Thursday, July 2, 2009

Where do you think?

Elizabeth Zelvin

We writers spend a lot of time doing what many folks would call daydreaming…woolgathering…staring into space. We prefer to call it thinking. Where does it all come from: those characters who appear so real that readers can passionately love or hate them, those heart-pounding, twisty plots, that snappy dialogue, so much wittier and more moving that most of us achieve in real life? The human brain is like a computer with lots and lots of storage. (This is literally true: 99 percent of the human mind is unconscious.) All the life experience that a novelist brings to the page, all the potential stories, all the imaginary worlds we can enter only in our dreams are packed away inside our heads, waiting for retrieval. And to retrieve them, writers have to do exactly what we do with electronic computer files: sit there staring at the screen, waiting more or less patiently for them to come up.

In fact, for me, staring at a blank computer screen or an empty page on a lined yellow pad is not the optimal method of thinking myself into a story or the next chapter of my current novel in progress. It’s not a matter of sharpening my real or virtual pencil and announcing to my brain that now it’s time to think. Rather, creativity frequently arises when I’m relaxed enough for a diffuse mist in my head to swirl around and gradually shape itself into a coherent pattern. Then it’s my job to get to that computer—or in a pinch, that little notebook or digital recorder—and get it down before it dissipates.

I’ve found that certain places and activities lend themselves to creative thought. One is lying in bed in the morning. When I first wake up, my eyelids keep drooping, and I might still be able to drift back into a dream that hasn’t quite faded. That’s not it. It’s after my eyes pop open and stay open, and before I can summon the motivation to sit up and roll out of bed, or at least to start my daily stretches. It may be as short a period as ten minutes, or as long as an hour. On a good day, it culminates in a sense of urgency that overpowers my physical needs and catapults me out of bed to rush to the computer or the yellow pad to get the ideas or lines of narrative or dialogue down before I lose them. My husband knows not to press me if I clutch at my head and wave him away when he tries to talk to me. “It’s like I’m carrying a basket of eggs in there,” I told him recently. “If anybody jostles them before I can set them down, they’ll shatter.”

I also find the shower especially conducive to thinking. I can’t count the number of times I’ve charged out of the bathroom scantily clad in a towel and dripping wet because the perfect twist for the end of a story or motive for a villain came to me as I soaped myself up, and I’m afraid if I don’t record it right away, I’ll forget it. Even more inconvenient are the ideas that bubble up as I do my three-mile run. I can’t get to a computer. I usually have at least a tiny pad and pen, but I don’t want to stop running to use them. At times, I’ve carried a digital recorder. Its biggest drawback is that when I play back what I’ve recorded later, so I can write it down, it’s sometimes hard to decipher what I said over the panting breath and slap of my feet on the track.

Where do you think best?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

When I'm on the go (out running errands, etc.)is when I seem to be most creative. I keep notecards in my pocketbook and in my car for when inspiration strikes!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sheila Connolly said...

When I was first infected by the writing virus, I was commuting into Philadelphia by train, and I did a lot of brainstorming then. Long car rides are good too, especially if you get stuck in traffic on a highway somewhere (I remember working out one particularly challenging chapter on the Merritt Parkway).

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

But Sheila, which hand is on the wheel?

Sandra Parshall said...

I seem to think better outdoors. Deadheading and weeding the garden is a way to work off frustration and generate new ideas. The least productive spot is at my desk, facing the computer screen.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I have a great idea to make you twice as productive: wanna come and weed MY garden? ;)

Nonna (Chèli) said...

Driving in the car or in the bathtub are where I get my best ideas. I have a mini recorder that I keep in my car cup holder so that I can grab it and make "a note" of my thoughts. It's not so easy in the bathtub, so I keep a pad and pen in the bedroom and just keep repeating it to myself while I towel off.
Many a morning I've woken up with scribbles on the pad because I wrote it in the dark. I t ry to print then so I can decipher it easier. It's a challenge.

Tim King said...

It is absolutely true that creative ideas have a much better chance of popping to the surface during quiet, non-thinking times. Like you, I also have great creative times first thing in the morning, during the calm time before I'm completely awake, and in the shower. Other times, I'll just lay my head back and close my eyes. Or I'll exercise or go for a walk. Or listen to calming music, like Classical or New Age.


Paul Lamb said...

My best thoughts seem to come to me completely unbidden. I'm just busy with something else (usually the work I'm paid to do) and the great solution to a plot problem or key development for a character just pops into my head. Often the most obvious connections in my story are revealed to me this way. "Why didn't I think of that before?" I keep a notepad nearby for putting these revelations down, and then I transcribe the notes to the computer later. If I don't have the chance to write down my brilliant idea, I generally can remember it until I do have the chance. Or it will come back to me. And if I never remember it again, I wouldn't know that I was even missing it.

I don't find staring at my computer screen, waiting for the words to come to be productive. Generally the words are not good words. I generally want to have a pretty clear idea in my head of what's to be written when I sit down to write it. I have found, however, that once I start making notes (by hand) the next sensible idea to follow comes to mind. Sometimes writing with a pencil seems to spur my creative corner to reveal a few more secrets.

Judy Alter said...

The late Glendon Swarthout told me he got the inspiration for "The Shootist" while shaving, and his wife said that subsequently he sometimes shaved five times a day!