So much of writing seems to be about “figuring stuff out.” Figuring out what should happen in a story, or in a scene. Figuring out how to address feedback you’ve gotten. Figuring out whether anyone will ever care about your project, and make it a success. (As if that’s really possible to do.)
But “figuring out” involves a part of the mind that doesn’t seem to be the creative part (the part that has great ideas). Figuring out uses the analytical, critical mind – the left brain, if you will. And a lot of us writers have a very active and developed left brain.
The problem is that the left brain will tend to strangle ideas in their infancy, and find the shortcomings in everything. Especially when you’re reeling from others’ less-than-laudatory feedback about something, its harsh judgments can send you spinning in circles trying to decide what to do, and how to “fix” your work.
But there’s another part of the mind that is not critical, analytical, or focused on what is “wrong”. Some call it the right brain. If you’re spiritual, you might say this is the higher self, or the source. Whatever it is, this part of the mind – which has a playful, positive, untroubled view – seems to be where good ideas are found.
Virtually every “problem” in one’s writing is not fixed by trying to “figure it out”. It’s almost always fixed by a good idea. So we have to somehow move past the reaction to there being problems – and the understandable desire to solve them in a practical, hard-nosed way – and engage the creative mind. This doesn’t come naturally to many of us, as this “other mind” seems almost childlike in its naivete, and unawareness of anything being “wrong.” It seems hard to trust, and sometimes hard to access. But I believe it is there for us, and as an artist or writer, is the real seat of our “talent”.
Simply put, good ideas don’t seem to come when you’re troubled, stressed, and trying to figure it all out. They come when you’re relaxed, cheerful and confident that it’s all going to be all right.
The “left brain” or critical faculty is a necessary part of the process, too. It’s there to sort through the ideas, evaluate, organize and edit them. The problem is that it will try to take over the whole process, and think it’s the creator of everything – that its function is also to “figure out” the best ideas for something, and come up with solutions. But it generally can’t – and its concerned, questioning, skeptical outlook can block your ability to even access that other part of the mind.
So what does one do to solve this?
The first thing is to focus on what’s working well. We have a tendency to overvalue and dwell on the things that are “not working” – those aspects of a project that others are questioning, or not liking. The very process of getting or giving “notes” tends to focus on these things, for better or worse. And once we hear them, we naturally want to “fix the problems”. But what is often needed to do that is to engage the creative mind, which is hard to do from a “problem-solving” mentality.
So instead of taking on criticism (from others, or from oneself) and seeing everything as problematic, it helps to notice what is NOT being seen as a problem — what is working, what you love and appreciate about the project, and what inspires you. This doesn’t mean ignoring the “notes” you’ve gotten. It means taking them in, and being willing to address them – knowing that you have the ability to do so, and the process can even be fun. (Which is how it feels when the creative mind gets to be in charge.) Encouraging yourself, being positive and charitable toward what you’re doing, and just generally “chilling” is more likely to allow one access to the flow of good ideas, than being convinced of your failings.
The second thing is to recognize that you have these two modes of thinking at work, and consciously seek to manage them. A classic way to bypass the critical mind is to “brainstorm”: where you take a problem or question you’re grappling with, and force ourself to list lots of possibilities quickly, without taking time to evaluate, edit, or develop any of them. You need to really be disciplind to not stop and critique, and to stay with it past the first few (inevitably uninteresting) things you come up with. See these as “priming the pump”, or making a gradual shift into the creative mind. More promising and intriguing ideas will usually come, later down the list.
Another thing I like to do is to create a dialogue between the two sides, where the concerned critical mind will ask a question, then I wait for an answer, with the expectation that the creative mind will provide one. I might even let the two sides talk, back and forth – out loud, or in a written document. The critic will put forth its concern (I’ll sometimes put these in parentheses, as I don’t want to give its “problem” focus too much weight), and then I’ll “take on” the confident, playful, creative mind, with an expectation that an answer will immediately come. It’s amazing how often they do. Sometimes it’s just a more positive view, which quiets the critical mind’s rants about how hard this all is. Other times, it’s an actual usable idea.
This way, I’m not stuck spinning on concerns and issues with no possibility of fresh ideas coming through (and the critic jumping all over any ideas as they come). Instead, I’m consciously pausing to let in fresh possibilities and answers. Ultimately, there’s a role for the critic to evaluate these and find the best ones, but there’s nothing like the feeling of a great new idea emerging – where you just know it’s worth exploring. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could make that happen more often?
Do you have any practices that help with this?
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.