the ADD writer: our struggles
Recently, writer Nancy McCabe asked me to fill out a questionnaire for her Spalding MFA program faculty blog. Her questions prompted me to put into words, maybe for the first time, how I’ve come to understand the way I write as a person with a pretty strong case of ADD. (Since my girlfriend/partner has it too, and possibly our son, we often refer to our homestead as “Casa ADD”.)
Here are my answers to the questions, edited and expanded. I hope writers—but not just writers, anyone—pursuing life through the neurological filter of Attention Deficit Disorder will find comfort in them and realize in what ways our own “ADD Normal” (which would be FINE if society would be more tolerant!) differs from expectations foisted upon us that are just not going to conform to our “normal.”
Q. What struggles do you face in trying to carve out time to write?
A. In addition to having no time, I have a brief daily window of serene concentration as I have quite a strong case of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, and almost all my medicated concentration goes to course preparation and grading as teaching four writing courses per semester is high overhead. When the medication wears off, that’s pretty much it for a useful day. Plus, now that I’ve reached the age of 63, I find I am both unable and unwilling to pull all-nighters like I used to. It’s not sustainable and not healthy.
Like most people with ADD, I’m not going to be able to hitch myself to a regular writing schedule.
Q. How do you manage to find time to write/remain productive? Any tips/tricks that you find useful?
Being content with slower, but nevertheless steady output is important. However, like others with my type of brain, I am not patient, nor am I easily content.
A. Due to my lifestyle, life circumstances, and neurological challenge, I have to think of writing productivity in different ways than people with more serene concentration.
Like most people with ADD, I’m not going to be able to hitch myself to a regular writing schedule. The ADD brain just abhors scheduled and repetitive time, and prefers impulsivity (especially during un-medicated time, but even during it). Therefore, I tend to write impulsively, and somewhat erratically, hunkering down to work when the strong mood, inclination, or desire strikes.
I find I have a cycle where writing will be done regularly, but over a longer arc, looking at what I get done in terms of monthly rather than daily or weekly. Still, due to my many other obligations (teaching career, family, music group, and more), in order to accomplish something creative for myself, I have to deliberately put aside some other thing that will then have to be made up. (People with ADD tend to take on many projects!) There’s no other way during the semester or during heavy family times, as my partner and I both work. Being content with slower, but nevertheless steady output is important. However, like others with my type of brain, I am not patient, nor am I easily content.
I try to accomplish more during long breaks between semesters, but they also overlap with our son’s school breaks, so there’s less that can be accomplished then. Nevertheless, I love being a parent, and so I judge it worthwhile to have less writing now in order to be a better parent, and defer some of my accomplishments to the future. (But note again: I struggle with contentment and deferment.)
I look forward to retirement! Whenever I can pull that off.
Here are my writing Tips and Tricks
Enthusiasm is fairly well known by researchers to erase the trouble people with ADD have with concentrating on tasks. It’s the routine that most people can make themselves do, that ADD people just can’t push through to!
- Writing “Small” Helps to Write Frequently: One of my Spalding MFA program poetry mentors, Molly Peacock, taught us the value of writing small poems. No matter how busy, we can often manage to write some little poem – a few lines, even, to keep the fingers moving. I do that at least weekly, often more.
- Teaching Can Be Motivating: I am one of those creative writing teachers who gets motivated by students. Just the engagement with creative writing courses will often spur writing, even if that particular class is uninspiring, haha. But sometimes I manage to write generative assignments along with the class, and sometimes just answering their questions about creative writing or re-reading what I’m assigning them to read motivates me enough to get some writing done. The same goes for workshops. Running writing workshops prompts me to write.
- Be Socially & Culturally Involved: Part of living with ADD means my brain tends to trick me into feeling isolated and alienated. Yet, if I go too long without social engagement or being involved in the writing community, I stagnate. The same is true with general cultural engagement. I need it in order to feel a part of things
When I go to a play, concert, local reading, local band performance, talk to writers, or even read at an open mic; when I give a reading or performance or take part in a workshop or writing group, my desire and enthusiasm increase. When they increase to a certain point, they overcome the difficulties of ADD. Enthusiasm is fairly well known by researchers to erase the trouble people with ADD have concentrating on tasks. It’s the routine that non-ADD people can make themselves do, that ADD people just can’t push through to!
I never do enough things-that-interest-me. There have been times when I’ve even been on the way to an event and turned back, my ADD brain having talked me out of going. In fact, a phenomenon known as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria can contribute to this reaction. Other times I recognize the “fictions” my brain tries to tell me, and I force myself to go. I’m always regretful for not participating more often when I realize again how supercharging social and cultural engagement is. Even hearing someone read a poem makes me think of poems I want to write.
- Take Road Trips! Though they may very well resemble the impulsive aspect of ADD, spontaneous short road trips are worth it. Allow yourself to indulge your ADD brain once in a while. Most aspects of our condition have strengths when used in moderation. Especially for us, we just have to be engaged in life and not descend into too much routine and predictability. However, I’m sure this is just as true for any creative type, not just an ADD person like me.
- Exercise: I spent a good part of my youth backpacking. My knees are pretty awful as a result, so I do not run or hike intensively or backpack anymore, but I can do light hiking, and I also love freestyle swimming. I also practice Tai Chi. All of these assist my writing and everything else I do. Swimming, however, is repetitive. I have to take my medication before doing laps! Before I was diagnosed, I had noticed how exercise gave me some golden serene time to work. I believe this effect has now been verified scientifically. Meditation is wonderful, too, but it’s nearly impossible for me to sustain sitting still. I have to do it in short bursts. Perhaps because Tai Chi is movement, change, and flow, I find that it is the best of all worlds – exercise, meditation, concentration, flow, that I can do any time, medicated or not.
- Promise to write something: The pressure of the deadline works for me! It has to be a real deadline, though, not a self-imposed one. And not a catastrophic one! I had enough experience with that kind of stress and failure before my diagnosis. As an example of a useful deadline, recently I was asked to read a poem at a special gathering. I drafted and revised this poem many times, with plenty of time to spare. I was excited, and that motivation allowed me to work consistently and well.
- Things that don’t work for me: Procrastination avoidance tips like promising myself a reward after a certain amount of work – never has worked. To-Do Lists (forget to read ’em); Schedules (forget to follow ’em).
- Frequent breaks: Take frequent breaks and write in small, very small, doses until the “groove” or the “flow” occurs. Then, as always, you enter a sort of writing coma where time no longer matters.
These are my tips/tricks. When I’m “on” I can write anywhere, any time, with any distraction. But I need these tips to get to the “on” stage.
Q. Is there anything else you want to share about maintaining productivity and balance?
As I don’t (and can’t) adhere to the common dictum of making writing like a job, with a daily, strictly adhered to schedule, and given all the activity I engage myself in to have what for me counts as a meaningful life, and on top of that adding the vexing problem of coping with an intractable case of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder with its impulsivity and all else it entails, I’m probably a terrible example of how to maintain productivity and balance in creative writing for your readers!
Note: I have found the online magazine ADDitude to be very useful for understanding our condition.