I was always the kid getting in trouble in school because whatever was out the window was more interesting than the classroom.
Eventually the teachers got wise and put me in an aisle seat, so things like the back of the cute girl’s head in front of me — or the inside of my eyelids — held more interest.
Of course there’s a semantic difference of opinion here. The teacher said I was daydreaming. I called it thinking. That was my big mistake because the teacher had the power to pass me or flunk me. Of course public education doesn’t promote such things like “thinking,” but that’s a rant for another day.
Years later, in the newsroom I’d be hammering away at the keyboard doing 90 mph, then I’d pause. Stare at the flies doing whatever scandalous things do on the wall when my publisher would come into the newsroom.
“Writer’s block?” he’d ask.
Of course. Anytime a writer stops to collect his thoughts — or gather some more wool — it’s always writer’s block. Didn’t you know?
As I got older the balance shifted. I spent more time doing and less time “thinking” — i.e. imagining what my characters would do next, how to phrase this next passage, what research I need to do, how to synthesize the information I have into something readable. But I still make use of those times to let my mind wander.
Hey, that wandering-mind thing is an important part of the creative process.
The dream cycles are a big part of this. According to the Creativity Post, Google scientist-in-residence Ray Kurzwell uses that time. He makes sure he gets eight hours of Z’s every night and assigns himself a problem to tackle during that state of repose. Then when he wakes up he’ll stay in bed and let his mind wander for another 20 minutes or so.
Trust me. It does work. I also keep my note pad at bedside, and when I wake up for some reason — like those kidney-tapping times that seem to come up more frequently as I get older — I’ll usually have something to write down. Of course, reading my scrawl in the morning is another matter.
Listen, I’ve come up with entire scenes while asleep. The premise of an entire novel? You bet. If you asked where the idea for my current work came from, I’d have to tell you it came in a dream, like with the guys in the Bible. Ooo-eee-ooo.
Every day, weather permitting, I’ll take my dog out and we’ll walk a good two or three miles. Always carry water for the both of us and some index cards. Usually on these walks I’m not thinking of anything, and that’s when the good stuff pops into my head. I’ll put it down on a card, take it home, put it with other cards and forget about it. Later I’ll sort through those cards and separate the pearls from the stinkers.
I’ll take frequent breaks while working, and spend time doing other things. I hate doing dishes, but that’ a perfect task for break time. I’m (hopefully) fully there, washing that dish and letting my mind run all over the place. Or I’ll notice some weeds growing in the garden and they need to be pulled out. Now, it’s a distraction if I keep thinking about it while I’m working. If I attack it during my break, I’m being strategic. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
Try this sometime: Keep a note pad next to you. Any time one of those little distractions pops up while you’re working, write it down and forget about it. Hit it on your next break, again be fully into the task and let your mind wander some.
If I’m putting in time at the keyboard because I feel forced to, this shuts off the mind-wandering process. While I keep a deadlines and daily word counts, treating them like they’re cast in stone, neither are hard to hit. I give myself all sorts of margin, and if something in life happens — such as a family emergency like what happened recently — I’m not going to push myself. There’s no need for that.
Doing is good. Scratch that, it’s great. Nothing happens without doing. But without the thought behind it — without the constructive use of downtime the action will be second-rate.