Whether you’re an aspiring or accomplished writer, you’ve likely had moments (or years at a time) when you’ve worried that you just didn’t have what it takes. I certainly have. I’m a very methodical and analytic person, and for a long time, I thought that these personality traits might prevent me from ever producing a compelling piece of creative writing. For a while, I was a professor of philosophy–a pretty good gig and in many ways well suited to my personality–but even as I enjoyed the steady income and impressive healthcare benefits, I worried that the analytical skills I was honing in my academic career were working against me in my literary endeavors. After all, the skills needed to write a successful academic paper are not the same as those needed to write a great memoir. Can you even imagine how terrible a memoir would be written in academic prose? “In this memoir, I will describe the four childhood events that were most critical to my self-development, as well as provide, at appropriate points, synopses of secondary events often removed in time from the primary narrative chronology in order to illustrate the salient psychological characteristics of myself and other relevant persons.” Not exactly a page-turner.
My memoir writing was fortunately never quite that bad. But it was often flat and overly explanatory. I suppose my grad-school professors would have been pleased to learn that I so thoroughly absorbed their writing mantra–“Say what you’re going to do. Do it. Then tell us what you just did.”–but I certainly wasn’t. It has taken me a long time to unlearn the habits of academic writing, and I’m still not completely free of them. I still find myself writing sentences the size of paragraphs, with an unwieldy number of subordinate clauses. And I still have to resist the temptation to add footnotes.
But the most difficult habit to overcome has been the tendency to analyze the writing process as I’m engaged in it. I find myself perpetually trying to make the process of creativity more logical and linear–and efficient. It bothers me to no end that I have to write six different drafts of a memoir before I find one that works. And every time I begin a new project, I’m convinced that, if I just think a little harder before I put pen to paper or finger to key, I’ll be able to save myself all those false starts. Except it doesn’t work that way. In fact, experience is finally teaching me that thinking harder is just about the least efficient way to write literature.
Of course, being the analytic person I am, I have to figure out why this is the case. And the philosopher in me hasn’t been long in coming up with a theory. In academic writing, when one sits down to write a paper, one has a fairly straightforward goal: to communicate a particular idea or set of ideas as clearly as possible. One can easily write an outline of points to be covered and then proceed to elaborate on each of them in turn. When one sits down to write a piece of literature, however, one rarely has more than a strong hunch as to what one wants to communicate. The process of writing is a process of uncovering one’s goal. It’s a process of following scent trails and ambiguous deer paths through the overgrown forest of the unconscious. It’s about gut feelings, images and analogies that spring from nowhere, and sudden insights that completely change one’s view of the subject matter, sometimes just as one is crossing the final ‘t’ or dotting the final ‘i’. And thinking harder tends to make all these things disappear.
The job of the writer’s conscious mind is thus not to think harder but to find the best way to promote the work of the unconscious. It can do this in various ways. Figuring out how to acquire a freshly brewed cup of coffee, for instance, never hurts. But I believe the most important thing for the conscious mind to do is relax. The easiest way to chase away inspiration is to be stressed–to be worried about efficiency, or about whether a particular word is really in the right place or whether that word should be used at all. Think about it this way: the more choppy the waves on the surface of the sea, the harder it is to make out what’s going on in its depths. But when the surface of the sea is calm, one can detect even the tiniest burbles rising from below. When the conscious mind is relaxed and comfortable, creativity flows freely to the surface.
I’ve finally determined, after much trial and error, that the best thing I can consciously do to promote good writing is to make sure that, when I’m sitting down to write, I’m happy, comfortable, and having fun. For me, it’s primarily an attitude thing. I have to tell the ruthless taskmaster to take the morning off. I have to tell myself that I’m not compelled to produce anything usable this morning, and certainly not anything publishable. I’m just sitting down at my computer to play around. To see what happens.
And it’s amazing what does happen in this state of receptiveness. Connections I never considered leap out at me. I stumble on a turn of phrase that’s so exactly descriptive that it brings me to laughter or tears. Pretty soon, I don’t have to think about promoting an attitude of playfulness. The fun becomes self-perpetuating. Then, even the coffee is superfluous.
This is not to say that an analytical eye is never useful in writing. In the later stages of revision, and certainly when it comes to editing, ruthless attention to detail is a necessity. At that point, one can’t be satisfied with hunches. One has to see them fleshed out. Has to see all the pieces carefully interlocking. And there is a time to struggle over finding exactly the right word. But even then, I think, we should be careful not to lose the playful spirit. Often the difference between a good piece of writing and a great one is that, with the latter, the writer decided to keep playing just a little bit longer.