Writing Tips for a Disorganized Mind

I specifically remember lying on my stomach on the bed in my room as a teenager, staring at a blank piece of paper (yes, actual paper and a pencil). My favorite writing surface in this position was one of the big “Illustrated Stories from the Book of Mormon” books, specifically the one where the puma is about to leap out of a tree onto Lehi or Moroni–or whoever–strolling along in his belted tunic and sandals. They were thin, solid and slightly larger than a 7×11 page. (And I found a pic online!)

Jacobs-StoriesThe perfect opening line, however, never came to me, so whatever it was that would have followed never got written down. Oh, the disappointment of needing to be brilliant on demand and failing to perform!

Michael often teases me about how my mind jumps all over the place. It’s most apparent when we do a crossword together. He goes through each question and will consider one thoroughly, studying the vast map of information his brain has laid out. I skim through them all and if the answer doesn’t pop into my head immediately, I move on. I’ve filled in all the small, obvious clues and come back around to where I left him earlier when he’ll suddenly fill in “Arizona Cardinals” with no cross hints solved because he finally located it in his mental spreadsheet of western cities with football teams.

I mention this anecdote because, though I seem to have an agile mind, I still want to work in a very linear fashion, which is why I never got past that perfect first line. Perhaps it was the static nature of a piece of paper, whether forming words with pencil or typewriter. Once it’s on the page, it can’t be moved. I imaged professional writers simply started from the beginning and worked their way to the end, producing a final draft in one go because the drudgery of reworking paragraphs was unimaginable to me. However, even with this amazing machinery I’m clacking away on, I still have the impulse to start from the top.

I know there are courses I can take on how to write. There are tons of articles on process, overcoming block, techniques, structure, organization, etc. But I believe in reinventing the wheel. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about my most difficult obstacles.

Write what’s on your mind. There’s an important scene with technical language and concepts you don’t fully understand. You’re disciplined. You’ve done the research, made the notes, but it’s not there, flowing out of your fingertips. So go back to that other scene, the fun and colorful one that makes you happy. There’s a reason that scene is trying to burst through. Its time has come.

Don’t push it. Your brain runs background programs. You plug in various bits of information all through your life which get collated and filed. Even if it’s something you forgot years ago, it’s still in there somewhere, forming your beliefs and view of the world. Your mind has been putting it all together for you while you were going on with other business. There’s a reason we’re advised to sleep on it. Why consciously try to force something when you can reap the rewards with minimal effort?

Cleanse your palate. It’s all a muddled mess. You don’t know who’s saying what, or where that character is going or why, but you know he has to get over there somehow. So, screw it. Play a video game. Read a book. Watch a movie. Generally, I try to read or watch something that’s along the lines of what I’ve been working on. The mental short circuit will clear the churning detritus, creating a navigable course.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Brilliant insights don’t pop up, fully formed, from nothing. Frankly, you stole it from something you read or saw years ago. When I’m cleansing my palate, I’m only a little worried I might plagiarize, or, more worrisome, feel constrained from writing something because someone else already did it, and better. In fact, I read a novel that had lots of elements of something Michael and I had written. Obviously we didn’t plagiarize it. We just seem to have commonalities with the author. Anyway, there are apparently only Seven Basic Plots that can exist, and it’s currently popular to rewrite fairy tales and classic novels, so don’t worry about it.

Hmm. During the process of writing, I seem to have taken a great deal of time and energy (both the reader’s and mine) to illustrate my final point. When I was young and having a difficult time in life, I’d randomly open my copy of the Tao Te Ching for wisdom and comfort. My copy with the mysterious stain on the cloth cover is a 1988 translation by Stephen Mitchell. Passage 76 ends, “The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” This is attributed as the first known instance of a concept that has many iterations, notably by Confuscious, Aesop and the Bible, and is most recognized in this form: “I will bend like a reed in the wind.” My favorite, however, is spoken by Wash in the movie Serenity: “I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.” Joss Whedon obviously didn’t make that up, he just relayed it very well.

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