Writers get hit regularly by a pair of questions from would-be writers. The first: “What’s your process?” The second: “Do you ever experience writer’s block?”
Both inquiries share a theme: “How the hell’s one ‘sposed to make this dang-blanged writin’ magic work?”
I have both a fast, simple answer, plus a long, strange one.
Betcha you’ll be able to figure out which is which.
“Look,” I say, “I was in a newsroom for more than twenty years. Dealt daily with gruff Sports section editors. They could make Cap’n Bligh seem a featherweight. If I ever said, ‘Hey boss, sorry, I’m just not feelin’ it today’… next I’d feel treads of a staircase spank my butt while I was being bounced out onto the street.”
It’s one of my useful takeaway from a school of tough deadlines. Breaking news has the shelf life of whipped cream. When a coverage hole looms, delay is never an option. Thus, one proceeds to do what one must. Over and over again, you learn to plonk your butt in a chair, hook your brain to a keyboard and bang out a piece that’s fit for publication. Do that often enough, you can’t unlearn it. Dawdling as a modus operandi forever has been exorcised, exiled, and expunged.
Start Me Up
The “what’s-your-process” angle is the trickier of the pair of questions. Some writers respond to it with a basic description of their start-up menu. Stuff like: keen a few pencils, swill a dose of coffee, launch your scribblin’ mission at a particular hour, or strive to reach a target word-count. That sort of response is easy to generate, and it’s one to which most folks can easily relate.
Yet I’d still dub it a con. A recipe for inferior magic, like tugging a long string of thin silk scarves from a coat sleeve (or out of your zipper, if you happen to be “The Great Flydini” – aka Steve Martin).
There’s no way that writers can bestow proficiency upon other people by sharing a mere start-up ritual. Flagrant imitation might indeed confer short-term results. But devotees shall find themselves soon running out of that itsy-bitsy droplet of loaner fuel.
To get a better answer from your scribbler, try asking a more creative question.
“How can I hot-wire my imagination straight to my fingertips?”
Fling that at a writer, see what you get back. Ask me, here’s how I’ll answer.
Sayings of Cosmo Fishhawk
One favored cartoon from the old “Shoe” comic strip features the rumpled news columnist Cosmo Fishhawk. This cartoon osprey stands, wings folded behind his back, looking out from a treehouse aerie as his nephew Skylar upbraids him, pointing at a neglected typewriter. “What are you doing, staring out windows?” Skyler says. “You should be pounding the keyboard!”
Fishhawk gives Skyler a sulky, mordant look. “Typists pound keyboards,” he says drily. “Writers stare out windows.”
This is the key. A requisite prelude to saying anything is discovering whether or not you’ve got something to say. As you poke about to uncover that thing you wish to say, your staring can and should occur in two directions.
You must stare outward, like Cosmo Fishhawk, certainly.
Reporters of every stripe, scientists and academics too, all know that making astute and valid observations is essential to getting their job done well. Fiction writers must describe our objective, physical, shared world with no small amount of skill, since they must render settings and scenes that are convincing and immersive to a reader.
The Janus View
But next, the staring performed by fiction writers must aim deeply inwards. Like the Roman god Janus, a story-teller must be capable of gazing intently in both directions.
To launch this second part of the great search, ask: What are the raw ingredients of feeling? Of realization? Of sensuality? Of conflict? Of doubt? Of desire? Of faith? Of love? Or of betrayal?
A single route exists to finding out. Plunge into a rabbit hole of the human mind-and-heart. Beginning with your own.
A question then becomes, how does one penetrate that inner realm – and return to objective, public reality bearing a harvest of goodies? You should begin by realizing that this is a crepuscular hunt.
“Crepuscular” is a word that describes the animals who conduct their business of living by early sunrise light and in evening twilight too, when all physical shapes seem to be hazy and undefined. Meanwhile, impressions and thoughts grow vivid and striking. In short, you must enter a dream or a dreamlike world.
The Well of Dreams
A very significant dream occurred for me when I was sixteen. My last thought before awakening from it was, “To remember the vision, look at your hands as you come out of sleep.”
My eyelids fluttered up. Whereupon I discovered myself already staring down at my own palms and fingers, hairy knuckles, skin, veins and nails. Details of that dream have remained vivid and accessible to me, even unto this day.
Since then, I’ve found that you can also stare at your hands while going into dream realms, not just while departing from them. (I’m being metaphorical here, but also not.)
It’s a simple process. You begin by wanting to, move on toward intending to, and then you actually proceed to do it.
As you tumble down into sleep, pay attention to the dissolving of the veils between consciousness and unconsciousness, between your inner world and the outer world, between what is controlled and anticipated and what is wild, raw and untamed.
Stepping Out of the Square of Vision
Another way to look at it is by considering neural pathways – our habitual manner of perceiving and reacting.
Have you ever seen a film director or cinematographer form a square with his or her fingers and sweep that square over a scene or a set? Yes, he or she is deciding what to include in a shot. But beyond that he or she seeks to accomplish a much more massive task: deciding what to leave out!
Our brains operate similarly.
We absorb more information about our inner and outer worlds than we can ever afford to pay attention to amid our busy waking lives. A human consciousness constantly winnows all those data streams down to a smaller, more manageable trickle. The ways in which the incoming stuff gets edited and filtered helps define who each of us is both as a person and a personality.
Neural pathways become formed and formatted by the habitual way we see, the habitual ways we think and feel, the habitual way we react.
Yet as we slink into slumber, all these bets are off. Our habitual neural pathways not only no longer need to stay active during sleep, they actually demand some quiet time to rest, and adjust, then renew themselves. That gives everything else a chance. All the impressions we repressed and ignored or tamped down have not gone away. They seethe and heave just under the floor of our awareness.
Chores of the Slumbering Brain
When I was in college and minoring in Psych, the school of “behaviorism” was influential. This line of thought held that dreams were basically mental static – like test patterns that used to endure after TV stations stopped their regular programming, or the hiss when a radio station ended a broadcast. So, attempting to decode any significance from dreams was considered a fool’s errand. It was a modernist and a deconstructionist theory, calculated to shrug off the big burden of dream interpretation birthed by the schools of insight of Freud and Jung.
Since those days, my position has evolved. I now believe the dreaming brain is up to precisely the same gig as a waking brain: trying to make sense of things, and trying to coax impressions of all sorts into patterns. The tough part of accomplishing this while we dream is that there are SO many more things to make sense of! Freed from the chore of trimming down and analyzing a flood of live data, then making prompt decisions about it, the brain during sleep goes on to address the vast bulk of all else it’s got on hand to pitch up into the air and juggle. Which is: our lifelong accumulations, an inner compost heap of everything under the sun.
Hence, seemingly at whim, a dream can root through this mass and come up with a lightning bolt of perception, or a teeming bazaar of the bizarre. Results can span the gamut from sublime realization, to a confusing swirl of chaos, to a replay of important memories, to stultifying repetition of sheer inanities (sort of like a mental stutter).
What we recall of these visions once we’re back awake can indeed offer meaningful signposts on a route to self-realization. However, this is a newsletter about writing. Let’s narrow our aim down to making a few observations about the way to use our dreaming vision – the crepuscular hunt, as it were – as an aid to story-telling.
Programming with Intent
Amongst the neural pathways lie some that are devoted to intent. Apply these to your exploration of mental twilight, when all of the habitual shapes fade away, and hidden things begin to peek out from their burrows.
Intend to find the answer to a story-telling problem. Intend to have a character come to life and speak to you. Intend to even have discoveries about your written world appear before you unbidden. The whole, gigantic realm of your life experience lies within. Once a psychic door to that vault swings open, invite that stuff to come out and sort itself into your story. I would describe this as looking at your hands while you enter a dream. Or as it enters you.
And keep a notebook or pad and pen near to hand! (See my newsletter #3 on this topic.)
Now some of what drifts into view in that mental gloaming shall be garbage, litter, or detritus. I don’t deny that; one must expect it. But some of the stuff will appear to be truly useful gems that you can pluck out and put into fresh settings. Don’t worry about proportions of the mix, let it ramble forth as it will. For all its power, the subconscious is actually shy; it remains supremely wary of judgment. Don’t allow your consciousness to act like a punk or a prude, don’t let it impede the emergence of these living shades. You’re in bed! You’re half asleep, or better! Can you act out any of this material? No, you can’t. And you won’t. Yet… Is it not at the very least quite interesting to find out what’s there?
Death to Writer’s Block
One thing I say to my seminar attendees is that writer’s block is made out of attempting to edit even before you’ve written. In that situation, you resemble a potter who sits earnestly upon a stool, yet has somehow failed to plop a lump of wet clay upon his wheel. He can pump the treadle, spin the wheel, visualize, and wave his hands around as much as he wants, that still won’t net him a single hunk of end product.
Point is, focus on getting the raw material out of your head and scribbled down. You can always shape it later.
So folks, right there’s my main method. It’s the principal way that I have shriveled writer’s block down to an utter non-factor. I’ve become so used to formatting my brain to tell stories that now while at my desk I can lean back in my chair, enter a sort of trance, and just let stuff bubble up. Whereupon I seize upon the useful bits. Other parts of the written work come from waking research and ratiocination, of course. And hopefully all of these parts learn to play well together to advance my tale.
Are there other, smaller parts of my process? Yeah, I do swill 2-3 cups of coffee after I get up. But I haven’t sharpened all that many pencils since grammar school. My handiest tools are a cheap ballpoint and any scrap of nearby paper that I seize to jot down stuff. I don’t operate by any sort of set schedule. I think about writing all the time, even while up to my eyebrows in yard work. But my most interesting bits still crop up as I fall asleep or when I’m just about to awaken.
To summarize, your subconscious imagination is a wolf. It’s one you can never tame, so don’t even try. However, if you go quite still and quiet, you might just be able to lure it to the edge of the light of the campfire. Whereupon, you might win an electric and informative thrill. That will arrive once you manage to gaze directly into its eyes.