How to write if you cannot concentrate.


Jack Rieur was the most wonderful teacher I ever had and perhaps the best teacher anywhere on the planet and for all time. I first met him in 1963 when he was my 6th grade teacher and we have kept in touch ever since.

Sure, he covered the state mandated syllabus, but what he really taught was that the world was something we go out and live in and not read about in the classroom. And learning was fun; the most fun you can ever have. And if you pay attention you can learn from life itself and the point wasn’t that there was a test at the end of the semester but later in life you had to teach others because the human race is not a race to the finish but a relay race where near the finish line we must pass the baton.

For example, he taught geography not from the book but from the slides he took personally when he visited all the places in the book. Here is a picture I took of him back when he was a spry 89-year-old in front of the 79,662 slides he used in practicing his craft and that have since been digitized and stored by the Archives at the Consortium Library. I have been to more than 40 countries so far and have set up housekeeping in a few (and I’m no where near done). Had I not had him I might have run the risk of having gone to Canada once and seen a few other countries for a few hours each on a cruise.

He died this last August but his spirit lives on in me. For example he came to my rescue just now when I was stuck writing one thing and I got unstuck by writing something else.

Mr. Rieur’s other name was Jack but he insisted his sixth grader’s call him Mr. Rieur. It was not a matter of respect for age but of class. You only got to call him Jack if you became a teacher too. Well I have approached raising my children and managing my businesses and all my writing as a teacher, and so I think I have earned the right to call him Jack posthumously. However if you have done none of those things then please call him Mr. Rieur out of respect.

How to write if you cannot concentrate.

People tell me that they cannot concentrate long enough to write anything coherent that isn’t trite or a cut-and-paste job of things off the web, which doesn’t count anyway.

I say, “So?”

“Well,” they say, “I want to know how I can write like you because it appears you have a hard time concentrating.”

I say, “Oh, I concentrate when I write. I’m just not concentrating on you right now.”

They say, “What? That doesn’t make sense.”

I say, “Never mind. I’m probably answering something somebody asked me once that I’m only getting around to answering now. What’s up?”

They say they will make it simple, “How do I write like you?”

I start telling them that the first thing I remember writing really well was a lab report for my 6th grade teacher who really knew how to teach. First we made four kinds of fire extinguishers: Water (soda/acid), Dry chemical (baking powder), Foam (I think it was shaving cream), and CO2 (some kind of effervescent tablet). Then we started fires in a trash can behind the school and we put them out. Then we wrote about it.

They interrupt and ask what that has to do with anything.

I explain that you want to write what you know and care about from first-hand emotional experience that is either sad or fun. A house burning down is sad, so you want a fire extinguisher handy so it would be good to know how to make one in a pinch. And starting fires behind school is fun for a 6th grader and, come to think of it, I’d enjoy doing it even more today. Do all that and writing about it is so easy a sixth grader can do it.

And if you do something worth writing about and then you write about it then it becomes etched in your memory just like this story has. Which reminds me that my teacher died just this last August 29th exactly one month before his  97th birthday. It makes me sad I was out of the country and couldn’t be there to see him one last time but every other thought I have ever had about him makes me happy. His name was Mr. Reiur.

‘Boy,” they say, “You really can’t concentrate. I asked you a question, not for a story about a school teacher nobody cares about.”

“I care.”

“About what?”

“Everything I write about. I don’t have time to write about anything else.”

They say, “OK, look, I don’t have time to hear about your life’s story. How can I write like you? Make it simple and brief.”

I say, “Be me.”

“OK. This is going nowhere. I’m applying for a job and I need to know the secret of writing a great cover letter. What is it?”

“Learn to write well.”

They barely control their anger, “That’s what I’ve been asking you and you haven’t been answering. OK. Give me three tips for writing a good resume.”

I say, “Your resume is your life in bullet points, which is a stupid way of documenting it, so the secret is to have an interesting life and learn to write about it well.”

They say, “And?”

I say, “And what?”

They say, “That is only one tip, I want two more.”

I say, “Look, if you have an interesting life and keep track of it as it happens in well written prose – even if in your diary just for your eyes – then you’ll remember all the fun bits and the sad bits; and they are all the bits worth remembering anyway. Do that and you won’t need to keep track of your life with bullet points.”

“What? I can’t get a job without a resume?”

“Who wants a job?” I say, “That sounds like work. You want an interesting life and if you get yourself one, like I suggest, then that is what you will have. But because there is no point to having an interesting life if you cannot remember it, you’ve got to write it down.”

Their faces are turning red, “Give me a break. Nobody will hire me without a resume.”

I laugh and then I sigh. “I don’t think you know what an interesting life looks like. You don’t want bosses; you want fellow travelers. Sometimes they pay you and sometimes you pay them, but for all the big things – like loving a lover, loving your children, or loving your parents – if money is changing hands then something is seriously amiss. Who reports to whom is a matter of detail best worked out as needed (if at all) and nothing worth fretting about in advance (if ever).”

“That sounds crazy, so I will ask just one last thing,” They say, “How do I get started when I just can’t get started? There is a novel I’ve been meaning to write since college and I just haven’t been able to write the first sentence.”

I say, “That’s an easy one. Write something else instead.”

“But I don’t want to write something else.”

“It doesn’t matter; if you want to write then you have to write or you will not be writing which is not good if you want to be a writer. So if you can’t do the thing you want then do something else and see what happens.”

They scratch their heads, “You don’t make any sense.”

“Be that as it may now I want you out of my head; I’ve been trying to write about something and you’ve just helped me get started. Now scram.”

“You cannot talk to me that way,” they say.

“Yes I can,” I say, and POOF – they’re gone; every last one of them.


Author: Brooke Allen

A retired Wall Street executive with a whimsical side.