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?