500 Words is a blog about the writing process that is published on Thursdays.
If you are stuck in writing hell (it happens) or are stalled as you try to start something new, there is nothing better than the handwritten brain dump. It’s better than scrolling through Twitter, better than typing, better than eating a quart container of ice cream as you search for ideas.
There are no ideas at the bottom of a quart container of ice cream.
Instead, get out a notebook and a good pen or pencil. Start writing whatever comes to mind.
It sounds easier than it is, especially if you have to write “I have nothing to write today. I can’t think of anything to write.” But if you fill a page with that, eventually a few ideas come through, even a storyline or character or two. Here’s something else to try. Start a letter to your mother. “Dear Mom, here is a list of all the things that are bugging me about this project.” Then list them and keep going for a few pages. You’ll be surprised what walls are broken and where you see daylight.
Don’t try this on a computer, iPad or phone. It has to be paper. You have to know when you are getting to the bottom of a filled page, when you turn the page when your pencil gets dull and you have to reach for another. There is something tactile going on when you do this. You have to feel the words flowing out of your hand and on to paper. There is no substitute. Talking into a digital recorder does not work either.
Paradoxically, the brain dump is easier to do if you are a little tired and your inhibitions are down. You are more willing to just try it. Even a glass of wine (one!) or a beer can help. Go ahead, spill a little on the paper by accident. It’s just paper, not a keyboard. The stakes are low. You want to keep them that way.
There is a related technique popularized by Julia Cameron, author of The Artists’ Way. She describes writing her “morning pages.” First thing in the morning, even when you are not fully awake, pull out a notebook and write three pages, without pausing or lifting your pen or pencil from the paper. Just keep going. It’s a free association blast of your creative juices.
Then, have at look at the brain dump. It’s usually pretty good stuff. It’s your choice what to do with the pages after you’re done. For a few years, I highlighted themes that emerged in my morning page scribbles. This helped me to discover writing obsessions that became motors for ideas that lasted for years. Later on, I tried something different. After reading over my pages, I shredded them. It was a Buddhist sand mandala of writing — a project that took more time to build than to take apart. It taught me that first drafts are always revised and not all my writing could stake a claim to being precious. Also, I like shredding.
There is a history to all of this in the automatic writing techniques used by the Surrealists. The aim of these painters and sculptors was to gain access to the subconscious, and yours is the same.
Thanks for giving this a read,
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