Woody Allen recently:What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges as it is to the audience when the comic says it. I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.
Whenever I find myself in a bout of nonwriting (not writer’s block per se, but an extended period of nonwritingness), I know it’s this. Not a lack of ideas, not a lack of the right space to write, the right drink, the right order, the right methods, the proper instrument, not a deficit of time. It’s simply my conscious getting in the way. I would be better off saying things more wildly, then looking at what I’d said. Do first, think later; many things can benefit from this method — falling in love, taking your first job, speaking up for what you believe in. Write first, think later. Repeat.
Write first, think later?
My theory is this: an unconscious approach to writing is one tool, but not the only one. I start my writing a lot of the time by lying on my couch with my eyes closed, thinking about some idea or event, and then I develop an angle, a take on it. Then I sit at my desk and write down what I have been thinking.
A lot of my writing is based on reading something someone has written, and I get stuck on a paragraph: it grabs me, or I totally disagree, or it sparks a new connection to something else. And then I write that down next to the paragraph.
But some of the time I am surprised by what I write, never knowing what was happening until I read it, like someone close and smarter sent it to me. Or maybe from a future me, a me that had assimilated the thought and captured it for me.
I wish I had some sense of what my “usual writing mode” would be. I don’t think I have one, maybe because I have spent so much of my life writing. And of course I taught writing years ago.
I can’t say I buy the whole laying-on-the- couch waiting for inspiration. I do think it’s important to have a system for capturing inspiration when it hits—I replaced my old notebook habit with Evernote, which has helped a ton.
But I think editing and re-editing are way more important than some initial thunder bolt. Even initially sucky ideas can turn into something good if you give it some attention. That’s where the real craft comes in. And in an immediate feedback blog world, it’s harder to maintain that discipline. But it’s still what separates good writing from crap.
Like any creative endeavor, writing is so idiosyncratic that I doubt there’s any point in looking for a perfect model. That germ of the start seems to be the mystery in everything from writing to landscape design. You just have to figure out what works for your own brain. And that changes over time, to add to the fun.