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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Many people, including my wife and my agents, consider me a pretty prolific writer. I guess by comparison with some I may be. But I know I could get more done, if I could focus better.

I spend a lot of time at my desk. And I bang out a fair number of pages. Under pressure I can write twelve pretty good pages in a day (with a good outline), or double that number of spotty pages. Without pressure I still get five to ten decent pages in a work day, in spite of interruptions.

But I know that I interrupt myself. I'm not even talking about blogging, which is arguably a form or work, or paying bills, which has to get done. I mean reading newspapers online. Blogs. Fussing in the kitchen. Sometimes I'll write a line or two, then fuss, then come back to the scene, and immediately go back to fussing. The house gets clean, but the scene doesn't get written until later in the afternoon when I realize that my daughter's coming home and I've done very little and I better get something done.

Contrary to what some writers would ask you to believe, my mind is not working on screenwriting, so far as I can tell, when I am not actively pondering a scene. And I spend a lot of a work day not pondering the scene I'm on.

So then I hear about the various wonder drugs they give to kids today, and how they help you focus. On the other hand I also hear that while you become terribly focused, you may not actually be creative. You're just focused. You might empty out that closet you've been planning to organize. But screenwriting? I don't know.

And then there's the overal question of: if I drug myself in order to achieve a more successful, socially acceptable personality, am I still me? Am I me, only better? Or am I someone else?

I used to be mildly depressed. At least, I was grumpy all the time, and I eventually decided that maybe I was really just mildly depressed. So I tried St. John's Wort, an herbal anti-depressant. Presto, no more grumpy. I decided that Grumpy was not me, and if herbs could help a chemical imbalance straighten itself out, then why not?

Eventually I realized that the problem wasn't so much chemical imbalance as some deep problems in my marriage. Since my divorce, and especially since my remarriage, no St. John's Wort, and no Mr. Grumpy either.

Go figure.

All of which is to wonder: am I managing some kind of ADD, or is this just my creative process? [Or, as DMc so kindly proposes in the comments, is it just laziness?] Or is it ADD and part of the creative process? Should I find a way to focus up and buckle down better? And are (properly prescribed) chemicals a legit way to achieve that focus?

What's your perspective?

19 Comments:

I think I could never put something called St. John's Wort in my mouth. Ever.

You know, everybody is different. My problem is without a deadline over my head, I have trouble forcing myself to start working on it. Once I'm working on it, 15 quality pages in three or four hours is nothing to me.

I personally think you are better off than I am. Can you rent a guy with a gun to stand behind you on a daily basis?

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 11:24 PM  

Oh, by the way, I'm one of those people that don't use outlines. I find them too limiting, they just slow me down.

I've used them before, and that's pretty much why I don't use them anymore.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 11:26 PM  

If what you describe is A.D.D., then I have it too.

And I bet 90% of writers would say the same.

Part of it is the nature of writing. Part of it is human nature.

The other part you can blame on working from home. I'd get more done if I could afford an office, but then I'd have to make it to the office every day. And who knows where I'd get lost on the way? ;-)

By Blogger Martine, at 11:54 PM  

I have some trouble thinking about this issue since it's somewhat personal for me. I've was diagnosed with ADD six years ago (at the age of 14) and have been medicated ever since. While what you describe may be ADD, one can be considered distractable without actually having ADD (or AD/HD, it's current official acronym). According to the ADDA, "a crucial consideration is that the behaviors must create a real handicap in at least two areas of a person's life, such as school, home, work, or social settings. These criteria set ADHD apart from the "normal" distractibility and impulsive behavior of childhood, or the effects of the hectic and overstressed lifestyle prevalent in our society." To me this might be considered a problematic definition. Wouldn't that mean that the only people who have ADD are the ones who can't manage it? What if you have it but learn to cope on your own? Obviously I can't tell you the answers, but my current feeling on the issue is that AD/HD is a legitimate condition that deserves to be treated, and medicated when it proves helpful.

By Blogger Michael, at 2:42 AM  

Yours is certainly not ADD Alex. It is called "resistence" as Syd Field puts it. Creative work is a tough one, which needs a lot of effort, energy, and concentration.

And like all other hard work, the human mind tries to by-pass it and take the short cut (i.e. do nothing) whenever it can. Unless a "life-threatening" motivator (like a deadline or bills) exists, the mind does not get into action.

Who was it that said "I don't like writing but having written." From our mind's perspective, writing is hard work, which it tries to avoid.

I realized that I work better when when I do not have the access to tempting distractors (the internet, mainly). When I am not assaulted by external stimuli, I naturally turn to internal ones. Maybe all you need to do is to diminish the external distractors. Go somewhere where they do not exist. Or time-limit them.

As for depression, I have realized that I write more profoundly when I am depressed, if I can write at all.

By Blogger gezgin, at 7:18 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 1:41 PM  

Think Mr. Monk, but dial it down about 6 notches and that's me. I have ADD and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and it's these afflictions which have made me the business success that I am (I own/manage four companies & work about 110 hours a week). Clients love me because I'm an absolute freak about getting things done perfectly and on time. If I'm not doing five things at once and thinking about the next five I want to get started on in a few hours, I start to get a little panicky and depressed, like my life is slipping by and I've accomplished nothing.

You should see my computer screen right now. I have nine windows open to different websites. I check all three of my email accounts every 15 minutes, my company message board once an hour and my MySpace site every 30 minutes. I'm also constantly cleaning and organizing things. That's the OCD in me.

However, the ADD often fights against that as my mind constantly drifts from the task at hand...In fact, I just left the writing of this post to go feed my rabbits, clean the cat box, make my bed and pour myself a cup of tea. It takes a great deal of concentrated effort to get myself back on track so that I finish my work perfectly and on time, and I sometimes have to resort to expletive-filled yelling matches with myself in order to snap out of it. I have several clients who have offices in one building and I bounce back and forth between all of them, doing their bidding. If you saw me wandering down the hallway you'd swear I had schizophrenia as I argue aloud about where I was supposed to go next, what I was supposed to be doing. Phone this guy...no, send that email...no, wait, you're supposed to photocopy such and such. Christ, Kelly, would you just pick somebody and go already! You're so f*cking useless!

People have told me I should be on medication but I absolutely refuse. Sure, living with this is somewhat difficult on a personal level, but professionally, it's what kept me in business making heaps of cash all these years.

And I love money almost as much as I love SHOES! (398 pairs -- with matching bags -- and counting)

KJC

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 1:43 PM  

Dear Alex,
C'mon. You're just lazy. Admit it.

By Blogger DMc, at 2:01 PM  

Well guess what.

There is a slot for everyone. Now there is a high rate of diagnosis for ADD and also for autism....

Well we found out something interesting in the educational field some time back.

If you exercise to the point of exhaustion, not exhaustion it makes it easier for you to concentrate work more consistently.

Also since writing can sometimes be solitary work one should force oneself to socialize.

Lettuce believe it or not can act as a natural sedative without inducing drowsiness.

Sounds wierd but both things seemed to work.

Also there is now some discussion in the medical field about how people, all people really need eight hours of sleep in order to function right.

How many adults or kids for that matter really get eight hours of sleep?

By Blogger WebByte, at 5:33 PM  

Oh Alex, lamb, rilly.

You're an insane taskmaster. All creative people are. But you even more than most. Productive people view themselves always as not getting enough done.

It's like that study that was published a while back about office people. People who were rated highly effective by their peers rated themselves lower than their peers did. People who were rated useless by their peers always viewed themselves as far more effective and busy than they were.

In broadcasting, I think about this every time I hear someone who works at CBC talk about how hard they work. Having worked inside public and private TV environments, and seen both, I know that the scale is the thing.

I sat down today and couldn't believe that when I was reading the paper I couldn't get through two columns without getting distracted. But then again, I'm pumping out lots of pages for my show right now.

This feeling you have of not being productive enough is exactly the thing that makes you productive. You don't need to be medicated.

You just need to work the guilt.

So come on, lazy ass. Stop woolgathering and get out there and write something else. Don't make me release the hounds. I'll do it.

Also, remember -- I'm not the man to be feared because I have the monkeys. I am to be feared because I'll let the monkeys loose.

(obscure Kids in the Hall ref for CanCon there.)

By Blogger DMc, at 8:44 PM  

I hope Denis gets his pizza soon. I'd hate to see those monkeys loose.

By Blogger Tom, at 3:59 AM  

As someone who has ADD (have the brain scans and drugs to prove it) I will tell you it's both a blessing and a curse.

The drugs... no doubt in my mind that they stifle creativity. You get more focused. You get more clarity. But you've got less to focus on or be clear about.

The ADD itself seems to fuel creativity. Someone with ADD watches the background of life... that's where all the interesting stuff is. Leave the foreground to your accountant. That's his job.

And the other supplement that fuels the creativity is Melatonin, but only if you can remember your dreams. My really great dreams sometimes come with end credits. Actually, I'm sure the top ten movies I've ever seen were dreams, if only I didn't have to fight the ADD to write them down!

By Blogger Chester The Bear, at 10:00 AM  

I've always wondered if I might have ADD.

After reading your post, I took an online ADD test for the heck of it.

The test thinks I may have a problem over-focusing.

So that just goes to show how perceptive I am. Thought I had trouble focusing, turns out I focus too much.

Feh.

By Blogger Dante Kleinberg, at 9:46 AM  

Which online ADD test is that?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:50 AM  

I am very skeptical of drugs. I'm pretty sure that my focus issues could be attributed to ADD, though one therapist suggested that it might be manic depression.

Right now, I have no health insurance or money so I don't have the option of trying medication. Plus, because it's psychological, I have a tendency to blame myself for being weak or lazy when I can't complete a project, even though I want nothing more than to see that happen. I come from the self-responsibility culture that rarely asks for help and accepts it begrudgingly.

I am desperately trying to wrangle my life without medication. It feels like the science of mood medication is at the medieval barber stage of development, despite the fact that it's Big Business. I'd rather not be the guinea pig that finds out that when the Zoloft patient reaches 50, he might develop a brain tumor and become suicidally depressed. Still, it's a slippery slope and it's very hard when my life gets that look on her face and I know that she's worrying about my mental health.

So, I compartmentalize my days as best I can. Workouts and innumerable 'To Do' lists for the lucid days. A big part of it is about eliminating the potential distractions until there is only 'The Thing That Must Get Done' standing before me. Often, I have to leave the house and sit in a public place, like a park, in order to remove myself from all the niggling distractions.

By Blogger Deckard, at 4:37 PM  

The test I took was on http://www.amenclinic.com/ac/tests/

I took both 100 question tests, so I guess that proves their point quite handily.

By Blogger Dante Kleinberg, at 9:09 PM  

Yeah, the test doesn't think I have ADD. Though I found it interesting that on some of the criteria I was checking off "Frequently" or even "Very Frequently" (e.g. short fuse) while on others (performance gets worse under pressure, inability to complete things) I was checking off Never.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:27 AM  

I often tell myself that this is a problem that every writer must have… isn’t it? Isn’t it a famous problem? I don’t mean writer’s block, just self-discipline. I’m so convinced that all writers struggle with this that I’m almost embarrassed to admit to another writer that I have it myself… “Oh, that? Of course you have that problem. Everybody has that problem…”

But then, who doesn’t have self-discipline problems? Who doesn’t complain that there aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week? Those who have task-based jobs might be bored (I’m speaking from personal experience here), but it sure makes procrastinating a lot harder: You do this, then you do that, and if you’re an office with a boss nearby, it’s gonna get done. (Well, unless you spend all day reading blogs instead of actually working. In one office I know, if people used the time they spent complaining about how overworked they were to actually do said work, they’d put in a lot less -- unpaid -- overtime.)

When I first started writing, I was compulsive about it. I couldn’t do anything else. I was terrified that if I stopped, I might never start again. I had to prove to myself that I could write on demand, so to speak. That I could control it. Sit down, realize that I had to get a character get from A to B, without having any idea how I was going to do so, and still be able to do it.

Real life intrudes, of course. For those of us who aren’t making any money from our writing (but only dream of doing so one day), how can we find time for writing without its being a passion? And if we haven’t made time for it in the past two weeks, three weeks, does that mean we’re fooling ourselves, that it’s not a real passion? Is it all a lie?

So what are you going to do about it?
That’s what I’d like to know.

I use tricks. I’m absurdly good at fooling myself into doing things my mind is resistant to doing (you’d think the mind would cotton on; it has inside info, after all. Not so bright, the subconscious). So, one classic “trick”: Set aside a specific period every day for writing (und nichts anders!). Structure, I love structure. I can do this, I tell myself, because I have proven to myself that I don’t need to be dependent on the muse to move me; I can summon her at will (poor muses… much abused).

But why (my mind asks), oh why would I choose to live the life of the self-employed without taking advantage of the flexibility it offers? Isn’t the whole point of not having a 9-to-5 job not having to stick to some rigid schedule? Besides, I have these other things to do that I’ve been procrastinating on for way too long. They’re really much more urgent. (But writing feeds my soul! What could be more urgent than that?! Um, the rent?)

There are writers who are famous for never having trouble sitting down and banging out the pages. But I suspect that most writers struggle with self-discipline their entire careers. Life is an eternal struggle, after all. It’s not as though one achieves contentment and then can sit back on one’s heels for the rest of one’s life… it’s a continual process.

Fact is, life is hard. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do whatever we can to make it easier (including drugs: better living through chemistry!). But drugs on their own are rarely the answer. One thing drugs can do is get you to the point where you can think clearly enough to figure out some practical solutions that don’t involve drugs. For instance, some people with AD/HD hire coaches who help them come up with strategies and plans to deal with their particular weaknesses. This can be pricey, and I don’t know if there any in Montreal, but I imagine a good AD/HD coach has seen enough to able to give very useful advice. More useful than mine!

By Blogger Katya, at 12:24 AM  

Apologies about all the mangled apostrophes in my previous post. It won't happen again.

By Blogger Katya, at 12:37 AM  

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