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Throwing Off the Wet Blanket

It happens to a bunch of writers—particularly those writers who are enthusiastic storytellers and seeking better ways to write those stories.  (Perhaps writers like those who have attended, and are currently attending Viable Paradise.  Just maybe.)


You spend years writing stories as quickly as your fingers can fly across the keyboard, thrilled with the ideas, the characters, the dialogue, the action, EVEYTHING.  Every stolen moment is spent adding to the word count, and those stolen moments are absolutely necessary because the story is always right there at the edge of your thoughts.  It’s ready.  You’re ready.  It’s all flow.  You are the ruler of all story!

Then you learn a New Thing—possibly the most wonderful and accurate and encouraging New Thing any writer could dream of—and yet your stories grind to a halt.  Words that once spilled effortlessly onto the page become painful little treasures to be counted one at a time as they are pushed through the keyboard.  Days that used to yield thousands of fantastic, reader-believed words might now give you a few hundred painfully-awkward words that’ll need much revising.  Stories that used to seem so natural and alive and perfect now sound stilted and dull and derivative.  Everything is wrong.

You wonder what sort of fever-dream led you to believe you could string words together at all.



It isn’t writer’s block, exactly.  You still have stories to tell, and you know how you want them told.  But that New Thing keeps getting in the way.  Are you overusing certain sentence structures?  Could the character you love be reacting to events in ways offensively stereotypical of gender roles?  Did you create a plot hole with shallow logic or insufficient research?  Are your descriptions unique and interesting, or the dreaded purple prose?  Do you have any grasp of the three-act structure, or the primal drive of myth, or the lure of archetype, and does any of that actually matter?  And OMIGOD ARE MY PARAGRAPHS TOO LONG??

Rest assured, that sort of stalling out doesn’t happen because you’re a terrible writer.  It certainly doesn’t happen because you aren’t “strong” enough to bear critique.  (That’s an insidious little construct in certain segments of the neo-pro writer-world, truly.)  It happened because your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain that functions as a wet blanket when the rest of you gears up for fun—took control.

That Wet Blanket is also what helps us focus on what we want or need to do.  It helps us solve problems, consider complexities, plan solutions, and weigh consequences.  It keeps us from acting on impulses that civilized society might frown upon.  It might permit you to say, “Fuck my stupid job,” to your friends (depending upon your friends…), but will recommend you refrain from blurting it out during a business meeting.

Total Wet Blanket.

Frankly, I’m glad my son has a Wet Blanket that enables him to self-regulate behavior like, say, driving at the speed limit posted on signs rather than the speed limit his car is capable of achieving on a straightway.  But when it comes time to work creatively, it’s fucking murderous.

Bits and pieces of research (like this one involving jazz musicians improvising while in an MRI scanner) demonstrate creativity lights up distinct parts of the brain.  Neural systems that regulate emotions ramp up.  Areas involved in processing sensory information become hyper-engaged.  A small segment of the prefrontal cortex—the one involved in relating memories and stories—kicks in.  It’s a pattern very much like the one seen when you’re dreaming, and that’s a pretty cool correlation, really.

And the most consistent finding in studying creativity is that creativity is stunted and gray and timid until one specific part of the brain—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which keeps a close eye on your behavior—clocks out.  Creativity happens when the Wet Blanket takes a hike.

We sometimes describe that experience as losing ourselves in the story, as clearly seeing and hearing the scenes unfold, as sudden inspiration, as feeling what the characters feel in moments of fear, hope, crisis, victory, confusion and anticipation.

Think about some of the language we use to talk about creating first drafts.  We turn off the internal editor, immerse ourselves in the story, just let the story flow.  Those aren’t touchy-feely woo-woo pieces of crystal-gazing platitudes.  Those are clear and polite instructions delivered to your Wet Blanket: BACK OFF, SHUT UP, DON’T COME BACK UNTIL YOU’RE CALLED.

And, as you know Bob, that always works.

Ha.

Back to that New Thing I mentioned above, the one that locked your creativity in a steel-banded treasure chest dropped into the Mariana Trench.  Your brain likely didn’t sort that New Thing in the creativity section.  It’s a rule, after all.  A restriction, a direction, a do-this-not-that.  It’s tucked in your prefrontal cortex—probably the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—because that’s where the department of Proper Action lives, and that New Thing is supposed to improve how your creative endeavors are seen by others.  Others who matter.  Like readers who will pay money for your art.

So the part of the brain that inhibits creativity wants to apply New Thing to your creative process in order to improve the final creative project.  You can see the problem here, yes?

That’s why so many young artists (and by “young,” I actually mean “inexperienced”) claim learning New Things crushes creativity.  That’s why so many writers come home from writing workshops or critique circles, or finish reading writing-advice books and articles, to find themselves filled with hope and excitement yet unable to satisfactorily move forward.

So you sit in the most frustrating of places—in possession of awesome New Things, knowing what you want and need to do, unable to make it happen, stuffed with stories that just don’t seem to come out the way they’re supposed to.  Sit there long enough, and you’ll start thinking anyone who ever once mentioned liking your work was just trying to be nice.

But trust me, my darlings, these are not the death throes of your writerly self.  They’re growing pains of a sort.  It happens for athletes.  It happens for musicians.  It happens for students.  And it happens for writers, too.  The difference is athletes, musicians, and students all expect to practice a new skill, and expect it’ll take a little time for it to settle in, become second nature, and create results.

Writers?  Well, we like to believe we’re smart folks.  We assume if we know something we can do something, and we aren’t above slipping into maudlin when we find this isn’t true.  Then, hoping we’ll gain control over what we’re not-quite able to do, we tend to mistake editing for practice.  But editing and revising—both of which require the more executive functions of the Wet Blanket—are no substitute for actually writing in a free and creative state followed by refinement.  Certainly your end result is likely to be improved with editing, but the ability to shut down your analytical self in order to make room for true creativity is not.

The best thing you can do is follow that common, true advice that sounds both hollow and impossible when the Wet Blanket is in charge: write more.  Write even if you’re certain it all sucks, write even if you think no one will ever consider it worth reading, because the more you write while that New Thing is nagging at you, the sooner the New Thing becomes the Known Thing.  And Known Things get folded into the stuff you do so often that you don’t need your tut-tutting Wet Blanket to keep tabs on it anymore.  Known Things become the tools and materials of creativity.

Tobias Buckell’s informal survey found a mere third of responding writers sold the first novel and only novel they’d written.  Two-thirds had written at least one other novel or a bunch of short stories.  Twenty-five percent wrote five, six, seven or more novels before making their first novel-length sale.  Sometimes the sale was of one of those early novels.  But based on what I’ve heard from writers over the years, that earlier-novel sale usually comes after it’s been revised with the knowledge gained from writing later novels.

Seven or more novels.  That’s practice.

Practice isn’t the only way to convince the Wet Towel to take a vacation.  Specific other means are likely to vary from person to person, but I’ve found a few that work for me and have seen other interventions work for others.  I’ll chit-chat about those later this week.  Feel free to share your own methods, too!

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
queenoftheskies
Oct. 13th, 2014 01:05 am (UTC)
I have many thoughts on this, but I'm on my way out the door, so I shall comment again later.

In the meantime, awesome post!
blairmacg
Oct. 13th, 2014 04:42 pm (UTC)
Looking forward to your thoughts as always! :)
green_knight
Oct. 13th, 2014 11:44 am (UTC)
Oooh, lots and lots of chewy writing thoughts. Yay!

The first thing I want to pull out of this is that editing can be creative, too. (And writing first draft can be uncreative even if you feel you're being immersed and making things up: when the pool of things you draw from is a very narrow one, 'inventiveness' doesn't look like it. We've all come across - or been - writers who tell the same story about the same characters, with only syntactic sugar. My brain default is male protagonists is a sorta-renaissance setting. That's what most of my 'inspirations' start out as; only when I interrogate them do I get to more interesting layers.
Editing, on the other hand, is a process of abstraction, of looking at the chunk of text from new angles, of stepping back and turning it over and sculpting it and reforming it. And often all you need is small changes; but small changes in the right place. I do *not* tell my inner editor to shut up when I'm writing; my inner editor is on my side and takes note of motifs and patterns and plot threads and structure so I can write freely without writing myself into corners.

As for the growing process, it seems to be a see-saw between writing skills and editing skills: you write something and it's perfect because you can't see where it goes wrong. (Or you feel that it's wrong somewhere, and can't see the problems, and feel miserable, depending on your personality). Then you learn an editing skill and learn to recognise a problem and suddenly your writing is full of that problem but you can't fix it, or if you can, it takes forever in the editing stage and you hate your writing. Then, slowly, you internalise the new skill and start seeing an x-shaped hole in your narrative while you write it down, so you change it there and then, and eventually, it will have become part of your writing entirely. At which point you attempt to learn something else, because _that_ is your weak point now.

And here I think 'gag your inner editor' becomes toxic advice: if you see editing as just as exciting as writing itself (some people like first draft better, some people prefer to edit) then the cycle becomes 'hey, now I get to develop _this_ side' rather than 'this is a mountain I must climb before I can write again freely', so embrace your inner editor, and you get twice the fun.

And my other point is that learning processes are different - what you describe, the 'writing more and hoping that I'll automagically learn whatever I feel is wrong with my writing' does not work for me at all and only leads to a much larger number of words-on-page that I dislike because they are flawed. I need to go away and truly understand New Thing in terms that make sense to my brain, and mess around with it, and do concentrated practice to stuff it into my backbrain, and edit my way into seeing how it fits into my writing and where I need it and when, and _then_ I go away and write some more, but for me, the fallow period while my brain churns on New Thing is a necessary part of the learning process and the sooner I delve into it, the sooner I come out.
blairmacg
Oct. 13th, 2014 03:07 pm (UTC)
Good thoughts here!

I agree editing can be creative, and submit it would be most creative for those who are experienced editors, who have internalized those lessons to a degree that shifts the process from one of rules and filters to storytelling and intuition. (By intuition, I mean the brain's unconscious evaluations, based on experiential learning, that result in answers that come faster and easier than if we consciously thought of them.)

But for writers making the transition, who yet lack the experience to internalize the editing and revision process, the more creative thinking is inhibited by the PFC. And it's those writers who sometimes assume learning new writing skills kills creativity, and/or assume they can't really write after all. It's those writers who sometimes assume the condition is permanent rather than transitional.

So, so many writers get stuck in that space, sometimes for *years.* I sincerely believe that pushing those particular writers to incorporate an editorial aspect to their first draft exacerbates the challenge during their learning transition. And transition it is, to be certain. Once on the other side, writers can more easily heed the editorial voice without so quickly hitting frustration.

As for the growing process, it seems to be a see-saw between writing skills and editing skills: you write something and it's perfect because you can't see where it goes wrong. (Or you feel that it's wrong somewhere, and can't see the problems, and feel miserable, depending on your personality). Then you learn an editing skill and learn to recognise a problem and suddenly your writing is full of that problem but you can't fix it, or if you can, it takes forever in the editing stage and you hate your writing. Then, slowly, you internalise the new skill and start seeing an x-shaped hole in your narrative while you write it down, so you change it there and then, and eventually, it will have become part of your writing entirely. At which point you attempt to learn something else, because _that_ is your weak point now.

I'd say we're totally on the same page here, just expressing the experience differently. :)

I am of the notion that if I'm actually improving as a writer, my first drafts will require less editing. If I find myself continuously revising new work to fix the same problem repeated over multiple projects, I don't consider my new learning fully integrated into my creative process. There are things I can do now in first drafts that I couldn't do before--things that used to "get in the way" when I tried to "think" them into my first drafts.

And here I think 'gag your inner editor' becomes toxic advice: if you see editing as just as exciting as writing itself (some people like first draft better, some people prefer to edit) then the cycle becomes 'hey, now I get to develop _this_ side' rather than 'this is a mountain I must climb before I can write again freely', so embrace your inner editor, and you get twice the fun.

I agree editing can be enjoyable, exciting, and creative. But it is a different process entirely, and not something those writers in transition can do as well while attempting to tap their storytelling creativity.

but for me, the fallow period while my brain churns on New Thing is a necessary part of the learning process and the sooner I delve into it, the sooner I come out.

I can see that being important, absolutely.

And I didn't intend to give the impression that the practice writing was the equivalent of blind shooting in the hope of hitting the target. :) The purpose of writing more is to grow comfortable enough with New Things to internalize them.

Aside: I do wonder, too, if the "New Thing Inhibits Creative Flow" might be experienced differently at different ages. The prefrontal cortex isn't considered fully developed until at least the mid 20s, with some research claiming it continues to change in structure for another decade after that. Are younger writers less likely to feel creatively inhibited by learning new rules because the ability of the PFC to inhibit creativity is more limited? Or are younger writers MORE likely to feel inhibited because the PFC is inexorably asserting additional control? Hmm...
blairmacg
Oct. 13th, 2014 04:41 pm (UTC)
I meant to add earlier: Would you be interested in expanding on your last paragraph--the process you use to incorporate New Thing without getting/feeling stuck--that I could link to and/or reference in the post later this week, and/or guest blog over at my Wordpress site as well? The more options writers in transition hear of, the better the chance they'll find a process that'll work for them! :)
green_knight
Oct. 13th, 2014 04:52 pm (UTC)
I'll have to gather my thoughts a bit on this (and will probably respond to your comment on my blog because I'm starting to ramble, but yes, I think it's worth exploring further, and I'm also interested in the brain theory part of it (particularly as I'm currently following an online course on modes of thinking, which touches on this from a slightly different angle).

I didn't intend to give the impression that the practice writing was the equivalent of blind shooting in the hope of hitting the target

I know you didn't, but I've had this suggested to me several times in response to 'I'm stuck on this problem, how do I master this skill': 'Just write.' (If it didn't resolve itself in twenty years and well over a million words, how many more years/words do those people think it will take?)
blairmacg
Oct. 14th, 2014 01:45 am (UTC)
Looking forward to reading your thoughts!

(If it didn't resolve itself in twenty years and well over a million words, how many more years/words do those people think it will take?)

Thinking of my own attempts, I sometimes wonder if there are skills I'll never be able to incorporate into early drafts. If some writing skills, like a spin-kick in karate, are simply never going to be things I'm good at.
sartorias
Oct. 13th, 2014 03:09 pm (UTC)
Nodding here like a dashboard doll.
blairmacg
Oct. 13th, 2014 04:42 pm (UTC)
:)
asakiyume
Oct. 14th, 2014 12:05 am (UTC)
This is so very, very, VERY timely for me. I'm having this exact problem--well, a definite shade of this problem, right now. Thanks for the reminder that only writing is writing.
blairmacg
Oct. 14th, 2014 02:16 am (UTC)
So glad it was helpful!
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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