Writers Need Creative Play to Get Their Minds Wandering

Coloring mandalas is one of my favorite forms of Process

Coloring mandalas is one of my favorite forms of Process

Process is typically the most challenging habit for writers to dedicate time to. Creative play for the sake of play seems so frivolous  and non-productive. But before you ditch Process for the sake of something “more valuable,” consider my latest intel on how  play pays off: Process leads to mind-wandering, aka daydreaming, which in turns increases creativity.

My last post introduced Daniel Levitin’s concept of two-part   attentional system: focused attention and mind-wandering. We’ve always assumed that focused attention is how we solve problems, but it’s only half the story.

It turns out that despite what your grade school teachers might have told you, staring out the window and letting your mind wander is NOT a sign of mental laziness. It is an essential part of how your brain works.

brain-energy-300x300Daydreaming is anything but mental idleness. Neurologist Marcus Raichle asked test subjects in an fMRI machine to not think about anything when they were not performing specific tasks that were the focus of his research. He assumed brain activity would drop and give him a baseline measure, but instead it soared.

As Raichle observed, “When you don’t use a muscle, that muscle isn’t doing much. But when your brain is supposedly doing nothing, it’s really doing a tremendous amount.” Because the brain is energy-efficient, Raichle concluded the increased neural activity meant something significant was happening. When he set out to find what, he realized people were daydreaming.

In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer describes Raichel’s research: “[when daydreaming] there is a particularly elaborate electrical conversation between the front and back parts of the brain… These cortical areas don’t normally interact directly; they have different functions and are part of distinct neural pathways. It’s not until we start to daydream that they being to work closely together.”

It’s seems paradoxical, but despite the extra oxygen and glucose mind-wandering requires to fuel increased neural activity, it simultaneously restores mental energy.

brain energy 2In an interview with Mother Jones, Daniel Levitin said: “That daydreaming mode…turns out to be restorative. It’s like hitting the reset button in your brain. And you don’t get in that daydreaming mode typically by texting and Facebooking. You get in it by disengaging.”

In addition to refreshing the brain, mind-wandering causes disparate parts of the brain interact in a more fluid, non-linear fashion that allows the brain to make the new connections and associations that are the heart of creativity.

Levitin observes, “The history of science and culture is filled with stories of how many of the greatest scientific and artistic discoveries occurred while the creator was not thinking about what he was working on—not consciously anyway—the daydreaming mode solved the problem for him, and the answer appeared suddenly as a stroke of insight.”

Daydreaming inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, revealed a theory of relativity to Albert Einstein and prompted August Kekule to recognize that benzene’s structure is circular.

What have you discovered or gained insight to while doing Process? Where might Process lead you next?

Why Writers Need Free-Range Brains

mind wander canstockphoto13928121When was the last time you left your mind wander free? Ignored your work projects and To Do list? Unplugged from social media, stepped away from your computer, phone, tablet and TV and even stopped reading? Simply let your eyes take in what’s in front of you and let ideas bob to the surface and float away?

For some of us, it’s been so long that we get a little squeamish at the mere idea of not having some external thing direct our attention. We’re like city folk in the woods, so accustomed to noise and activity, we find the stillness unsettling.

Yet, the research is clear that the brain needs downtime. The human brain needs time in a state that is not sleep, but not constant activity and concentration either. Writers and other artists in particular need time for our brains to range freely.

Loose Brain, Focused Brain

The brain has two different attention states: mind-wandering and focused-attention. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind, describes mind-wandering:

“This distinctive and special brain state is marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, and a relative lack of barriers between senses and concepts. It also can lead to greater creativity and solutions to problems that seemed unsolvable. Its discovery – a special brain network that supports a more fluid and nonlinear mode of thinking – was one of the biggest neuroscientific discoveries in the last twenty years.”

info-overload-21-300x300It is ironic that the last twenty years has also seen a decline in our availability to this creative brain state. Back in the day, before cell phones and the internet became omnipresent, we didn’t have devices constantly demanding our attention and allowed our minds to wander more often. We weren’t expected to be available and productive 24/7.

We actually did nothing *gasp* when we stood in line at the post office or store. We didn’t have  cell phones to send/receive email or play games with or discover a new app on. Sometimes we chatted to the person next to us in line. And we stood in line more because we didn’t shop online.

It is also ironic that electronic distractions and our desire to be constantly engaged interferes with the focused mode of thinking as much as it does mind-wandering.

Creativity Needs Both Brain States

brain both sides canstockphoto16123448Creativity requires shifting from intense focus concentrated on solving a problem to intervals of mind-wandering (aka incubating). Most creative breakthroughs come when we stop trying – in the shower, driving, watching a fire, daydreaming. Of course those eureka moments can’t arrive if you don’t also invest time and attention on researching the problem and striving for solutions.

Nearly constant stimulus from electronic devices, a flood of email and social media, movies and TV that can be streamed at anytime and a flood of information from media makes it harder to achieve either focused-attention or mind-wandering.

I’m not being a luddite. I not suggesting we toss our phones/tablets/computers and unplug forever. I see the advantages of our electronic devices. I also see the costs of overusing our devices. One of those costs is that your brain never wanders. Creative people need free range brains.

sunsetAnd now if you’ll excuse me, my brain is wandering as I gaze out the window at how the trees in our park are silhouetted against the mauve sky and midnight blue clouds.

Free Your Writing With Limits

ParadoxI love a good paradox and this is one of my favorites: the best way to set your creativity free is to impose creative constraints.

Poets do it all the time. The sonnet, haiku, sestina, villanelle, quatrains, even the common limerick are all examples of the structures and constraints poets use to keep their writing and their writing life interesting.

Prose writers challenge themselves with constraints on length – no more than 500 words for short shorts (or even 100 words by some definitions) – or with strict adherence to a specific point of view – first person, third person limited, third person objective – or with a variety of genre, structure and content limitations.

One of the appeals of writing my novella was the challenge of conveying plot twists through the POV of an elderly, first-person narrator whose memory was being intentionally manipulated and who therefore became more and more unreliable as the story developed.

Why Do We Do this to Ourselves?

Because too much freedom – “write anything you want” – can be paralyzing. You don’t know where to start, so you don’t start at all.

According to Jonah Lehrer in Imagine, constraints push us to new creativity. “You break out of the box by stepping into shackles,” he writes.

“Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line,” Lehrer continues. “When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.”

Try On New Shackles

If your usual approach feels stale, consider stepping outside of your genre box. You don’t have to make a lifelong commitment to a new genre. A week or two of creative cross-training in another style could change your perspective, give you a new way to think about and use language, and give you tools and techniques you can adapt to your “home” genre.

Think of it as fusion writing.

If you’re a poet who thinks fiction is a waste of words or who can’t fathom writing that many pages, try telling a story on the page and let yourself ramble on and on just to see where you end up.

If you’re a fiction writer who fears memoir will insult or embarrass your family and friends, write the juicy story that would have the people involved squirming in their seats. No one says you have to actually let them or anyone else read it.

The genres you avoid because you are intimidated by their creative demands or you just don’t see the point have something significant to teach you. At the very least, you’ll free yourself from the expectation that everything you write has to “be good,” have a purpose or “go somewhere.”

You might find that after reining yourself in to practice the discipline of the other genre, you can’t wait to let loose in your usual genre. Your passion for your typical form might be reignited by having an “affair” with another genre.

What genres do you want to flirt with?

Random Scene Generator: 10 Steps to Solve the “I don’t know what to write” Problem


A couple of years ago, I created a Random Scene Generator (RSG) as a birthday present for a friend to use when she wanted to kickstart her daily NaNoWriMo writing. Even if you aren’t doing NaNoWriMo, you can still play with the RSG.

My friend, known as ShildeInMN to other Wrimos, says “You could call it the Random SCREAM Generator, too, for all the fun it is! It’s terrific!”

Full Disclosure: I have Reservations about NaNoWriMo

If you don’t have a deep understanding of your characters and the structure of the novel you want to write, you can spend an awful lot of words and time overwriting scenes that ultimately don’t go anywhere. I learned the hard way that there are more effective ways to write a novel than just sitting down, cranking out words and hoping for the best.

It takes hours and hours and hours of preparation to get ready to start drafting a novel. If you’re not at that point, NaNoWriMo can lead you astray.

That said, if you are ready, NaNoWriMo can be a great support to get past resistance. I applaud the emphasis on letting go of unreasonably high expectations so you can get the words on the screen. On the other hand, unreasonably low expectations just so you can get words on the screen can create 5,000 words you can salvage and 45,000 words of fluff.

Random Scene Generator

NaNo or not, you can set up a Random Scene Generator (RSG)  in about a half hour. Once you get it set up, the scene generator will pay dividends anytime you’re at a loss for where to start writing. If you’re meeting with a group of other writers, creating the lists together will make the tool more diverse, random and a lot more fun.

Step 1. List 21 verbs. If you’re meeting a group, create one list that everyone contributes to. (Do this for all the lists through Step 7.) Everyone will need to write their own copy of the group-generated lists.

Step 2. List 21 locations.

Step 3. List 21 locations modifiers, that is, 21 adjectives that could describe a place.

Step 4. List 21 scents.

Step 5. List 21 sounds.

Step 6. List 21 secrets or secret agendas.

Step 7. Optional: Make lists of other scene elements you may want to include, like 21 objects or 21 strangers who could wander through a scene, or 21 sights, 21 animals, etc.

Step 8. Each writer now selects 2 characters from her or his own novel and inserts those names in the following format:

(Character 1’s Name) __________________ (Character 2’s Name)

You’ll fill in the blank in a moment. Everyone works independently from here out.

Step 9. Here’s where the random element comes in. Roll two dice. If you prefer, you can go to http://www.random.org/dice/ and let their random number generator roll the dice for you. Personally, I like rolling the dice, I like the sound of them and I like the associations of playing games.

Use this table to convert the dice to a number.

1, 1 = 1
1, 2 = 2 2, 2 = 7
 1, 3 = 3  2, 3 = 8  3, 3 = 12
 1, 4 = 4  2, 4 = 9  3, 4 = 13  4, 4 = 16
 1, 5 = 5  2, 5 = 10  3, 5 = 14  4, 5 = 17  5, 5 = 19
 1, 6 = 6  2, 6 =11  3, 6 = 15  4, 6 = 18  5, 6 = 20  6, 6 = 21

The first time you roll the dice determines which verb on your verb list goes in the blank between the names of your two characters. (You may need to add a preposition like  “with” “to” “for” or  “about” to the verb.)

For example, I used the characters Nikki and LeeMarie. I rolled a 3 and a 5, which means I selected verb #14, which is ‘question’ on my list. So my first sentence is “Nikki questioned LeeMarie.” If I had rolled a 1 and 4, I would have selected verb #4 from my list, which is “argue” (where I’d need to add “with”) and my first sentence would be “Nikki argued with LeeMarie.”

Step 10. Continue to roll the dice to select from your remaining lists. The second roll of the dice gives you the location; the third roll gives you the location modifier; the fourth gives you a scent; the fifth a sound; the sixth a secret or secret agenda. You now have 2 characters, one of whom has a secret or a secret agenda, doing something somewhere with other scene elements to incorporate as you write.

For example, my second roll was a 5 and a 4, which equals #17, and selected “closet” as my location. I rolled another 5 and 4 for my third roll, which gave me “windy”, so now I have Nikki questioning LeeMarie in a windy closet. Hmmm, that’s interesting. The smell the RSG gave me was “grease and sugar smell of the State Fair” and the sound was “computer shut down ping.” My last roll gave me “plagiarized senior paper” as the secret.

So at some point in the scene, there will be the smell of State Fair food and the ping of a computer turning off. I can’t figure out why it would matter to Nikki that she or LeeMarie plagiarized a senior paper, but Nikki is an English professor, so it could be that she has a problem with a student who plagiarized a paper,. But it could be even more interesting if Nikki finds out tthat he physicist she and LeeMarie are in conflict with plagiarized his senior thesis and he’s not the expert he claims to be. Hmm again. A plot twist I hadn’t thought of before.

Step 11. Start writing with your characters in the location doing the verb the RSG selected with the other randomly selected scene elements and see what happens.

Step 12. Write and tell me what the RSG selected for you and how well it worked for you.


New Book Update: Structure Gives Writing Freedom to Evolve

My previous post introduced the paradox that imposing structure as I revise my novel gives me more creative freedom. This “structured freedom” allows characters and scenes to evolve with dissolving.

How the Draft Evolves by Changing Locations

evolutionofideabulb writers blockThis how my drafting evolved when I started adding new scenes for my new POV character Kat:

Day 1: Draft the first new scene (from scene card 4.1) for Kat with Daniel in an alley

Day 2: Tweak first scene (4.1)

Day 3: Draft the second scene (from scene card 6.1) in a laundromat where Kat tells her father how she met Daniel.

Day 4: Add an argument I “heard” Kat and her father have while I was walking the dogs where Kat is offended that her father is having her tailed for her own protection. Revise Kat’s first scene (4.1) to show Kat knows someone is following her.

Later on Day 4: Realize that if Kat’s father is having her tailed, he wouldn’t need Kat’s explanation of how she met Daniel and other plot points would become pointless, so ditch that idea.

Day 5: Realize there is no extra significance in placing Kat and her father in a Laundromat. Revise second scene (6.1) to change the Laundromat stage business (folding clothes, shifting clothes from washers to dryers, etc.) to details that fit being in a park (walking barefoot, falling leaves, etc.). Draft new details that arise because being in the park allows us to see Kat’s father’s reverence for the natural world. See how the characters are more themselves in the park than in the Laundromat.

Day 6: Return to first scene (4.1) to delete the revisions made on Day 4.

Why I Draft Scenes in Order

a_woman_climbing_a_mountainI once thought that hopping from scene to scene to draft whatever I had the inclination and inspiration to write that day was creative freedom. But I wrote myself into all kinds of corners and unsolvable problems that way.

Now I draft the scenes in the order they’ll appear in the novel. Because I do that, what I draft today might affect scenes I’ve already written, but it won’t affect upcoming scenes. If I were to write Kat’s sixth scene before I drafted the second scene, the spontaneous changes I made on Day 4 would not only ripple back to alter the first scene, they also ripple forward to change Kat’s scenes three through six.

My willingness to explore my creative intuition and new options (like changing the location or changing what a character knows) would be inhibited by knowing how much I would have to change both backward and forward in the plotline. I would get overly rigid in how I perceive scenes when my vision should still be fluid.

Drafting the scenes in order and knowing that the only changes I’ll have to make are in previously written scenes keeps me willing to explore. Once again, structure gives me freedom.

Why I Let the Draft Wander

big ideaSo why not just stick to the structure and details on the scene cards? Why allow the draft to drift from the scene cards at all? Aren’t the changes I made on Day 4 a waste of time? No.

The “detour” I took on Day 4 was not wasted time. It deepened my understanding of my new POV character. If I hadn’t taken the detour, chances are I wouldn’t have pushed myself to move Kat and her father out of the Laundromat and into the park.

As I write each scene, I’ll know more about my characters and the story. Upcoming scenes will need to flex to accommodate my new knowledge and greater intuition. The alternative is to become a slave to the cards (the way writers can become slaves to an outline).

Fortunately, it’s easy to change a scene card. And I can easily change following scene cards that also need to change. Changing scene cards gives me freedom. Changing at the level of scene cards prevents the resistance I sometimes feel when I anticipate how difficult it will be to change already drafted scenes.

Working at the level of scene cards, I can be sure the changes fit and enhance the overall structure of the novel before I draft those possible scenes (and in drafting them, fall in love with them and be less willing to modify them). When I do draft a scene from the modified card, I have confidence that the modification will work with the rest of the novel.

I dreamstormed the cards to the best of my ability but with limited knowledge. I need the cards to guide the drafting, not dominate it.

It becomes increasingly clear with each day I revise that writing my first draft without the guidance of the cards was the real waste of time and creativity.

If you’re intrigued with the idea of structuring the first full draft of a novel or memoir at the scene level or have a first draft you want to revise by structuring the scenes and want to learn more about the exercises I’ve described, check out my new online Loft class Revisiting the Flow that starts October 27.

New Book Update: Creating Freedom from Structure

creative options canstockphoto15229827I love possibilities. I prefer to keep my options open. Too much structure makes me feel like I’m straightjacketed. (I’m an NP on the MBTI if you know what I mean).

But I’m imposing structure as I revise my novel and still enjoying creative spontaneity. I never imagined that so much freedom could come from structure.

Since I decided to add a new POV character, Katy (previous posts explain why), I’ve dreamstormed scenes featuring her. Some of the scene cards I wrote from the dreamstorming followed one narrative option, others followed a different option.

When I reviewed the structure of all the scene cards in the novel, I saw which of Kat’s scenes cards to use and where to put them.

Now I get to draft the new scenes without worrying about writing myself into a corner or rambling all over the place in search of what happens. In a weird way, organizing and structuring the scene cards gives me more creative freedom as I draft.

Where I Needed More Options

locations give characters options I had a nagging sense that Kat’s scenes were always in the same two locations. So I forced myself to list alternative settings for each scene. This challenge has paid off already and I just finished drafting Kat’s second scene.

Pushing myself to identify alternative settings before I start drafting is particularly useful because when I know where the characters are, I can give them things to do while they talk. (Dialogue is easy for me and re-imagining the dialogue I heard when I dreamstormed the scene is how I usually “get into” drafting a scene.)

Characters’ actions reveal nonverbal communication that can compliment or contradict their actual words.

The first time I drafted Kat’s second scene, I put the characters in a laundromat. Instead of writing “Kat looked away” I could write “Kat bent over to pull clothes from the washer.” Because the second option is more specific, it helps readers see what I want them to see.

If I want to show Kat’s reluctance to tell her father something, I could write, “‘It’s not a big deal,’ Kat said as she bent over to pull clothes from the washer.”

If I want to increase the embarrassment Kat feels that caused her to turn away without telling the reader “Kat was embarrassed” (*snooze*), I can show “Kate bent over to pull her bras and panties out of the washer before her father could see the new sexy stuff she’d bought to wear for Daniel.”

In my next post, I show you how exploring options like moving the scene from the laundromat to a park helps scenes evolve and why I write scenes in the order they appear in the novel. If you’re intrigued with how you might draft or revise a novel or memoir at the level of scenes, take a look at my new online Loft class starting October 27.

How to Make Reality Fit the Writing Plan

sirenWe’ve all had days when the writing reality didn’t match the plan. We’ve all started out with great intentions to write but somehow ended up listening to the siren’s call and crashing ourselves on the rocks of social media, email and other e-stimuli.

It’s not the fault of your will power or a character flaw. For millennia, our brains evolved to seek new information that could help us find valuable resources and avoid danger. The brain’s reward system releases dopamine every time we find something new, and that feel-good neurotransmitter keeps us coming back.

Unlike the natural environments we evolved to respond to, social media is an unending source of “new.” In an electronic environment, “new” doesn’t mean “useful” nearly often as it does in nature. But even when the new stops being useful, our reward system lags behind and continues to release dopamine.

You can’t change how this reward system works; once you’re get sucked in, you’re stuck. You — current you — need to protect yourself in advance by making conscious decisions that future-you won’t be able to veto when future-you gets plugged into a dopamine-high of Youtube or Pinterest.

Options to Sustain Your Writing

antisocial_windows2We have plenty of options. We can set specific times when we will and when we won’t respond to email, texts, pings and pokes. We can set specific times when we will and won’t access the internet. We can use software to set limits on what websites we access, when and for how long.

We can put our phones and other devices on silent, not just when we get on a plane or go to a movie, but when we spend time with family and friends. We can deliberately stop processing electronic data to fully experience what it is to eat a meal, play, meditate, sleep, walk or relax. At the bare minimum we can stop taking our phones, tablets and readers to bed with us.

unplugfromtech-1024x1005We need regular, repeated “screen-free” times and places in our lives. (Screen free week is laudable, but one week a year is nowhere near enough.)

We can commit to specific start times for our Product Time (aka writing time) and honor those commitments no matter what’s happening on our phones, in our email or our social media.

For the best results, we can start Product Time before we splitter our attention and fracture our focus. One of my clients starts her day on a designated “writing computer” that has no email or internet access so she can’t be distracted.

I always show up for Product Time on the days I commit to. And I do a pretty good job of showing up when I say I will. The day I wrote Part 1 of this post, I slipped. Fortunately I recognized it before too much time passed.

The sooner we recognize a slip, the better. The less time we spend following e-distractions down the rabbit hole, the faster we can recover our brain’s ability to focus.

We can forgive ourselves and get back to the routines and habits that sustain the life we really want to live.

should be writingI’m going to go work on my novel now. Don’t you have a writing project you want to pay attention to, too?