Those who enjoy scuba diving (or who, like me as a kid, had watched Commander Cousteau’s documentaries) know that before going back to the surface, you have to make mandatory decompression stops to allow the molecules of nitrogen/ helium who had taken refuge in your tissus under high pressure to leave your body, via your exhaled air.
Otherwise, the nitrogen can decide to turn back into gas while it is still lodged in your veins and your cells, and it would not be a pretty sight. Decompression sickness is as dangerous as its opposite, the deep nitrogen narcosis which develops sneakily if you spend a too long time at 100 feet deep.
Diving in deep water
For me, writing feels like diving into deep water.
Except that my decompression breaks are in the opposite direction! It takes me a long time to reach the level of concentration deep enought to penetrate a story. Levels of ‘compression’ or concentration…
My first level takes about 45 minutes to an hour. I go over what I wrote the day before to get the story and its atmosphere back inside my head; I check notions, places, etc. If I write 100 words in that period, that’s normal.
At the second level, which takes me about an hour to reach, I am entering the story at 300-400 words per hour.
At the third level, everything becomes magical: my fingers hug the keyboard and the ideas are transmuted into words without my having to stop. I feel like the story is writing itself, and I’m approaching 600-800 words an hour.
If I keep this on without interruption, I reach my fourth level of concentration: the story tumbles like an avalanche in my head, fingers and words roll like marbles on a flat table. It is paradise. I smash through the 1000 words per hour wall. Often, this happens in the evening, when I have a deadline approaching.
BUT… I do not descend to this 4th level often.
On the other hand, to go up to the surface, there is no need for decompression stops. Any distraction can yank me up in a jiffy. The phone, someone calling me, or the family member.
As soon as my enthusiastic husband comes to tell me about a techno gadget he saw on the Internet or heard about on the radio, poof! immediate surfacing.
If the conversation is less than a minute or two, and if I don’t have to think to answer any complex questions, I can dive back in and get through my ‘focus’ levels pretty quickly.
Alas, this is rarely the case.
Another condition favors my rapid return to the depths: the certainty that I will NOT be disturbed again in the next few minutes!
So, after 5 or 10 minutes that ate my concentration. And, when the interruption ends, I have to dive back in and redo my stops. And, often, barely submerged, of course, it’s already supper time…
Confession of an unfocused writer
I created this article from a recent writing mishap.
Here I was, happily tapping on a wonderful science fiction story set in Antarctica, pom-pom-pom… when all of a sudden, a flawed scientific detail jumps out at me. Have I correctly calculated the position of the sun below the horizon during the southern polar night? Have I checked the right calendar for the current polar night?
Rising to the surface, opening the Internet, checking the info, then letting yourself drift on the Wikipedia sites, drift farther on the Scott-Amundsen station site, watching the web cam (it’s cold here, but not as cold as in the South Pole)… And, I came to my senses with the crucial realization of having wasted my time. It internally annoys me.
On the heels of that realization came another torment: should I change an explanatory paragraph to place it closer to the opening of the short-story? My words are so tightly knit together that moving one paragraph or one word requires rewriting several others, before and after. And so, I paddled on the surface to juggle these paragraphs.
Finally, after trying to dive back, I decided to go for a walk outside to clear my mind, and come back at another time. I told myself that it’s still warmer here (in Canada, Ontario) than at the South Pole…
TL;DR: Writing is like diving, but with the “concentration” stops going down instead of up.
Michèle Laframboise is a Canadian SF writer, with more than 60 stories published. Her most recent story, October’s Feast, is available in the Asimov’s SF Magazine. She is a fair low-level athlete runner, a lousy gardener, and avid birder. More on her official website here.