Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The pause that refreshes

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For most writers, working too hard is the least of their problems, but sometimes it’s necessary to slow down. In this respect, I’m a bigger offender than most. As regular readers will know, I’m a member of the cult of productivity: I believe that in order to write well, you need to write a lot, and I take pride in the fact that I can reliably crank out a few pages on demand. (Although not without the preliminary work of brainstorming, researching, and outlining, which effectively triples my writing time, without even counting revision.) Yet as I start the process of outlining The Scythian, I’m repeatedly reminded of the fact that it’s occasionally good to pause, look around, and see where you are. Because it’s in the moments between sessions of furious activity, when no visible work is being done, that some of our most important insights take place.

In the old days, writers found plenty of occasions to pause during the day, simply because their materials demanded it. You had quills to cut, inkwells to fill, or, later, typewriter ribbons to replace. (Not to mention figuring out how to reboot WordPerfect.) These tasks were tedious, but they also provided useful intervals of downtime. I never get tired of quoting these lines from Behind the Seen about the great film editor Walter Murch, who found moments of surprising introspection on an old-fashioned editing machine:

As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas.

These days, of course, with modern editing systems and word processing programs, such blank spaces have become harder to find. (Although it’s likely that later generations will look back with amazement on how we managed to get so much work done without the benefit of neural implants.) And while Word still crashes from time to time—in my case, for some reason, whenever I try to use the highlighting tool—that isn’t a substitute for more regular pauses.

In fact, I suspect that many of the brainstorming tools used by writers, including myself, are actually veiled ways of slowing down the creative process, which allows the two hemispheres of the brain to fall into line. Mind maps are a great example. I’ve found that mind maps drawn by hand are infinitely more useful than those made with a computer program, simply because they take longer to make. When I’m seated with a pad of cheap paper, letting my pen wander across the page, I have no choice but to slow down and let my thoughts wander at the same pace as the physical act of writing. As a result, when I’m reviewing the action of the scene I’m outlining, I find myself drilling deeper into individual moments, when I might have hurried past them if I were typing lines into a text box. The activity itself doesn’t really matter: the important thing is to ruminate for an hour or so at a fairly slow speed. Drawing a mind map conveniently gives my eye and hand something to do while my brain does the work.

Other writers will find their own ways of inserting a pause into the creative process. Often just the act of getting up from one’s desk, walking around the room, and doing a few chores—although nothing mentally taxing—will allow the brain to relax. I’ve spoken before of how shaving is the perfect activity for this sort of thing, and I’m not the only one. Here’s Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, on dealing with writer’s block:

For if a pinch of snuff, or a stride or two across the room will not do the business for me—I take a razor at once; and having tried the edge of it upon the palm of my hand, without further ceremony, except that of first lathering my beard, I shave it off.

Woody Allen, as I’ve noted before, takes a shower or a walk in the park, and I’ll often get ideas while doing the dishes. Just about anything, in fact, can be used to insert a pause into one’s routine—except going online. Not every writer needs to go as far as Jonathan Franzen, who glued an Ethernet cable into his laptop and broke it off, but it’s worth remembering that nearly all the time you spend online could be more profitably used somewhere else, even if that means doing nothing at all. Which raises the question, of course, of why you’re even reading this post…but lucky for you, I’m done.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2012 at 9:51 am

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