My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Morning Writing (The Lessons of Brande)

I haven't had writer's block in fifteen twenty years.

I had a rough week this last week. I just plain wasn't feeling it.  Blog pageviews were down.  (It's easier to work through the valleys when you have paychecks and groupies.) For me, writing is a labor of love, and it can be a lot of labor when I'm not feeling the love.

But creativity is a muscle.  You have to keep working it out, and it will atrophy the same as a muscle.  If I didn't write last week because I didn't want to write, I would find it that much harder to write the NEXT time the going got tough, and I would hit that recalcitrance just a little bit sooner than the last time.  Before long I would be a hostage to my own creative whim.  If you only write when you want to, you quickly find that you want to very infrequently indeed.

Sometimes my fellow writer friends think I'm a little too strict with myself, but then their jaw hits the floor when I tell them I haven't had writer's block in fifteen years.

I have sometimes not been able to come up with anything GOOD to write; sometimes my brain and I have major disagreements about what I'm going to write when I'm trying to focus on a particular project; and I've damned sure had trouble getting what was roiling around in my brain onto the page. But in fifteen years, I have never sat down and stared at a blank screen (or paper) for more than a minute or two. And once the first couple of sentences lurch out, my brain takes off like a puppy off a leash.  It's fifty yards ahead of me and only runs back every few minutes to see if I'm still coming.

I give up all the mad props for my peep Dorothea.  She's the bomb, yo.

I've written a couple of times about Dorothea Brande and her book Becoming A Writer.  Once was about the strange set of events that led to discovering the book in the first place and the book's general awesomeness as well as how it is not a book about craft but rather about artistic process and how to get the most out of it.  Another was about how Brande teaches writers to actually cultivate a duality within their lives of having an artist person AND a pedestrian person and that splitting them apart rather than trying to mash them together is the key to tapping that creative flow.

I'm a bit of a Dorothea Brande fanboi. And when I say "a bit" I mean that I limit myself to one stick of incense and two candles at my Brande shrine. Becoming a Writer is a book that takes head on (and at times brutally) the taming of the artistic process.  In On Writing Stephen King says you should write at the same time every day so that your muse knows when to show up with the magic.

Dorothea takes it a step further, and sets the writer up with a series of exercises designed to cultivate an ability to instantly bring on the juice.  She is not fucking around with this book. You will take it to the next level or you will be given her gentle but firm advice that if you can't do this, your desire not to write exceeds your desire to write and you should find another vocation.  Ouch!

The keystone of her regimen is morning writing.

Write something--anything--upon waking up.  Write steadily and do not stop.  If all you can write about is how tired you are or how you can't think of anything to write, then write about that.  This is a freewrite though, so don't try to make yourself work on your novel or blog or something structured.  If your brain wants to write about the cheese you ate last night, that's what you write about.

Writing is a recursive process.  Our brain thinks at about 500 words per minute.  The way they know this is because of sign language translators.  We speak at an average of 125-150 words per minute, and an ASL translator has to hear (or see) one side of the conversation, translate it, and then put back out the other side of the conversation.  Turns out that ASL translators operate right at the cusp of process speeds.  A professional typist can clock in at about 75-100 words per minute (usually on the lower end of that scale).  It is literally IMPOSSIBLE for you to write faster than you think. As soon as you get yourself going, your brain is already thinking about the next sentence, and the next one.  Pretty soon your thoughts are way out ahead of your writing and you are actually able to steer them towards where you want to go.

It's kind of like The Force: it controls your actions, but it also obeys your commands.

Who's the more foolish?  The fool, or the fool who quotes him in his blog.
It's got to be morning writing because that's when you're most creatively yourself. Brande goes so far as to suggest you should write before all but the most minimal linguistic interactions, and you absolutely may not read anything before starting.  We are affected by reading and until we are very firm in our own style, our prose tends to emulate what we've recently read. The tabula rasa of morning is the time when you will write in a way that is most genuinely you.

If you write steadily in the morning until your mind starts to wander, you will quickly (within a week or two) discover that the period of time you can do that will just about double.  For a while, I had it up around two hours, but I probably should have moved on to the next exercise at that point.  Morning writing is not quite the same as the writing advice to "journal every day."  While Brande says that some morning writing is a good habit to stay in, the exercise of pushing yourself with a freewrite until you start to lose concentration has finite utility.  (It would be a little bit like kicking drills for a soccer player.  You start there.  You do it a lot at the beginning. You are never too good to do some of it.  But if your practices consisted of nothing but hours and hours of kicking drills, you'd never take it to the next level.)

I need no such button.  I run on sheer force of will...and microwavable burritos.
I'm not going to reproduce Brande's lessons verbatim here (you should read her book if you haven't already), but I will say that this is probably the most useful exercise I have ever done.  These days I write fluidly every time I sit down, and I actually do most of my creative writing at night because that's when Cathamel kicks my ass, but if I ever start to fall behind on productivity or catch myself starting to slack off because of my moods, I always kick back up the morning writing, and I'm back to the raging fire of my usual productive self.

If you have trouble with writer's block, I can't recommend enough giving this a shot for a month or two.  Just see what happens.  The worst thing you end up doing is having an introspective couple of months where you surprise even you with how self aware you are.

Of course, this is only half the journey.  The next step is The Floating Half Hour of Writing.

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