3.17.2016

Walk About

Ever since Archimedes stepped into a bathtub, humankind has been looking for eureka moments. Nowhere is that search as ceaseless as in the world of literature. A book contains so many sentences, and you want them all to sparkle. That’s why a large proportion of the edits an author makes on a draft consists of switching around a phrase, or substituting a fresh vocabulary word, or a dozen other changes to make a sentence more polished.

The creation of a story comes out an agonizing dribble at a time, and it’s easy to become discouraged. Minutes upon minutes can pass while you stare at a page, knowing that brilliance is burgeoning somewhere in the back of your mind—but not a single blasted thought will come out.

In these cases, it helps to be hyperactive. A person who cannot sit still will do what an author who is stuck requires so badly: he gets up. While I’ve never found that pacing about, hand in chin, does much good, I do know that when I stop forcing the issue, metaphorically beating my head against the screen, good ideas come to me.

You can make this a deliberate part of your routine. You get up to stick the half-drunk coffee in the microwave. While the half minute of heating up ticks off, you may find that a snatch of an idea comes to you. If you have been absorbed in what to write next, that unbidden snatch may well be what you wanted. This technique works for any sort of roaming activity, be it making lunch, folding clothes, going to the loo, or, well, taking a bath. You have allowed yourself to relax, and your subconscious responds: “Now that you’re not thinking about it . . .”

Little by little, those ambulations around the house can produce hundreds of clear-cut ideas that you can stud into your story. You won’t experience eureka if you’re not looking at all, but you can make it a steady practice. So, the next time you’re feeling really stupid and inadequate, give yourself a break. Literally, go smell the flowers.

Exercise: Once a stray thought comes to you, you then have to write it down. Trust me, with all the thoughts that pass through your mind while roaming about, you can so easily forget it. Make sure you carry your mobile phone with you. If Siri is not at hand, you must act the fool and keep repeating the phrase in your mind, or on your lips, until you return to the keyboard.

“It is not easy to convey, unless one has experienced it, the dramatic feeling of sudden enlightenment that floods the mind when the right idea finally clicks into place.”
—Francis Crick

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine




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