It’s 6:00 pm as I write this, and I’m falling into an over-satiated coma from leftover Chinese food. The veggie chow fun and orange chicken have commingled in my stomach to create a kind of… More
Home from climbing boulders at the beach
Trixie’s bravery has surged
on walks she pulls me along
making her deposits on the brink
between apartment buildings
among the crunchy slippery leaves
on a hillside a hundred feet up
over scrub oaks and madrones
vibrant and all aglow
so when I go to bag her waste
my heart dances down in the wind.
“Simultaneously experiencing two emotions that aren’t typically felt together – such as frustration and excitement – encourages creative insights,” says Emma Young in the July 25 issue of New Scientist.
Here’s some powerful data supporting freewriting, or brainstorming. I love to open a book of writing prompts and let my unconscious mind go wild, not editing or thinking consciously as I write. The point is the process, not the product, but I’ll often be surprised about the interesting ideas that bubble up from the wandering mind.
Seeing a visual prompt or reading a poem that evokes contradictory emotions primes the mind for creative thought. “That might be,” says Young, “because it signals that you are in an unusual environment, making you alert to the possibility of other relationships.” Then our mind starts playing with ideas more readily, seeing the world as a child might perceive it, prestructured. That cord snaking out from the lamp becomes an actual snake, sticking its prong fangs into the wall. The dog bed by the window, the one we call Trixie’s brown doughnut, becomes an actual doughnut, discarded by a distracted giant during the night as we slept.
First I turn off all my smart phone alerts and social media. Distractions interrupt this wonderful daydreaming discovery time by calling us back to our ordinary, orderly lives. At first, as I begin to write, the mundane objects of life weight heavily on my mind. But the writing process itself is a desert wind scented with aromatic blossoms, blowing me toward exotic places. The farther I wander with it, the more interesting the dreams and visions become.
This morning at 9:00 it was hot already. I’ve been wanting to go for a swim in the pool at our apartment complex ever since we moved here six months ago, but never got up the courage. I don’t like showing off my leg braces to the world, so walking down to the pool in shorts presents a problem. In addition, the braces are clunky and awkward to pull on and off and leave beside the pool.
This morning I discovered a solution. It turns out I don’t need to wear braces in order to put on shoes; I just slipped them on over my bare feet and headed for the pool. It was totally worth the risk and the work. I had the pool all to myself, did some laps and floated on my back for awhile before heading back up for coffee and breakfast, invigorated and ready for the day.
I love the quiet underwater, and the way my senses awaken when I let my body float. My mental chatter fades and the bright purple morning glories climbing the wall explode into life. I feel my breath, my heartbeat.
I’m approaching my writing the same way I approached the pool this morning, taking risks, trusting myself. First I discovered a character. From the silence, my awareness of self emerged first. Who is this character, living this life? I want to get to know him better, find out what he loves, what he fears, how to challenge him.
Then there’s setting. Stilling my mind in the pool, I allow myself to slowly come to awareness of all the sensations of my surroundings, from the bright, drowsy warmth of the morning to the cool water. Now, writing in the semi-darkness of my office, I’m acutely aware of my world but centered in it rather than distracted by it.
And what’s a story without conflict? By confronting my own fear, facing it and conquering it, I prepare myself for the next challenge. Those quiet moments of reflection, swimming, stilling my mind in the silence, feel completely honest and vulnerable, allowing me to feel the character, setting, and conflict of my life. Taking that first risk, I open a space for more awareness throughout the day, and for deeper honesty and perception in my writing.
I enjoy the sound of this: tertiary conundrums. The words popped into my head as I was doing dishes this morning. At first they sounded like pure nonsense, interesting only in their sonic qualities, their rhythmic syllables and the contrasting softness of the first word and the hard c and d sounds in the second. And there’s the hint of music in that final syllable – “drums.”
But slowly, as the word pair reverberated back and forth in my mind, and I repeated them aloud, I realized they conjured up an apt image of my current condition. Mysteries, worries, thoughts and dreams were bobbing about at the periphery of my consciousness, flotsam in an ocean of awareness. Speaking the words aloud and becoming aware of their meaning allowed me to process my own subconscious thoughts.
I’m on summer break from teaching, and my mind naturally wanders more often these days. As Tolkien reminds us, “All who wander are not lost.” In fact, it’s essential that we allow our minds to wander, to follow the call of those seemingly random voices, for they may lead to wonderful discoveries. I hope especially that children have time to wander and play in unstructured and creative ways. Some wordplay ideas: jot down favorite words and pair them in unique combinations, write stories with these words, turn them into characters and plots, and share your creations.
What would the world be like if we were to all share the same dreams, if we all had the same nightly visions? I’m not talking about dreamers being able to interact, but simply experience the same narratives on the same nights. A series of six dreams, alternating light and dark in emotional content. After the sixth night, it begins again. That is the premise of my novel-in-progress.
Would it be a unifying force for the world? Would you believe it indicated some unifying message for humanity, lessons we could follow? Or would it be more sinister, a kind of controlling, homogenizing force? What if these were lucid dreams, and people could control of make new things of them within the shared framework? What do you think?
How do you maintain the balance between passion and precision in your writing? For me it takes a four-step process. Having a process I can follow, something to rely on when the words refuse to come, when my mind feels numb and sluggish, is essential. The specific process you choose will, of course, be individual to you, as long as it works.
- Write longhand. I love the feeling of the pen tip on the paper, watching the physical marks appear on the page. I love how fast I write this way, thoughts pouring out in a river across the page. It’s a metaphor, sure, but that image deepens my process.
- Type it in. I’ll naturally correct, add, and delete as I go, crafting and shaping the raw words and ideas from Step 1.
- Print and edit. Now, from a reader’s point of view, I pore over my manuscript, marking it up, filling in any missing details, crossing out extraneous verbiage and dead end thoughts, sharpening each dull word.
- Type it in again. Now the passion of the process starts bubbling again as I rediscover and heighten my original intentions while intermixing the ideas I generated as I edited, uncovering new perspectives and honing my expression.
This process may go through many cycles depending on the project’s scope. The writing becomes an internal dialogue, a series of logical leaps and bursts of passionate insight.
How about you? What’s your process?
In my work with children and teens, I’ve found extrinsic rewards helpful in promoting a sense of play and excitement. After a session of difficult reading comprehension work, or a barrage of sensory cognitive stimulation for more accurate reading, who wouldn’t want a bit of a reward, a dip into the Prize Chest?
For me, writing in the morning, in the predawn stillness as the sky turns azure and blazing orange over the Victorian next door, the smell of robust coffee wafting about the kitchen, is its own reward. But when I come home from seven hours of remedial language processing work, nearly as drained as my students, I definitely appreciate incentives for my writing, when rewards of renown and remuneration seem so distant. So I’ve decided to give myself small incentives for working on my novel, for advertising workshops,for writing these blog posts.
It might be a stop at a coffee shop on the way home from work, a song download, or even a five minute dance break when I get to jump out of my seat and bounce around like a monkey, rock out to my favorite dance track, and just let my body go wild and free. Sometimes, as writers, we need to let ourselves go wild and indulge. Schedule those indulgences. Write them down and track your progress toward your goals, giving yourself fun along the way.