Thursday, 8 March 2012


As I write this, I am choosing the tracks for the forthcoming jazz radio show that I co-present once a fortnight and desperately trying not to cave into the temptation presented to me by Retronaut, an excellent site that I have just discovered. Clearly, I am not concentrating. This is entirely appropriate, since I have been planning to write about the subject of concentration for some time.

For many years, I believed that I could be creative with music on in the background. Plenty of people seem to do all right with a bit of music while they work. I used to listen to music whilst revising for exams and I certainly enjoy it when I'm reading.

When I'm writing, though, it has to be switched off.

I can't believe it took me so long to discover. I don't have music on at work and I get quite a lot done. When I was doing stand-up comedy, I didn't have music on while I was scribbling jokes on bits of paper wherever I happened to be, nor was there any background noise coming through my hi-fi speakers when I practised my set. When I was learning my lines for the comedy revue I took part in recently, I did so in silence. So why did I think I could write with music playing?

Perhaps I had a notion that, if I put the music on and sat at my laptop, the ideas would flow. Instead, the ideas stopped and I became blocked. Yet when I started to write with no music on, I was almost overwhelmed with ideas. Why is this?

I am too easily distracted. If there is even a hint of peripheral activity, I strain to find out what is going on. A dustbin could rattle in the alleyway and I'll suddenly lose my train of thought and wonder who is moving it, or if it's the wind blowing it - and, more to the point, why is there a dustbin still in the alley when the bins were emptied this morning?

The rattling dustbin - or police siren, car horn, dog bark, doorknock - is a transient sound. A few seconds at most and it's over. Back to work. The opera overture I have loved since childhood lasts seven or eight minutes and I have to pay it my full attention; I become nostalgic but cannot translate the images of my own past that run through my mind into anything meaningful on the page. The jazz fusion tune I am excited by will propel my pulse to sprinting pace; when the frenetic guitar solo starts, I am helpless and might as well be asleep, because I cannot pay any attention to anything else. And when that's over, there's always another tune I have to listen to. Once I have devoted twenty minutes or so to a few tunes, it's onwards and downwards to the hallmarks of procrastination: desk-tidying and coffee-making.

When I write, I have to devote myself to writing. Nothing else can demand my attention. No wonder it's considered a lonely pursuit. But that's how it should be. If something is important, then it is worth total investment of your time and concentration. And writing is worth just that.

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