Quieting the writing demons

It’s easy to let a project get out of control. It’s easy to let a project take control. You have an idea, sketch out a few rough characters or main points, some plot ideas or evidence you want to include, an outline maybe, and before you know it you’re consumed. Your mind wraps around your story or paper, envelopes it. You’re folding the laundry and find yourself thinking about what you’ll type next, you’re taking a shower and realize this is the third washing of your hair but now you’ve really nailed that sentence, you’re walking home from work and are lucky not to have been hit by that car—what’s he doing driving like that anyway? You were right in the middle of the road where you’re supposed to…Oh, sorry buddy.

In many ways this is natural. One of the main reasons we’ve been so successful as a species is that our brains have evolved to be hardwired for planning. The default setting for our minds is to be actively engaged in processing sensory input on a subconscious level and to be involved in short and long-term planning on a conscious level. The majority of our reactions to the world around us are just that—reactions. They are unplanned and automatic. Just like our default ‘fight or flight’ response to danger, most of what we do during the day physically is default in nature. For example, you bump your head on an open cabinet and strike it in anger. How does that possibly affect the cabinet? How are you protecting yourself from further damage by attacking it? You’re not, of course, it’s an inanimate object and remains in the position it’s placed. The reaction is interesting though because from a biological standpoint you can see how it could be advantageous. That chimp landed on your head while you slept yesterday, but after you lashed out at him he’s far less likely to make that mistake again.

The flip side of this coin is our responses. These are determined actions that have been thought about and decided on, and these of course require planning. They also require taking a step back and hence aren’t automatic like our reactions are. This is where our planning nature comes in and this is where we really shine as a species. By having the ability to plan we were able to work out problems like unstable supplies of resources, conflict within our group and with outside groups, food management and adjusting to the seasons. It has been such a powerful tool for us that our brains developed to make the process as automatic as our unplanned reactions. If you think about your mental life, I’m sure you’ll realize just what a large part of it planning is.

To my mind, however, this tendency can have major disadvantages. When you allow your mind to be consumed with planning, and it is so easy to fall into this when writing, you are no longer actively living your life as it happens—you’re living your life as you think it will happen. This of course takes you out of the moment and constantly creates expectations for the future, expectations that may well not pan out. Sure, you can of course type what you had planned to, but as all writers know that is no guarantee that your story will turn out the way you thought it would. And what’s worse, you and your loved ones have missed out on some great times in the present because your mind is always somewhere else. It’s like pretending to listen to your spouse but actually daydreaming. We all do that, but how fair is that to your spouse? How fair is it to yourself?

I’m sure many will disagree with me here, but I find it important to take time out when working on a project, to go for a long walk and focus on what’s around me, to make a concerted effort to keep my mind on what I’m doing rather than let it wander to my next paragraph. When speaking with someone, no matter how boring I may find the topic, I make a double effort to focus on the fact that we are speaking and that what the person is saying is important to them. And if I start to feel that what they’re saying isn’t important to me, I try to make it so by putting myself in their shoes. A lot of effort, certainly, but worth it I think to keep my mind keen and to keep my life from becoming obsessed by what I’m creating.

Next week, Paul j Rogers looks at reading as a writer.

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One Comment

  1. Paul
    Posted April 17, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Yep, writing certainly encroaches on living a life. Lost in thought whilst eating dinner; no enthusiasm to do much other than write and then, reluctantly, stuff that HAS to be done in the real world. Taking breaks between projects is essential for me. Months off to recharge the batteries. Time off is a good time to be reading fiction, too.

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