Pursued By A Bear: “I never finish anything, how do I keep my focus?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I write all the time, but it seems like I never finish anything somehow.  I try to focus, but I find myself thinking about other stuff and getting ideas for other projects, and it seems silly not to write them down.  Essentially, what I’d like to know is if you have any advice on how to focus on an idea and not get completely distracted by five other ideas (to finish one).”

First of all, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong by writing your ideas down. You’ll inevitably reach a point at some distant time in the future when you suddenly realise you’re all out of ideas, and you’d really like to have some. Here’s where you’ll be able to flick back through your notes and dig up a long-forgotten idea that brings you fresh inspiration.

There was a time I used to jump from one play to another without ever really immersing myself in anything. Ideas were everywhere, it was all I could do to avoid tripping over them. Nowadays it’s more like struggling to cling onto the tail of a single idea as it gallops over the horizon like a wild horse that just stood on a beehive.

The trick is picking the best idea in the beginning. It doesn’t mean you have to discard the others, you can still keep them for later, but don’t start writing them. When a new idea hits you note it down very briefly. Make the note just detailed enough to jog your memory if you were to come back to it in three months’ time, but not so thorough that it continues to play on your mind as you’re working on your current project.

Carefully note it down, then forget about it. Put it right out of your mind.

Because in the heat of the moment all ideas seem like good ideas. The only way to separate the gems from the regular pebbles (and the deceptive shit nuggets) is to take your time and have a proper think about it. Put them to one side and come back to them later with a fresh eye, one that isn’t clouded with excitement.

So, once you’ve ruminated over it long and hard, and picked your absolute best idea out of the pile, how do you see it through to completion? Life’s full of distractions; other plays, other people, paid work, biscuits, movies, extreme sports, books, alcohol, hard drugs and re-runs of Top Gear on Dave. What hope do you have of finishing a play amidst all these other noble pursuits?

The obvious advice is to prioritise. If writing this play is important to you give it priority over other less important stuff. You’ll have to ask yourself some hard questions. Do I really need breakfast? Will I die if I don’t see the latest generic superhero epic? Are friends actually all they’re cracked up to be? Is it absolutely necessary to roam the streets hurling eggs at strangers tonight? Is my marriage ultimately worth saving?

Your questions may differ from mine, but you get the point. Prioritise.

Aside from a general lack of motivation or being too busy with other things, the biggest problem I have when writing a new play tends to be losing sight of what I wanted to say. Hitting a roadblock like this can often be the point when your mind goes off the beaten track. You amble off into the desert without much thought to where you’re going, until eventually you run out of petrol, start walking back to town, pass out from heatstroke and die a horrible death after trying to wring water from a passing scorpion. Going off-road feels productive at first, you’re still moving, but ultimately you would have been better off staying where you were and figuring out a way through that roadblock.

Take this blog post for example, I’m struggling to finish it because there’s no cut-and-dry answer. I could give you a million pieces of advice and I can’t really decide what would be most helpful. I find myself at a roadblock and can’t see an obvious way through.

I mean, I could advise you to quit your whining, knuckle down and get on with it. But that’s probably a bit obnoxious and hurtful, and I want you to come back next week so I’ll pretend it never entered my mind.

I could tell you to fashion your own blinkers out of discarded cereal boxes and strap them to your head with your partner’s thong like a perverted cart horse to block out your peripheral vision and stay focused on the screen. But saying stuff like that always makes me feel like I’m playing for cheap laughs and not really adding any value. So I’ll keep that one to myself.

I could suggest you throw caution to the wind and write six plays at once. Who needs to focus anyway? Jump between plays like a crazed bullfrog with ants in his pants. But this advice feels a little blasé and I don’t want you guys thinking I don’t care about your problems. Because I do. I empathise. This is me on the regular; “I really want to write this play that I’m so passionate about because I love writing and it’s my dream to be a great writer and write a ton of amazing plays. It’s in my blood, it’s woven into the fibre of my very soul. But I just can’t seem to stay focused on anything long enough to finish… I feel like such a failure.”

And you people come to me for advice?

But I digress. There’s really no right or wrong answer to this question and I’m getting distracted by this bird outside my window that I think is a Great Tit but it might actually be a Blue Tit and I don’t really have any idea what the difference is so maybe I’ll call my dad and ask him because he probably knows.

Damn it. Focus Adam. Take a deep breath and get back to the point.

Maybe there’s another question I could answer this week. I’m sure there was a question in the wings about holding down a full-time job while writing. That question would be way easier to answer than this awkward question. I’ve got a full-time job, I could write about that. Because let’s face it, this answer isn’t really going anywhere. It’s kind of a dead-end. I doubt you’re getting much useful advice out of this at all. And I’m beginning to worry it sounds like something Stewart Lee would write; a self-deprecating, self-doubting, outwardly-friendly-but-inwardly-seething, barely lucid, stream of nonsense-ness.

With all this crap going through my head, how do I ever get anything finished? Look at me strolling off into the desert without really thinking about where I’m going, or if it’s any better than where I came from. What do I do?

Just pick up the scorpion and put us all out of our misery.

This is going to sound like some quasi-Buddhist, kung fu movie, fortune cookie wisdom, but whatever… the answer lies in the question.

Every time I find myself wandering off course and filling the page with unhelpful bullcrap, I look back at the question, and I ask myself “Am I answering this question?” If not, I delete what I’ve been writing and refocus my mind on the question. For example, just now, after the quasi-Buddhist bit, I went off on a totally unrelated tangent into an anecdote about how I once accidentally got married. But although it was entirely true and thoroughly entertaining, I realised it wasn’t really relevant to the question and I didn’t want to waste your time, so I deleted it.

Try boiling the essence of your play down to just one sentence. Then ask yourself if you’re losing focus because you’ve strayed away from the point. It’s much easier to focus on something when it’s moving forward in a way that feels right, and the only way this can happen is if you always steer it towards that end goal.

A fellow writer once told me to sum up my play in one sentence and stick it to the wall above my desk. This is great advice, but I don’t always work in the same place so I tweaked it a bit (because I’m inventive like that) and now I put the sentence in the header of my Word doc as I write. This way it’s always in front of me, an eternal signpost pointing me on the right path. Or a constant dig reminding me of how much I’m ballsing it up. Anyway, it helps, I swear.

Ultimately, finishing a play requires a huge amount of motivation and discipline. It’s never an easy journey from start to finish. You’ll get lost along the way, you’ll get stuck, you’ll get frustrated. It’s all part of the process. I’d even go as far as to say that if the process seems straightforward it probably means you haven’t dug deep enough into the story or issues you wanted to explore.

Hopefully some of the mad outbursts I’ve spouted above will be of some help, but the most important thing is that you persevere. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted if a play seems to be moving slowly, this is a sign you need to go at it even harder. Refocus on what you wanted to say and do whatever you can to grind it out.

I was struggling for a while there but I looked back at your question and managed to push through with nothing but sheer determination, grit, caffeine, a quarter of a bottle of scotch, a deep-tissue massage, two blueberry muffins, sixteen minutes of head-scratching, a tab of LSD and five weeks of counselling.

Let that inspire you.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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