When you’re trying to finish a novel or manuscript, discipline is key. One word in front of another, day after day, month after month.
But in my constant drive to create — to produce — I sometimes find that my writing is a little soulless. I write scenes from the same part of my brain that writes to-do lists and does the laundry and finishes projects in my day job, rather than the part of my brain that imagines.
So this week, I set out on a little thought experiment to see how to write with a different energy. Could I balance the discipline required to finish a book on the one hand, while still cultivating a deeper connection to my intuition and imagination?
The procedural mind
Writing is effort, not destiny.-Anne Jenzer
Getting stuff done is very rewarding. It’s not just intrinsically satisfying; it’s also reinforced at your job, by friends and parents, and by our productivity-obsessed culture that idolizes go-getters and busy people.
The part of my brain that gets stuff done is a taskmaster. It makes lists. It crosses things off lists. It admonishes me when I’m lazy. It organizes things and likes to impose procedure on disorder.
It likes control.
When I sit down to write, I’m often accompanied by this “procedural mind”. I have a word count goal and a need to get characters from point A to point B, and this mindset is really good at linear thinking and getting stuff done.
This mindset also likes input and context, so I usually begin every writing session by rereading the last few scenes I wrote, looking through my plot outline, and thinking about my next scene for a bit. Then I begin typing. Action proceeds in logical sequence, characters react, and the storyline moves along. I don’t stop writing until the scene is done.
The intuitive mode
If I create from the heart, nearly everything works: if from the head, almost nothing.-Marc Chagall
At the end of writing sessions like the one I just described, I feel tired. It’s a lot of work pushing my characters and scene along, constantly checking back to evaluate pacing and dialogue and tone and setting and all the many things I have to keep track of.
And that’s OK. I expect to work hard, and don’t need writing to be easy. After all, this is the way we’re supposed to write, right? To toss aside the myth of the tortured bohemian, and instead treat it like it’s our jobs?
But the problem was the quality of the work. When I reread what I wrote the next day, it was…fine. Just fine. The scene achieved its purpose and could get checked off the list. But my characters felt a bit robotic. And nothing about it delighted me.
This isn’t the kind of book I want to write.
I remember the first few weeks of writing my novel, when the excitement of my idea was still fresh and I daydreamed about my characters. When I felt like my characters spoke to me. When writing felt more like recording than creating. I didn’t have to think about the elements of good storytelling or try to keep a million writing tips in my brain. My intuition carried me forward.
So what happened? Why doesn’t writing feel like this anymore?
Unsafe in unknowing
Negative Capability…is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.-John Keats
If you’re like me and your normal mode is to be mentally busy, then being mentally busy feels safe to you. You’re used to the mental chatter that keeps tabs on your to-do list.
This is why silence can feel threatening. Not doing something — for example, just sitting on your deck, staring up at the sky — can feel like you’re falling behind. That’s why whenever I try to relax, my procedural mind butts in to repeat my to-do list or replay conversations over and over, because it’s still trying to keep me safe. Keep me in control.
Sitting in front of a blank page provokes this same reaction in me. Rather than relaxing into uncertainty, I ditch my intuition and reach for Ms. Taskmaster to fill in the empty space. To get stuff done. Accessing my intuition actually feels like hard work, and I’m too busy to pause to connect to it.
When I shared this with a friend recently, he told me that this ability to relax in uncertainty and let your intuition guide you had a name. John Keats called it “negative capability”.
Negative capability is the ability to live with uncertainty without “reaching after fact and reason”. The ability to rest in mystery. To relax into blank pages.
In other words, a capability I definitely don’t have!
But here’s why this idea resonates with me. Keats described this not as a set-in-stone personality trait, but as a capability — something that can be developed or practiced, like a skill.
My experiments with negative capability
So this week, I decided to practice. Could I trust my intuition to write my book while still moving the story forward?
In order to get better in touch with my intuition, I did four things:
- I quieted my mind before writing. I purposely shushed the part of my mind that plans and figures stuff out when I sit down to write.
- I tried to “sink into” the scene I was writing about. Rather than wait for inspiration to strike, I purposely brought to mind whichever characters were in my scene, and just held that loosely in my mind. Tried to relax into that scene.
- I let my characters talk to me. Rather than trying to force characters to interact or do stuff, I let them vent a bit about what they were feeling first.
- I tried to dismiss any judgments. Whenever my procedural mind would say, “Hey! That action/dialogue/whatever is not in the plan!” I would tell it to chill, and maybe accept that whatever came out of this process might be better than its original vision.
Here’s what happened when I sat down to write on Day 1:
- I followed the procedures above, and spent a while sitting with my characters. It felt like it had been FOREVER since I’d actually talked to them
- I let my characters talk directly to me, basically letting them “vent”
- During this time, bits of good dialogue came through, which was exciting, so I opened my eyes to jot that dialogue down
- Once I started writing the dialogue down, I thought to myself, “Oh! Now I know how this scene should go!” and rapid-fire wrote the rest of the scene
- It was only a half-hour later that I realized I hadn’t really allowed my characters to finish talking, but had gotten excited and “taken over” the writing
- I was exhausted, and couldn’t work up the energy to get quiet before writing
- I decided to revise the previous day’s scene instead
- It was fine, stuff got accomplished, but nothing new/innovative was added to the book
- I repeated Day 1’s procedure of taking deep breaths before writing, then visualizing the characters and letting them talk
- Whenever I thought to myself “Oh, now I got this,” I would stop and force myself to get quiet again
- It was frustrating for about thirty minutes, and I desperately wanted to just write
- …But I persisted, surrendering the idea that I knew how to write the scene
- Then the scene started playing in my head, and I realized that I was telling it from completely the wrong perspective, and it was really my B character that wanted to tell this part of the story
- I tried to “record” what she felt and had to say about the scene
- At the end of the writing session, I felt amazing. Like I had seen the story from a completely new angle. Full of energy for the rest of my day.
This experiment was short, but at the end of the week, the writing itself was the reward.
My writing was better. I felt closer to my characters again. I could hear their voices in my head. The writing felt more authentic, more vibrant. It wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly a better first draft.
Side note: I learned how important it was for me to get a good night’s sleep to write this way. If I was tired and/or grumpy, I really struggled.
The art of surrender
In our society, the word “surrender” doesn’t have a very positive connotation. It conjures up images of defeated armies waving the white flag. Or weak-minded people who are easily swayed by others’ opinions. Or something you give up that you’d rather keep.
But this week, I learned that sometimes surrender means setting aside the fact that I think I know, and my obsession with getting from point A to point B. It doesn’t mean writing stream-of-consciousness or not writing at all. It doesn’t mean I lose structure or throw out my plot outline. It’s getting out of the way to let the characters and my intuition speak within the bounds of my original idea.
For someone who really likes being in control, this was a big deal.
If you always write this way, without effort, then a) I sincerely admire you, and b) I hope you’ll leave a comment to give me tips on how to do this better! I feel as if I’m a newbie again, trying to orient myself to a completely new way of creating, and I could use all the help I can get.
Art: In the Hammock by Winslow Homer