How Do I Write with ADHD?

Quoth Fidget: I have an extremely difficult time concentrating on, well, anything…much less writing. How can you get writing done even if with ADHD?

I’m not SURE that I have ADHD, but I strongly suspect it. I was somewhat diagnosed with it back in my childhood, but the leading prescription back then was to shrug and hope the kid would eventually get their shit together.

Ha! I showed them!

I do have many of the symptoms (compulsive fidgeting with my hands and bouncing of my leg, inability to start projects that aren’t a crisis, difficulty finishing projects, a constant whirl of random activity in my brain at all times, impulsive decision making, procrastination). There’s also my weird tendency to make things much harder for myself to accomplish because there’s not enough stimulation when they’re easy.

This is how I write each of these columns.

I’ve found ways to work around or through some of those issues, and I’ll definitely recommend the How to ADHD channel on YouTube for lots of wonderful advice.

(You may also want to reach out to a healthcare professional for a real diagnosis and possible medication.)

How can you adjust for your ADHD as a writer? Here are some things that have worked for me.

Make it Weird

Probably 90% of my challenge with procrastination in writing and failure to finish involves my incredulity that it can be as simple and boring as just typing word after word until you have something.

After years of trying dozens of different ways to write (by hand, with a fountain pen, in a Google Doc, in a Word document, in a plain text editor, in a notebook, at a bagel shop, at various libraries, in a conference room at work, at a rented office, near my childhood home), I’m beginning to realize something:

I’m not failing to find the one way to write because for me, there isn’t one. It’s the searching that helps keep me focused.

The sole act of writing by itself isn’t stimulating enough to me, so I’ve contrived some tricks to make it different:

  • Writing as a stunt (a story in a week or an afternoon, a story based on an image, a story for someone’s anthology, a story to woo a partner)
  • Writing in different places (maybe requiring a drive but not necessarily)
  • Writing with different tools (remembering to make sure there’s a way to convert from one to the other)
  • Writing in different voices to perform (I’m a show off)
  • Writing something weird (a different genre, a different structure, a different form)

I suspect that a huge amount of the writing advice sought by creative folks comes from our surprise that it’s actually this boring to do.

Make It Easy

There’s a lot that competes for my attention in this world, especially the sweet nothingness of inaction.

(I suspect my ADHD is like a bad car transmission: I can’t easily shift between gears so I stay forever in idle awaiting an emergency that rarely comes.)

I’ve found that shortening the intimidating on-ramp to working can help me get started, and here are some of the ways I do that:

  • Setting a timer for some short period (20 minutes or less) so it feels finite
  • Telling myself that I’m setting myself up for a “real” writing session by starting a scene or doing some character development that often turns into that session
  • Keeping something with which to write easily at hand and quick to activate (a notebook or text file on my computer’s desktop)
  • Transitioning to a “writing mode” through journaling, music, or some ritual like a prayer to the muses
  • Doing something physical, usually walking or showering, that distracts me

I think it’s the transitions that are the killer for us: we’re annoyed that writing isn’t immediately fun but also terrified that we won’t be able to stop in case it is.

Make It Safe

For many creative people, our heightened affection for storytelling makes us scared of the intermediate steps between brilliant manic idea and depressive execution.

It seems to help when I remember a few things to keep perspective:

  • There is a necessary stage of every creative work when it is an absolute fucking mess
  • Part of your job is to tinker at the edges of that mess, making each small part look slightly better than it did until you achieve a critical mass
  • You’ll feel a shiver of recognition when you get it right (at least I do)
  • Nobody says you have to work in order…it is perfectly fine to attack your creative work from whatever angle seems easiest and most interesting
  • You don’t have to share your work until you’re ready…but don’t hide in it forever

Most of all, try to move your creative practice away from relentless capitalistic production in service of your ego to one of experimentation and tinkering.

Creativity for me is a lot more like fishing than hunting.

Token Irascible Old Artist Advice

I’m a big liberal softie, but I’m sure some grizzled veteran of the linotype wars would pipe up here to growl that we shouldn’t make this act so fucking precious, and we should just shut the fuck up and write in the face of our inevitable rejection by the uncaring void.

Yeah, okay, I guess you’ve got a point, tough guy.

But what if there was a way to make our work stimulating WITHOUT drinking and drugs and whoring and picking fights at bars? What if we found a way to create that doesn’t require divorce or suicide or the pain of everyone around us?

What if we, you know, got creative with ourselves too?