Sunday, October 18, 2009

The writing process: taming your inner two-year-old

Peg Boyle Single on daily writing at Inside Higher Ed:
Motivation in writing comes from prewriting, prewriting, prewriting. Motivation occurs when you have done the necessary planning steps so that when you sit down to write prose, you have had time to subconsciously play around with the ideas and you only have to retrieve and type down the ideas, not to think them up. Motivation occurs when you have a very detailed long outline, filled in with citeable notes, by your desk that guides your writing. The citeable notes are short phrases (written in your own words) that remind you to insert the appropriate references into a particular section.
This is excellent advice, as it is every time we hear it. (Single freely admits that Boice et al. give some of the same advice). She also recommends that you not write more than 4 hours a day and claims that this will lead to an enjoyment of the writing process.

Here's why I brought up the inner two-year-old. You can make a two-year-old sit in a chair, just as you can make a writer sit in a chair. You can give her a book or something to play with, just as you can sit there with a blank computer screen and no internet. You can even do the old parental "false choice": "Do you want The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Avocado Baby"? Chances are, she'll fall for one or the other. But on some days, she won't. What you can't do all the time is control her thoughts. I submit that your brain is--or can be--that inner two-year-old.

Maybe Brain accomplishes a lot when you're sitting in your enforced writing chair. Maybe you get a lot done most of the time. But sometimes, Brain decides not to kick in then and has a delayed reaction.

Example: Say you've followed Single's/Boice's/Sylva's advice and have sat at your desk despite little productivity that day. You ignore the recommendation letters waiting to be written, the papers waiting to be graded, the class prep--everything. You get in the car (and you're already behind and anxious about it, because you haven't reread the work or graded the papers that are due back to students because of the sacred writing time) and start your 45-minute commute to campus.

Suddenly, your brain comes to life. Ideas are washing over you; it's a Flannery O'Connor epiphany and no mistake. "I've got to write this down," you think--except that you can't. You get to campus and go straight into class. Seven hours later, after you've taught, gone to meetings, and met with students, you have a dim recollection of something transformative that occurred to you this morning, but everything isn't there.

That's why I'm wondering this: can the repetitive action of sitting down to write tame the mischievous two-year-old that is your brain?

And a less frivolous question: does it work to force yourself sit joyfully at the writing desk in the morning if you have a full day ahead of you and a recalcitrant brain?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, Undine: I'll read that article, and it's the advice that I always give (just did last week) to my writing students as ONE (of many) strategies to attempt to fight writer's block, or the angel on your shoulder or the mice in the jar--name your metaphor.

But, if the inner two year old is awake, cranky, hungry, poopy, or even giggly, the gig is up for me and I give it up and take a walk or a run.

But tell that to those writers (such as the indefatigable Joyce Carol Oates) who claim to sit at their desks from 8am until mid afternoon, and then again after dinner, writing.

Needham's Corner said...

I recommend you carry a voice recorder for those commuting moments. Or, call your house or office and leave yourself a voicemail with your ideas. You'll thank yourself later!

Anonymous said...

Interesting article Undine, thanks for the link.

I suspect that in my own case that two year old has a name that starts with P ... as in procrastination!

Oddly enough, the author of the book I'm currently reading (A State of Mind: Kevin Casey)had a thirty year writer's block. The theme of his book is about a writer who's suffering from writer's block! So at least he got a book (and good reviews) from his 'block' ...

undine said...

The mice in the jar, Annieem? I don't think I've ever heard that one. I wish JCO would bottle her energy and sell it. It'd outsell Red Bull in a heartbeat.

Needham's Corner--that's a great suggestion! I have a voice recorder somewhere, a small one.

Anonymous--thirty years of writer's block? Yikes!

Anonymous said...

Ah yes indeed! But what about Henry Roth (Call it Sleep: 1934)who suffered from writer's block for sixty years?

I also think the idea of recording your thoughts on the spot is a great one!

undine said...

Anonymous, anyone who can write Call It Sleep deserves to take 60 years off! Still, I think of him, of Dashiell Hammett, and of others who were stuck or simply refused to follow up on a phenomenal success (Harper Lee, anyone?).

Anonymous said...

Single is right. SO right. Good post.

And the writing advice I've always gotten, not to pre think or pre write but just write, and to do it faster, is wrong. That advice is always given so as to claim that unrealistic deadlines can be realistic if one doesn't "procrastinate."

Also wrong, of course, is the opposite writing advice I've always gotten, namely to prewrite MORE when have no need to do so.

I think the solution for those blank screen writing time moments is to allow the writing to be prewriting, or to allow it to be reading so you can prewrite.

I also think one has to give up when it is impossible. That is why I don't assign myself four hour blocs of writing time: 2.5 is my number, which means that if after .5 nothing is happening and I am antsy, I can move my schedule around and put in the 2 later.

Although the recording / phone call are also good ideas.

undine said...

profacero, I like the idea that you can break up the 2.5 block if you're antsy. Also, I think this is really true: "I think the solution for those blank screen writing time moments is to allow the writing to be prewriting, or to allow it to be reading so you can prewrite."