I told you last week that I got a lot out of reading Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable. 

I’m still officially distractible, but something I’ve noticed are my internal shiny “squirrel!” triggers.

This is me sitting down to write and thinking, “I’ll check email, Instagram, Facebook, play today’s Wordle, or do some helpful Google research.”

It’s getting out music to practice and thinking, “I need to text that person back. And this closet could really use a quick declutter.”

You get it.

The helpful thing for me has been to backtrack and notice the thought and feeling that precedes the distracto-grab.

When I sit down to write, lots of ideas start to roil.

One I’ve noticed lately is a criticism of my voice and style.

A whole pile of expression blocking bricks stack and mortar themselves into a protective wall, and I sit there believing this voice that says something like, “What if someone reads that one day? Did you know your handwriting looks like a third grade teacher’s from 1978? Are you a 46-year old man or Marian the librarian?”

A lot of the mean stuff is old remarks from my childhood that I absorbed.

When I was a boy, I loved beautiful things.

I loved music and flowers, and when the little league football cheerleaders shook their shiny pom poms, I felt bubbles in my stomach under my jersey and shoulder pads. I thought hot pink was an especially inspiring color, and I loved the rainbow tennis racket strings that came into style in the late 80s.

These affinities didn’t cohere well with camo, hunting, fishing, football, or engine repair.

A lot of sideways looks and comments like “that boy ain’t quite right.”

Or the time in a summer recreation program when the head counselor asked me in front of all the other campers, “Are you a queer?” I was 10, and I didn’t know what that meant.

I felt like I was outside the givens of being a man. Layer onto that a deep judgment of my own dad for a list of reasons in my little boy’s head, and you get a really tricky relationship with masculinity.

This sampling of messages and barbs emerges from the subconscious soup like alligator eyes, and before I finish a paragraph of neat cursive, its jaws chomp down on the idea that I wanted to tease out with my roller ball in my Leuchturm 1917 journal. (Fountain pens are too high maintenance, I tried them, of course.)

There were relationship moments when I heard from a woman, “Don’t cry like a bitch” or “Yeah, I don’t like it when men cry.”

You know in your brain not to let these things in, but as I found out as a kid, I’m a tender hearted sort, and my emotional body is absorbent.

All this to share with you one source of intense emotional sensation that sets off alarm bells in my psyche to reach for a thoughtful article from The Atlantic or a McVitie’s chocolate digestive. (My soul wears a cardigan and drinks PG Tips, clearly.) Something to distract my brain or to carbo-riffically muffle any intense feelings that may be trying to process out of my belly region.

Who knew your Instagram scroll was shielding you from such an underbelly?

But this gentle intention to notice the emotional impulse that precedes the distraction grab has been a godsend. I’ve been getting better at noticing things with curiosity and gentleness, and I’ve found it helps me move through with confidence and love. I can feel a sensation and survive.

All this to share with you — whatever you want to work on, you can start it wherever you can open a door. Wherever you can set your foot, put it there.

Some authors call this lily padding. Wherever your sweet froggy brain finds itself in the pond, you can start there and then leap to the next nearest amphibian tuffet.

It looks like this:

You have to prepare “I Dreamed a Dream” for your Fantine call back.

“I’m so excited. I love this song. I love this show.”

“Crap, this is Les Mis. This is Fantine. This is a big role. Do I go more Patti Lupone or Lea Salonga or Ruthie Henshall or figure out how to make it TRULY my own???”

“Okay, here I go. Ahemhemhemheeemmmmm…. ‘I dreamed a dream in time gone b….’ Wait. Let me see if I can find a good backing track. Should I get a piano track or an orchestral one? The audition will be piano, so. No, never mind. Slow down. I need to really think about the song. Go through my lyrics. Oh, God, don’t make me monologue this. Wait! I know! I need to read the novel. How am I going to become Fantine if I don’t understand how Victor Hugo originally conceived of her? I can get that online. But I’ll be distracted if I read on my computer. Let me get on my library app and reserve that. What? It’s available today? I’ll go pick it up. I’ll find a coffee shop where I can nestle in and, wait! How am I going to sing the Shaa-a-a-a-a-aaaaame! part? I need to call my voice teacher. No, I’ll just search those who-sang-it-best comparison videos on YouTube and steal the ones I like the best.”

So here’s the thing.

All of this brain brew is a way to delay work because that’s where we’re going to encounter frustration, questions, and falling short of how good we want it to be. We need to spend enough time with it for things to integrate.

But in order to delay the discomfort of, “Crap, is this going to be any good by the time I do it in front of people?” we reach for seemingly productive activities that hold the work at a distance.

But the other thing is this. All of the above ideas are lily pads.

Jumping in to sing can show me I don’t have enough specifics in the lyric, so I need to do some imagination work.

Singing with a track can show me my breathing’s wonky somewhere, so I need to slow down and take it apart.

Reading the novel can show me that I don’t actually have time to savor Hugo’s piercing of the human soul through language, so I’ll have to table the tome for the time being.

But all these activities can get me going in a direction.

And if I need to make a several-point turn to get going another way, I can do that.

Sometimes I autopilot onto the Mass Pike toward Boston when I’m supposed to be driving to Albany, and I have to drive several miles to exit and turn around. It’s frustrating, but at least I know the direction I’m trying to go, so even going the wrong way is taking me where I need to go eventually.

So, I invite you to watch your intense emotional sensations with curiosity and gentleness.

Let yourself hop onto the first lily pad you see.

And remember that even your attempts to avoid your pain can be one of the floating dots you can connect to create satisfying work.

After all, there’s only one soul who can distract, protect and obfuscate in just the way you do, and all us other pain avoiders need to hear the story only you can sing.

Love much,

Dan

PS I got to do a terrific production of Bright Star here in Mass at the Franklin Performing Arts Company. A terrific place to work with a top notch team and a thriving performing arts school.

I hadn’t done a contract since 2019, so it was great to tell a story for folks again. Here are a few pics of me as Daddy Cane using my native NC dialect. If you add a key ring on my belt, I look just like my dad.