Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Tom Bentley
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Thus one of the first things to do is get your first paragraph written, no matter if it's for a 500-page novel or a 500-word blog post. A lead paragraph (or perhaps even a paragraph deep within the belly of the beast) can lead to a second, and a giddy third. I have seen repeatedly that a spark can touch off a fire. But there are things that can lead up to that lead, a setting of the writing table, a kind gesture to welcome the Muse in, a curt gesture to escort the idealess bum in the hammock out.
The external things that seem to help for me are exercising, reading something that's greatly unlike what I'm trying to write (perhaps sewing-pattern books), or doing something that's mindless but physical, like rearranging my nun puppets. Exercising is really a good one for me: I get full sentences that honestly just jump into my head, particularly when I'm bike riding, so the sentences do get bounced around a bit before they get home.
The freelancer can choose from a mere umpty-trillion unusual Internet suggestions on how to stay healthy while working at home: wear Yoga Toes on your hands, drink smoothies made of blended artichoke hearts and pages from pocket dictionaries, only drink coffee from those famed beans that have been pooped out by civet cats. (Anybody ever try those? Still married?) And of course there are suggestions from the minds of middlebrow moderates, advocates of the standard soporific: eat sensibly and get good exercise.
Bottle the Lightning: Exercise for the Creative Spark
But neither the fringe nor the fair-to-middlings catch the bottled lightning of exercising for the creative spark. I'm not talking about how 10 downward dogs a day might keep you in good enough shape to type another 200 words on your to-do list for 2016. I'm talking about how exercising can open your skull so that ideas pour directly in, and what was a stone soup becomes nourishment for your noodle, and spicily stirred.
Here's my recipe: have a writing problem. As a writer, you have writing problems. If you're a home-based knitter, you have knitting problems. If you're a coder, you have coding problems. The world is cruel that way. So, my writing problems are often of this nature: There are no words to say what I have to say. I'm doomed! (Cue sound of grown man bleating like a wounded lamb.) Here's a typical situation from a few months back: I had no angle on a magazine article I was writing, because the base material was abstruse, and I couldn't find a way in. The second was that I was stuck in a scene of the novel I was writing, and it was a scene needful of a narrative explosion.
I took my standard approach to solving this problem: I found some dust on the rear of my monitor, and I blew it off. I went in the house and ate a handful of peanuts. I checked Google News to see if Ted Cruz was advocating arming grandmothers with hand grenades so they are safe while shopping. Surprisingly, my writing problems weren't solved. But then I did something that has worked so many times before, and because I have banana peels where rational thought should be, something I always forget: I went bicycling.
But I didn't go bicycling to furiously pedal while I furiously considered my writing problem. You see, I'd already done that while I was working with dust, peanuts and Ted's grenades. Professorial braniacs have discovered that when you prime the pump of the mind, putting some pressure on that extraordinary neuronal glob within your noggin, it will seem to work out the primed problems on its own, without your direct intervention. In fact, in my case, it's always better to stay out of the way.
Cut to bike -- while I moved merrily along the Santa Cruz coast, thinking that it's so wonderful how climate change had me in shorts and a t-shirt that February afternoon and wondering if that means the next Ice Age will start in June, my brain sent me an instant message: problems solved. In succession, I heard in my brain the full, word-for-word title of the magazine article I wanted to write, and that title gave me the angle into the material. Next, the solution to my slagging scene in the novel, complete with several phrases I could use verbatim and a full sentence that set the scene's full stage. Business-writing problem solved, pleasure-writing problem solved. And I did not crash the bike.
But I did marvel. It occurred to me again, duh, that if you have your clammy hands around the neck of your mind while trying to extract a concept confession, relaxing your hands will let the confession come out. This has happened to me many, many times, often while biking, sometimes while hiking, and once in a while picking nits off of the floor. (Note: you can buy bags of nits at the Nit Store if you don't have any around the house.) Maybe you can do it golfing, shooting skeet, or popping your head back and forth over the neighbor's fence to see if there's any sunbathing going on.
So, whatever the cognitive mechanism by which this works, it does work. So whether you are avidly exercising so that you'll be a bite of buff cake for your sweetheart, or you find the whole notion of working up a sweat too much work, consider that it's actually a way to receive useful gifts from the cosmos. The cosmos is a giver of gifts -- just move into a position to catch them.
Grab That Fluttering Idea (But Don't Strangle It)
Following that thought: grab the idea while it flutters, because it will only be loose feathers when you come back to it later. If you get a sentence in your mind without writing tools available, keep writing it in your mind. Not only will the idea be refined, but it will stick long enough to remember it, or at least its essence. This is the method I most often practice on the bike.
It's worth noting that during periods that seem the most frustrating, when you're PLEADING with your brain to muster up something your character needs to say, and all you get is the stone wall of silence, what you need to do is relax: that often results in the sought-after medal. So often I've looked at the mute letters of my keyboard, given up and gone on to make a sandwich, and while spreading the mustard, I hear the "pop" in my head. Ideas need to incubate, to fledge, dear little birds that they are.
You could also keep one of those small digital recorders close at hand, if mental notes turn to mist for you. And of course, the old reporter's notepad is a mainstay -- I just used one on a recent travel assignment for the LA Times and though my scrawled notes while hiking up at Pinnacles National Park were more twisty than the trails, I was still able to salvage some copy out of my cacography. (My camera does have a function to record audio notes with every photograph, but I always forget to use it.)
A 90-Proof Shot of Inspiration
But truly, if you can empty the glass right when inspiration pours you a shot, do it. Too often I've tossed and turned over an article idea at night, come up with an angel-winged solution there in bed, and then not written it down. Angel wings turned to broken bones overnight -- the actual words, which for me are the batteries of the idea, are often lost. I always get up and write ideas now, even if Morpheus is pulling me back down. Let your great ideas get thrown into the pit of dreams, and they will emerge as dead skin and dross.
I'll leave with the biggest way to chip that monolithic writer's block: a slice at a time. Particularly for a long-distance swim like a novel, it's easy to think you'd never get 400 pages down, and thus, it's easy to quit. But giving yourself a narrow, easily achievable goal -- writing 15 minutes a day -- and that Atlantic swim becomes a few breast strokes through the pool. You might have so much fun in your 15 minutes, you could even go for 20. Oceans are crossed by the steady swimmers.
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.
Tom Bentley is a business writer and editor, fiction writer, and essayist. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces -- ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects -- in newspapers, magazines, and online. (Venues include Forbes, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Writer's Market, Writer's Digest, Sailing Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Wired, The San Francisco Chronicle and many others.) His new book, Think Like a Writer: How To Write the Stories You See is now available at Amazon. Visit his website at http://www.tombentley.com