One of the most frustrating things a writer can experience is having the mental faucet cut off. Surely you’ve experienced this scenario: you’re typing away, hot on the heels of an idea. Another idea presents itself in your mind’s eye, more appealing than what you’re currently working on. While deciding to ignore it or save it for later, you not only stymie your current progress, but that novel idea is gone. What happened?
You stopped the flow, that’s what! In this article, we’ll take a look at a number of strategies that writers can use to keep their creative juices flowing.
Ideas Are Like Smoke
Like the aforementioned scenario, there’s a temporary window where ideas present themselves like hookers in Amsterdam, then disappear behind a curtain if you’re not showing enough interest. Recognizing the fragility and expiration date of an idea should be paramount. Remember, while writing, other valid ideas will present themselves—some not even related to the task at hand.
Make Your Writing Process like Making Pepperoni
Writing should be like making sausage. It should taste delicious, but you probably don’t want to see how it’s made. Your ideas should bounce around like a pinball machine. JOT THEM DOWN!
For instance, if you had to see how I wrote this very article, you’d probably exclaim that I was a talentless hack with some borderline issues of mental stability and the attention span of a goldfish. I bounced around from heading to heading, rewrote snippets, and added fragments that would make sense to no one but me. However, the end product leads to a delicious and nutritious article like this, so go figure.
Essentially, you want to use whatever is at your disposal to finish your writing. Even partially crafted ideas are valid. The trick is to just get them into a form where you can expand upon them in the future (if necessary) or chuck them out with the discarded pig’s innards. Concentrating only on the lean meat of your ideas is only going to create more waste.
However, even those tasty strings of sausage get tossed out by the grumpy inner editor.
Outsmarting the Inner Editor
If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ve probably noticed that deep inside your subconscious lurks a chain-smoking, overweight, ever-demanding entity known as your “inner editor.” This inner editor has seen it all, done it all, and scrutinizes any idea that passes his/her greasy desk. While they may be helpful at times, striking down potentially stupid and embarrassing ideas (does the world really need a book on carrot suppositories?), when the inner editor gets a bit full of themselves, even good ideas get shot down. Worse, if the inner editor gets overworked, with too many ideas crossing their desk, they’re more likely to go on smoke break. What’s a writer to do, especially when deadlines are at stake?
This is one of the reasons why there are a large number of writers and creative types that indulge in booze and illicit substances—they allow for a temporary reprieve from self-scrutiny and unblock the flow. Of course, there’s an inevitable hangover and a fallout from these methods, but I digress.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but usually the simplest sentiments are missed: Editing is not the same as writing. Let me shout that Internet-style that just so it sticks:
EDITING IS NOT THE SAME AS WRITING!
So, why the heck are you trying to multitask when you’re writing? Let your mind free-associate around the topic you’re writing. Even while beginning this article, I didn’t even consider a “sausage” motif at all; it just plopped into my lap. Luckily, my inner editor was out to lunch.
Besides the inner editor, there’s a number of things that can stop the flow of writing. I call them “mental dams.” They stop the flow, perhaps to generate more energy for another purpose. Metaphors aside, they’re distractions that take precedence from your writing.
Distractions play a huge role in creating mental dams. It’s damn near impossible to be productive when you’re amidst the chaos of normal life. Humor me with an experiment: take whatever recording device you have and push record for about thirty seconds. Then listen back.
What did you hear? For me, I heard my neighbor’s child screaming in glee, several cars passing, the windchimes from my porch, and a large beetle hitting my window. And that was all in the first ten seconds. To be honest, I didn’t consciously pay any attention to any of these sounds while I was recording. It was only during playback that I heard the bustle of the day. Our brains struggle to filter out these extraneous noises, which creates its own type of mental fatigue. Enough mental fatigue and the Writing River runs dry. If you’re curious about the science behind distraction, I suggest you take a long look at this article.
On top of physical distractions are mental distractions. These are the concerns that have us rushing towards social media sites or email, checking our bank balance, and god knows what else. These, too, sap our creative juices until we’re left staring at the most puerile of distractions, hoping for our brain to regenerate that chutzpah to finish our assignments. Nevertheless, you must eradicate the mental dams of the day in any way you can. I use headphones and instrumental music, coupled with an uncluttered writer’s room with only blank walls. Not all situations where you write will be ideal, but cutting out the distractions can unclog the flow when everything around us and in the future seems to want to impede our progress.
Compartmentalize How You Write
As a writer, you have to think of yourself as a person that wears many hats and performs many roles. When creating an article, a chapter, or whatever assignment you’re trying to accomplish, there will be an assortment of tasks related to how it will look when it is “done.” I use “done” in quotes because, as writers, there’s always another angle we could come up with, or a more clever phrase that could lead to a new avenue of discussion. For those who’ve ever attended a dinner party, only to have you best ideas pop up as you’re leaving (“foyer humor”), you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Don’t be the dinner party guest. The reason is that you’ll spend more time chastising your writing than well… actually writing. Save the refined wit for later and don’t change your hats mid-stride. Don’t worry about format, marketing, display, the audience’s reception, and so forth. Spelling is for spellcheck, damnit! These are the tasks for an editor down the road. Remember this phrase:
“Editing: That’s what coffee is for.”
The point I’m trying to make is that as human being, we don’t tend think in a linear fashion. Therefore, we shouldn’t write in a linear fashion. Heck, I don’t even think most people even read in a linear fashion! The process of writing shouldn’t be pretty, but the end result should look as neat as something at the deli counter.