Butt In, Distractions Out

“Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”  — Gene Fowler, journalist and biographer


It always comes back to the chair.

Okay, you’ve done your research, created your outline or filled a notebook with ideas, detailed your main characters complete with names and genealogy and physical attributes, imagined a setting…. But you still have to face the blank page, not just on the day you begin a story or novel but every day you sit (or stand) in front of your computer or writing pad.


In my last post “Necessary Arrogance,” I cited an excellent New York Times essay by Rachel Shteir titled “Failure, Writing’s Constant Companion.” Shteir writes about the “logistical failure” of even getting to our desks, and then when we actually do, “the failure of not being able to stay there.” Shteir notes that writer John McPhee once tied himself to his chair. I’ve never had to resort to rope, but I fully understand that the blank page is often a writer’s most daunting adversary. Many of us have stories or novels in our heads, some we carry around for years. That can be fun. But it’s getting them on the page that counts.


When I first began writing, I used two rules to keep myself in the chair:

Rule 1: write three pages. After that, if I had the time, I could do whatever I wanted. The manageable quota was key to keeping me at the desk. Some writers may even choose to write one page a day. With 365 days in a year, you can write a lot of stories or a novel in less time than you might imagine.  I found too that once I got going I often exceeded three pages.

Rule 2: until I had finished those three pages I would not allow other things to distract me—chores, my free-lance work, phone calls I needed to make, anything that would pull me away from the manuscript. The laundry had to wait, along with the promotional materials due next week or whatever else might be on my have-to-do list. Three pages. Then freedom.


For me, those two rules worked and I no longer need them. And certainly every writer has to find his or her own unique methods for remaining in the chair. But all of us face demands on our time that keep us, as Shteir says, from even getting to the chair. Some of these demands are unavoidable, like our day jobs or picking up kids at school. And then there are the well-meaning acquaintances and family members who don’t understand the discipline writing requires, who would like us to be available for social occasions or volunteering for important causes or making time to chat on the phone. Sometimes there’s almost a sense among friends and relatives that writers don’t actually work and should therefore have time for these things. So I keep my third rule dusted off and available whenever needed, although it’s definitely the most difficult rule to follow.

Rule 3: learn to say no.