What works best, as a way in? The idea, or the image?
The problem with THINKING (about IDEAS) in your HEAD.
(This is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in March of 2018.)
How many times have you heard others (or yourself) say or think, “I can’t think of anything to write!” Lynda Barry talks about why thinking isn’t the way to get anywhere. Moving away from having to think of an IDEA to write about, toward accessing what she calls the IMAGE WORLD. She makes a distinction between the top of the brain and the back of the mind (where the images live). (If you don’t know about Lynda Barry, look her up! The book SYLLABUS is a great resource, as are her TED talks and YouTube exercise videos.)
In a college class I was teaching in 2018, I noticed how this tension works itself out when I used a prompt from Nick Bantock’s THE TRICKSTER’S HAT and asked students to write a list of “unusual” things that have happened to them. I saw them engage in the act of not-writing: they got caught on thinking WHAT IS UNUSUAL? And that question (and the judgment built into the tag of “unusual”) engaged a less-helpful part of their brains. It led me to gather more evidence about what I have experienced: THINKING is kind of a problem, actually, when we’re trying to start from scratch, and come up with the stuff to write about. At least it’s a problem for me. Put another way—THINKING (in that way) doesn’t help start or sustain the flow state I want and need when I am writing.
Another example: In 2016 when I was WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE with Lynda Barry at the Omega Institute, the rule was that we were to draw our daily self-portraits (2 minute index card drawing of ourselves in various scenarios) and introduce our portraits to our neighbors (let the index card self portraits meet each other). On Thursday, Lynda asked us to draw ourselves dancing. We did so. I held my card up to the card of the person next to me, and she said something like “oh, I love how you…” (whatever she said escapes me now) and I FELT THE OXYGEN LEAVE THE ROOM. Just because this well-intentioned human next to me made specific comments about what I drew! I always think about that when I teach, and when I write.
The thing seems to be how to keep the most possible oxygen in the room, in the practice, to sustain the process of creation.
When we’re going to write, we have to move from stagnation and stillness—from the cold state of not-writing. What often stops me is the inner critic. I think the inner critic is connected to that thinking part of the brain.
We have to get moving. We have to start by NOT getting stopped.