The Light Beyond the Wet Blanket

100_2648Back at this post, we talked about throwing away the Wet Blanket—turning off the part of your prefrontal cortex that inhibits creativity—in order to use new writing skills and be creative at the same time.

It’s easy to say.  There are writers who have, it would seem, a natural ability to bypass the Wet Blanket or perhaps have no Wet Blanket at all.  Hearing their advice—”Just do it!”—can be so frustrating because the fact you can’t just do it makes you feel like a failure or an imposter.  It’s even worse when the advice is coupled with judgment about a writer’s worth that’s based on this single measure.

But know this, my darlings: Very few writers can “just do it,” and natural ability is no indication of future success.  The fact your creativity doesn’t perform on command is normal.  Tapping your creativity can be learned.  But it is also, unquestionably, difficult at times.  And the most difficult time is when you’re actively working to improve your skills.

Research performed at the University of Pennsylvania found free and creative thinking could be enhanced by inhibiting the left prefrontal cortex with a mild electrical current.  Shocking your brain sounds a tad extreme for home use—not the sort of DIY project I’d recommend—so let’s see what else we can do, hmm?

We writers love our accumulating wordcounts.  Numbers are a way to prove—to ourselves, if no one else—that we’re actually doing something, moving forward, making progress.

But we get so focused on forward progress that deleting words feels like failure, and words written for anything but a story we expect to edit and market feel like a waste of time.  We talk about it as spinning our wheels, being stuck in one place, or even (dun-dun-DUUUUN!) writer’s block.  Among writers who have seen a little success—moderate sales on the first self-published novel or a publishing contract for the first novel—the pressure to amass only words that can be strung into a story drives that counterproductive feeling.*

I invite you to see deletion of words and writing non-salable words instead as an investment because practicing the New Thing is the only way to transform it into a Known Thing, and the primary way for a writer to practice is to write.

As an actor, I usually spent more hours rehearsing than performing  Musicians, artists, athletes, crafters, chefs—all of them expect to invest time and effort, expect to do it wrong before doing it right, expect to spend time practicing even when the practice produces nothing useable or salable at the end.  They all know rehearsals are required, not wasted, time.

Gill McGrath mentioned this in comments:  “When I get stuck I start writing in what I call list form, sort of whole thoughts in small readable segments (meaning I am not worried about structure or full stops or actually what I am writing about or if I will ever read it again).”

That’s excellent!  It’s a perfect way to lull the Wet Blanket into thinking it isn’t needed, opening the door to your deeper creativity.  In theater, my favorite director would have actors who seemed unable to truly engage in the scene stop saying their lines and improvise, driven by the scene’s emotion, instead.  I suspect that method hit the same cues Gill is speaking of, and I plan on trying Gill’s “list form” when the Wet Blanket strikes again.

Another method that works for me is often a combination of writing prompts and pressure, which happens to be a method used at many writing workshops.  At the end of the Writers of the Future week-long workshop, we writers were to take a single prop, a quickly-researched topic, and a person we met on the street in front of Hollywood’s Chinese Theater and craft them all into a complete short story in twenty-four hours.

I was terrified.  After all, my head was full of incredible new writing stuff taught by KD Wentworth and Tim Powers—all sorts of ideas and rules and advice and guidelines that left me feeling I hadn’t known a damned thing about storytelling before showing up.  And I didn’t at all consider myself a short story writer.  But the ticking clock (and likely the resulting exhaustion), combined with prompts I didn’t have to think up on my own, tossed the Wet Blanket aside.  With very little editing, that 24-hour story has become one of my most-read short pieces (and, for some reason, extremely popular at Barnes and Noble).

But what about things we write and throw out?  Well, I wrote four or five complete novels’ worth of practice words, as well as a dozen partial novels, before Sword and Chant.  While there are some ideas in that pile I intend to mine for other pieces, the actual storytelling is beyond saving.  And those were all words well spent.  Time well invested.

But there is another way to practice that doesn’t involve actual writing, one that was brought up by Green_Knight in comments over on LiveJournal.  “…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.”

That is indeed so important.  That “fallow period” is a type of rehearsal, indeed part of the learning process that pulls New Thing deeper into the mind to become part of creativity rather than a set of rules to follow.  It’s like the athlete who envisions the perfect throw, the speaker who envisions the audience and venue before stepping onto the stage, the architect who envisions the impact of different angles on the fall of light within a new building.  Imagining how to apply New Thing is practice time as valuable as attempting to apply New Thing.

And many might hear “fallow” and hear “unused.”  In truth, leaving a field fallow is the choice to cease wringing the last bit of productivity from the land and instead allow it to regain its natural fertility.  Fallow fields are not left bare.  They are instead covered with plants–either intentionally planted or naturally seeded–that enrich the soil for future crops.

So all those words you write and discard, all the stories you start and stop, all the writing rambles and morning pages and journaling and stream-of-consciousness words you get on the page, all the time spent seemingly doing nothing but thinking—all of them are ways of practicing.  All of them help get rid of the Wet Blanket.

Lastly, I want to mention the importance of retreats.  It can be a specific writer’s retreat, like Rainforest, or a workshop-driven retreat like Viable Paradise, or a lone excursion like my days camping beside a lake.  If you’re generally like me (a human with responsibilities) or perhaps specifically like me (the widowed parent of a teenager, self-employed, solely responsible for all finances, concerned for aging parents, working to complete numerous writing and teaching projects), the Wet Blanket of your prefrontal cortex will fight tooth and claw to maintain control because it might be needed at a heartbeat’s notice.

In those cases, retreating lets the Wet Blanket relax.  Sometimes the relaxation comes quickly.  A few minutes into my drive to the campground, my mind had already released the responsibilities of home and turned to solving the problems in my novel.  While camping, I let myself take my time, work or walk or sleep or eat or stare at the landscape when the fancy struck me.  Forty-eight hours of bliss.

Sometimes, though, it takes days.  When I attended Viable Paradise, I think it was Wednesday before I fully relaxed, and even that was with the help of gimlets and whiskey.  I’d been wound so tightly for the months leading up to that week, getting my Wet Blanket to go away was actually a painful process, but so worth it.

If you’re a writer without the options to get away, as I was for many years, the notion of a retreat sounds like a distant dream.  But this is when rituals come into play, truly.  Your time might be limited to an hour between the time the kids go to sleep and the moment you are too tired to continue, or a lunch hour hunched over a notebook in your cubicle at work, or twenty-minute sprints dependent on naptime.

If this is your situation, (been there, done that, got the stained and tattered t-shirt!) you can develop a ritual to set your Wet Blanket aside.  A cup of coffee or tea.  Re-typing the last paragraph from the day before, then writing more.  A quick note posted on Twitter that you are commencing your writing time.  Anything can become the cue your Wet Blanket can to be elsewhere for awhile because the world is, for a little space of time, a safe and predictable and uneventful place.

So.  Turning the Wet Blanket into a warm and cozy one requires practice—actual writing, and thinking about writing.  That practice can be helped along with acceptance of the process that produces words simply for the sake of writing them, and enjoyment of that process as one of discovery.  And if it is the stress of life rather than the writing rules that keep your Wet Blanket tucked over your creativity, finding a way to retreat—whether by physically leaving home, or creating a set of ritual cues—can do the trick.

It isn’t an easy process.  It isn’t comfortable.  And sometimes it feels… well, safer to stick with the rules we implement while editing than risk what Sherwood Smith calls the white fire.  But it is necessary if we want to reach that point of creativity when everything around us disappears, time becomes inconsequential, and we fall into our own story as if it has always been part of us.

And you know what?  That’s not a touchy-feely woo-woo notion, either.  It seems that when we hit that deep creative flow, another part of our brain—the parietal lobe—goes very quiet.  And when that happens, our sense of self as a distinct and separate being fades away.  It happens during prayer.  It happens during meditation.  And it happens when we sink into storytelling.

We truly do feel at one with our work.  Our brain can make it so.

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