Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Not Writing, or Why Your Brain Is An Ice-Cream Maker

The reason I haven't been blogging as much recently is that I am in the process of learning an important lesson, which is: in order to write, you have to not write.*
*This goes for other creative acts, too. Painting, drawing, photography, furniture-building, whatever. But I'm a writer so I'm going to talk about writing.


The other day I was talking to my editor about feeling a little burned out, like this book is the most difficult thing I've ever written, and not because of its contents-- more because this is the only substantial writing project I've done as a full-time writer, without school to distract me. And she told me to take a vacation. Which seems silly, right? Why would I need a vacation? Isn't my entire life a vacation? I mean, seriously. But the gears started churning.

Now, if you're anything like me, you don't do well on extended vacations. I get antsy and listless and all I want is my morning cup of tea, at my desk, in front of my computer, in silence. I am a person who enjoys routine. Who is happiest when everything is in its proper place. There are many problems with that trait of mine, namely that I find it difficult to cope with change, but that's another story entirely.

And then the Editor of Wonder suggested days (one at a time, not several strung together) of complete detachment from the writing. Days of taking the train downtown and wandering through an art museum, or going for long walks in distant forest preserves (okay, I don't know exactly what she suggested, but that's the gist of it). Days of absorption.

I used to absorb things all the time, because I was in school. If you ask me what inspired certain pieces of writing, I can look in my "school" folder on my computer, figure out what I was studying at the time I wrote it, and that's it, that's the inspiration. When I came up with the idea for Divergent I was in Psych 101. When I tweaked that idea, four years later, I was grappling with legalism and rolling my eyes at self-help books. It wasn't like I sat down and thought, what real-world ideas am I going to cram into this writing project? It's that my writing was informed by what I was exposed to in the real world.

The lesson I am learning: not writing is as important as writing. And I don't mean not writing like doing what you have to-- paying bills, and painting kitchens, and wrestling with ComEd over the phone (those are my current responsibilities), although those things are certainly important. I mean not writing like browsing the Internet for interesting articles about psychological phenomena, or reading things that have nothing to do with young adult literature (I've been reading poems. I don't even like poetry, really), or, seriously, wandering around art museums or driving to local forest preserves to reminisce about elementary school field trips or baking or watching episodes of QI to learn trivia about crab-catching off the coast of Florida. Or whatever, as long as it is completely unrelated to the words that have taken over your entire life. My entire life.

I am learning that you cannot write well if you are not engaged with the world. And I don't think that you can't write at all if you aren't engaged with the world, because you've probably lived enough life to piece together a convincing manuscript. But if the information I know and the thought patterns I've developed remain constant, I will never come up with anything new, different, interesting, intriguing, or enlightening. And what I write will be somehow lacking in texture and depth. I am sure of it.

The writing mind is like an ice cream maker. It will always produce ice cream, but unless you intervene, that ice cream will always be vanilla. You have to acquire new ingredients if you want to make the ice cream taste like something else, or have an interesting texture. Chocolate chips. Berries. Nuts. You get the idea.

Because vanilla will never be anything other than "nice" or "fine."

And if someone describes my writing as "nice" or "fine"...I will smack my head against a wall.

The world is a fascinating place. Not everything interests me, but a lot of things do, and I'm trying to get in touch with them again. I'll let you know how it goes. I'll even try to post pictures.

And I encourage you, if you're having the same problem that I am, to go! Go out into the world and remember why it's so freaking interesting! I'm on a mission. Join me.

Happy not writing, everyone.

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