Ok, But Is Writing Even POSSIBLE?
Behind The Book: Writing with ADHD
Hey friends! Did you know that October is ADHD Awareness Month? I sure didn’t! I stumbled upon it as I was staring at my phone on social media while avoiding writing this essay. Which is….perfect?
Hi. I’m Ijeoma. I’m a writer with ADD.
I say “ADD” because that whole hyperactivity thing just completely passed me by. But let me be a little more specific about my ADD. My brain has at least 10 different trains of thought running through it at all times. They are (almost) all very fascinating trains to stare at! It’s mesmerizing! I can (and do) stare at them all day! My brain is a very busy and beautiful place that can make a lot of things that aren’t busy and beautiful almost impossible to look at. It can be unbearable when your brain is offering you so many amazing treats to think about to focus on, say, laundry. But also, it’s really hard to jump on any one particular train when another beautiful one keeps pulling up every 5 seconds. So you just stand at the station staring at train after train while feeling very guilty for being very late for a destination that you can’t even remember anymore.
It’s a lot!
A lot of people are surprised to find out that I have ADD. I pretty regularly hear from writers and aspiring writers who are reaching out for tips on how to balance writing with a brain that doesn’t seem to want us to succeed in such a self-managed field.
The truth is, there are a lot of creatives with ADD and a lot of benefits to being a writer with ADD! Let me talk about two of my favorites that have really served me in my work.
Hyperfocus: Oh yeah, you know how you came across that meme about koalas and now you’re on wikipedia for an hour looking up everything you can about koalas and their habitats? That’s hyperfocus baby. And if you write essays, as I have for most of my writing career, that hyperfocus can be your best friend. Inspired? Write that essay in an hour. Send it off to the astonishment of your editors. Immediately move on to the next subject that catches your eye. No adjustments necessary.
The Big Picture: You know all of those trains running through your brain at once? Well, when you’re hyperfocused, a lot of those trains are carrying different bits of really cool information about the subject that you are writing about. Your ability to see them all and how seemingly very different trains could actually be headed to the same destination allows your work to have the sort of “big picture” qualities that can help people see aspects of issues they never considered before.
But it’s not all great bouts of hyperfocused, big picture magic. I’ve found quite a few hurdles in making writing my career as a person with ADD.
Deadlines are death: Sure, you can get that essay done in an hour. But can you get it done in two weeks? Never. A far off deadline is just asking your brain to care about one thing for FAR too long.
Emails never get answered: How can you get published when you can never seem to get around to emailing that editor back?
Invoices never get sent: Ok, you did the hardest parts. You pitched, you wrote, you submitted. But will you ever ask to get paid? Maybe, maybe not. Probably not.
Checks don’t get cashed: Ok, ok. So you finally submitted. But will you put that check in the bank, or will you lose it in one of the many piles around your desk or in your bedroom? I may, or may not, be staring at a $6,500 check on my desk right now that was written to me IN APRIL that I’m not sure what to do with at this point because it seems unbearably embarrassing to ask if it’s still cashable and also, y’all know I’m not emailing anybody about anything.
Conferences and classes suck: You want to grow your skills. You want time with other writers. But can you sit for 4 hours listening to people talk without taking out your phone? Can you? Because I can’t. The last writing conference I went to, I tried to focus so hard that I ended up having a panic attack and had to leave early to my hotel room and sleep for the rest of the day.
There is a ring of lava around your desk: You could do so much writing. So much. If you could just sit down at your computer and do it. But you can’t. It’s physically impossible. The lava. And sharks. You might die.
I know that my list of negatives seems SO MUCH longer than my list of positives but please trust me when I say that the positives are SO MUCH more important than the negatives! You can write. Your brain is uniquely suited to beautiful writing! You just also have to find a way to do all the other stuff that comes with writing. Trust me, if someone could magically make my brain “normal” I’d say no in a heartbeat. My ADD is a gift to my writing, it’s just that I (and the rest of the world) haven’t been taught how to fully accommodate how my brain works. I’m still definitely a work in progress, and now am privileged enough to have help with the areas that I struggle with. But for many years, it was just me alone making this all work. Here are some tips that have helped me.
Keep notes in a place that you always have access to: This is your phone. The source of so much distraction. It’s the thing you can’t put down. Keep your writing ideas on it. That way, you can always take down that idea the moment it comes to you. Trust me, once that idea train leaves the station, it doesn’t come back. Catch it while you can.
Background noise is your friend: The right background noise, that is. I worked hard to create the ultimate “work” playlist. Music that keeps a hum in the background to keep just enough of my brain distracted that it can’t just jump ship (Ijeoma, I thought we were talking about trains here - I know, I know) altogether for a whole new task the moment I hear one of my kids talking on the phone in the next room. For me, it has to be music that’s familiar, but doesn’t have lyrics I want to sing, at a volume that won’t jolt me out of the middle of a sentence I’m writing. For some people its wave sounds or other white noise.
Keep a folder of all your payment info: I have a folder with my filled-out W9 and an automatic deposit form ready to go, so that I can just mail them out to any publisher who asks. If I have to fill those out more than once, it’s not happening.
Mobile deposits for your writing gig payments: I hate mobile deposits. I hate the extra days of waiting for a deposit to clear. I like the satisfaction of taking a check to the bank and knowing the funds will be in my bank account right away. But I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I’m never making it to the bank. Ever. Just do the mobile deposit and know that getting the funds in a week is better than not getting them at all.
Customize your email auto-response: I got this idea from Jes Baker, who got this idea from another writer. Add all the fiddly details that you can’t be arsed to ever send to people to your auto-response. In mine, I’ve got all sorts of goodies - my speaking info, agent contact, links to publicity photos, even a nice little statement reminding people that I’m very bad at answering emails so if it’s important you should please try again! And that brings me to the next tip
Give people multiple ways to contact you: Be upfront and honest with the fact that you are not easy to reach. Trust me, anybody who works with writers is very used to this. Frustration usually sets in when writers act like they are going to get back to you right away, but they really aren’t. Let the people you work with know that sometimes you miss emails and give them other options to reach you! Also be clear if there are places where people should never try to reach you. I will almost never answer a social media DM. It’s far too distracting a place for me and I will absolutely click through to whatever other shiny post catches my eye halfway through reading your message.
Make deals with yourself: Pomodoros (writing for a set number of minutes and then taking a few minutes break) work for a lot of people with ADD. I like to do 20 minutes of work, 10 minutes break (but staying at my desk so I don’t get completely distracted) using timers on my computer or phone. This is especially helpful when I’m working on longer projects like books. Sometimes, when I have one deadline coming up and I just need to push through, I’ll unplug my computer and promise to work until my battery dies (with autosave on, of course). Sometimes I put on headphones and sit next to the kids while they watch tv and work until their show is done. The trick is to not force your brain into unnaturally long writing stretches. That sort of torture only ensures that you will be even more reluctant to sit at your desk next time.
Snacks: Cover your desk in snacks. Gum, peanuts, candy. Make it something you can grab and munch on while you work.
Try handwriting: So far, all of the notes, planning, and outlines for my books have been handwritten. I don’t write a word on the computer until it’s draft time. I do this because writing on a keyboard can be tedious. And the more time we spend looking at screens for things that provide instant gratification and distraction (like social media) the harder it can be to spend time in front of a screen for work. Handwriting breaks that spell, and also gives me a manual task that requires a different type of focus than typing does.
Put your phone in another room. I have an Apple Watch (do we capitalize this? I’m not going to check) which has really helped me break free of my phone when I need to watch. The lure of all my great apps is removed, but I’m also not distracted by the fear that I might miss a call or text because they come through on my watch.
What’s your alternative task? I have a notorious sweet tooth. Especially for gummy candy. I sit down with a bag of gummy worms and go to town. But then, I’ve had too much sugar, and I need a salty thing. So I grab a bag of chips. But then that’s too much salt, so I grab the candy. And so on and so on until I have eaten ALL THE THINGS. While this technique may give me a stomachache with food, it can lead to a finished essay with writing. Have two tasks at the ready. One writing task, one writing and one writing adjacent (like emails, research, or invoicing). Switch between the two as you get sick of one or the other. Eventually you will get both very important things done.
I hope that these tips help. We need more people with different brains sharing their thoughts with the world. I hope that you know that there is no one way to be a writer and as long as you are writing, you are a writer. Your brain is an asset to your work, even if the world can’t fully see it yet. Once your writing is out in the world, they will.
What are some of your favorite ADD writing tips? Share them in the comments!
LOL @ those pictures. That’s me all day. So I have ADHD (mostly inattentive) and can’t take a stimulant because I am also bipolar. So, I take Wellbutrin which helps…a little. I had the most success with an ADHD coach - you can find reputable ones on ADDA’s website. They also have webinars and group sessions.
My biggest tip is to work with your body’s rhythm. If you are tired during the day, work/write at night. A lot of us with ADHD are night owls. I am just not functional in the AM, and I need a nap around 12 or 1PM. My most productive hours are 10PM onwards, and if I’m not careful I’ll have stayed up the entire night 😬
Thank you so much for these tips!!
Worth 10 years of subscriptions just to have this to read and share with others. Thank you!