Much advice on academic writing suggests the importance of routines – daily writing, finding a good place to work, working for a set period each day. The point of routines is to create a sense of writing as habituated, as something done as a matter of course, rather like brushing teeth or walking the dog.
Targets are also frequently mentioned in writing advice – free writing, generative writing and the use of the Pomodoro technique. These all support writers to produce a particular quantum of text each day. The idea here is to decouple writing from the inner critic, that little voice that continually and often negatively comments on the writing as it is happening.
This is all good advice, in my view, and not something I want to counter. However, I am struck by how these eminently sensible suggestions contribute to our sense of busy-ness. It is very easy to simply add more and more essential daily tasks and targets and suddenly find ourselves completely occupied.
I suspect that what is in danger of getting lost in all of this activity is the time to think.
One of the things I have noticed about working with artists in particular, although it may well not be something confined to this group, is the high value that is placed on slowing down and stopping. Slowing down and stopping are seen as essential to the creative process. Slowing down and stopping requires finding a quiet and still place to NOT think, to UN know. Creating a temporary halt means not consciously working/thinking – and we must remember that writing is thinking.
The type of slowing down I am talking about is directed to freeing the mind from all the things that are of concern, trusting that some-thing will emerge during the time for non-thinking. Paradoxically, not thinking space/time often allows new ideas to bubble to the surface.
The artists I work with often engage in specific exercises to help them slow down and not think. Many deliberately engage in repetitive activity. One artist I know spends time preparing clay, rolling it out, then folding it back up and rolling it out again. She might, she says, spend a day in the studio simply rolling clay. She doesn’t get anxious about not having MADE anything; rolling out clay for a day or more is just part of what is needed. This apparently mindless, but also highly sensual practice, puts her in touch with the material and allows her to switch off conscious thought. It’s a kind of meditation, I guess.
Guided by artists, I have also recently:
- traced patterns from a magazine illustration onto tracing paper – this required time, concentration and also not-thinking since that would disrupt the tracing ;
- held one hand in iced water while writing about/drawing the sensation with the other – this allowed a focus on sensory experience; and
- changed location mid-conversation – this created a new awareness of the immediate context, de-familiarised an otherwise habituated process of talk and stimulated new questions.
Michel de Certeau, in his well-known text The practice of everyday life, one of my very favorite books, also talked about this kind of slowing down process. A passage I remember well is one where he writes about looking out of a train window, falling into a kind of reverie as the landscape changes. In this dreamlike state, he suggests, ideas and narratives that are segmented in our memory often come to the surface. Without apparently making an effort, new connections are made, different perspectives come into view.
It is difficult, of course, to predict whether exercises and reveries will produce new thoughts. So taking the risk to not think is about whether we are prepared to potentially fail – allocating time/space creates the possibility, not a guarantee. If we are writing or reading, we are on task – we see ourselves as on task and we can be seen by others as on task. This is the case even if we don’t produce anything that appears to be worth continuing with. On the other hand, if we are simply daydreaming, or doing a repetitive exercise, then this can easily be mistaken (by us and by others) for not working. NOT working, NOT thinking is of course the whole point… because perversely it may be that the very process of slowing down and not thinking really does create an opportunity for thinking.
Are you a daydream believer? Do you deliberately create places and spaces where you just slow down and/or not think? What happens? What works for you?