Material distractions are the easiest ones for me to deal with. By now I know all about them. They take the form of a messy workspace, including what I call “the clot,” a pile of items, mostly documents, that I’m supposed to deal with but haven’t. I’ve learned from bitter experience (heat shut offs, lapsed insurance) to keep bills out of the clot, but just about anything else can end up there. Over time they get dealt with, they probably even get the attention they deserve, but one way to give in to distraction is to deal with them NOW! I do that a lot, but not when I’m writing. I just won’t.
Mental distractions are much harder to overcome. Good writing, especially fiction, but non-fiction as well, comes from a free-flowing imagination, so putting the brakes on one’s thoughts can be counter-productive. Nevertheless, that’s what overcoming mental distractions consists of. I try not to be too philosophical about these things, but I sometimes do wonder who this “I” is who wants to write the narrative of a particular crime, for example, and who this “I” is whose thoughts drift back to that day in a bar in 1973 when two cops walked in and arrested the guy sitting next to me. Are they one writer (me) circumnavigating the general topic of crime in the guise of two selves in order to find something insightful to say about the crime I am writing about, or are they a writer and his nemesis, The Distractor? They could be either. The method I’ve fallen into for deciding is to step back and see whether what I’m writing, or worse yet what I’m writing about, is boring.
There is no excuse for boring writing. People who read it will become distracted and give up. An honest writer will spot it first and save them the trouble. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting my own boring writing (other people’s is easy) and throwing it out. A more difficult task is doing that two or three times and then deciding that the topic itself is a black hole of boredom. Either way, it’s part of the writer’s task, and The Distractor is your best ally. If he keeps popping up it’s probably time for a rethink.