Today’s Very Quick Writing Tip
Posted on July 7, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 29 Comments
Written yourself into a corner? Go take a shower.
No, seriously. Whenever I write myself into a corner (like, for example, yesterday), I go and take a long shower. And whilst I am standing there doing nothing other than having water spritzing onto my head and body, my brain works the problem. And more often than not, comes up with a solution.
(It doesn’t have to be a shower. It can be housecleaning, or going on a long drive, and basically any activity that keeps you busy while you brain has nothing else to do but work the problem. You get the idea.)
I suspect I’ve said this before, and that other writers and creators have said similar things. But inasmuch as I just used it again, and it worked, I thought I’d mention it again.
Also, uh, hello. Busy writing, I am. It’s not a bad way to live. Hope your Friday is going well.
For me, it’s either golf or driving with music on. Sometimes, though, I just have to write my way out of it.
I’m a programmer, and I do this all the time. just focusing on something else does amazing things for problem-solving.
A good night’s sleep often does it too. My doctoral dissertation involved classifying ways that people muck up certain software projects. I worked at it for about 8 hours one day and nothing clicked. Went to bed, and when I woke up the answer was right there in my head.
I also endorse this! Walking to and from work has been very good for my writing.
Taking a walk (with a dog if you have one) has two benefits – mind clearing and exercise.
Organizing is my favorite multi-taskiing problem fixer. When I can’t think my way around a writing problem, I deal with the cabinet under the bathroom sink, or the medicine cabinet, or a closet. Although the act of choosing and sorting and organizing does require a small amount of brain power, the act of logically putting things in order usually fixes the writing problem, too.
Like Fogeyman above, I’m a computer programmer. I can confirm that walking away from a problem for a few minutes does wonders to help solve it.
I do a similar thing when I have a software bug that I am trying to figure out; but I go for a long walk and invariably the answer comes to me when I about 2 miles out.
A few years back we installed an on-demand hot water heater. It is the single best tool for solving problems. There is no effective limit on the length of my showers. Sometimes it takes a while.
Sometimes reading this blog provides the right mental distraction. Wait, has our host said he’s cutting back? Dang, I’m going to have to start solving my own problems from now on.
As composer for 35+ years, I have take a long ride on the motorcycle when stuck. The sound of the motor or the wheels on pavement usually sparked a melody or harmonic progression. I do the same when stuck with writing now, and it opens the floodgates like a charm.
What you describe are commonly called flash insights and are a normal functioning of the human brain. Robert Greene discusses this at length in Mastery.
Suffice it to say that our minds have minds of their own, hidden recesses–intellectual furnaces, really–that operate just outside of conscious reach.
How these furnaces really operate I do not know, but I do know they work best when the conscious mind is distracted or diverted from the deep work at hand.
John, in my observation, what separates most creatives from everyone else is that they learn to accept, appreciate, trust, and actively cultivate their flash insights.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but the grind of mass public education, buttressed by authority figures who demand we trust them more than the verdicts of our own minds, does take its toll.
Showers tend to generate ideas for me (elements floating around and making odd combinations); long walks can be even better. Went for a walk once with a mental blank page; saw a couple walking a tiny Chihuahua; pictured that miniscule dog sitting in front of a birthday cake bigger than himself, and had one of my favorite stories.
Also a programmer, been programming for over 40 years. At home, having a shower is the best way to solve problems. If I’m at work though, doing something else that’s physical like cleaning or walking will let my brain work in the background and solve the problems. In time, in life, you learn techniques to prime the brain and then let it run and then reap the benefits.
So true. Knotty translation problems are also best resolved in the shower, usually the next morning.
When I was in college, I remember people complaining that they learned all of the subject matter but had a hard time taking tests. I noticed in finals week, that the gym was empty. I strongly recommended that they would take an hour to play racquetball on those days. They can’t think while playing such a reactive sport, and their bodies get tired enough to sleep well that night. And it’s only an hour. Sometimes you need to turn off your brain and let your body recognize a change. And having your brain go over the same things a mile per minute is not productive.
Back when my husband and I still shared a computer, he came barreling out of the bedroom one afternoon, shampoo still in his hair and towel barely wrapped around him, screaming “Start Word!” That shower was responsible for the “Gunbarrel Diplomacy” sidebar in GURPS Traveller: Ground Forces, and it went to print effectively unchanged from what poured out of his fingertips that day.
For me, it’s naps. Napping is one of the best writing exercises I know.
The subconscious: solving your problems since…uh…a long time ago.
Dancing. Gardening. Running. Anything physical – it *has* to be physical – that engages the brain only on an autopilot sort of level.
I used to joke that I was procrastinating so hard at a story due for an APA that I went out and mowed the lawn rather than write.
Anything that lets you turn off the critical faculties of your brain for a while can help. I find that exercising to exhaustion* is effective, particularly if I put the problem into my head right before I go to sleep and keep a notepad by bedside in case I wake with an inspiration.
* Sadly, much easier to do now than it was 10 years ago. Age creepeth up on one. Or maybe I’m just more efficient at the exercise thing. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Much has been written on the subject of overcoming writer’s block, but if you want a few more thoughts, here are some of mine: http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2012/writers-block.html
My dad often commented, during our Deep Family Bull-sessions, that he got his best thoughts when he took a break to go to the bathroom.
I have found this observation to be a true for myself, as well.
I’ve been told that showers work well because all that water in the air around you stimulates electric activity in the brain. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it does work.
Also: Long drives with my wife.* If I drive somewhere alone, I can get a lot of concept work done, but if I drive somewhere with Ann, I find I can talk through problems in a way I can’t without a person to frame the problem to. Ann does not need to actually make any suggestions; merely the process of articulation the problem to someone helps me find solutions.
*Note: Ann is not available for long drives with other writers. Sorry, you’ll have to find your own Ann.
For a while, I had a 45-minute commute by bicycle, along a trail with no cars allowed.
Best thinking time _ever_. Only problem was a way to take notes while cycling. (Voice recorder.)
That’s what brought me here. It’s worth noting that “go take a shower” is often excellent advice for writers, generally speaking.
I agree with cavyherd. Especially at work where it’s the only place you can get a moment’s quiet to really think through stuff (quiet other than the bloke straining two stalls over).
Software dev here, and I love that we have a shower at the office! (We have lots of bicycle commuters)
Twenty-several US and international patentsand something like a third of them figured out showering.
I have a solitaire app I use for that kind of thing – that and long walks.