(Excerpt from Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity)
Experiencing Writer’s Block? Maybe you need to work harder on working less.
First published in Writer’s Digest
Perhaps the biggest mistake that writers make is thinking that they can sit down in front of a notebook or computer screen and wait for ideas to simply show up.
Nope. You’d better have some ideas before you sit down, and you’d better figure out a system for harvesting those ideas.
You can start by thinking of yourself as a satellite dish. The way that a dish receives signals is a decidedly passive activity, but nothing comes in until the equipment is properly charged and opened to the universe.
A few years ago, ensconced in one of my “brewing” modes – done with my last novel, waiting for the next to come a-knockin’ – I decided to take my dish to the beach and open ‘er up.
About a half-mile along, I noticed a friendly spark among the small rocks, and found bits of frosted glass – triangular shards worn to a gem-like smoothness by sand and wave. I remembered the fascination I felt as a child – that nature could take a piece of manmade litter and make it so beautiful. I walked a little farther, discovered another smattering, and had the following thought: What if someone became so obsessed with frosted glass that he decided to make it his life’s work?
I didn’t know it yet, but the satellite dish had just taken in an entire novel.
But not just that. It also took in the process for imagining a novel. In the following months, as I continued my beach hikes in search of frosted glass (if my character was obsessed, I had to be obsessed), I discovered an intriguing pattern. I arrived at the beach between chapters (my characters dangling in mid-air, awaiting their instructions); I left with pocketfuls of glass and my next chapter, nicely mapped out in my head.
It began to seem, in fact, that my novel was scattered along the beach, like pirate’s treasure, and all I had to do was come along and scoop it up. The real secret, however, came from my protagonist, Frosted Glass Man, as he was helping a neophyte who had lost her "glass vision."
“Let me guess,” he said. “Suddenly you can’t tell frosted glass from the Queen of England, and you’re sort of losing your place on the sand. Feeling disoriented.”
“Yeah. That about describes it.”
He grinned. “You’re trying too hard. When you begin to lose your sight, just rub the last piece you found, and listen to the ocean.”
In other words, if you subtly stimulate your other senses – in this case, tactile (the glass) and auditory (the ocean) – you can take the “edge” away from your conscious, purposive mind, return the satellite dish to a state of active passivity, and open yourself to the forces of serendipidity. And if you come to the beach for frosted glass, you’ll also get ideas for your story, slipping in along your peripheral vision.
So what makes lollygagging creative lollygagging? Let’s look at the basic elements:
Activity: We are not talking about sitting around on a couch. Just as a satellite dish needs electricity, you need some blood pumping into that brain.
Low Focus: Neither should the activity be so intense that you don’t have time to think (Grand Prix and ice hockey are out). Look for a mellow pursuit, surrounded by low-level distractions.
Separation: If you don’t hie thee away from the computer, the TV, the bills and the kid, you’re headed for a mighty wall o’ brainlock.
May We Suggest…
Mobile (because it’s hard to preoccupy a moving target): biking, hiking, kayaking, Rollerblading, a long road or train trip.
Idle Pursuits: fly-fishing, horseshoe-tossing, kite-flying, a solo game of eight-ball (loser buys), a solo game of bowling (winner buys), a session at the batting cage or driving range.
Boring Jobs (for those who simply must be productive): paint the garage, rake the leaves, pressure-wash the deck, clean out the roof gutters, mow the lawn.
Dilletanting (only effective if you try something for which you have absolutely no talent): abstract painting, composing chance music on the piano, creating monsters from modeling clay, inventing a ballet to your favorite symphony, pounding on a conga drum.
The Coffeehouse Ritual
If you’d like to take this one step further, try combining your lollygagging with your writing ritual. The Coffeehouse Ritual is a routine I’ve followed for 15 years, with excellent results (in fact, I used it to write this story).
Pick Ur Place: Locate a coffeehouse a mile or two from your home (ideally, a 30-45 minute walk).
The Walk-Up: Head off at an easy pace (no power-walking, please) and let your thoughts drift. For the first few blocks, you’ll likely be occupied by small matters of the day. Don’t worry – this is a necessary step, one that will clear out your mind for the work ahead. As you pass the halfway point, your thoughts should turn naturally to the project at hand.
Write! Buy something large and sippable, find a non-jiggling table and go to it. Note: keep your coffeehouse sacred. Be polite but not excessively friendly to baristas and regulars. If a friend drops by, tell them that you have five minutes to talk, but then you really need to get back to work. If they’re not buying it, tell them you’re on deadline.
The Walk-Down: The hike back home is often the most rewarding part of the process. Still adrift on your creative buzz, you may find that your satellite dish is more open than ever. It’s a great time to think about what you’ve just written, and to contemplate future developments.
The Lollygagging Habits of Successful Writers
Tanya Shaffer, playwright, Baby Taj
“Before I was a mama,… I would just get in the car and drive for a while and see where I ended up. Out of that came a habit of staying a few days at the Motel 6 in Petaluma.”
Mary Bracken Phillips, lyricist/playwright, The Haunting of Winchester
“I walk with my dogs (one Australian shepherd and one border collie) on the Croton Aqueduct, a real old road in the woods. And a lyric I was stuck on is suddenly there.”
Jane Hirshfield, poet, After (HarperCollins)
“When I’m actually working on a poem, I often do something I think of after the fact as ‘taking it for a walk.’ That is, once I’ve reached a certain stage of revision, I set the poem aside and go walking – but the poem often starts saying itself in my mind – often with new ideas for revisions, additions, changes.”
Photo by Janine Watson