October 24, 2011
Displacing the wall
Anyone for graffiti?
Sit at computer, bring up blank page, make a cup of tea. Sit at computer, look at blank page, do the washing up. Duration: 1 hour. Word count: 0
If this sounds like your typical writing pattern, you’ve got plenty of company. The sudden urge to do housework, rearrange books, check your bank statement- when you really ought to be writing is known as ‘Displacement activity’.
Displacement activity is the bane of a writer’s life. It’s the phrase writers have for all the stuff you do that is not the stuff you are SUPPOSED to be doing. Avoidance is probably a more readily understood term, but doesn’t sound half as writerly. What happens is a little ‘displacement monkey’ in your mind distracts you from the task at hand, by urging you to ‘make another cup of tea/check the TV guide/your bank account/ebay/post on this blog : ) rather than crack on with that difficult piece of dialogue you’re trying to get down.
I don’t believe displacement activities are wholly bad. I feel they sometimes happen for a reason. Perhaps what you’re working on needs time to settle, or percolate in your mind and after you’ve bought those gloves on ebay, it will all come together. However, I admit, I think I’d get a lot more writing done if I didn’t have an Internet connection in my office… I know a few writers who keep their displacement activity on hand – as another creative hobby such as painting, and they believe one such activity complements and feeds the other. So, they may start painting and then half way through THAT activity they’ll turn back to their writing as a displacement activity for their painting and so on…
As with everything in writing, if you find your displacement activity works for you, then go knock yourself out with it. If it is a hindrance, then find a way to stop it distracting you such as getting a room with no internet connection…
From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022.
Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer.
Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series.
Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts).
Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm.
Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy.
An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus.
View all posts by suehealy
October 24th, 2011 at 19:11
A room with no Internet connection?
October 24th, 2011 at 19:35
As with any “problem”, Step One to notice it is there and acknowledge it. Then Step Two – develop a technique that will work for you. For example:
“Whenever I realise that x (the “problem” – in this case, not actually doing some writing) is happening, I will do y.” (Something that breaks the current pattern by replacing it with something that gets you back on track – in this case, doing some writing.)
Then Step Three, use this technique over and over, until it becomes habitual. If you examine your daily life you will quickly realise that a large proportion of everything we do is habit, with just the occasional touch of conscious will. Habit is immensely powerful and useful; you just to train it to be a tool rather than a tyrant. 🙂
October 24th, 2011 at 19:57
Your technique works for me. When I was a teenager, I realized that I wasn’t reading my Bible as much as I wanted. However, I was an avid reader that would read and read and read when it was something that I was really interested in. So I set a rule for myself: Anytime I felt compelled to read, I would make sure that I had completed my goal for Bible reading before I would allow myself to indulge. It worked really well! Now that I don’t have to rush out the door to school every morning, I just read it first thing…except today I forgot! Just realized it while typing!
October 24th, 2011 at 20:57
October 30th, 2011 at 13:33
So, so true. Awareness is the key for me.
As a writer who happens to be bipolar, distraction is actually a major management technique of my illness. But, I’m lucky to say, not a part of my writing process. I do have to let the work percolate—once I get the crappy first draft down, or get stuck, I turn my attention elsewhere and let the boys in the Brain Basement tackle the problem. They always come up with a solution. Always.
October 30th, 2011 at 13:53
“boys”?? Me, I can’t imagine not writing at the behest of female. 🙂
October 24th, 2011 at 19:51
When displacement monkeys call (which is pretty often for me), I let them go ahead and displace me, but I strike a little bit of a deal with them, which is, fine, I can do this, that, and the other thing, but, while I’m doing it, I have to at least write a paragraph here and a paragraph there. It sometimes makes my writing disjointed, but that’s what editing is for, right?
…and that’s when it gets really hard to handle displacement! As someone who’s been spending the day going about various tasks around the apartment, I must say, what a timely post (again!), Sue!
October 24th, 2011 at 19:53
What about a house with no refrigerator??? Maybe I should go write in a library. Today I took my son to the park, and that turned out well. No distractions there…Too bad I can’t do that all year long!
October 25th, 2011 at 01:10
I do this all the time and always have…I see my own blog post on the subject taking shape! Thanks for being my muse today!
October 25th, 2011 at 12:34
Sounds like good old procrastination to me.
*Scurries off to sharpen already lethal pencils*
October 25th, 2011 at 22:41
But there’s always so much to do…
October 25th, 2011 at 23:36
Someone sent me this article recently. Could be timely 🙂
October 30th, 2011 at 14:34
Its scary what goes on with some people, taking an idea to extremes. There was a study looking at working practices within office environments, it discovered that breaks and interaction were key to production. There was of course a tipping point when distraction stopped work. And nobody defined that point. It will vary from person to person.
When I start writing, I can be focused. But when it’s not working, I think it is better to leave it alone and come in a better frame of mind. Whether that is surfing the net for ten minutes or going for a walk. Whatever works.
The idea of micro – micro – moments of productivity fills me with dread. I like pausing to look out of the window as I walk by.
November 5th, 2011 at 23:43
I really enjoyed this blog and have definitely been a victim of displacement activity. It always seems to be connected to the Internet. Needless to say, when it was out for a week, I got a lot of writing done. And some of it was damn good.
November 13th, 2011 at 17:30
I grinned when I read this post. I know exactly what you mean! I suppose I call mine the procrastination monkey, sitting on my shoulders and pointing, “Look! New website! Look! Read that!” Sometimes my monkey is a charming, handsome fellow.
And sometimes the monkey is a pain in the posterior. I think this analogy is becoming strange now.
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