Business Musings: Focus (A Process Blog)
I read a lot of articles and essays during the worst of the pandemic about the way that the Covid crisis was having an impact on our concentration. Most of those looked at folks who had actually had Covid, and how they should try to rebuild or survive their still-lingering illness.
Others, though, focused on what seemed to be a shared inability to concentrate. We moved from task to task, or didn’t find enjoyment in what we did do.
One psychiatrist, Jessi Gold, called it a “Covid Cloud” as in we all had “a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.” Gold recommended self-care, including compassion, and a bit of an analysis—for example, seeing if our to-do list was actually doable.
Much of Gold’s advice on how to cope is common sense, but it’s worth reading, because this Covid Cloud has lingered for many of us.
In April, the New York Times had an article on the “middle child” between depression and normalcy, something the experts called “languishing.” Instead of being really depressed—unable to function because of sadness or grief or something undefinable—languishing is a sense of apathy, a feeling that things aren’t right, and an inability not just to concentrate, but to enjoy anything that you usually enjoy.
I think I had that feeling off and on throughout 2020, but I’d felt it before, and knew that the best way through it, for me, was to exercise and take naps if need be and get on with my day, otherwise. Some things helped and others didn’t, but I knew the feeling would pass.
It did, to be replaced by panic when we decided to move. It was a good thing we did, because of changes in our building that were widespread and difficult. But the move came just as our pandemic terror eased with my second vaccine.
We knew we weren’t out of it, although we didn’t expect the setbacks and nightmares of the summer, but we also knew that we were protected, which took off a level of stress.
We had just started planning how to move forward when the move dropped on us like a house powered by a tornado. It was a whirlwind, and to make matters worse, we had a lot of things we couldn’t let slide. So we had to keep up a certain level of work.
I had word counts and deadlines to keep me honest, and frankly, that helped me get in the office every day, even when the office was a chair in a mostly empty room. But to say my mind wasn’t on it is an understatement. I wrote a lot and much of what I wrote was stunningly good, given my lack of concentration, but writing wasn’t my primary focus.
The move ended with the suddenness that had marked it all along. We had cleaners come in for the office condo. Dean and I worked our butts off throughout the week—and that was after we had movers take a lot of stuff to storage—and we hit a wall that final night. Neither of us had enough energy to drive to the storage unit and finish the last tidbits. Those had to make it to the following morning, and we finished just in time.
While we went to the storage unit (in the heat) the cleaners performed miracles. We returned to find a glistening condo, probably cleaner than it had been when we took the keys. We met the landlord and gave her the keys, walking away and feeling stunned.
We didn’t have to work continually anymore. We still had a lot to do, but the worst of the move was behind us. And even though the pandemic was ravaging the unvaccinated here in the States, it wasn’t as frightening for us.
We could turn our attention to the future.
The striking part for me occurred the next day. I had so many deadlines that I didn’t dare miss a day, even to celebrate. I napped a lot and slept in that day (to the dismay of the cats), but I still had to meet those minimal word counts, which I did.
As I was writing, though, my subconscious raised its hand. Now that the move is over, it said in its sneaky way, here’s what you’re doing with the current project.
An outline appeared, along with some truly twisted stuff. The key to it all, though, was that it would take a lot of concentration to get every piece in the correct order. I had to hold much of the project in my head—even though I would also write up a for-me outline.
I was stunned. I pushed my chair away from my computer in the very lovely office I have in the new condo and I stared out the window at the city for quite a while.
I hadn’t had that feeling in a long, long time. Maybe in years. Certainly not since I moved to Vegas, and considering how sick I was in Oregon, not for years there either.
I hadn’t been capable of holding most of a story in my head. I had known that in Oregon because I’d had so many false starts on large projects. I wondered what was wrong with me, and it wasn’t until I moved to Vegas that I could acknowledge just how sick I had been.
Then I had to recover, which I did, and then I needed to relearn how to work on larger things.
But I had a secondary problem: I really didn’t like the office I had in the original condo we had chosen. The office was dark and cramped and not private. The room itself was uncomfortable. I didn’t have a desktop anymore, by design, because I wanted to work in the city itself, something I hadn’t been able to do in Oregon.
That worked okay. I got things done. I wrote a lot, but not with the kind of concentration I had had maybe ten years ago.
When we found the new place, a part of me relaxed. I would have a light-filled office with windows. I admitted defeat—I’m not a write-in-a-coffee-shop kinda writer—and I ordered a new desktop.
That helped the languishing feeling more than I wanted to admit. But I still wasn’t really focusing, even though I got words and many other things done.
Then we finished the last of the move. The future spread ahead with all kinds of diversions and visitors and the revival of runs and theater and oh, so many things to capture my attention.
But I found that I was ready to build my writing as my foundation again. The other things would revolve around it.
Without a functioning office, the writing revolved around everything else. Some of that was a function of my chronic illness. Some of it came from learning a new city.
And then, just as I was trying to figure out how to move forward with big projects, the goddamn pandemic hit, along with the election, and some personal stuff, and damn if my concentration didn’t blow all to hell.
Those articles helped me, reminded me to do things that kept me sane(ish) during the worst of times. But I know I haven’t dealt with everything, because as we moved, I found myself throwing away anything decorative with 2020 on it.
I almost bought a t-shirt in March that said 2020 Survivor. I wondered if the shirt would offend people who had family members who didn’t survive 2020, and that was my reason for not buying the shirt.
Then a friend pointed out another: I survived the great toilet paper apocalypse of 2020, which I loved, but I didn’t buy it. Because I didn’t want any kind of reminder of 2020 itself.
Yep, a sure sign that there’s a lot of untapped emotion about the year for me. I’m not even sure I want to tap it, at least right now.
I’m just ready to move forward.
I was ready to move forward for most of 2021, but I wasn’t sure how. I hoped that just doing things would help—and it did—but it turns out that all the other stuff—the emergency life stuff—was eating my brain.
Once we moved, and my brain declared me safe from moving and viruses, declared that I was able to stop paying as close attention to the nightmare American politics have been these past number of years, declared that I don’t have to be hypervigilant about everything, I felt like a door opened. I had devoted a lot of brain power to all that other stuff, and by clearing it, I could focus again on building complex stories.
Non-complex stories—they were fun. Short mysteries, in particular, were a lot of fun. They just flowed. But world-building? Not easy. Romance, not easy at all. Humor, what’s there to laugh about, kiddo?
All of those things came flooding back.
I was able to focus in a way that I hadn’t been able to do for literally years.
Moving helped in another way. I organized my library, something I didn’t have the time or the space to do in our previous condo.I rediscovered books that I need for this project or that project, which also helps with that renewed focus.
What’s really neat is that the renewed focus came when I was completely exhausted. I figured it would take a lot of rest to bring focus back, but the ideas appeared as I had to finish my daily word count.
That makes a bit of sense: I was unguarded. While most people feel free to write when they’re exhausted, I usually struggle. Exhaustion brings up my critical voice, harsh and strong. (I keep the damn thing subdued with wakefulness, not with sleepiness.)
That the focus broke through the nastiness of the trained critical voice (I was raised by experts in viciousness) tells me that the focus is legit. And it remains.
I’m happy to be in the office, happy to be working again, happy to be thinking about things other than test positivity rates and hospitalization spikes and virus mutations. I’m really glad that other people are worrying about the details of governing now, and I’m thrilled to be deleting all those political organizations begging for money from my text message services.
(Hey, political types, stop selling your mailing lists. I really don’t want to hear from the subset of a subset of a subset of some political organization I’ve never heard of. I’m giving most of my money right now to children’s charities, and thank God, they don’t sell their mailing lists.)
I think there were several points in 2020 where I wondered if the world would ever return to normal. Then I would argue with myself that the world never has been normal. My powerful imagination would wonder what it was like to be in Germany in the 1930s or in Russia in the 1910s or to be a former slave in the 1870s. If you just give history a cursory glance, you realize that our prolonged period of relative calm (no world wars, no global pandemics) was unusually long. Our “normal” was actually, historically, abnormal.
What I really meant in that question I kept asking myself was would I ever return to normal? Would I be able to concentrate again or focus or stop being hypervigilant? It was an open question.
I was happy to realize that I do have the capacity for that concentration and focus. Yes, I realize that something might knock me aside hard again, and the hypervigilance might return.
I think I’m ready for that—or as ready as I can be.
But this reprieve is nice. I’m enjoying the relative quiet. And it allows me to dig into projects I didn’t have the emotional energy to complete.
So excuse me while I return to work. My job is a simple one: I make shit up.
Weirdly, I can’t do that easily when the world is in crisis. I learned that after 9/11. It took a long time to get my focus back.
This one is a more prolonged crisis. I’m well aware that it’s not over, and it probably won’t be over for some time.
Maybe I have just eased into what some pundits are calling “the new normal.” Or maybe I’m so emotionally exhausted that giving a crap is not an option right now.
Whatever the change is, I’ll take it. I’d rather make things up right now than peer with a jaundiced eye at the world. I’m not quite ready for optimism, but I can feel it, looming.
The world might not deserve my optimism, but maybe my fiction will.
A brighter future beckons, and I’m going to stumble toward it. Only this time, I’ll be stumbling with purpose.
And boy, oh, boy does that feel good.
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“Business Musings: Focus (A Process Blog),” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / thesupe87
In many respects, this reminds me of September 11. I was at work only 15 miles from the Pentagon when the plane hit. I live less than 2 miles from the Pentagon. Work evacuated that day, took me four hours to get home for a 30-minute trip. I was on autopilot for at least two weeks. Work insisted we come back the next day (had to do with not letting the terrorists win, not the bottom line). Every day, I walked out of my front door and small the reminder of what had happened–smoke from the fires. I was still co-writing then, and we decided to do it anyway though we didn’t get much done. It was the only way we could stay sane.
I was terrified for 2 months after because I was finishing up a tour in the National Guard. I knew they would deploy and I’d already deployed to Desert Storm. Luck was with me and I quietly ended my time in the Guard. Even so, just from Desert Storm, it wasn’t until 2015–25 years later–before I let of the darkness from that go (I wrote a memoir called Soldier, Storyteller). I didn’t realize how much of that had been sticking to me and interfering with the writing. It’s a process, and sometimes a slow one.
I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the D2D/Smashwords merger. 🙂
I really don’t have many thoughts about it. Smashwords is out of date, and has a bit of content that needed saving. It’s less a merger than an absorption.
Interesting seeing you mention your problems after 9/11. That was upsetting (and eye-opening) to me at the time, but I don’t remember it having a huge creative impact. I was pretty productive at the time. But what got to me was a few years later. I was writing military science fiction for a franchise on tight deadlines, and had one eye cocked towards the morass that the US was in in Afghanistan. Here I was, writing “fun” war books while all this blood was being spilled ever day with real soldiers, and no clear objectives or resolution anywhere in sight. I got me head messed up in it, and had to ask for an extension for the last book on my contract. Much to my shame it was refused. (What wasn’t obvious at the time was that the company I was working for was near bankruptcy, and they were desperate not to allow any loopholes that might allow their own publishing contract to get canceled.). But it left me in a mental mess that I’m still dealing with in some ways 15 years later.
My point is, I guess, that while the pandemic has been hard on most everyone, I’m sure there are creative folks out there taking it in stride, and that maybe even been helped by spending more time at home with fewer distractions. Or whatever. Individual triggers for this phenomenon are individual. Don’t expect that you’ll react to a given adversity the same as most other people will. For sure, don’t fall prey to the latest pandemic or political turmoil or war simply because it seem like everyone is doing it. I don’t fail to take it seriously because some seemingly (relatively) trivial thing (the death of a pet, or getting laid off from a day job, or a fight with a family member) has knocked you off your pins. It is what it is, and how YOU feel about it is what’s important. I didn’t take my own problems seriously enough. Don’t make that mistake.