Miles of column space and endless vocal-cord waggery are regularly devoted to the actual craft of writing. All that 'sitting down, tapping at keys' stuff.
Comparatively little is ever said about the sheer volume of thought which must take place before that writing begins. Thinking time is vital for the writer and yet rarely gets discussed. It's as if brilliant ideas only spring up through the act of writing itself.
I love the fact that we're now bombarded by more information, social media, entertainment and downright choice than ever before. Anyone claiming to be bored these days frankly must have something wrong with them. Our inboxes, RSS feeds, Twitter columns and general environments are endless sources of brain stimulation. We get to do and experience way more than previous generations. It's easy to take it for granted that, for instance, we now have written conversations with people over the course of minutes via e-methods as opposed to weeks via snail-mail. Everything is increasingly compressed and we're increasingly impatient. However, these developments also threaten our opportunities to relax and think about nothing. Oh, sweet, precious nothing.
Wander down the street, attempting to dream your little dreamy dreams, and see how quickly your train of thought gets hijacked by any number of things and people. See how easily your eye gets diverted by, say, one of those flashy animated adverts at bus stops, or on the Tube. There may be clipboard-Nazis, flyer people or rain. In places like gym changing rooms, or even steam rooms, where you might reasonably hope to switch your brain to neutral and see what it naturally serves up, there's often that socially inappropriate character who wants a conversation. Annoying reminders of everyday chores might pop up to plague you. And even if none of those things happen, someone's bound to text or call that magical metal rectangle in your pocket.
Unless we're careful, our brains may never get a chance to work from a blank slate. If our minds are whiteboards, they spend a great deal of time every day being scrawled on by other people. The subconscious mind tends to be good at solving problems, and occasionally at creating new ideas, even while we're asleep, yet it's important to force the issue and make time to think. Actually schedule it. Prioritise it. Confiscate everyone else's marker pens, grab a yellow duster and scrub that mental whiteboard clean. Embrace the blankness.
If we're thinking alone, even while defacing our non-metaphorical whiteboard and/or notepad, we need to overcome the nagging feeling that we're not doing real work. Of course we are. Ideas are king. Sure, the execution arguably matters most - which is part of the reason why you can't copyright an idea, only its realisation - but without that genius concept in the first place, there's no seed to nurture into a delightful bloom. A great idea should never be underestimated because it came to you in the space of ten seconds. Probably best for us writers to drop all thoughts of being paid by the hour.
While some people genuinely don't understand writers' thinking-sessions, I'll wager that others understand only too well. And they may envy us. We get to sit in cafes, libraries or pub beer gardens for hours on end - ideally not drinking booze, admittedly, unless you're one of those characters who works best with a loosened brain - and come up with notions while using nothing for reference except The Stuff In Our Brains. Along the way, when we settle on a project, sure, we'll do a little research, or maybe even a great deal. But we get to sit there, creating stuff from scratch as our neurons pinwheel about - an action which is entirely invisible.
No wonder writing tends to be such a solitary occupation: all that thinking naturally makes it an internalised task, even before we glue ourselves to a desk-chair and do the actual writing (just then, instead of "the actual writing", I very nearly wrote "the real hard graft of writing". Proves how easy it is to forget just how much heavy-lifting is done by the brain alone, even when you're writing a blogpost about it). Right there at the start of the process, it's just us: our minds, our notepads, our Post-It notes on the wall, our whiteboards, our Evernote accounts, our text documents entitled Loose Ideas. It's initially all very personal and shielded from the outside world - a world which we must then work out how best to excite with our big ideas.
"The sheer amount of thinking you have to do, to make this work!" he exclaimed. "When I read scripts that are bad, it’s often because they’re just lazy. The writer hasn’t thought things through in the way that I would. There was a quote from John Cleese, around the time he was ruling the world with Fawlty Towers: 'If I’m any good at writing comedy, it’s because I know how hard it’s supposed to be.' And that’s it. It’s shockingly difficult and emotionally upsetting!”
Need further proof of how well the brain responds when temporarily removed from external interference? Go on holiday and force yourself to think about very little. See how those new story ideas gather like moths to a flame.
So modern life's intensity is a thing of wonder, but also threatens to erode those special times when we get to rejoice in stirring that big, utterly unique cauldron inside our heads. Fight for your time to think, without the slightest hint of shame. Book yourself a whole string of psychological working holidays.
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