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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.

The Creative Power of NOT Writing


In a previous post, I promised to explain why you should “keep your butt on the meditation cushion or your back on the yoga mat” in the early stages of writing. There is power is resisting the urge to write.

I learned the value of delayed drafting at a writer’s conference decades ago. One of the conference presenters, Marshall J. Cook, a writing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offered a short story writing method that led me to write what became one of my first fiction publishing credits.  

(Marshall went on to author several books on writing and other topics and is currently editor of Extra-Innings, an online newsletter “for writers, their enablers, and all who possess sprachgefuhl.”)

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was one of my first experiences of intentionally entering the writer’s trance and intentionally intensifying the urge to write by denying it.

My best recollection of Marsh’s method is undoubtedly contaminated by things I learned since then, but here it is.

Step 1. When you have the glimmer of a story idea or a character that intrigues you, entertain the idea for three days. Let yourself imagine all the possible scenes, situations, outcomes, settings, characters, images and so on without judgment. Invite the characters in, have tea with them (or a beer or coffee or a soda, depending on the character). Learn all you can. Imagine all you can. Research whatever grabs your attention. Play with the ideas and possibilities as often as you possibly can – for three days. (I specifically remember that Marsh emphasized three days.)

Step 2. When the three days of entertaining the story are up, stop thinking about altogether. No more research. No more daydreaming and imagining. Banish the characters from your mind – no more chatting over a nice beverage. If your mind wanders to the story, stop as soon as you realize it and go do something else that will occupy your attention. Abstain from the story for three days. (Again, my memory on this is clear: Marsh stressed leaving it alone for three whole days.)

Step 3. Schedule time on what will be the fourth day to write. Do not write before then.

Step 4. On the fourth day, freewrite the story from beginning to end as much as you can. It’s okay if there are blank spots or you can’t see transitions yet. If a scene could go in different directions (Kim hits a home run, Kim strikes out), freewrite all variations. Draft every scene that might be in the story. Write as much as you can in your best estimate of what the order of the story will be. Do this without editing, judgment or criticism.

Writing Interruptus

The key to the success of this method is the three days of intentionally playing in the writer’s trance followed by three days of intentionally abstaining from the story.

Robert Olen Butler recommends something similar in From Where You Dream when he describes dreamstorming:

“You’re going to sit or recline in your writing space in your trance, and you’re going to free-float, free-associate, sit with your character, watch your character move around in the potential world of this novel…

“And when a compelling scene comes to you, you might be visited by the draft writer’s instinct – you want to start writing the full scene right away. Don’t do it. Resist it… You’ve got the six- or eight-words identifier [that describes the scene] and you leave it at that. This is coitus interruptus. You float on.” (pg. 87-88)

First You Tell Yourself a Story, aka Dream

Whether you dream for three days to explore a short story or for three months to explore a novel (or other long-form prose), dreaming and freely entertaining possibilities is how you tell yourself the story. Taking the time to tell yourself the story is crucial.

How can you possibly figure out how to tell the story to your readers if you don’t already know the story?

“Pantsing” is best done when you know the boundaries of the story – which you discover by not writing more than a few words that capture each scene during weeks of regularly repeated writer’s trance meditations.

“Plotting” is best done when you know the story well enough to know what events (the plot points of what happens) will best reveal the characters’ desires, motivations and drives (why those events happen) – which you discover by focusing on the characters during weeks of regularly repeated writer’s trance meditations.

More about what to “do” in your writer’s trance and how to use “improvisational meditation” in an upcoming post.

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6 Comments on “The Creative Power of NOT Writing”

  1. Lea Schafer August 27, 2017 at 10:14 am #

    If you write something longer than short stories (I write full-length novels), how do you know how long is “long enough” to not think about the story? How do you know when the story has marinated enough and is ready to go on the page?

    Like

    • rosannebane August 31, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

      Excellent question, Lea. I’m working on a response that will appear as a blog post in two weeks or so. I hope you’ll watch for it; I’m having fun writing it.

      Like

      • Lea Schafer August 31, 2017 at 8:27 pm #

        Sounds great! This is a question I’ve been struggling with for a while.

        Like

  2. Glynis Jolly August 26, 2017 at 9:34 am #

    I like this idea. The three days of not thinking about the story may be helpful in getting the story to stick as it is while writing it.

    Like

    • rosannebane August 29, 2017 at 1:11 pm #

      Thanks Glynis. Let me know how it works for you.

      Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How to Enter the Writer’s Trance | Bane of Your Resistance - August 31, 2017

    […] Remember the power of not writing right away. For book-length prose, it will take months to improv and imagine all the possible scenes that make up the story you need to know before you can choose which scenes will convey that story to your readers. […]

    Like

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