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Thinking as Writing

November 2, 2009

The_Thinker_Rodin-2-713279Writing has been compared to an iceberg – what we see in print is only a very small fraction of the whole picture. So what constitutes the other 90%? What looms below the water line?

The scrawl in the front of my copy of Jasper Jones from Australian author Craig Silvey’s gives a hint:

“Best wishes and good luck w/ the wall staring.

I’m in no way suggesting that staring at the wall constitutes the other 90% of what writing is, but time spent in quiet contemplation definitely racks up more hours than perhaps any other part of writing. Whether you stare at the wall, out the window  or simply ponder as part of your every day way of going through the world, it is important – actually essential, and all writers need to find some way to access it – a quiet space for thinking.

The role of thinking in writing was raised during the Byron Bay Writers festival, and discussed by panelists Craig Silvey and Nick Earls. Up until that discussion I had never given much thought to how thinking influenced writing nor how much time I spent thinking – compared with how much actual writing I did. I guess in many ways I’d never ever considered thinking as a useful or productive use of my time much less a necessary ingredient for my writing’s health and productivity. Since Byron Bay switched the light on, thinking has taken on a whole new conscious dimension in my every day and writing lives.

I say conscious dimension, because I was already utilising the time I couldn’t be at the keyboard to contemplate and explore – there was just no conscious appreciation of it or its value prior to August. I just thought it was an artefact of taking up writing in conjunction with motherhood. There was much less time spent banging my head on a keyboard, because there was much less time to be spent at the keyboard. When I got there finally, I didn’t want to waste my time with nothing to say. So I got savvy. I wrote in my head in anticipation of the time in when I could actually put it down. Up until five years ago, I’d always just chanced it – something would come along when I sat down. Now I know the error of my ways.

As children we are chided for losing ourselves in day dreams, for staring out the window of our classrooms (apparently aimlessly), for “mooning about”. Daydreaming is perhaps the most fertile ground for writing and I love now getting lost in my stories away from the keyboard. It is something I actively seek out to do (though I will admit dropping out of the dinner conversation when you rarely get quiet time with your partner does not go down well!)

Most of us are time strapped in one way or another, so daydreaming can seem, especially if you have already been told as a child, a waste of time. But writers need to think and get lost in their thoughts. That’s when magical things happen (and I’m not suggested it’s the sugar coated plum fairy type – hanging out long enough with Paul Anderson and Annie Evett has shown me that!) It reminds me a little of the moral in the saying “A stitch in time saves nine.” A thought explored now may pay of in unexpected and greatly appreciated ways later – especially during NaNo!

This isn’t quite the article I wrote in my head as I devoured my hot buttered vegemite muffin this morning, or reconstructed while I hung the clothes on the line, and the article I will be submitting to Jon Strother later this week, isn’t quite the same one which came to mind in the shower, however the thinking part was an essential first step in the writing. In my mind I’d found the hook or the lead in, I’d thought of a couple of quirky lines (and then discarded them as lame), I’d found the tone, I’d built a basic structure and considered any additional information I might need. The mind is a truly amazing thing.

This place we retreat to, to think – I call it the creative headspace and a little like the well of creativity it needs some regular maintenance. The great thing though it is really easy – all you have to do is show up. And you don’t have to go any place special or do anything out of the ordinary. There are many perfectly mundane ways to access and maintain a creative headspace.

You probably already know at least two activities which regularly elicit great ideas or creative solutions. But do you use them on a regular basis – or just wait for life to take you there. They are normally activities we know well and as a consequence can shut off and go into autopilot, allowing a mind a chance to disengage and roam.

Some of my most productive activities are:

  • Hanging the washing on the line (this seems to be where all the big stuff goes down)
  • Washing the dishes
  • Having a shower (though water restrictions where I live have put something of a dampener on this)
  • Going for a walk
  • Driving (this one continues to scare me because this is one place I shouldn’t be lost in plot intrigues and on autopilot!)
  • Cooking
  • Listening to music

You may have a similar list or a vastly different one. Different activities work for different people. It is knowing what works for you and putting it into play in an every day way.

During NaNoWriMo it is essential to maintain a creative head space – because unlike any other month for most of us, the need to put words down far outstrips the time we would normally have to ponder, explore, discard, retrieve and rework mentally before the process of writing even takes place. Because of this I am capitalising on every potential opportunity to let my mind wander. Doing this maximise my ability to keep my narrative fuelled and negates the chances of getting writers block. It is something which should, as I say, be an every day ritual, rather than a really important “must do in the month of November” occurence.

What activities help stimulate your creative thinking? Do you consider thinking a productive part of writing? Or are there more important parts a writer should focus on?

Jodi Cleghorn‘s quest for creative headspace strangely enough makes her family happy because the dishes get done, there are clean clothes and dinner arrives on time. They wish every month was November. Want to share in Jodi’s NaNo experiences? They are being  Tweeted, blogged and discussion boarded.
  1. November 3, 2009 7:29 am

    Definitely relate to the shower example — I live for the day someone invents a waterproof laptop!

  2. November 3, 2009 8:14 am

    Omigosh yes! I spend more time thinking a story through than writing sometimes (which may be detrimental to my career in the long run, we shall see). A friend of mine called it “thwriting” a long time ago, but he was referring more to a stream of consciousness writing style. My thwriting thrives (sorry) when I am doing any of a number of mundane tasks, and especially when I am trying to rest my head to sleep. And I too am guilty of driving while thwriting which I also have thought could be bad for me…DUIW- Driving Under the Influence of Writing? But really, in my life, I have to squeeze every spare writing moment in that I can. The story I am putting down for NaNo this year has been worked through in my mind for years. But I also noticed, like you, that it ends up coming out in its own way 🙂 And it is so much fun to watch it grow from a thought to a work! Happy NaNo to you!

  3. November 3, 2009 8:32 pm

    Love this. I do this too.

    Getting in enough time to listen to music is a must, time alone on public transport is a major bonus and for some reason I can never get to sleep straight away which is crap but my muse loves it.

  4. November 3, 2009 11:37 pm

    I banned my MP3 player a few weeks ago. I don’t listen much to music but to audio books and radio programs I recorded. It was getting to the stage that whenever I was washing up, cleaning and whatever else that didn’t involve concentration on the task at hand, I was listening. It was simply getting too much. So what you say, resounds with me. Time to think, daydream etc. All this is vitally important. Oh, and I did get the MP3 player back out last weekend for our 5 hour drive south. It’ll probably stay out but I hope I’ll learn to use it with more wisdom and more sparingly.

  5. November 4, 2009 3:01 pm

    This is such a great article. I created a productivity system for creative folks solely to give people more time to think and be more creative. REFRAME helps you create time to brainstorm, unwind and meditate – and you can keep track of all the to-dos, so your brain can rest. I love this article!!!

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