The Jackhammer in the Basement: On writing (or not writing) through distractions

“It’s a black fly in your chardonnay. It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late.”

Alanis Morissette was kind enough to give us many definitions of irony in 1995, and to those I would like to add, “It’s a jackhammer in your basement when you’re trying to write a blog post about writing through distractions.”

We’re getting our house earthquake-retrofitted — a project that was initially supposed to take 4 weeks and now spans endless as the blue ocean — and every few seconds there comes from beneath my chair a spiteful, grating sound underscored by intermittent bangs, the hacking cough of my contractor, and the bilious drone of his AM talk radio. My husband sits in the next room holding court on Zoom, his sentences devolving into strings of meaningless (to me) acronyms. I swear the other day I heard him say, “Let’s CC the QL on the CA.” My daughter’s PE teacher can be heard from any room in the house encouraging the children to jump higher and stretch longer, over the cheerful keyboard arpeggios of Van Halen’s, Jump. And then my son will stand at the top of the stairs and say, all in one breath as though he’s an expediter at a busy restaurant shouting a late substitution to the sous chef: “CanIgetabowlofgoldfishandsomeicewaterpleaseandthankyouMommy?” Also sometimes the cat pukes.

My dining room at 7:30 am.

It is in this bedlam, this anarchy of bodies and agendas cramming and slamming into one another like too many eggs boiling together in a pot, that I am meant to do work that demands calm, quiet, and space, both physical and mental. Well, too bad. Ain’t gonna happen.

In addition to the external craziness, there’s also a lot of internal chaos jangling around inside my brain. I’m so busy all the time, a combination of trying to balance my family and my career, as well as the juggle all freelance writers know – the endless hustle to find new jobs, and then having to actually follow through with the things you said you would do. I’ve joked many times that, if I ever write a memoir, it’s going to be called, “I don’t want to do that thing I said I would do.” I could give you a long list of all the stuff I do on any given day, but I suspect that it would look a lot like yours.

When did we all get so busy? Is there any way off this treadmill? Is it right to prioritize your art when you have paid commitments, deadlines, dishes in the sink, and a stack of unopened bills on your desk? And if you choose to prioritize your art, if you actually give yourself permission to write, how in the heck do you do it with a jackhammer going in the basement and two children doing jumping jacks upstairs?

I’m afraid I don’t have a great answer. I haven’t written anything in months. I have a second draft of a second novel that desperately wants my attention, plus a long list of essay and short story ideas that are backing up like train cars in my brain, wishing to get picked next. And yet when I sit down at my computer there’s always something more pressing going on, and the drafts and the ideas languish in my brain or on my hard drive, waiting like dormant seeds for some sunshine and water.

I don’t know if this is more a function of distraction or of me being over-committed, but I’m just not getting any writing done. And you know what? That’s okay.

Remember how I said those ideas were like seeds waiting for rain? I meant it. My kids had collected seed packets over the years through various school projects or summer camp visits, and I finally got around to planting them this year. They’d sat in a drawer for years and I didn’t have any faith that anything would grow, so I just dug out a long trough in the yard and dumped them in, hoping for the best. And to my surprise, within a few days little green shoots were popping up all over the place. In a month those shoots had become nasturtium plants, thick sunflower stalks, trailing bean vines, and dozens of other things I can’t name. To think that all those plants were sitting in my junk drawer with my collection of old “Fire” sauce packets from Taco Bell!

My point is, sometimes you just don’t write. Sometimes it’s because you can’t write through the distractions, sometimes it’s because you have other obligations, and sometimes the words just aren’t coming. Tillie Olson wrote an entire book called Silences, about writers who had gone silent for years or sometimes decades, and how the demands of life often interfere with creating art.

But even if you’re not writing right now, that doesn’t mean you’re not a writer, nor does it mean you won’t write again. Those stories are waiting for you, gestating, and sometimes growing stronger by all the things you’re taking in until the time you can get back to them. So you can’t write through the distractions? So what? You’ll get back to it, I promise. Just like we’re all going to eventually get back to karaoke, and children’s birthday parties, and awkward corporate team-building retreats. In the meantime, be kind to yourself.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.

2 Replies to “The Jackhammer in the Basement: On writing (or not writing) through distractions”

  1. Amusing and true. Better to put aside the guilt of not writing, of not fulfilling your “destiny”, and instead focus on “what can I do today, for 30 minutes, one hour, or two. And if zero focus on the next day”.

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