One of my challenges in the writing process is how to stay connected to whatever I’m working on and have enough distance, at the same time, to have a perspective on what I’m trying to say. Sometimes writing can feel like I’m looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I can work for hours laying down sentences and still feel I am not quite “there” on the page. My usual impulse is to get up and go to the refrigerator, just to check and see if something delicious has magically appeared. Even though I’m the one who stocks the fridge, I’m always hoping that something new and different might have arrived mysteriously between paragraphs.
Amazingly, this little trip away from the desk helps my writing process almost instantly. As soon as I stand up from my desk, a sentence will reorganize itself in my head.
Jonah Lehrer says in his book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” that this is the “outsider” problem. A writer reads her sentences again and again and very soon begins to lose the ability to see her prose as a reader. (In other words, I think I know exactly what I’m trying to say. I think I’m being clear, but that’s because I’m the one saying it.) A writer must reread and edit as if she has never seen the piece before and doesn’t know what these words mean. She must somehow become an outsider to her own work. But how can we achieve this?
Novelist Zadie Smith suggests putting a finished manuscript in a drawer — a year is ideal, she says, or as long as you can manage — so that you can become more of a stranger to your book and eventually read it in a new light. This is tough for journalists with deadlines.
In effect, my little walk to the refrigerator allows me a moment of strangeness. I look backwards, over my shoulder, at the words sitting on my desk and the words go with me in my head as I walk away but in a different order. They are now thoughts rather than words on the page and I’m using a different neural pathway to think about them. Longer walks beyond the kitchen, perhaps along the Mystic River, are also helpful (and easier on the waistline).
All writers will agree that putting words on the page (aka writing) is the best way to actually produce something – a story, poem, essay or novel. Hemmingway adhered to a minimum word count each day, somewhere between 500 and 1,000. Stephen King claims that he writes 2,000 words a day — that’s about eight double-spaced pages — and I believe him! But there is also something to be said for what we are thinking about.
In, “Where Do Sentences Come From,” Verlyn Kinkenborg writes that spending time thinking about words and sentences while walking, or doing anything except writing, is important and makes the writing process flow more easily when we get back to the page. His suggestion: “Experiment a little. Make a sentence of your own in your head. Don’t write it down. Any kind of sentence will do, but keep it short. Rearrange it. Reword it. Then throw it out. Make another. Rearrange. Reword. Discard. You can do this anywhere, at any time. Experiment with rhythm. Let the sentences come and go. Evaluate them … but don’t cling to them … you’ll know that you can replace any sentence you lose with one that’s just as good.”
You can make mental sentences about anything you happen to notice. It may seem as if you’re not writing, but, when you do write, you’ll be more easily in the frame of mind where good ideas come from.
I’ve also noticed that giving myself permission to come and go from my desk has evolved into longer times spent at the desk and writing more deeply. The practice of thinking about sentences, wherever you are, creates confidence that a sentence will come when you are physically writing. Loading the refrigerator with vegetables helps, too. Munching on raw carrots and broccoli is more contemplative and better exercise than wolfing down cheese, deviled eggs and chocolate pudding. And, eventually, when the book is finished and resting in my desk drawer, I may have gained only two pounds instead of 20.