Writing While ADHD

I won’t lie. Writing while ADHD is a challenge! There are many benefits to ADHD, such as the ability to think quickly and generate galaxies of original ideas, as well as an enhanced capacity for hyperfocus and flow. It’s always good to remember that ADHD isn’t an “illness,” but rather a less common type of brain wiring. Still, ADHD can make the act of sitting down and putting words on the page trickier than it is for people with other types of brains. What I’ve learned from more than a decade of writing while ADHD is that we simply have to work with it, not against it.  

This post is divided into three segments that address specific ADHD concerns: the necessity of minimizing distractions, the efficacy of establishing a routine, and tricks for overcoming executive function disorder. All of this advice applies to people without ADHD, but it’s critical to those of us whose heads are buzzing with ideas yet who find it difficult to write.

Minimizing Distractions

Virginia Woolf famously established the necessity of a room of one’s own. Writing is a solitary activity, and it’s important to minimize distractions so you can hear yourself think. Unfortunately, avoiding distractions is difficult for many people with ADHD, and it can sometimes be necessary to take extra steps to create a comfortable work environment.

The easiest way to make a quiet space is to stay away from the internet. This is just as obvious as it is problematic, as it negates many of the tools used by other writers, such as Discord-based writing sprints, music channels on YouTube, and online countdown timers. This also means that you can’t do research as you’re writing, meaning that you’ll have to set up a system of annotations to return to later. Nevertheless, the internet is kryptonite for people with ADHD, and it’s best to limit access while you’re writing and editing.

In addition, it goes without saying that your phone should be nowhere near your hand. If you have pressing business or emails that need to be taken care of, promise yourself that you’ll handle it after you finish writing. Many people with ADHD are excellent multitaskers, but writing demands focus.

ADHD gives us intense powers of concentration once we’re able to focus on one task, so it’s important that this concentration isn’t misdirected. Because of our brain chemistry, people with ADHD tend to gravitate toward the most high-stimulation activities available, so we need to be extra careful to create a quiet physical and mental space free of distractions.

To summarize: Be kind to your ADHD brain by putting away your phone and staying off the internet while you’re writing.

Establishing a Routine

Many writing guides stress the importance of establishing a routine. Putting your butt in the chair can be difficult for everyone, but it’s especially difficult for people with ADHD, many of whom find it almost impossible to concentrate if we’re not feeling motivated. This is why it’s crucial for those of us with ADHD to put extra effort into training ourselves to get into an appropriate headspace to write.

Having a quiet environment free of distractions helps immensely, as does having a set time of day for writing. If you use medication, it’s helpful to sync your writing time to your medication schedule. It also helps to schedule your writing in accordance to the natural flow of your mood and energy. While some writers are capable of carving out small blocks of writing time during their daily schedules, this isn’t a feasible strategy for most people with ADHD. Instead of fitting writing into a pre-existing schedule, many of us have to rearrange our commitments to work and education in order to solidify a routine for writing.  

The process of establishing a routine tends to take longer for people with ADHD. Some days might be painful, especially at first. Because we can’t choose how our brains are going to function on any given day, it’s important to be patient and kind to ourselves in order to keep the routine going. If you can only write for twenty minutes during your designated time before getting distracted, consider it twenty minutes well spent. If you can only write for five minutes, that’s okay too. People with ADHD tend to be susceptible to burnout, so it’s important to give yourself time to adjust to a new routine and not to push yourself if you’re not feeling it.

The important thing is to stick to your routine, no matter what. It will take time – three or four months at minimum – but you’ll train your brain to appreciate the routine instead of resisting it. With practice, this routine will help you trigger your ADHD superpowers of concentration when you need them. Knowing with certainty that you’ll be able to access a state of flow is the key the what is perhaps the tallest hurdle for writers with ADHD: overcoming executive function disorder.

To summarize: While paying attention to the natural fluctuations of your focus and energy, set aside a specific time to write every day, and be kind to yourself if some sessions aren’t as productive as others.

Overcoming Executive Function Disorder

Let’s say you have a fantastic idea, and you can’t wait to start writing. You’ve written any number of stories or essays before, not to mention school assignments and social media posts. Even though you acknowledge that writing is work, it’s work you love doing…

…and yet somehow you just can’t bring yourself to do it. It’s like there’s an invisible force field around the project, and no amount of good intentions (or pressing deadlines) will help you get past it. You’ve settled into a writing routine, and you’ve minimized the distractions around your writing space, but you still can’t get started.

This is when it helps to be sneaky. You have to trick yourself into opening the document and putting your fingers on the keyboard. The easiest way to do this is to shift the goalposts of what you count as a successful writing session. Maybe you can’t write a page. So what? You can write a sentence instead. So what if you can’t write a sentence? You can write a short list of sentence fragments. It’s all good. If you can’t focus today, there’s always tomorrow.

Once you get started, you’ll usually end up tricking yourself into meeting your original goal, which is fantastic! Sometimes it’s just not working, and there’s no helping it. And that’s okay! You don’t have to play by the same rules as other writers. If you end up with just a sentence, you’re doing great. (True story: Some of my most successful publications were written at a pace of one sentence every day.)

Delayed gratification isn’t something that most people with ADHD are equipped to handle, so another useful trick to getting around executive function disorder is to treat yourself before you start writing, not as a promised reward. Go ahead and eat a piece of chocolate or drink a cup of fancy tea as soon as you sit down. Physical motion often helps ADHD people focus, and a pantheon of respected writers have said that they do their best work after taking a walk. The brains of people with ADHD aren’t wired to get serotonin from the expectation of a reward, so it helps to treat the opportunity to sit down and write as part of an integrated ritual of self-care.

To summarize: If you find it difficult to start working, shift your expectations of what you need to achieve – and maybe treat yourself before you start writing.

Again, most of this advice applies to almost everyone. Our brains operate along multiple spectrums of how we process the world, and ADHD doesn’t manifest in the same ways or the same degree for everyone. That being said, it’s important to remember that issues that may not be a concern for other writers may be a barrier to an ADHD writer. Creating a distraction-free space and establishing a set routine is extremely helpful to those of us writing while ADHD, as is learning how to treat writing as a reward to be enjoyed instead of a task to be completed.

This post is concerned with the broad strokes of general practice, but it would be interesting to hear the specifics of other writers’ experiences. What are your strategies for keeping your ideas and research organized? How do you stay on track with larger projects? While you’re in a period in when your brain isn’t cooperating and your writing progress is incremental, how do you deal with the anxiety of not being as productive as your peers? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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This post originally appeared on Get Your Words Out, a community of writers aiming to maintain healthy creative habits and writing productivity. Membership to the community opens at the beginning of the calendar year, and its content is limited to members who maintain their writing pledges, but the GYWO Twitter account is accessible to everyone and posts encouragement, prompts, and writing resources at a steady but manageable pace.

Like An Adult

A conversation with a friend reminded me that “self-care” means actually taking care of yourself at work. “Working through the pain” is sometimes necessary in special circumstances, but it shouldn’t be expected, and it definitely shouldn’t be the default.

Anxiety in the Age of COVID-19

This week I invented a fun “adult” game to play with my partner. It’s called:

“Can you please sit on the couch with me and help me write emails because I am riddled with anxiety and have somehow managed to convince myself that every single word I write is bad and will cause everyone to lose respect for me and hate me forever.”

I’m currently struggling through a wave of anxiety, and it’s both intense and completely irrational. For example:

– An amazing colleague sent me a nice email expressing admiration for something I published recently, and I think I’m going to die.
– Another amazing colleague wrote to ask if they could put an unpublished essay of mine in a book they’re editing, and I think I’m going to die.
– I got a few new submissions to a zine I’m editing, and they are wonderful, and I think I’m going to die.
– A stranger who seems like a cool and interesting person sent me a message on Instagram inviting me to submit a comic to a zine they’re putting together, and I think I’m going to die.
– Someone sent me a message on Etsy telling me that they love my art, and I think I’m going to die.
– An artist I admire tentatively accepted an illustration commission for a novel I’m writing, and I think I’m going to die.

I feel awful, as if I’m an asshole for tricking these people. Like, they don’t know that I’m actually a terrible person, but they will find out. Nothing bad has happened, but bad things may potentially happen in the future.

When I was at my previous job, my older male department chair asked a female colleague to sit me down and tell me that anxiety doesn’t exist, and that it’s just a matter of me changing my attitude (or something). I keep thinking about this in an attempt to explain to no one in particular that I don’t actually want social interaction – even positive social interaction – to make me feel like I can’t breathe and might need to go to the hospital.

Emotionally I want to communicate and connect with people, especially friendly people doing cool things who it would be fun to work with. Intellectually I know that the worst thing that could happen is me making a silly typo or me eventually having to apologize for submitting something a few days late. Physically, however, I feel like I’m watching a grisly scene in a horror movie, except I can’t close my eyes until it goes away because this is my actual life.

Despite feeling like I’m on the verge of a coronary event, I’m going to ask my partner to sit on the couch with me and help me respond to some emails like a normal adult. This shouldn’t feel like I’m walking into battle, but it does and I hate it.

I’ll get through this, of course. It might take me a bit longer than it takes other people to respond to emails when I’m dealing with anxiety, but I’ll definitely get through this. I’m grateful to have a partner who supports me, and I’m very lucky that my colleagues (and students!) in my new department are accommodating. I’ve started being honest and upfront about what I’m going through, and everyone has been surprisingly kind and understanding.

I’m sharing this in the hope that it makes someone out there feel less weird and alone. There’s so much ambient stress and bad news in the world every single week, and I think a lot of people are experiencing this sort of anxiety at this level of intensity for the first time. It’s normal to feel physically sick, and it’s normal to feel mentally paralyzed. After experiencing wave after wave of negativity, it’s totally normal to have this sort of reaction even to positive events. So be kind to yourself, and let other people help you! You can get through this.

Sweaty & Upsetty

Sweaty & Upsetty is a collection of short comics I posted on Tumblr between 2014 and 2018. Some of these comics are about fandom, and some are about anxiety, but most of them are about the experience of being on the internet as a weird little gremlin. There are also a few comics about my Super Mario Bros. headcanon, which is that Bowser and Princess Peach are not-so-secretly dating.

This zine is twenty pages long, standard half-letter size, and professionally printed by Mixam with a velvet-touch cover and full-color glossy interior pages. It was an experiment in formatting artwork for print, so I only made fifty copies to give to friends. I also dropped off a few copies at my local comic book store in Washington DC, Fantom Comics, and I have three last copies that I’m going to leave at Quimby’s Bookstore when I visit Chicago for an academic conference in late October.

My artwork has improved in leaps and bounds since I started sharing it online five years ago. I don’t think I’ll ever reprint this zine, but I’m looking forward to putting together another comics zine early next year!

I Blame Capitalism

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I’d like to write about the department meeting. There’s a lot to unpack about what goes on in these things, and I think a lot of professors probably have similar feelings regarding the more unpleasant aspects of their own department meetings. Without trying to make any generalizations, however, I want to try to get to the heart of what I find so upsetting about my experience.

My university is an extremely neoliberal institution. What I mean by this is that everything is measured and judged according to its quantitative value. To give a concrete example, almost all classes with an enrollment of less than fifteen students are canceled, regardless of whether it’s a class that, by its very nature, should ideally have a small enrollment (such as a graduate seminar or an upper-level language class). These classes are usually canceled less than a week before they begin with no regard for the concerns or wellbeing of the students (who may need a specific course to graduate), the academic programs (who may lose majors or minors as a result of required courses not being available), or the instructors (many of whom are adjunct faculty paid by course) simply because they’re not “cost effective” in terms of numbers.

Faculty are accordingly evaluated almost entirely on how “productive” they are in terms of how many “points” they can accrue from certain activities and accomplishments listed on a spreadsheet. This results in bureaucratic inefficiency, as everyone needs to serve on a certain number of committees (to give one example), and it also results in everyone’s time and energy being spread dangerously thin across multiple competing commitments, some of which are of dubious necessity. This emphasis on “productivity” not only makes people tired and bad at their jobs, but it can also make them bitter and competitive.

Relying on “positive” discourses of “productivity” in order to make workers so exhausted that they’re unable to find the resources to free themselves from the mentality of being chained to their jobs is a major part of the ideology of neoliberal capitalism, which relies on an authoritarian cult mentality to perpetuate itself. You must devote the entirety of your life to the cult, and there is no room for diversity, difference, or disagreement. People in administrative positions literally go to “retreats” to learn how to better serve the institution, and they come back with an almost religious fervor.

What I find so distressing about department meetings, then, is that there’s always a strong undercurrent of “you’re not doing enough.” This is especially upsetting to me because I feel like I work all the time, even if what I’m doing – like preparing lectures for classes, giving productive feedback on assignments, and meeting with students to talk about their career goals, for example – can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet. And don’t even get me started on how many emails I have to write over the course of any given day.

So, when I already feel stretched way too thin, it’s just about the worst thing in the world to walk into a meeting where the underlying message is “you should be doing even more.” It’s like, haven’t I already sacrificed enough of my life for this job? I’m already pushing myself way beyond a healthy work/life balance, and I’ve been doing it nonstop for years, and it’s still not good enough?

Basically, a department meeting is a highly concentrated collection of external confirmations regarding many of the most common intrusive thoughts stemming from anxiety: You’re not good enough. Your best is not good enough. You will never be good enough. Your work is without value. You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve the privileges you’ve been given. You haven’t accomplished anything, and you never will. Everyone knows this, and everyone hates you. Everyone is judging you. You’re just causing trouble for other people, and they resent you.

What I mean by “external confirmation” is that this is literally what is being said in these department meetings. It’s probably best to leave that discussion for another day, though, because OH MAN it’s not fun to talk about any of this.

I really wish that more powerful and experienced people in academia were willing to talk about this sort of thing in a way that transcends useless corporate HR pablum and the hand-wringing “academia is broken now and forever” clickbait that people always seem to be sharing on social media. I wish I could do something myself, but I’m just as mired in the tenure-track swamp as anyone else. It’s like, Sure, I’ll fight neoliberal capitalism, right after I work on my article and my book chapter and respond to some emails and prepare a lecture and put together a handout and go teach two classes and sit in traffic and come home and then respond to more emails and update the course websites and maybe do some grading. Right after all that’s finished, I’ll get right on it.

Just for the record, however, I do want to say that I love my job.

My colleagues are all good people, and it’s nice to be paid a comfortable salary to read and write. I don’t particularly care the for the administrative aspects of teaching, but I have a lot of fun in class. This semester, for instance, I’m teaching an actual college course that counts for actual college credit about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and it’s magical. Every day is an adventure.

I could do without the panic attacks, but anxiety is what it is, and we’re all doing the best we can.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

Since the start of the year I’ve been ordering a lot of zines from Etsy, and they’ve been a great source of solidarity for mental health issues. I’ve been suffering from severe anxiety since around 2016 or so, and I’m thinking that it might be good to talk about it.

It’s hard, though. So maybe I can discuss it bit by bit?

Okay, here goes.

My department has a meeting every month during the school year. These meetings are generally terrible for multiple reasons, and I hate them. During the fall semester, when I was in a truly dark place, I stopped attending altogether (meaning, in concrete terms, that I skipped the meetings for October, November, and December). It’s not strictly necessary for me to go to these meetings, but it’s expected that I be there as one of the tenure-line faculty members. It reflects poorly on me if I don’t go, and the rest of the faculty notices.

Our spring semester doesn’t start until the last week of January, so our first department meeting of the year was in February. I bit the bullet and went, but it was so awful that I had to leave after an hour so that I could have a panic attack in the privacy of my own car. I’ll be honest, there was a lot of self-harm involved. It was intense.

The next meeting is this afternoon, and I am not looking forward to it. Thankfully, I have a friend who has agreed to drive me to the university, park in one of the “15 minutes only” spaces outside the building, walk me up to the department office, find a regular parking space, and then stand outside the meeting room and wait for me to come out. There will probably still be tears, but hopefully there will be significantly less self-harm this time around.

Dealing with anxiety is difficult, but I’m lucky to have friends who are willing to be there for me.

Gaslighting, Therapy, and Fanfic

Gaslighting is the process of attempting to convince someone that their accurate perception of a situation is incorrect; and, moreover, that there is something wrong with them personally for having perceived the situation in this way.

Based on what I’ve seen, a lot of the disagreement over this definition has to do with how many people need to be involved in order to a situation to be “gaslighting” and not “abusive behavior” or simply “being an asshole.” For example, if Person A says “There’s a strange smell coming from the kitchen” and Person B says “No there’s not, you’re just crazy,” then that’s probably not gaslighting. I would contend, however, that there is so much atmospheric discrimination against certain groups of people that even an isolated “you’re just overreacting” contributes to a broader system of systematic gaslighting. As a result of this atmospheric gaslighting, some people from marginalized positions can feel that there’s something inherently wrong with their point of view, especially during times of stress and vulnerability.

So there’s this thing that many American therapists do, which is to try to gently lead a patient to arriving at a revelation on their own, generally over the course of several sessions. I understand the theory behind this, but I still hate it.

I’m going to give a personal example. I was in a toxic relationship for more than a year when I was in college. I feel as though I’ve been conditioned to claim partial responsibility and say something like “the abuse went both ways,” but that wasn’t really what was going on. Essentially, the boy I was dating would be a disgusting assclown until I snapped and reacted, at which everything that was wrong with the relationship would be my fault because I got upset. I had never been in that sort of unhealthy relationship with anyone before, and I otherwise got along with most people really well, so I had no idea what was going on. I therefore went to a therapist and told her, in so many words, that I was “forcing” my boyfriend to abuse me verbally and physically, and that I needed her to help me figure out what it was about me that compelled him to hurt me.

If a scared teenager came to me and said this, my first response would be, in no uncertain terms, “Honey, you need to get out of there, because no one should be assaulting you for any reason. We can talk about this for as long as you want later, but you are in real danger and right now you need to get out.” What my therapist – and then another therapist – and then another therapist – said to me, however, was “Well, what do you think is wrong with you? Why do you think he hits you and calls you a dumb cunt?”

Even if this sort of thing isn’t technically gaslighting, it still feeds into the pervasive social narrative that teenage girls are crazy and irrational and deserve whatever happens to them if they don’t follow all of the contradictory “rules” about dating and relationships. Between one thing and another, I had never found a safe space where I could talk to other people my age about real relationships without being judged or losing face, which is why I didn’t immediately jump to the obvious conclusion that the reason why a boy would want to physically strike anyone is a conversation that needs to happen between him and his therapist.

Around this time I got on LiveJournal and discovered fic. What this meant is that suddenly I was exposed to all sorts of models of romantic and sexual relationships, and this was when I started to understand what was going on in my life. It’s not so much that the fic I was reading was explicitly like “this is what a healthy relationship looks like” or “this is what abuse looks like,” because Lord knows the BDSM Sailor Moon and Trigun femslash I was reading did not get even remotely close to that sort of thing. Rather, what I got from reading and discussing and eventually writing fic was that women’s stories are valid, and young women’s stories are valid, and queer women’s stories are valid, and nonbinary female-presenting people’s stories are valid. No matter how transgressive the fic or meta you wrote may have been, it was no less worthy of being taken seriously because you specifically wrote it.

That sense of “being valid” and “being taken seriously” is, in my opinion, an effective antidote to gaslighting. I don’t think fandom is or ever was inherently an activist space or even a safe space, but I do think it’s a place where a lot of female and transgender and nonbinary people first get the sense that it’s okay for them to exist in the world as themselves, no matter how weird or strange or non-normative or queer they might be.

I think this is one of the main reasons why the purity culture of anti-fandom bothers me so much. If people are only supposed to write “pure” relationships – or even, to take this a step farther, if they’re supposed to be so pre-enlightened about social justice that they need to tag everything they write with all applicable content warnings – then that’s tantamount to being told that they need to police themselves at all times in fandom, just as in real life. In addition, because the rules about “safe shipping” are so arbitrary and contradictory, this feels very much like the same sort of “Well, what do you think is wrong with you?” nonsense I got in therapy as a teenager (and then later, when I tried therapy again at several points as an adult).

If we can call fandom a safe space, and if we can think of fandom as an activist space, I think that’s because it’s a space where the voices of people who are so often silenced, marginalized, and discounted in the real world are allowed free expression. In this sense, a sentiment such as “don’t like, don’t read” can be a powerful and almost politically transformative expression of tolerance and empathy.

By the way, I get that not all therapists are incompetent jerks. Many of them are, though, and finding one of the good ones (who also happens to be a good fit for any given client) is not just a difficult and time-consuming process but also a community effort in many cases. I don’t want to suggest that fanfic is an alternative to therapy… but it sure is a hell of a lot cheaper.