Monday, August 20, 2012

Those Boys in the Basement

Ever have those moments when you've slaved all day over a hot keyboard and gotten in all your pages and so you think, okay, I deserve a break today? (And, no, I don't mean a Big Mac and fries.)  Or let's say you've been fretting all day and you just can not, for the life of you, figure out how to tweak something to make that plot go?  In either case, you get up, walk away, head out to the gym--and then <DOH> it hits you, that Bart Simpson moment: how you're going to have to go back and tear up about five of those ten or twelve pages because you messed up.  Or that messy plot point unravels for you?  Or there's something even better you coulda/shoulda/woulda written if you've only been THINKING?  

Ah, but the trick is: you thought of it because you didn't.

In BAG OF BONES and ON WRITING, King calls it the boys in the basement.  Other people call it: muse, the subconscious, the unconscious, the artistic impulse.  Me, I call it both a Bart Simpson moment and a necessary ingredient to creativity: those instances when you have relaxed your conscious attention to a task and, Eureka, the answer--or a reasonable facsimile--presents itself.  For it to work for me, I need to be exercising or out in the garden, out in the sun, or hiking--doing something outdoors.  I have a writer-friend who routinely takes a nap if he comes up against a plot point that just won't fix itself.  Stephen King goes for long walks, and so does his protag in BAG OF BONES.

What we're all doing is diverting our attention from the task at hand.  We're removing ourselves from the surround and environmental cues that not only dictate how we should be behaving (i.e., hoeing a garden is altogether different from tapping on a keyboard and composing sentences) but create the expectations that we SHOULD both create and be creative.  That is, we're taking ourselves out from under the eye of the boss-man, who'll certainly dock our pay if we take one second's extra break than we're entitled to.

We all know the difference in these styles of thought, too, because we feel them and we feel the transitions back and forth.  (Hinky and unsettling, but true.)  Conscious thought is analytic and derivative; that is, when we're focused on a task, we think about it and make judgments.  We winnow; we parse and pare; we don't encourage the weeds.  Unconscious thought is, of course, much more closely related to dreaming, when the mind makes what feel like bizarre associations on the basis of connections we've forgotten about.  Think of the dream's imagery as the brain's attempt to find near-matches, places where your experiences should be slotted.  Those pathways are not logical; they're not derivative; they're a bit like weedy cross-connections: dandelions that worked their way into your cucumber patch because both plants have yellow flowers.

Allowing your unconscious to help you out is a bit like letting the boys in the basement play.  You need to relax enough to allow them to play, and for many of us, that means distractions: walking, napping, ripping out pesky weeds, breaking up of dirt, cooking dinner, doing the laundry; anything that allows your rigorous control over where your thoughts go to slip a bit.

But creativity is still a two-step process.  Yes, you can let the boys play.  They can come up with an interesting and novel solution.  But then you have to allow that solution to become conscious; it has to translate and transfer itself from the back of your mind to the front.  This isn't trivial either.  If you've ever tried a dream journal (I did, waaaay back when I was in analysis), you realize how stupid your dreams feel and sound and how fleeting they are once you engage a secondary, cognitive process like forming words with a pen or pencil.  What felt so logical or emotionally laden in a dream becomes, well, kind of dumb in the translation--and you also tend to forget if you can't find a way to allow the transfer to occur, and quickly.

For me, that means talking to myself, out loud, especially since I'm usually miles from home.  Yes, I get many strange looks because I have to keep talking, or my attention begins to wander again.  (This is both good and bad.  I may lose what I just discovered, but I may also gain something else.   In the middle of the night, if I jump up after a long period of staring at the ceiling and letting my attention wander, then I have a little tougher time deciphering what I meant if I've written it down.  Hearing my own voice tends to sock it home.  Even then, I still forget, which is kind of a pain.  Not to mention the fact that I'm jumping up and down all night long, and the husband is . . . well, a little annoyed.  OTOH, I have a very understanding spouse who doesn't seem to mind talking for a while in the wee hours.  He understands the value of calming the savage beast.)  I know other authors carry notebooks; some talk into digital recorders or their phones.  We all have our ways of translating that play into the work we've secretly been doing all along.

The important thing is to recognize that not paying attention allows us to solve complex problems--BUT that only works when we actually have a goal.  In other words, if you're inattentive and sort of a space cadet and have no real goal or problem or purpose . . . yeah, you're going to flounder, you're going to drift, and no Eureka moments for you.  On the other hand, if you are engaged in solving a complex problem, then not paying attention--not thinking about what's bothering you--will actually help the boys help YOU find the answer.

Now, excuse me . . . oooh, there goes a really pretty butterfly . . .


Jordan Dane said...

I call this my screaming brain. It distracts me, usually before I write down a wrong plot path. And hearing my own voice helps me too, but I usually force my husband or my mom to listen as I ramble, so no one fits me into a straitjacket.

Ilsa said...

Yeah, I only wish my brain-scream happened during an actual work moment. It always happens later :<P

Jordan Dane said...

The mind is amazing though, isn't it?'ve learned to trust my instincts more because I know my mind is working through the problem. Thriller author, Robert Crais, says that he constantly writes in fear, but that he trusts the talent that got him where he is. I have to say that sounds like a brain scream to me. We humans are a strange lot. Our brains are the cool under fire jet jockeys, while we fret about everything else.

Writing is an amazing process that still thrills me.