Writer’s block? No, I wouldn’t use that expression to describe what’s happening at this blog. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, because I have been writing. Over the past few weeks, I’ve started posts on any number of topics: about how a writer must, as Faulkner is reported to have said, kill her darlings; about when and where my author, L, first became aware of my voice and how it sounded in her head; about the central quest that drives the novel L is writing about my life.
I’ve written thousands of words about these topics, and I haven’t succeeded in finding the shape for a single blog post that I’m happy with. I’m in a fortunate position, though, being a character living inside a writer’s head. When I get into this sort of trouble I can study what my author does when she has the same sort of trouble—when she’s been writing and writing but she can’t make anything worthwhile out of what she’s written. She can’t find the shape, the insight, the central idea that will bring it all together.
Do you know what she does? She doesn’t stay there at the keyboard. She walks away; she stops trying so hard. She’ll go for a walk or a run, or she’ll get out her bicycle and pedal along the Meewasin Trail. She doesn’t leave the house with any intention of thinking about work; no, she’s out there for the exercise; she’s out there to experience the river and the wind and the birdsong and the puddles at the curb. Here’s what happens, often as not, when she gets out there: She stumbles on the answer to whatever writing problem she was trying to solve.
This isn’t magic, and it isn’t divine intervention, it’s neuroscience. Creativity wunderkind Jonah Lehrer can be seen all over creation (pun intended) these days in support of his new book that reviews the science of how this works—how aha! moments, flashes of insight, result from the alpha wave activity that a certain part of the brain generates when the mind relaxes. Here’s the paradox: In order to think of the answer to a question, you have to stop thinking.
When she leaves the house, L is so intentional about not being intentional that she doesn’t even carry a pen and an index card. This means that when an idea strikes, she has no place to write it down. She has to think of a mnemonic, a shorthand way to remember it, until she gets within reach of a pen. For instance, thinking of a stone will help her remember that one of her characters (me, for example) has something in her life that’s begun to feel like a weight (my camera, for example—lately its strap has been digging into my shoulder, and it’s come to symbolize so much more to me than an apparatus for taking photographs). So L files away this thought and relaxes once more, and—ping!—another idea hits. She has to come up with another mnemonic.
She knows her limit, and her limit is three new ideas per outing. I’ve seen her try to hold on to more, and it’s a mistake. She gets overloaded and all the ideas float off, despite my leaping around up here in her gray matter trying to catch them. If she already has three new ideas and a fourth one appears when she pauses on University Bridge to watch the breeze play over the surface of the river, she has to just let that bonus idea drift away. Breaks my heart to see some wonderful new turn in my life disappear into the blue like that. I suppose L has learned to trust that something just as useful will appear some other day while she’s on another walk.
L has other tricks that will sometimes produce the same result as going for a walk. For instance, she’ll give up on a story or a chapter or a paragraph, and she’ll go lie on the couch. She might last all of eight seconds before her mind lights on something in spite of itself and, hello, she’s off the couch and back at the keyboard.
Here’s another thing she’ll do when she isn’t getting anywhere. She’ll find a comfy chair and sit down to read someone else’s work, someone wonderful like A.L. Kennedy. Ah, she’ll think, I’m just going to enjoy a good read. She’ll crack a spine and read two pages and, zoom, she’s back in her office waking up her laptop.
She’s had this experience over and over, but it’s only lately that she’s learned to accept it. Like most of us she’s internalized the usual ideas about responsibility and having a positive work ethic and keeping her nose to the grindstone, and so she’ll sit at that keyboard beating herself up hour after hour before she’ll allow herself to head for the couch or the comfy chair. This is not a bad thing; in fact, it turns out that the frustration stage—impasse, disappointment, losing the fight with the problem—is an essential part of the process. There’s no such thing as a free insight.
If diversionary strategies have helped my author relax her brain to beneficial effect, they ought to work for me too. However, I am not L, and I am not so fond of physical activity as she is. For instance, I do not have a favourite bicycle pump. I do not own a pair of running shorts. I could try one of her alternative strategies for generating alpha waves. Excuse me, there’s a couch in the other room.