What does a writing day consist of? The image that comes to mind is of someone pounding away on a typewriter with a fixed, manic expression, surrounded by a mess of coffee and cigarettes and balled up sheets of paper. The reality, in my experience, is somewhat different.
First, here’s what Martin Amis had to say about it in a recent interview on Goodreads:
Being alone in my study is working, whatever I’m doing, even if I’m just throwing darts into the wall. It’s communing with your conscious mind and hoping that your unconscious mind is coming along and doing some of the work for you. A lot of the time is spent reading and scratching your ass and digging your nose, inching along with slow progress. It’s on the whole a happy process with occasional crisis.
Now I don’t have my own study and, of course, I never do anything disgusting like scratching my ass 😉 But apart from that I agree with Amis’s description. As long as I’m at my appointed place for writing, and as long as I’m engaged with my writing in some way, I count that as time well spent. I don’t measure my productivity by word count, as some writers do. Some days I actually end up with less words than I started with, but the ones I have left are truer to what I want to say. Other days I pump out thousands of words, but realise later I’ve gone completely down the wrong track and have to delete most of them. I’ll take a hundred good words over a thousand mediocre ones any day.
I’ve always found that a good way of ensuring that the words I produce are good is to spend some time daydreaming. If I’m too focused and rigid, I produce prose that is functional and sound, but that doesn’t contain any of the unexpected insights or beauty that readers expect from literature. My mind seems to need space to make associations by itself, and that’s where the gold comes from. To write well, I need to spend less time writing, and more time staring out of the window.
I came across an article in NewScientist magazine recently that gave me a way of justifying all the time I’ve spent over the years just dreaming. Essentially it explains in scientific terms what I’ve always felt intuitively from my own experience: that to think creatively, you need to let your mind wander, rather than trying to tame it.
As an example, the writer gives a puzzle: What single word can be added to “high”, “book” and “sour” to make another word or phrase? To solve it, he says, “you can’t simply apply an analytical approach since that would involve crunching through every word in your vocabulary… Instead, the answer often comes out of the blue.” (Try letting your mind wander, and leave a comment if you come up with the answer!)
The article lists various experiments that have been done over the years in which people are given problems which require some lateral thinking to solve. In each case, people who let their minds wander did better on the tasks than those who focused. (This was measured in some cases by monitoring brain activity, and in others by giving the people other mindless activities to distract them from the problem and allow their minds to wander). Of course, solving puzzles and word games is not a perfect proxy for creativity, but it’s the closest you can get in a lab. In another experiment, researchers studied people who’d written a published novel, patented an invention or had art shown in a gallery, and found they were less able than other people to focus on a given task, suggesting that they were more likely to be open to “left-field” ideas.
Very interesting, for me, was the observation that caffeine is bad for creativity. Again, it’s something I’ve often felt. When I drink coffee, I invariably write a lot more frenetically, but am often not so happy with the results. It’s good for word count, but bad for quality. Now I understand why – “since caffeine focuses your concentration, it’s likely to keep a lid on your creative thinking.”
And I’ve always wondered why I like to write in the early morning, when I’m really a night person and tend to feel groggy first thing. Again, the article provided the answer: it’s less easy to concentrate when you’re tired, so it’s more likely that your mind will wander and come up with interesting ideas. Counter-intuitive, yes, but it fits with my experience. Someone once said that creative writing is like dreaming onto the page, and so it makes sense that I do it better when I’m not fully awake.
Of course, there needs to be a balance. It takes discipline and determination to write a hundred-thousand-word novel. The dreams need to be shaped into something intelligible to the world at large, and that’s where the rational mind comes in. But I think in our society we really revere things like reason and control and concentration, and dismiss daydreaming as a waste of time. That’s why in this post I’ve been advocating more daydreaming. It’s something many people don’t do at all, and those who do it probably feel guilty about it – I know I do. The NewScientist article helped me to understand the value of a wandering mind, and to feel less guilty about spending valuable writing time just staring into space. The link to the article is here, but I’m afraid you have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing.
Even if you’re not a writer, I think that a regimen of daily daydreaming would be extremely healthy and beneficial. The NewScientist article was about creativity, but it also said that general problems can often be solved by not focusing on them and letting the unconscious mind do its thing. How many times has the solution to a difficult problem in your life just “come to you” while you were brushing your teeth or walking the dog and thinking about nothing in particular?
So why not try it? Take fifteen minutes somewhere in each day, whenever you can work it in, and just sit with no inputs at all – no phone, no TV, no radio, no books, no newspapers or magazines, no Twitter and Facebook, no communication of any kind. Look at the clouds, stare at the river flowing by, or just gaze at nothing much. Don’t meditate, though – you’re not trying to empty your mind, but to let it wander and see where it takes you. Just an idea… Do you think you’ll try it? If so, let me know how it works out!