Clear-headed Writing

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Two women lounge on a  giant typewriter at The World's Fair in 1940

I received a spam comment recently that was masquerading as a request for writing advice. Not that receiving spam is a rare event, but this one caught my attention because it was completely coherent and asked a valid question. The basic question(s) were these:

How do you centre yourself and clear your head before writing?
Do you have any tips for getting started at every session? Since the first 10-15 minutes are often lost trying to figure out how.

Far be it from me to look a gift-writing-horse in the mouth, so I shall attempt to answer. Thank you, random spam person.

It comes down to this. People, and writers are people too, are very firmly divided on the subject of writing. There are those who think writing is hard, and those who are convinced writing is easy. Unfortunately, they’re both right. The act of writing can actually be quite easy once you learn to spew words on a page, just as we quite naturally spew words into that empty blankness of mental space. We do little censoring there, or editing, often thinking and saying things to ourselves we’d not admit in good company, and that’s where writing gets hard. As soon as you think of putting something down ‘in writing’ most of us suddenly feel we need to behave like we’re in good company, whatever that is, and so the words don’t flow but drip, and sometimes trickle, and maybe in time they near some sort of reasonably steady stream, and it might seem like you are actually a writer.

The beginnings are tough because our heads are always on, always spewing, always thinking and always shooting ephemeral words into the chaotic mental frame. There, we have no beginning to connect to because it never stops, not even when we sleep. So in some ways the challenge is not in stopping the brain, clearing our mind so that the business of sitting down and writing can be contended with in a mature and organised fashion. It’s more like being in front of a giant revolving door, or perhaps an infinite bank of revolving doors through which you may gain entry to your stream of thought, but they’re all moving at the same time and show no signs of stopping to give you an easy way in. You need to insert yourself into the proceedings to have some hope of capturing some of those precious words, which counter-intuitively, you have too many of running constantly through your head.

There is a great fallacy about the mind and the average process of thinking, and that is that it is possible to clear the mind, to clean the slate, to start from that blank page we too easily apply as metaphor for our complex process of thought and cognition. It’s poetic but absolute rubbish. Even the most adept at meditation will likely be unable to clear their mind completely. Neurons never stop firing and notions never stop being birthed. That is the nature of our existence. What we can do and so often fail to do is to focus and not be bewildered by the onslaught.

Returning to our infinite bank of revolving doors, the problem isn’t that we can’t get all the revolving doors to stop, so that we might enter the halls of centred thought and clear writing; The problem is that most of us can’t focus on one revolving door long enough to take the courage to plunge in. As a writer that’s what you must do. For the few seconds it takes to scribble your first words or type your first misspelled line of text to your magnum opus, you need to see only the one revolving door without being mesmerised by its horrific chaos, all the other doors must cease to exist in your mental eye, though they’re still there, and at that moment you must risk injury and step in.

And then there’s the other reason why beginning is hard, because as with revolving doors, those first few steps in writing are not always the most elegant. Sometimes you walk through as though nothing was in your way, sometimes you step and stumble between the glass, and sometimes the door practically whacks you in the back and pushes you around. When you start writing, all of that can potentially happen in those first 10 or 15 minutes, and it can only be minimised by bravado. If you slow down or stop, you’ll be spit back out and will need to start all over again. Go with it, however, and at worst the words will push you around or ever take you a few rounds in confusion before you are allowed to enter the focused stream of thought. What some call the flow state and others inspiration.

On occasion, what you write when the thoughts are taking you in circles will be gibberish, spam, mere warm up which you will later find can safely be excised from your piece, and their loss will make it stronger. But at times, in that whirlwind of confusion, your vision sees things in the blur which it wouldn’t otherwise, and some true gems of insight or language can come out of it. We are all buffeted about by our thoughts, even those who don’t write, and so that initial unsaid acknowledgement of your own seeking can actually work well as a reading experience. But that is a call for you to make ever time you write and every time you come to editing your sojourn into written thought.

So don’t try to clear your head; It can’t really be done and you shouldn’t. Merely be polite with your stray thoughts and move them out of your immediate attention for a little while. Don’t try to stop the chaos, because it is that revolving chaos, that mad engine of notions, which will shoot you with a proper momentum into your words, so that your interest and your hunger to seek and write shall be a healthy one. Focus, and ultimately be brave, be momentarily foolish, for what you play with are merely words and you have a lot of them, more than you know. There is no lack, merely a distribution problem, and one of access. Writing is hard you see, but also easy. You merely step into the revolving door, and enjoy the rush until it’s done. And then you can wander and dream again.


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    1. Thanks. I figured after all those completely useless comments about my excellent writing on “this important subject”, a direct and pertinent question deserved to be used to birth a post, even if the same comment is on a few hundred thousand other sites. šŸ™‚

  1. Hey! i tried to write so many times, but everything i put on paper seem like sentences “stolen” from things i’ve read and heard before. i can’t seem to find my own voice, i feel so unoriginal. any advice? šŸ™‚

    1. Hi Satlih,
      You ask a very valid question. Once you manage to attempt writing for any amount of time, the issue of developing a unique voice does come up for us all. This is a topic that needs to be covered in greater detail, but I’ll share some quick thoughts here.

      First off, it’s inevitable that we’re influenced by the writers we read and admire. Like artists who learn much by emulating the masters, the voice of the writers whose work you’ve imbibed does show through. But as you write more, a more internally inspired voice does start to take over. Like a put-on accent, there’s only so much you can keep up the effort of emulating or ‘stealing’ someone else’s style. The best way to find your voice is to keep writing, even if it sounds stolen, until eventually it won’t sound that way.

      I have more thoughts on this topic to share. but that will require a separate article which I will attempt to write soon. Will let you know when it’s done. Meanwhile, I recommend reading some of the other material in the Writing section of this blog. I do cover similar challenges faced during the writing process, and articles like the one on subjective writing and writing with personality might give you a start on how to think about making your writing more your own.

      Thank you for your question and I hope this and yet-to-be written articles help you on you writing quest.


  2. the idea of the revolving door made me think not only about writting, but in any kind of creativity, I liked the idea and every time I need new ideas will think about that revolving door, very interesting, how the movement acts towards someone seeking adventure, takes some time as you said, but once you feel brave enough go through it and then get in other worlds šŸ™‚


    1. Yes, there is that element of bravery in all creative things. There is talent, skill and craft involved in all of it, but to use it a person has to ultimately jump right in and get down to doing the work. A crucial final step, or perhaps it is a crucial first step. šŸ™‚


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