Stretching the Attention Span

I’ve struggled to get my attention span under control this year. It’s improved a lot, mostly because I’ve changed my eating habits and I’ve been feeding my brain lots of oils. (Fish oil and Omegas.) Oils are magic brain food, seriously. Some studies say they’re more effective than Ritalin and the like.

I still yearn for my 5K writing days of old, and I’m not there yet.

Via a blog at Writer Unboxed, “The Internet, Your Brain, Your Writerly Self,” I discovered an article from a recent NPR show, “This Is Your Brain Online.” In it, Nicholas Carr explains how the internet is worsening our attention spans:

"Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are very plastic," Carr explains. "They’re very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning … the more adept we become at that mode of thinking."

Humankind’s natural state is one of distractedness. In the wild, we needed to be constantly shifting our attention in a state of scanning alertness for the many dangers and threats to our daily survival.

Prolonged, solitary thought is not the natural human state, but rather “an aberration in the great sweep of intellectual history that really just emerged with [the] technology of the printed page.”

This was a revelation to me. Granted, I am a little more scatterbrained than normal people, but still. If I view a short attention span as a normal state instead of a deficiency, I can view developing a longer attention span as a practice. If our brains are so adaptable, why can’t I train it to single-task instead of multi-task?

So I’m trying.

I’ve been working on reading for hours. That sounds odd, but in the past few years, it seems I can’t go for a half hour of reading without jumping online. I remember when I used to curl up with a book for hours. Every night.

I’ve found that if I start my writing day by reading for an hour instead of hopping around online, my brain more easily focuses on writing.

I’m trying to do everything in long, single-minded stretches, one thing at a time. Even Facebook. I feel like it’s helping. Yesterday I had my first 4K day in months.

I’ve started meditating, but I’m still at thirty seconds. My brain sorta goes berserk. But hey, even if I add only ten seconds a day, I’ll be up to an hour in a year.

I’m writing first, no matter what. If I don’t produce content, I’ll starve. I’ve been dropping the ball on the little tasks in a writing life, which I regret, but I’m working hard not to let the little emergencies take precedence over writing new words.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Facebook. I love seeing how my friends are doing, I love touching base with them, and I love feeling like there’s a “water cooler” at work. Studies show that distracting yourself for a little bit improves creativity, too.

I just want to keep my distractions as distractions. There are days where writing feels like the distraction from the internet, rather than the other way around.

What was your mind like before Facebook and Twitter and the like? Do you work on stretching and strengthening your attention span? How?

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Written by Natasha Fondren in: Full-Time Writing | Tags: ,

The Importance of Blogging

I’ve let blogging dissipate. Two weeks ago, I was convinced this was fine. I thought of blogging as only a social activity (still is, for me), and Facebook took over that area of my life.

But I didn’t realize how important blogging was to my writing productivity until the other day. First, I blogged, and then writing went well. Second, someone’s blog or status update made me realize that back when I blogged every day, I was nailing higher word counts more easily. Writing was going MUCH better.

That realization surprised me. I know Erica blogs to “warm up” the writing in the morning. And many, many writers wrote letters and essays to warm up or practice their writing skills, before blogs or computers were around.

image The largest benefit is having to organize my thoughts—very, very difficult for me, as we’ve already ascertained. (Fish Oil helps a lot, wow, a lot.) A blog post is small enough to make organizing my thoughts doable, and large enough to exercise my brain’s muscle in doing so.

Secondly, it helps to write in complete sentences. Sometimes this comes naturally to me, and sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t tell you how many writing days I have (about 50%), where just bits come out of my fingers. It’s awful. It seems that writing a sentence ought to be easy for a writer, but some days my brain is so disorganized, that it’s edging toward impossible. I even struggle with it in blog posts, but it’s easier: in a blog post, every sentence need not be as vivid and honed as in fiction. (Maybe it should be, but…)

Third, it forces me to say something, to come up with an idea, to develop it, and to deliver it.

image And finally, I get to practice the “finishing” muscle. A novel takes forever and ever to write. Months. Every day, I’m left feeling I have more to do. The task is never completed. Even if I hit the word count, the incompleteness of the entire work nags at me.

Finishing a blog post is satisfying. It gives me that I-did-it feeling, plus the pride of completion—important feelings to practice often. And it’s a reminder that I can finish things, when in the midst of a novel, this confidence can fade, and then writing becomes a struggle.

I think these arguments can also be applied to writing poetry, flash fiction, and short stories—other things I need to start doing more of.

So my goal, from now on, is to compose a blog post, flash fiction, poem (*cringe* as I’m so bad at it), or half a short story every day.

And I should be back on the blogging circuit more. I need to organize my Reader. I have at least 200 feeds, and frankly, that’s too many. I need to at least get my closest friends in one folder so I can read you guys first off, instead of having you disappear amongst 1,000+ unread posts.

Have you let blogging slide? Do you notice any benefits to blogging? Do you write short stories or poems or anything else, to help you write novels? Or just to help you be a writer?

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Written by Natasha Fondren in: Writing Craft | Tags: , ,

OMG! I Focused!

I could think today. I could even write in complete sentences, instead of words spotted here and there through a fuzzy daze, with a sentence happening only now and then under great duress. Days like this are always such a huge relief.

I had meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (I’d made pot roast for the crock pot.) And a mid-day caffeine nap (scientifically proven, I swear!). And I lit my St. Martin Caballero candle.

I think this is how writing rituals get started, and how writers get addicted to certain things as a crutch.

When you have a “flow” day, when the writing comes relatively easily, one wants to repeat everything about it, so one can have the same success again and again and again. When I performed often, I could snap into the zone easy-peasy. Not so much now, not with writing, but I’m always on a quest to control it.

And I’m wondering: how do you get into the zone? What things do you do to arrange your life for optimum writing? Food? Candles? Tea? A certain location?

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Written by Natasha Fondren in: Full-Time Writing | Tags: ,

The Hardest Thing

What do you find hardest about writing? I’m just curious. People alternately either spout about what an easy job it is, or they over-inflate the angst and struggle.

For me, the hardest thing is keeping my brain in optimum working order. To write, the brain must be able to think. If I’m in that morning wake-up fuzz, it’s easy to focus, but if I’m too sleepy, I just want to fall asleep.

Making sure I can write necessitates that I keep my asthma under control. Lack of oxygen makes me fall asleep, not write. LOL. Which means I have to eat right, avoid dairy, not go to the bookstore too much (but go to the bookstore enough to be inspired and research), and exercise—but not too much.

I have to take one coffee pill, but not two, unless spaced out by five or six hours. I have to keep up on my fish oil, or else my ADD becomes completely unmanageable.

I can push through most physical challenges, but I haven’t yet found a way to push through the thinking challenges. Either my brain’s working or it’s not. If desperate, I can take one of those five-hour energy shot things, but I pay for it later. (Those are great for deadline pushes, though.)

So as I was sitting her being all self-pitying about this darned flu, I was contemplating what I was going to eat tonight so that I could get a lot of words done tomorrow. And then I wondered if other people find this aspect of writing as difficult as I do.

Do you? What is the hardest thing about writing for you? How far do you go in planning your life around writing?

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Written by Natasha Fondren in: Full-Time Writing | Tags: , ,

Keeping House… and Words

I seem to write much like I keep house. And keeping house isn’t one of my strengths. I make a mess. I move piles around. For days, weeks, years. Or I spend three hours scrubbing the inside of the freezer (See? I can focus sometimes!), while the rest of the kitchen remains a mess. I seem to be the same way in writing, too.

I sometimes find myself reading five things at the same time (I mean within the same minute) or writing seven things at once (I mean within the same day).

I hate clutter on my computer and in my house. All this “stuff” gets to me, and you guys know how much I hate stuff. I’m a freak at throwing out clutter. And I almost deleted all the files to do with my WIP so I could start with a clear mind, but I stopped myself. (I’ve already tried 50K+ of that. It didn’t help, clearly.)

So I set myself to organizing the YA WIP and deleting only what I don’t need. SuperNotecard is awesome, and I have my ten projects tabbed open, and each project sorted and stacked and indexed, etc.

But of course I can’t write with all that clutter, so I have WriteMonkey, FocusWriter, and Q10 all open so I can full-screen focus on what I’m working on. And since I’m focusing on three things today…

(I should clarify that I would write all three in WriteMonkey, but as far as I know, it doesn’t let you open multiple documents at once, like Word does. It’s kinda geared towards focused work, LOL!)

Then there’s Windows Live Writer to write this blog post.

And Microsoft Word to read through an old story and write a blurb for its ebook release. (Make that four things today… blogging doesn’t count, as it’s a fun thing, not a work thing.)

All this drives me so crazy, that I started writing in a notebook to get away from the clutter on my computer, but this only ended up making more unorganized stuff that I had to organize.

I was going to tell you guys that my ADD issues have improved with Fish Oil and No Doz, and I really think they have. Really. I mean it. I swear. A bit. A little bit. Any little bit helps!

But somedays? I seriously drive myself crazy.

How do you deal with the clutter and stuff in your own mind? In your house? In your writing? On your computer?


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Written by Natasha Fondren in: Full-Time Writing | Tags: ,

2009 in Retrospect


I spent the morning reading through old blogposts for the year. Evidently, I really wanted a more peaceful life. (I got it.) And somehow, I knew change was in the air.

Biggest Disappointment: I really want a baby. Very badly. I’m not feeling much hope on that front, for health reasons, age reasons, private reasons, and health insurance reasons. I cry inside a little (or a lot), every time I see a child. I’m trying not to think about it for a year or so. I’m not succeeding.

I ended my piano studio on a kick-ass note. I decluttered, decluttered, and purged this year.

Number 1 Thing I’m Proud Of: After three (or more) years of contemplation, yearning, and restlessness, I am finally living outside the window. These are my new adventures. I bought, (broke), and fixed a camper.

Campground life in Ohio rocked. Except for Dish Day, which was a lot of work there. But I didn’t want to leave: I was close to my best friend and niece. I miss them daily. Especially my niece, who is turning three today!

Restlessness followed me to my first stop, but not to Arizona. Part of that restlessness was my foot; I’m dying to get back to Tae Kwon Do. The foot’s actually doing better, and I practice my kicks in the pool every day. As soon as I can run, I’m signing up.

I am disappointed I won’t get to Slab City for another year.

The trip across the US was exhilarating. Living in Arizona is like living in the Wild West. Border Patrol is BIG, here.

Number 1 Thing I’m Least Proud Of: On a related note, I’ve been wrangling with writing all year. I felt I was getting worse. I wish my word count had been better. I want writing to be easier and faster in 2010.

ADD has been a big challenge for me, probably because my lungs have been drowning, and lack of oxygen makes thinking even more difficult.

I decided to read 365 books from September 2009-2010. I am about thirty books behind, but I’m thrilled that reading has become a bigger part of my life than Facebook and blogging, LOL. (Although I miss the socializing!)

At the beginning of the year, I was moved to tears at Obama’s inauguration. Near the end of the year, I was heartbroken over the prejudice against same-sex marriage.

And finally, my favorite and most self-inspiring post of the year is There’s No Traffic On the Extra Mile. For the thing that was most hard for me to write this year, I went twenty extra miles to get it done. (Seriously, swear to God, it was so challenging for me that I just went crazy, doing about eighty times the work it called for, and that’s probably an under-estimation.) And I’m tickled pink that it ended really well, being one of the things I’m most proud of.

Overall, it was a year of big changes, probably the biggest of my life thus far. I miss my niece and best friend. I can breathe better here, and I’m learning how to control my asthma. I think it’s a year I can be proud of.

How was your 2009? What are you most proud of? Least? What’s your verdict?

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Written by Natasha Fondren in: My Adventures | Tags: , , , ,

A Day in the Life

I’ve mentioned my ADD issues before. Several of you have claimed that you have a more ADD-addled brain than I do. :-) Maybe you do. So I thought it might be fun to see.

Exhibit A

So Glenn and I decide to go to a pizza restaurant last night. We go in, spend a few minutes deciding what we want, and then I walk up to the counter. The girl is nice and asks me what I want.

“Garlic—” I freeze. I panic. There’s three words in what I want. And I can see what I want in my mind’s eye, but I can’t remember the next two words.

There are three registers at the ordering station, but only one is open and taking orders. Under the other two registers, there is a menu. Under the register I’m standing in front of, there is not.

I look at her helplessly. She looks back. I look at Glenn but he’s just looking at me, too. I walk over to the little menu under the unused cash register, but things are in a different order than in the huge over-sized menu they had at the entrance. Plus it’s a different shape—this one is landscape, while the other one had been whatever the opposite of landscape is. The menu is a huge blur and I can’t get my eyes to focus on any of it, so after a moment of staring at it but not finding anything, I start to walk back to the huge sign, because I remember that what I want is on the upper right.

Before I get there, Glenn pipes up, “Garlic Cheese Bread.”

I sigh in relief.

Feeling more confident now, because I only have one item to remember—a pizza—I walk back to the lady and tell her I want a small piz—How big are your smalls? She points to a sign that has pictures of each, but, and I kid you not, there are like SEVEN CIRCLES of SEVEN DIFFERENT SIZES. I mean, GEEZE! So I’m comparing them, trying to come up with a decision quickly. A small is 10 inches, and I remember that a large at my old pizza place used to be 12 inches, and a small was 8 inches, so 10 inches is not so small as to be one of those little personal pan pizzas. I double check to make sure that the one that was 10 inches is called “small,” while Glenn grumbles, “Yes, a small. We decided on a small.” I take a breath. “I’d like a small pizza with—”

My mind blanks. I panic again. Three seems to be the number that overtaxes my brain, because I clearly remember we want three things and that they are white, black, and green. Resigned now, I walk over to the menu. I have to coach myself this time. I’m literally telling myself that even if I don’t know where what I want is, I have to read some words, and then through process of elimination, I will discover where what I want is on the menu.

I force my eyes to focus on some text halfway down on the right. My gaze fastens on a bunch of meat, but I know we aren’t getting meat. I just can’t see the rest of the menu, even though it’s right there. I tell myself to try another spot on the menu, but I’m still staring at the meat. I know the other ingredients are listed somewhere else, but I read the meat section again to be sure, because I can see that and everything else is fuzzy.

I tell myself to stop looking at the meat. I decide that next time I’ll grab a paper to-go menu, get a pen out of my purse, probably the purple one, the fountain pen (yes, I think all this while I’m trying to find the vegetables on the menu) and I’ll circle what I want, that way it’ll be easier when I give her my order.

And still I’m staring at the meat, at the same section. I force my eyes to roam the rest of the menu but I can’t see anything else, even though I have my glasses on.

So I start trudging back to the huge sign, because I remember it was the second section down on the left. I’m also feeling sorry for the cashier because I used to work in a pizza shop, and it was always so annoying to listen to people take forever to spit out their order.

And all the time, I’m thinking, “green… it’s green… something green…”

Then Glenn not only has the mental wherewithal to laugh at me, but also to say, “Green peppers, onions, and black olives,” as if it’s easy to remember these things.

This is why I don’t talk on the phone except to friends.

Exhibit B

As soon as I get on the phone, my mind blanks. I just sit there. And I go along with whatever the other person says until we hang up, and then Glenn invariably says, “Did you ask them about X? How about Y? And Z?” And of course I forgot all those things. And then he’s all, “But isn’t that why you called them in the first place?”

Worse is if I write down the questions. Then I can generally squeeze them in, but I often have to ask them twice if the question has been answered out of the order I have on the paper.

And then I hang up and Glenn’ll ask me what they said.

I don’t remember. Seriously, and this drives me crazy, but he’s always asking me what people said. And I never remember. And I get so mad at him, because it seriously taxes my brain so much it hurts to try to come up with even a general idea of what someone said.

And at this point I generally explode and tell him that it’s his job to do the phone. I don’t DO the phone. As in, during the first phone call with any company, I authorize Glenn to speak on my behalf. I’m pretty sure I’ve even authorized him to speak to the IRS on my behalf.

Exhibit C

When my best friend first found my blog, her first remark, with all the appropriate I-love-you-the-way-you-are-and-I-mean-this-in-the-best-way apologetics, was that she was surprised I wrote in organized paragraphs—so coherently, she said. :-)

Part of why I love writing is that I can put things in order while typing. If I put my fingers to keys, something magic happens, and everything is easier. Yeah, I still forget within my writing work, but that’s a post for another day.

And that’s fiction, not non-fiction. (You should ask the most generous Mark about the time I emailed him, panicked, because I couldn’t organize my thoughts into a thesis statement for a non-fiction essay. He was very kind and did not tell me I was crazy and that there couldn’t be anything more basic than that, although he wisely also stopped suggesting I look into doing non-fiction freelance work if I wanted to be a writer with a good income, LOL.)

So. How forgetful are you?

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Written by Natasha Fondren in: Musings | Tags: , ,

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