habits? My favorite kinds of distractions come in an audio format. Most of my filler time is spent with an audiobook playing while I click away at one of those easy games that don’t require much thought, just a lot of thumb taps or puzzles. I also like to fill all of the little nooks and crannies of my day with tiny little check-ups that add up to a whole lot of time. I have a tendency to check my phone for something simple: like the time, without actually registering what I’m reading, so I have to check it again 12 seconds later. My attention span doesn’t seem to be much better than Dori’s as she’s helping to find Nemo.

I also noticed the way my distracting tendencies skyrocket when I am feeling a particular amount of stress. All of my numbers jump, and I dive head first into the closest Kindle book or puzzle game to keep my brain from racing through my usual symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately for me, distracting myself from what is really important usually tends to increase my anxiety, which in turn makes me want to create more distractions so I don’t have to focus on the anxiety- and you see how this snowball is suddenly large enough to take out an entire city block.

So what do I want? What am I hoping to regain with a digital detox? It’s really quite simple: my sanity. I want to rediscover my focus so that I can actually finish one of the ten thousand articles I have tabbed on my computer. I want to be able to put the phone down and sit on a bench watching the world around me. I want to be content in my own head, comfortable with my own thoughts. I want to feel like I am in control of my life again. I want to feel like my brain has the space it needs to think clearly and rediscover the creative energy that used to drive everything I did. I want there to be balance in the force again.

Once we have a good baseline, it will be easier to find the right way to battle these waves and navigate the treacherous creatures below the surface. It is important to be honest with yourself about your habits; both good and bad, and attempt to root out the cause. Having insight and awareness will make at the difference when trying to reach the distant shore.

A Fear of Failure, A Fear of Success (hello blank page, my old frienemy)

There is a reason why they say that you must write everyday. But do you want to know a secret? It is not just because practice makes perfect, no, if only it were that easy. It is because time can make the tiniest hill feel like a mountain. When you hide from your words for so long, your tools become rusty and old. They do not flow as freely as they once did, your syllables squeak as they bend and pull along the line of their sentences. This tiny daily task becomes daunting and unwieldy. Suddenly you find yourself staring at this blank page, desperately needing a profound spark of genius to make it all feel worthwhile, to make it feel like you didn’t waste weeks of your life on nothing.

Stagnation; that is the fear. You are Sisyphus with your chosen art form- you push and you push every day, but if you slip- you must start back at the bottom with your damned rock. It is perhaps made even more difficult because you have seen the view from those higher peaks. You know what you are capable of creating, and you know how hard it will be to get back to those lofty places.

This is why the best advice any writer will ever give you is to simply write. Write everything, all day every day. Write out two lines on a sticky note at your desk between phone calls, pull out your journal when you get home, dictate a few sentences in the notes on your phone. But whatever you do, don’t stop. Don’t take a couple of days off- even if you only write for two minutes: do those two minutes, toss every brain cell you have at them.

Refining your craft and discovering your voice is a lot like working out. You may have the grand vision of your best seller in your mind, you may know all of the key plot points to hit along the way. But, just like a marathon, you can’t go out there and do your best work if you haven’t been training. You might finish, but it won’t have that spark you envisioned, the elements that makes it stand out above the rest. It will be missing an integral component: the true voice of the creator, unshackled and free.

It took me a year of daily writing (especially when I didn’t want to) to find my voice, to discover the flow of the syllables and the tempo of my paragraphs. It took only a fraction of that time to let the voice fade. I expect it will take me another year to get those muscles back in shape. But if you love it- then it’s worth it. I will push that boulder up the mountain once again; wiser because I’ve done this before, stronger because I know what I am capable of creating- and I was so damn proud of it.

So I sit here and I stare at the blank page that is refusing to back down. But instead of putting it away with a sigh and an “I’ll try again tomorrow when I have the energy,” I start writing. And it’s clunky, it’s hard, it’s unforgiving- it isn’t particularly good. But with each word a little rust chips away. Here’s the beautiful secret of a blank page: it won’t judge you for what you decorate it with, it will simply be pleased that you took the time to adorn it with a crown of your own making.

Stood Up By My Muse (Again)

The muse is a fickle creature, one minute inspiring you to ignore the entire universe and feverishly write without thought of food or personal care, then next moment she traipses away like smoke in the wind, leaving you land locked and unsure. If there is a way to force her attendance, I have not discovered it yet. She is a flighty creature, and will come and go as she sees fit. Unfortunatly, she usually picks the most inopporitune times to strike: when I am busy at work, in the shower, or out living my daily life (unfortunately, the groceries have not yet figured out how to buy themselves and walk home).

And yet when I plan out my night, fully expecting her to join me for a romantic computer-lit date filled with witty quips and shocking plot twists- she is nowhere to be found. I am left to type away all on my own, with only the slightest hint of inspiration to keep me trudging through the words to reach my daily goal. I have realized over the years that she is the flaky friend you cannot wait on, because if you do, you will find yourself simply spinning in circles.

So what do you do when your muse stands you up yet again? You can go for a walk, run around the block and hope you attract her attention. But after a while you open your laptop (or notebook, per your preference), take a deep breath and start writing. The muse waits for no one- but if she is to magically appear, she ought to find you working. It is the one thing that might attract her. It’s hard to continue typing away when you have no real fire burning inside of you, when you have to pry every word from your fingertips and paste them to the page. But you do it anyway, because as writers we are that kind of crazy. You write, and you slog through, and in a few weeks when you begin your editing- you wont know which scenes she had been present for, and which ones you fought for all on your own.

Writing is not easy, we don’t do it because it is simple. We do it because there is a story inside of us that must see the light of day before it drives us mad. When the muse decides to grace you with her presence, take advantage of that, write feverishly, stay up late, immerse yourself in the words pouring from your soul. And when she is gone, don’t stop. That flighty fiend will always find a way back to you when you least expect it. Writing is the surest way to draw her back in.

I’m not saying to push it when every fiber of your being needs a break- by all means, take the time you need to recharge. Go for a walk, take a shower, read a book, watch a show, bake something- recharge your batteries. But if she still hasn’t arrived- run and jump, dive back into your story and reach your goals. You can do it, even without her- you are a spectacular writer. Just remember that.