Writing distractions: That pesky “person from Porlock”

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Like superheroes, great pieces of writing often have an origin story. In the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous unfinished poem “Kubla Khan,” it’s a doozy.

Coleridge claims the poem came to him complete and entire, something like 300 lines’ worth, in a dream as he dozed off in his chair after taking laudanum (an aspect of the literary life best avoided when instructing young writers).

He set to work writing down his vision, but only got through about 30 lines before, Coleridge says, he became sidetracked by a “person on business from Porlock” who detained him for a full hour.

When the visitor finally left, Coleridge found he’d forgotten the rest of the poem.

Dealing with Writing Distractions

It has been disputed whether Coleridge’s explanation is an accurate account of “Kubla Khan’s” genesis, or might itself be merely a fancy, a fiction, meant to add even more mystery to his beautiful and enigmatic poem. Either way, the “person from Porlock” has become a literary icon:

He represents two equally important aspects of writing: the distractions and competing social obligations a writer faces in the real world, as well as our tendency to make excuses.

Shutting out the world when we write is both impossible and, to some extent, necessary. So what are we to do? The answer can be summed up in one word: boundaries. The act of writing should (generally) be taught as a purposefully solitary effort bounded with a beginning and an end.

Writing by the Clock

I highly recommend sticking to a disciplined timetable for any writing assignment. (If this is challenging for you or your older students, the free download The Pomodoro Technique might be worth a read.)

Taking your child’s age and skill level into account, set the alarm for 30 or 60 or 90 minutes, however long the project (or a good-enough-sized chunk of it) seems to require. Don’t set the timer for less than 15 minutes, though, as that’s too short to accomplish much. After all, your kids will just be getting warmed up! Nor should you set it for longer than 90 minutes at a time, as they’ll burn themselves out without scheduled breaks.

Say No to Interruptions

Finally, don’t feel guilty about shutting off any non-emergency contact during that time.

person from Porlock, writing distractions, writing focus

This part is getting a lot more difficult. Coleridge’s interrupter just happened to be walking around town. What chance do you (or your students) have in this Twitter age when distractions come by the microsecond?

If you want to give yourself to a piece of writing (and you’ll need to for it to be any good), the phone must be turned off.

Then, when you turn it back on, it feels like a reward.

Setting aside time and space for your creative work improves the rest of your day. Give yourself permission to be done after a while and return to normal life, where you can attend to the other million things on your mind or just do as you please. Don’t forget to pay some attention to your friends and family.

Even that person from Porlock.

. . . . .

Thanks to Lauren Bailey for her guest post. Lauren is a freelance blogger who loves writing about education, new technology, lifestyle and health. She welcomes comments and questions via email at blauren99@gmail.com.

Photos: alexderhead, courtesy of Creative Commons, and Stockxchng.
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