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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.

Don’t Know Where to Go Next With Your Writing? Congratulations! You’re on the Verge of a Breakthrough!

I’m fascinated by how we go from not knowing to knowing.

Think about it. Everything you’ve ever written, everything anyone has ever written came from we-don’t-know-exactly-where. There was a time when those words, ideas, images, those characters didn’t exist. Then someone made scratches on a page or tapped out letters on a keyboard and entire worlds came into being.

No one ever imagines an entire novel in one go. No one imagines an entire blog post or poem in one go. Maybe you get very, very clear about what you’re going to write before you commit to words, but I’m like Joan Didion, I write to find out what I think.

Frankly, I think it is more effective and a whole lot easier that way. I know it’s more effective for me, and yet, I occasionally resist writing because I’m uncertain about where I’m going. Which is EXACTLY when I need to let go and let myself fall into something.

Don’t wait for the idea! Let the idea find you as you wander.

Letting an Idea Find Me

A couple of weeks ago I got the greatest idea for my new novel. Actually, it wasn’t so much of an idea as an exciting “maybe” in response to a genius “what if?” question.

I wish I’d recognize the value of the “why” that prompted the “what if” sooner.

For months, I tried to ignore a troubling question about why Peregrine, my main character in both novels, was so alone. Why did her neighbors have such large, complicated families running the family business (distilleries) and Peregrine’s family was gone?

I knew what happened to Peregrine’s immediate family and how that spurred her fears and drove her action. But what about her aunts and great-aunts and her cousins and second cousins?

I didn’t know the answer to that question and I thought I SHOULD know, so I tried to avoid it. But one evening as I was freewriting in response to exercises in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere), the question showed up on the page.

I let it just be there on the page, unanswered. Which of course was the smartest thing I could have done, even though I felt hopelessly stupid at the time.

A day or two later in my freewriting, I made a list of possible causes for the disappearance of Peregrine’s extended family. (“Alright, fine! What could possibly make her family disappear?”)

A day or so after that, I got it! And “it” is a fascinating plot twist that offers the most wonderful family complication and potential betrayal a novelist could hope for.

I tell you this, not to gloat (“Nah, nah, na-nah-nah, I’ve got a fabulous story complication and you don’t”), but to encourage you and to remind myself the next time we come around to this place of uncertainty again (and we will come here again):

Don’t know what to write? Don’t let that stop you! Not knowing is the place where we step into discovery.

We never know when the solution to a creative problem will come. A truly innovative solution can NOT come from our usual way of thinking, from the Task Positive Network (more about the TPN brain state).

We need to wrestle with the question in our usual TPN processing mode of thinking. We need to research, read, talk to people, look at how you and others have answered similar questions, consciously consider how you are framing the question or problem and look for alternative ways to see it.

We need to immerse ourselves in this intense conscious mental activity so that we will get so frustrated, we leave the TPN mode. And that’s when the creative idea can arrive. Part of the reason the creative solution is SOOOO satisfying is because the search for it was so intense and frustrating. (more about the role of frustration in creativity)

You can learn more more about the brain science of TPN vs. DMN at the two links above and here. If you want a less theortical, more hands-on perspective, here’s my current practice:

  1. Read Story Genius and push myself to wrestle with the uncertainty posed by the exercises in each chapter
  2. Freewrite at night, often before I go to bed
  3. Transcribe my freewrite in the morning
  4. Relish the A-ha’s that often show up as I transcribe
  5. Repeat, especially the bit about wrestling with uncertainty

Let me know how you give yourself the gift of uncertainty. What’s working for your writing practice now? What’s worked for you in the past?

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2 Comments on “Don’t Know Where to Go Next With Your Writing? Congratulations! You’re on the Verge of a Breakthrough!”

  1. Sharon May 18, 2018 at 1:39 pm #

    Oh, Rosanne, what a great post! Perfect timing for what I needed to hear. Thank you, as always, for the inspiration!


    • rosannebane May 21, 2018 at 2:03 pm #

      Thanks Sharon. It’s curious how the universe works to deliver the message we need at the right time. And it’s always rewarding to hear one of my posts resonates with another writer.


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