Fight For Your Right To Think

Hello darling!  Pull up a chair, because I've been doing some thinking about thinking.

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.

So we must ignore those nagging feelings, which undervalue what we're doing.  Because Christ only knows, hardly anyone else is going to understand this 'sitting around thinking' business.  To other people, a writer sitting around thinking - especially if he or she happens to be in a pub - is a work-shy daydreamer, who has been irritatingly successful in finding an excuse to do nothing.  It just looks like a person lounging around doing sod all while others demonstrably toil with the aid of corporeal items like heavy machinery or spreadsheets.  Others probably imagine us sitting there with Homer Simpson-esque thought bubbles suspended above our heads, in which skeletal cows merrily play fiddles.

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.

It's not for nothing that current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat prefers not to tell anyone about his ideas until he's writing them - the reactions of others, even if it's a qualified enthusiasm, can blow some of the magic dust away.  "It's so important," he told me in an interview for Doctor Who Magazine in 2008, "the magic of Not Telling Anyone Yet.  I know Russell [T Davies] thinks that way too – he won’t tell anybody what he’s doing. Because it turns to ashes in your mouth. It almost becomes ordinary.”

"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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Michele said...

Thanks for such a thought provoking post. I find listening to classical music on a pocket radio - and having the mobile switched off - helps a good deal in giving me space to think when I'm out and about.

Anonymous said...

How very true, thankyou for this, it's something I'm going thru at the moment - thinking about something, furiously scribbling notes and hoping all of it doesn't turn to ash. Nice to know it's not just me.

Pete Darby said...

I think it was Neil Gaiman who recently said something along the lines that people who don't write think writing is easy; writing something good is hard, but realising that it's SUPPOSED to be hard makes it easier to deal with.

At the very least, it helps reduce the "I'm crap, because Neil / Stephen / Russel / Jason* never stuggles like this" paranoia.

*God I'm a crawler.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Corking stuff Mr A. Thoroughly enjoyable and all too true. I used to have a job that required lots of creativity and an insecure boss who, if he saw me doing nothing assumed I was doing nothing. Yet sitting there thinking things through was the most important part of my job.


Sally A said...

I so couldn't agree more with this post Jason. I constantly say in meetings that thinking time is the most precious thing you can give to a writing project. I ALWAYS find that ideas come when I'm not looking at a screen - generally when I've fooled my brain into thinking it's doing something else (like watching Junior Apprentice or picking the kids up).

I've just booked a two week holiday - a big deal for me -the longest time I've ever been away. I'm even putting all scripts out of the way beforehand so I do NOTHING directly linked to writing. But I know that what it'll give me is that space to create and generate new ideas and just allow me to *live* for 2 weeks instead of being chained to a laptop.

Great post sir, as ever.


William Gallagher said...

Bugger. A completely convincing reason to go on holiday. I hate you.

Nicely argued, couldn't quibble a syllable, yet I carry the guilty of a thousand days when I'm doing nothing but thinking

I must fight this.

Grief. You're actually being inspiring here. I'll never talk to you again.

Paintices said...

great blog, I hope one day mine will be a little good like that hahaha

Rebecca Brown said...

Wow this was a really important post that I now need to RT on Twitter around all my friends & family.

Thinking time is totally under-rated and shoved to the bottom of the pile, but you are so right about how important it is and what hard work it is.

Thanks very much for this.

Eleanor said...

You're right. This is probably the most important part of the process, and yet it is never really discussed.

Jes said...

Great and true. Thankfully I have a mind-deadening job which means a lot of my thinking gets done while it looks like I'm working at doing something else. I'm getting better too at making time to just sit and do nothing, watch the magpies playing on the roof opposite. You could call it zen, but I call it writing.

Alexander Gordon Jahans said...

A few days ago I would have agreed about how thinking is important but added that my style was to ingest a load of fiction then vent the creative energy into a story. Something which is broadly speaking still true but I had this most profound revelation on the Friday, I had accidentally arrived 2 hours early for a pub crawl and the vast majority of that was spent reading Any Human Heart until I gave up and sat in silence, Within minutes I'd broken the back of the story.

Andreas L said...

It actually also applies well to science. I had once spent pretty much all day working on an calculation, but got stuck the same place every time. And the solution just came to me from nowhere on the walk home from the train.