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Nurturing the Write Mind

Something Keith Cronin mentioned in a comment a few months back struck me as incredibly insightful, and that impression has only deepened in the months since. I’ve worked on a variety of writing projects with his remark in mind, and it’s changed some old habits I didn’t realize beforehand might need addressing.

I’m going to paraphrase what he said, and hopefully not butcher it in the process. (Keith—feel free to step in to correct me.)

He mentioned a teacher he had as a musician who emphasized not just mastering technique but gaining a sense of the state of mind you enter when you know you’re playing or practicing well. At the risk of relying on a tired cliché, that state of mind might be called “the groove.”

The term in Taoism is wu wei, which translates literally as “non-action.” It means performing a task naturally, the way water flows along a stream bed, without any effort to control or force matters. This way of putting it has a special new relevance for me, as I’ve returned to studying tai chi after a forty-year hiatus.

But I also encountered something similar when I studied acting. Constantin Stanislavski refers to it as “unconscious creativeness through conscious technique:”

“[A]sk an actor, after some great performance, how he felt while on the stage, and what he did there. He will not be able to answer because he was not aware of what he lived through, and does not remember many of the more significant moments. All you will get from him is that he felt comfortable on the stage, that he was in easy relationship to the other actors. Beyond that, he will be able to tell you nothing.

“You will astonish him by your description of his acting. He will gradually come to realize things about his performance of which he had been entirely unconscious.”

As I’ve worked these past few months, I’ve tried now and then to take momentary notice of my mindset when the writing is going well. And more and more I recognize the calm, centered focus I acquire, as though I’ve entered a curiously silent hum. It’s a special kind of mindfulness, to borrow another Eastern term.

I’ve also become more aware of what ruptures that state, and how easily—and frequently—I give in to it.

Focusing on a creative state of mind may seem like a luxury given the innumerable distractions that arise in any given workday, not to mention the anxiety over the worth of the work (or its creator), deadline pressure, word count concerns, etc.

And yet, as one learns in meditation, there’s no need to grasp at these distractions—be aware of them, recognize them as inessential (even counterproductive) for the moment, and let them go, returning again to the work.

This technique, of recognizing your “groove state,” the better to return to it when distractions are inevitable, is particularly helpful when real-world concerns—that pesky, greedy, selfish family of yours, the goddamn day job, lumbers, painters, the death of western civilization, puppies on Facebook, GAME OF THRONES!!—diverts the mental stream like a giant meteor slamming into the Mississippi.

Sometimes (all too often, actually), that stuff can’t wait (well, not the FB puppies or GoT). But if you’re aware of how it feels, physically as well as mentally, to be grounded, centered, in the right frame of mind to create, and how important it is, it can be easier to slip back into it when chaos subsides and you can return to your desk, if only for a brief period.

Interestingly, the more I’ve become aware of my “groove,” the more I’ve noticed several bad habits I always just accepted as my “process.” Now I’m not so sure.

Almost all of these concern actions that break the creative flow. Many serve a need for perfection, rather than creative continuity. Others are, somewhat embarrassingly, simple fear reactions, though I never recognized them as such until recently. I just thought I had a busy mind. That busy-ness was a form of anxiety, a fear of going deeper, getting closer to the core, the source.

One such habit is suffering over the mot juste. Instead of just marking that place with several asterisks or TKK or some other clear marker so I can come back later, I pore through my Thesaurus,  or try to conjure an apt analogy for something unique and surprising. I’m noticing now what other writers have said but I dismissed as “not pertaining to me.” I get jammed up on the word, which then forces me to backtrack a few sentences, read through them again to regain that sense of flow, then move on.

This is a symptom of a larger problem: revising as I go. I used to cling to this as part of my process—I am known for writing clean early drafts—and sometimes I can feel that the revision is, in fact, taking me deeper as I move forward. The flow remains unbroken. Other times, however, I can sense that I’ve digressed into a pettier, crankier, less receptive state of mind.

Another related bad habit is needless research while writing an early draft. Again, this is something other writers warned against, but I stubbornly stuck to my perfectionist ways. Once I paid more attention to my focus while writing, I became aware, as with revising as I go, of the different mental states that relate to active creativity on the one hand and information-gathering and fact-checking on the other. The first is deeper, quieter, more intuitive. The latter is more aggressive, questioning, challenging. (That said, research as you go can sometimes spare you having to go back and rewrite an entire section that you premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of what was true.)

The last bad habit, of course, is venturing into the chatterbox echo chamber otherwise known as the Internet. (And yes, even Writer Unboxed can qualify.) Social media is the worst, but even a casual glance at the news can be hopelessly disruptive. Once you notice what it feels like in your body and mind to be in a state of creative flow, that sudden rupture of the mood can seem incredibly jarring. It’s also hard to get back to that deeper, calmer, more focused state. The mind is a monkey. Once it starts to yammer, all the other monkeys chime in.

For those of you who have read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, you’ll recognize these some of habits as forms of Resistance, which he defines as the negative force that favors immediate gratification over long-term growth and creativity.

“The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

[BTW: This is why, in my teaching, I now use Resistance as the umbrella term for the weaknesses, wounds, limitations, and flaws that keep the character from fulfilling her yearning.]

It’s all well and good to have a quick mind—great trait for cocktail parties. But one also has to be aware that quick minds are particularly susceptible to distraction. Yes, it’s important to keep “the butt in the chair.” But it’s even more important to keep the imagination engaged with the work.

Like most posts that center on creativity rather than the business side of writing, this may seem like a bunch of artsy-fartsy twaddle. But whenever I’m tempted to succumb to such a view, I remember one of my favorite writer quotes, this one from John LeCarré:

“When the writing is going well, the money doesn’t matter; and when it’s going badly, the money doesn’t help.”

Are you aware of a certain mental-physical state that best defines your most creative moments? How would you describe that state? Do you need music, silence, white noise, incense, preliminary chanting (or anything else) to induce or maintain it? What bad habits or routine distractions take you out of that “groove”? Have you changed your habits as you’ve grown as a writer to minimize such ruptures of the creative flow? What in particular disrupts your creative process? Why? How do you combat it?

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About David Corbett [1]

David Corbett [2] is the author of five novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running? and The Mercy of the Night. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and numerous other venues. He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, Delve Writers, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [3]