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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Falling Into – And Out of – Writing

In an interview with The Paris Review, James Thurber said, “I never quite know when I’m not writing.

“Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’”

We can “write” in our heads while we’re driving, working out, at the dinner table or lying in bed drifting off to sleep. We can work out a piece’s structure or imagine a crisper specific detail while we’re doing the dishes, knitting, playing with clay or shoveling snow. It’s said that everything is grist for the writer’s mill, so in a sense, we’re always doing research. It seems that writers can work anytime, anywhere.

Potato, Potahto, Tomato, Tomahto

This is one reason I use the phrase “Product Time” instead of “writing time.” Despite the portability of a writer’s true office – her or his brain – the image most associated with “writing time” involves fingers on a keyboard or pen on paper, and there is so much more to it than that.

I define Product Time as time you invest in moving a writing project forward. What activities will be most effective for you to do during your Product Time depends on which stage of the creative process you’re in. (More about the six stages of the creative process in Chapter 4 of Around the Writer’s Block.)

Sometimes Product Time is staring out the window, wondering “What if…” and “Why not…” Sometimes Product Time is brainstorming, freewriting, mind mapping or making collages (of characters, setting, plot, images, etc.). Sometimes it’s doing research – in a library, online, with an expert in person or via telephone or Skype, or even riding a mule into the layered depths of the Grand Canyon if you end up writing about the Grand Canyon. Sometimes Product Time is even drafting, revising and editing. This list isn’t complete; Product Time (what Thurber called “writing”) can be so much more diverse.

So When Are You Not Writing?

This makes it difficult to distinguish when you actually are and are not, in Thurber’s sense of the word, “writing.” Especially when you can’t always tell in the moment whether you’re just living life or doing research. For example, snorkeling scenes are significant in my novella, but when I was snorkeling in Hawaii four years ago, I had no idea I was doing research. Is it right to call that snorkeling trip research? Or was my later recall and recollection of the experience (via notes I made in my fish spotter’s journal) the real research?

If we can fall into “writing” in a Thurberesque way – while we’re driving, pretending to listen, walking the dog or vacuuming the living room – how do we know when we’re writing/doing Product Time and when we’re not? And if we can fall into writing/Product Time, can we also fall out?

We’ll explore this further in my next post, but until then, consider these questions:

  • When and how do you fall into writing/Product Time?
  • When and how do you fall out?

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5 Comments on “Falling Into – And Out of – Writing”

  1. Ginger February 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Hi Rosanne,

    Thanks for the reply. I write fiction.

    I’m obsessed (no other word for it) with my characters and their stories. The story/novel I’m currently “working on” I “conceived” probably 4 years ago. (Came to me in a dream). I know it inside and out. There hasn’t been a day since (except maybe during a family illness and death) where I haven’t thought about it or its characters. Where I haven’t researched something, written a scene in my head, heard an exchange of dialogue, outlined something, sketched floorplans for, picked out furniture or clothing and so on and so on.

    Yet I can’t seem to get the thing on paper. And I have no explanation for that other than fear (of what I don’t really know) and resistance (I thank you for introducing me to that term.)


    • rosannebane February 13, 2012 at 8:29 am #

      Hi Ginger,
      Kudos! You’ve a done a lot of the work creating the fictional world for your novel. You might not be able to get in on paper for a couple of reasons. It might be resistance caused by the fear (and you don’t have to know what you’re afraid of to be affected by the fear OR to respond to the fear). It might be that you’re not quite ready to start drafting.

      I have two recommendations for you: build a habit of showing up for Product Time if you don’t have one already. See my posts about Product Time (or read my book when it comes out in August, but you don’t want to wait that long). Habits do a lot to help you respond effectively to fear. It’s easier to do something that scares you if you have a habit in place.

      Second, because you might not be ready to start drafting, get ready to draft by reading about “dreamstorming” in Robert Olen Butler’s book From Where You Dream. It sounds like you’re already doing part of this. Now you need to start recording the “sensory hook” for each scene on an index card (scene cards). When you have cards for all or nearly all the scenes (and some cards may be contradictory: e.g. Joe runs away, Joe stays and fights, Joe stays and talks his way out of the situation), you start laying out the scene cards to see what the structure of the novel is. When you know that (or at least get a good start on that), then you start drafting from the scene cards. This is a gross simplification – read Butler’s book (or take my online Enter the Flow class at the Loft) for more details. Using this dreamstorming method, I completed a novella, several students drafted novels and one of my coaching clients is using it right now and very excited about how it’s working for her.

      Please keep me posted!


  2. Ginger February 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    Omigosh. If writing in my head counts as writing, then I’m writing everyday, all day long. But I can go days, weeks, months without putting anything on paper.

    “Writing in my head” and research are my greatest tools for procrastination (and/or resistance).

    Though, luckily, right now I am currently putting things on paper. Hopefully, that will last for me to make some real progress.


    • rosannebane February 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

      Hi Ginger,
      You’re anticipating the next post… and that’s reassures me that I’m on the right track. If all you do is write in your head and do research, you have a problem because those are just 2 of the 6 stages of the creative process and you can’t complete the process without going through at least 5 of the stages. Watch the next post for more thoughts on this.
      You’re right that repeating the same stage over and over is one way to be resistant!
      And I’m delighted to hear that you’re getting things on paper. Are you writing fiction or nonfiction or poetry or something else? (I might be able to recommend some books that can help you stay in motion.)



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