David Mitchell on how to write: “Neglect everything else”

I like David Mitchell. He’s one of the greatest novelists alive right now. He’s best known for Cloud Atlas, but I really loved Number9Dream. So, when I saw he had a little chat with The Atlantic , I had to read it. You can read the whole thing here.

Here’s some of what he had to say:

“The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes towards finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The internet—it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.

For me, that one other thing is: I’ve got to be writing. I have a few ways to make sure I can carve out time.

Part one: Neglect everything else.

Part two: Get disciplined. Learn to rush to your laptop and open it up. Open the file without asking yourself if you’re in the mood, without thinking about anything else. Just open the file: and then you’re safe. Once the words are on the screen, that becomes your distraction.

Of course, it’s not distraction—it’s work, and it’s wonderful when it goes well. I’m sure other, more disciplined people can do it without needing to rush, but I have to. The moment you think okay, it’s work time, and face down the words, you rush past all the other things asking for your attention.

Part three: Keep the Apple homepage, because it’s rather boring. If your homepage is the website of your favorite newspaper, you’ve had it.

These are just some of the sticks I use to beat myself into opening up the file. Once I do, I’m safe. I’m home free.”

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“I do think there’s some relationship between maintaining focus, looking closely, and the act of writing itself. The more you practice really looking, the more convincingly you can build a set for a scene. You become used to looking at the relationships between objects and people and light and time and mood and air…I think all writers do this.”

And there’s this little tidbit from The Paris Review that makes me like him even more (because I’m a longhand-before-computer person myself):

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