The key to finding new inspiration often lies in one thing: giving yourself time to think.
It’s happened again. You’ve carved out a precious hour or two to write. And you’ve so been looking forward to it.
But as soon as you sit down, you have no idea where you’ll start. You’re overwhelmed by the sheer number of ideas you have to choose from and don’t know how to narrow them down. It feels like you’re being pulled in a million different possible directions. So you sit, paralyzed, staring as you try to eke words out onto the page.
If you’re like so many writers who have fought through a fruitless session like this, you’re not facing your run-of-the-mill writers block. Instead, you’re facing a special kind of writer’s block I like to call Thought Block. You haven’t been able to think about your writing in depth and thus, you can’t write.
What’s Thought Block?
Writers need mental space to write. You have to have enough mental RAM to process your ideas. If your mind is cluttered with a million non-writing thoughts, it’s going to be that much more difficult to write.
But maybe you have plenty of mental space. Your writing sessions aren’t interrupted with thoughts like “I shouldn’t be writing, I should be doing X.” And you’re not fighting the typical writers block of: “I don’t have any ideas” or “I don’t like the one idea I can come up with.”
Instead, you might struggle with points like “I have so many ideas. Where on earth do I start?” or “I could take the scene this way or that way. Which one do I pick?”
If this sounds like you, consider: when’s the last time you simply thought about your writing?
Often in writing circles, you’ll hear comments like, “Butt in chair, don’t wait for the muse.” “Just start writing.” “Get started and the inspiration will come.”
For a good number of writers, this may be the exact advice they need. After all, writing can be a bit like trying to go to the gym. We fight going and going until we force ourselves to start and once we’re started, we realize: “Hey, everything’s fine.” (For more on overcoming initial activity anxiety, see this great article by Scott Young).
At the same time, writing is a complex beast. Short form pieces need a single solid narrative at the minimum and novel-length works often have a multiple narrative threads to trace, connect and keep from knotting.
Juggling all that mental heavy lifting while also trying to write is a bit like trying to flambé one food while deep-frying another. If you try to do both at the same time, it’s a recipe for disaster. It leaves you staring at the page, torn between getting words on the page and making sure those words actually make sense within the larger scope of the piece.
So, instead of trying to do both at the same time, we need to separate the activities out. Your writing time should be separate from your “thinking about writing” time. Here’s why:
The Value of Just Thinking
What do Agatha Christie, Beethoven and Edison have in common?
By today’s standards, the habits of these three experts look incredibly lazy: Edison used a napping technique involving ball bearings to work on his ideas. Beethoven took long walks while composing. Agatha Christie’s favorite inspiration technique entailed taking a long bath while eating apples.
However, few would argue these three mental giants were anything less than prolific. What’s their secret?
They all understood the power of the subconscious.
We all know those eureka moments that usually come to us when we’re not working. But what if you could train yourself to have those sorts of eureka moments regularly?
That’s exactly what Edison, Beethoven and Christie did. They mulled over their problems in a relaxed way until the answer came to them. Those apparently “lazy” habits harnessed their subconscious minds to consistently produce results.
The good news? We can train our subconscious minds to generate inspiration too.
Enter the Thought Session.
How to Have a Thought Session
A Thought Session is exactly what it sounds like: instead of carving out time to sit down and write, you set aside time to sit and think about your writing. You might brainstorm new ideas, look through already written sections to identify where to fit in sweeping plot changes or figure out how to tie two particularly tricky loose ends together.
In short, you’re plugging away on any pre-writing activities so when you sit down to write, you know exactly where you’ll be working and what you’ll be writing.
To incorporate thought sessions into your writing life, you’ll need to consider these three areas: the environment, the activity and the plan. Let’s dive into each.
In his work, Srinivas Rao talks at length about the importance of shaping your environment to optimize your creativity. His discussion of the nine environments that make up your life is an excellent read for more on the topic. But for our purposes, we just want to start with the physical environment.
Our brains tend to associate certain places and times with specific habits. If we write in the same spot and/or at the same time repeatedly, our brains will begin to associate that time and/or place with writing. Which is why changing schedules or writing spots can be difficult at first (though there is evidence that a change can improve creativity). We’re adjusting until we’ve written at that time or place enough for our brains to make the association with writing.
We’re going to take advantage of this by not doing our thinking about writing in the same place we do our writing.
If we’re thinking about our writing, our brain needs to be in a total separate mode than when we’re actually writing. The two activities are in completely different boxes, even if they’re connected.
Thinking about writing where you usually write may begin muddying the separation. If you’re not careful, you can easily find that what’s supposed to be “get words on the page” writing time is turning into idle thinking time.
So pick a place and time that’s outside of your usual writing spot and like Winnie the Pooh, declare it your Thoughtful Spot.
In theory, thinking about writing should be simple. But in practice, it can be a tricky thing. The more we tell ourselves to think about something directly, the harder it can be to come up with ideas. And we don’t all get our ideas in the same way: some of us are able to think better while completely still, but others need to be up and active for idea generation.
So after you’ve settled on a time and/or place, consider an activity you might do while there. Maybe you decide to drink a cup of tea or coffee. Maybe you go for a walk. Or maybe you sit outside and listen to everything around you.
There’s no one “right” activity. There’s only what works for you. But do aim for low-level stimulation, low-pressure tasks that are more meditative than mindless. You don’t want to be bored (which can lead to your mind wandering off task), but you also don’t want to have so much going on that you’re distracted.
Regardless of the activity you pick, make sure you have some way of recording your thoughts with you. Whether it’s analog or digital, you’ll need to be able to remember the important points from your thought session.
Finally, if you aren’t hit by that bolt of lightning inspired solution during your session, don’t despair. It may take time for everything that’s been shaken up in your mind to gel together. Give your subconscious some time to work on it and see where it goes. And if the activity you picked just doesn’t seem to be working for you, don’t be afraid to switch it up.
Yes, the old adage “failing to plan is planning to fail” still holds true in thought sessions. You must have a basic plan in place before your session starts.
Your first consideration should be: how long will the thinking session be? A hard cut-off time is important as it can be the difference between feeling like you’ve gotten something done or not. Thinking sessions don’t always come with the revelation of a perfect solution. Which means you might leave a session feeling a little flat if you feel like you haven’t “met your goal.”
So set an amount of time for the session and stick to it. Regardless of what you produce during the session, if you’ve hit the amount of time to spend thinking, you’ve hit your goal. In the beginning, it’s probably best to err on the shorter side, fifteen to thirty minutes. If you find the sessions are productive, you can always increase the time.
Next, figure out the exact scope you need to think about during your session. Amorphous goals like: “Figure out the plot in act two” will probably make your session more difficult. Try to narrow it to something more concrete like: “Determine midpoint event and work backwards on outline to connect to the end of act one.”
Now pantsers, you’re probably groaning at the mere mention of planning. Don’t think of this plan as something you have to sketch out in detail and follow to a T. Instead, look at it as coming up with your destination and leaving the rest to the spur of the moment stream of consciousness thoughts. It doesn’t matter how you get to point A as long as you get there.
Once you’ve identified what you’ll be thinking about, list the materials you’ll need for the session. Other than a way to record your ideas, you might need other materials like copies of already written scenes or moodboards for character inspiration. For long thought sessions, you might need snacks and drinks for brain fuel. Make sure you’ve gathered everything together before you start your session—the fewer interruptions, the better.
From there, it’s simply a matter of setting the time aside and giving it a shot. Keep your main goal in mind during the session, ask yourself questions, play around with ideas. There are no hard and fast rules…
Except one: no writing in your project itself.
Your thinking sessions are dedicated to just that: thinking. Which means you can’t write during your session. Outlines? Yes. Notes on potential ideas? Yes. Snippets of dialogue or description? Yes. Full-on scenes or complete sections of a nonfiction piece? No.
This traces back to muddying the waters between thinking about writing and writing. If you’re in a thought session, you’re thinking, not writing. Keep the boxes separate.
If you’re so struck with inspiration that you have to get a scene down now, record as many notes as you can in your thinking spot first, declare the thinking session a success and move to another place to write. After you’ve settled in your writing spot, you can write to your heart’s content.
Once you’re used to thinking about your writing regularly, you may find you’re generating more ideas and solutions. The more you incorporate this habit, the more your subconscious picks up on: “Hey, this is important. I need to work on it.” Which means your eureka moments may come more often, even without dedicated thought sessions.
Ultimately, thinking time isn’t a replacement for writing time, but it’s just as important. Next time you find yourself uncertain about a decision in your writing, try a thought session and see where it leads you.
For more ways to up your word count, edit with ease and get more writing done with less stress, enroll in Writing in the Real World with Micah McGuire – February 17th – March 15th!