Writing is Not Writing

I’ve been thinking about my writing process. During the summer months I’m able to devote my days to writing, and the story I’m working on often takes over my world. But in the autumn months, vocational demands impinge on the days, even hours, I can devote to writing. So how do I make the most of the fecund summer months? And what do I do during the withering months between summer and spring?

The hard work of writing, putting down words, is essential. I call it hard work, because for me it often is. Sometimes it seems the hardest work of all. I’d rather be doing anything than write—dishes, house cleaning, running errands, my day job, anything. But I have to stay in the seat with my fingers on the keyboard for hours. There’s no other way.

However, I also know I have to get distracted. If I don’t get distracted, nothing comes: no words, no ideas, nothing. If I sit at the computer all morning, three or four hours, then eventually the words will trickle through, but too slowly to create a story. There needs to be a flow that can’t be forced.

So writing in the summer months is about balancing distraction with production. There are many new books on learning that reference cognitive research into the important role of distraction in learning and creativity. How We Learn by Benedict Carey describes that balance in a chapter called, “The Upside of Distraction”, citing psychological research on the role of incubation in problem solving. According to a meta-analysis of the research, breaks with mild activity, such as video games, TV, and surfing the web, are optimal for solving linguistic problems.

Anagrams and crossword puzzles are a different order of linguistic problem compared to writing, but the research jibes with my own experience. For example, to write this blog I went through several drafts, beginning with a free write. After jotting down my ideas about summer writing, I took a break. I went for a walk, made some lunch. Then I returned and made an outline that included references to Carey’s book.

The timing of the break is crucial in obtaining the most benefit. For incubation to occur, I have to get stuck, which means I have to be gripped by what I’m writing. That takes time in the seat, usually an hour or two. Stopping just when I’m engaged creates something called the Zeigarnik effect, named after a Lithuanian researcher who found that people remembered more when interrupted during a task than when they completed the task.

Beginning a piece of writing but stopping before I’ve finished prioritizes the writing in my mind, which colors my perceptions and experiences. The story takes over my world. My mind becomes inclined to make connections relevant to the interrupted writing. Sometimes these connections are major insights, but other times they are small but interesting: an overheard turn of phrase or an observed character trait.

Another strategy I employ in my writing process is described in A Mind For Numbers by Barbara Oakley. The book is geared toward applications to learning math and science, but the strategies Oakley recommends is based on the same research as many of the new cognitive learning books. She explains the difference between focused thinking and diffused thinking. Oakley recommends setting a timer for twenty-five minutes and focusing on a particular problem. When the twenty-five minutes is up, stop and take a reward.

I will set a timer for an hour when I sit down to write. Sometimes I place a piece of chocolate on the table and tell myself I have one hour of writing before I can have it. If the hour goes by without much writing, I’ll set it for another hour (but still eat the chocolate, of course.) If the words are flowing and the timer goes off, I stop. I do something else. I watch Netflix. Or I play on the computer. Forty-five minutes or an hour later, I set the timer and sit back down to write again. The words usually come easier by this time, even if I don’t have a chocolate waiting for me. There is a flow.

I’ve gotten pretty good at writing by not writing during the summer months when I have time to sit down to write and time for walks and web surfing. But other times, when I’m busier and lazier, I don’t write by not writing, I just don’t write. In my next blog post, I’m going to write about what I do during the times when I’m not just distracted but stuck, completely blocked.

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