My Three Creative Minds
or How to Defeat Writer’s Block
Writer’s block sounds better than, “I just don’t want to!” doesn’t it? Does to me.
I have been writing since I was twelve. I used to envy people whose creative outlets had more tangible tools. A sculptor or a carpenter, or something like that, can tell when they’re doing work. Is the table getting closer to made? That’s how to tell.
For a writer, word count is SUPPOSED to serve the same purpose.
Does it, though? I’m not so sure anymore. On account of notebooks, and talking while walking, and finger painting, and research, and ranting to your loved ones and straining that love. All that messy stuff — that counts as “writing,” too. Doesn’t it? It must. I can’t write without that stuff.
In me time on this Earth, I have struggled with “writer’s block.” And in me time struggling with writer’s block, I have tried to figure out what it is. You can’t do much to fix something if you don’t know what it is.
I realized something. I have always mislabeled a lot of that messy stuff. “Writer’s block,” to me, has always occurred when it turned out that I needed to do some of that messy stuff, or when I hadn’t done enough of that messy stuff. It amounts to the same thing. I can’t write about anything if I haven’t thought and felt it out sufficiently enough. Words work best when they go with a well-formed concept. Not a perfectly formed one. Perfection is the pretense of editing. But the idea needs enough shape to be said.
Thus, writer’s block: the mislabeling of that period of abstraction when an idea is still all smoky.
I believe I have hit upon something: a method of parsing an idea and moving it from the earliest stages of an idea (when it’s an irritation) and into its final stage as a polished product (for me, usually a story, but the process might apply to other areas).
It’s a fluid process, because it’s life, and life is fluid. An idea may slide back and forth in the process as need dictates.
After a great deal of aggressive imagining (writing is a fight, after all), I have reduced it to three stages. For some years now, this has worked for me. It leaves me with headaches, but that’s because I think too hard. The process works.
Here are the stages.
The Three Creative Minds
Stage One: The Messy Mind
This is done with a notebook. Or a sketchbook. Or a voice recorder. Or a friend. Or anything that does not commit you to what you’re doing.
The idea here is to write everything you KNOW about the idea (a suggestion from Neil Gaiman). But write it with the assumption that nobody else will read it — maybe you will never even read it. Because you need, at this stage, to remove as much impediment between your idea and the page as possible. Don’t write dialog. Don’t write plot. You may not even need sentences. It’s not quite free-writing, because you’re not abstractly writing every stray thought you have. You’re strategically and purposefully exploring the space of the idea you wish to develop and bring into the world.
This process has the strange effect of nourishing the strength and the details of your idea. It gets a little flesh here.
THIS stage is the cure to writer’s block. Grab a notebook (or whatever technology you like). Write everything you know about the idea. And write it for yourself! Plan to never show this to anyone. Not because you want to hide it, necessarily. It’s not a secret. But the anxiety around trying to make things sound sensible to other people is an impediment to letting out the idea. We need to sidestep every impediment.
Keep going until you know what’s next.
Stage Two: The Mapped-out Mind
After your notebook foreplay, you’re ready to write some prose. This time, write for someone. There’s a bunch of theory about whether or not you should think of an audience while writing. I argue in favor of remembering what you like, and then remembering a few trusted voices who challenge you to be clear and pretty in your prose.
This draft may never be seen by anyone except you in the form you’re writing, but this draft gets the thought: how would someone read this? This is your prose stage.
Write prose until you start to falter. Go back to the Messy Mind. Repeat until the manuscript is done.
Stage Three: The Mystery Mind
It turns out that the words “mystery” and “mastery” are cognate. If you’re a master of your art, then you have come into possession of all your art’s mysteries. Yeah. Kind of interesting.
This is editing. Plain and simple. Cutting — adding — rearranging — more cutting. Spit and polish. Crafting the story. That’s what happens here.
The Life of the Writer
That’s it. That’s my trick. It’s working well so far. Even better now that I’ve been figuring it out on a technical level. I love figuring out the tools of the trade. It takes away a lot of the anxiety of trying to deliver cool stuff. I’m a creative person — sort of an artist — sort of an artisan. Good tools help me worry less about HOW to make my “art,” whatever art is, and allow me to concentrate on the creative part.
I’m glad to get that off my chest.
Stephen King talks about a couple things that it’s worth using to put a context around this Three Creative Minds idea.
For one thing, he talks a lot about tools. Like him or lump him, Mr. King’s career suggests he’s figured something out about this whole writing as a lifestyle choice thing. He says it’s valuable to constantly add tools to your writer’s toolbox. So here’s one, and welcome. I love encouraging the coming generation of writers (because it includes me, and I need all the encouraging I can get).
For another thing, Mr. King talks about the importance of (as he puts it) “clearing your palate” between writing projects. So after he finishes a readable draft of a book, he puts it in a drawer and doesn’t look at it for a few weeks. To aide in the palate-cleansing, Mr. King says he works on something else entirely, to completely switch gears between the projects.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not always dripping with an idea that’s well-formed enough to leap from “The End” to “Once upon a time…” in a weekend.
But I am dripping with half-figured wobbly thoughts that COULD be ideas.
Thus, the notebook, and the Messy Mind.
I hinted at what I’ve said above in another blerg. A colleague of mine, Lisa Renee, pointed out (rightly) that it sounded a lot like something written by Mary H.K. Choi. Totally valid. Won’t even argue, because it’s just a good idea.
She calls her method “sustaining a creative metabolism,” which I totally love. Here’s her version: