Many of my life’s epiphanies happen when I’m busy doing something other than looking for the meaning of life. Showering, cooking, driving, jogging. Things that require a bit of attention but not total focus. In fact, I’ve had so many personal epiphanies while hiking and folding laundry that I’ve become curious about it. Why is a little distraction good for insight?
My best guess is that activity quiets the mind – that conscious, thinking part of the mind that is usually humming like an air conditioner through our every waking moment (I’m talking here about executive function in the prefrontal cortex for you science nerds). For example, if I’m busy chopping carrots, I suspect that my brain hands over more control to the motor control regions of my brain and less to the self-conscious, idea editing part of my brain. While I’m still free to think, it’s likely to be a little less structured, a little more freeform. Like a child on the beach, rambling around in the sand, looking at all the foamy surf, the pretty stones and seashells, the smashed bits of crab. There’s no agenda here, except to keep rambling.
In this way, distracted thinking is a bit like meditation. A regular sitting practice not only enhances one’s powers of concentration, but focusing on the breath for long periods frees other regions of the brain to rest and loosen up. In other words, to get quiet.
A 2012 study from the University of Leiden revealed that meditation can positively affect two key components of creativity: divergent thinking (which generates new ideas, like the kid finding trinkets on the beach) and convergent thinking (which figures out how to use those ideas, like the kid realizing that sea glass might make awesome jewellery). Put these two kinds of thinking together and you end up with novels, lightbulbs, antibiotics, and iPhones.
Last week the amazing Danika Dinsmore invited me to participate in a “blog hop.” After much consideration (.00257 seconds), I said, “Abso*****lutely! What’s a blog hop?”
A blog hop, it turns out, is a themed pass-it-along blog post. The theme for this one is Writing Process and, specifically, these three questions:
Well, gird your loins folks because here are my fascinating and informative answers.
It was a very long Monday this week. I’d been out of town for four days and had come home to a mess of work and household chores. By the time I had supper in the oven and the kids practicing their instruments, I was ready to either a) go to bed, b) get drunk, c) collapse where I was or, d) get drunk. Then I remembered I had some texts I needed to send. Sigh. The idea of coordinating my stubby thumbs with my “smart”phone was exhausting (no, my name is not Chaos Rink Jones). But then I remembered the handy voice dictation feature. Just push the microphone icon and start talking.
I prattled on, composing my thoughts while trying to remember to say “comma” and “period.” After a while I paused to see how my techretary had done. The results were spectacular. If spectacular means not even remotely close. Evidently, my hand had been over the microphone.
I was quickly getting annoyed but as I continued to read the phone’s version of what I’d said, I began laughing. This was fantastic. It was like a whole new language had been invented! Some some sentences were so comprehensively mangled I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to say. “You drunk the help of my long gone stone they have a min interval on a police vehicle thinking of us.”
Another sentence read “Lead skating listen to him so then be on a date for the bold bold for the outlets what is going to be for that is good please put it in a can.”
I most certainly will put it in a can.
I might even put it on a t-shirt.
My daughter plays in the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra and during her rehearsals I usually pass the time at a cafe, downing cappuccinos and writing. I was there last Saturday, sipping my coffee drink and munching on my gluten-free, low-carb snack bar (holy crap I sound like a Yuppie) thinking about how to add more pain and conflict to a character’s life.
No, I’m not a sadist, I just saw that the short story I was working on wasn’t as compelling as it could be. The general rule in fiction is that every story must have at least one character and that character must be in conflict. Or to put it another way, storytelling describes what someone wants and how they get it (or don’t). The more obstacles and conflicts, the more squeaky bum angst, the more compelling the reading.
But as I sat there in my very distressed Windsor bow back chair, I wondered why all fiction demands conflict. Why couldn’t fiction just be a bunch of things that happen? Are real human lives full of conflict and drama? Well, yes. And no. It occurred to me that what stories need is not conflict per se, but rather a sense of progression, of overcoming some obstacle to reach a new goal. It’s that sense of progress that makes us turn the page, and gives the story a point.
John Gardner liked to use the term “profluence”. It’s a writing-geek word that refers a story’s flow. When a story has profluence, readers feel that the narrative is leading somewhere, and so they keep turning the pages. The feeling of achieving something is deeply satisfying.
Conversely, when a story doesn’t have profluence, when one scene doesn’t seem to connect to the next, when events feel random and the character just a bystander, readers are likely to close the book and say something nasty on Twitter.
All fine and well. So my story needed more profluence. But as I sat on that hard wooden chair, now succumbing to gluteal myalgia, I began to ponder whether profluence, so critical in fiction, isn’t also critical in life? I mean, we all have desires – it’s part of the human condition – but aren’t we happiest when we’re clear about our desires and are taking action to realize them? In fiction, a reader must understand what a character wants, either in the moment or in life. But how often do I really know what I want from life?
Building on the theme of my previous post, just getting out of your own way so the ideas can flow is one of the most important tasks facing an artist of any kind. There are countless books on the mystery of creativity (two of my faves are The Artist’s Way and Flow). But last August I tried something different: I participated in the 3:15 Experiment. Begun in 1993, participants, for the entire month of August, wake up at 3:15 am, grab a pen and paper, and write. As it turned out, the waking up part was easy (I’m usually engaged in mental blood sport at 3:15 am anyway). The really hard part was just letting myself write. I froze.
The idea behind the Experiment is that at 3:15 am your dreaming mind will be doing its thing (putting ducks in marching bands, sending you to parties with long-dead relatives, getting naked with an appalling assortment of people, and so on) while your asshole critical mind will still be off duty. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen the first couple of nights. Instead, I recall sitting on the bathmat with the icy tub against my back, shivering and trying to come up with something to put on the page. Oh god, just anything.
Except that’s not really what I was doing. What I was actually doing was trying to come up with a concept that I could write about: how nighttime noises might be metaphors for daytime fears, how a bed might actually be a ship we sail to new worlds, blah, blah, blah. Exactly the kind of high-level thinking work that is next to impossible at 3:15 am. After a couple of confidence blighting nights, I hit on the idea of just writing down whatever floated into my brain-space: images, fears, phrases, anything. Really anything: doggy sleep placemat sky belch. It worked – mostly because I stopped caring so much. I was writing down instead of writing about. Things didn’t have to make sense, or come to a tidy conclusion, or demonstrate my ear for rhythm, my vocabulary, etc. I was just plucking images from the cloudy soup of my 3 am brain.
By the end of the month I felt a stronger connection to that dreamy, random idea generator. And I had the confidence to just write stuff down, because every once in a while something really interesting would show up. Also, the discipline of getting up to write every single night for a month meant that part of my daytime brain was thinking ahead: Hey that limping dog is really sad, you should put that image in a poem. Which word is funnier: scrotum or proboscis? From a distance, those rocks looks alive… perhaps our goals are like that.
A collection of 3:15 poetry was published a few years back (including work by the fabulous Danika Dinsmore!) and there’s even a website where participants can upload their works. I’m posting a sample poem or two above, not because I think they’re affecting, finely wrought masterpieces, but because they captured something of my hypnogogic creative brain. And they remind me how effortless writing can be if I just let go.
On days when I’m feeling blunt, I need only look to my kids for reminders of what creativity looks like. Ask my daughter to tell you a story about a lonely shoe, for example, and she’ll say:
Once there was a lonely shoe named Bobby who lived in the forest where everyone else had evacuated from a fire years before and they never came back. Now Bobby lived under a tree in the ground and he spent his days hunting for blueberries because there were a lot of blueberry bushes in that forest. But one day he found a blueberry that kept rolling away from him. He picked it off the bush and it hopped out of his bag and rolled away. And then he found it and it hopped out of his hand and it rolled away. So Bobby followed it home and found his den. Bobby soon learned that the blueberry was not a blueberry but a type of Badumba fly, and it was nesting on the bush. And soon he found out that other flies lived there too, so he made friends with the flies and they all lived happily ever after. And he wasn’t a lonely shoe anymore.
I’m not making this up. I just asked her. So is she a creative genius? Of course she is, she’s my daughter. But more importantly she’s not weighed down by 1000 rules telling her, for example, that verbs should come early in a sentence, action should be linear, POVs consistent, you should show not tell and always remember that too great a narrative distance will make your characters seem contrived and two dimensional.
Kids don’t care about all that stuff. They just want sentences with zombies. And Bazumba flies. And long-suffering children who escape their wretched moms. Getting it “perfect” doesn’t occur to kids. They just wanna have fun. So I ask myself, when was the last time I set out to have fun, rather than create “art”?