People sometimes ask me how the hell I do it. How do I keep coming up with new story ideas? How do I continue to churn out content. Turns out, it’s relatively easy. Today is all about finding your motivation in writing when it doesn’t come easily. The ultimate muse bait. Please leave comments of ideas that could lead to the same kind of thing in other artistic endeavors.
An Introduction to Mechanical Inspiration
I’ve typed over 1600 words today (a few days before this posted) before turning to my blog to write about this methodology in creating. My day started as it often does these days. Since I started the day job, I wake up, smoke a cigarette while sipping at my energy drink, and then take care of all the personal hygiene stuff that polite society requires.
Everything that has happened since those waking moments has been a disaster. Clerking a gas station looks like mindlessly dull work to the casual observer, which is probably the reason that I’m often treated like a vending machine. I won’t reveal any of the details to protect the guilty parties, but let’s just say that there have been more than a handful of people today trying to make my life hell.
I try to be cheery most days. Today, I had to disconnect from my emotions completely. I do this sometimes when things get really hard. I’m not sure exactly how I do it. I simply decide that it’s too much worry to give a shit, and I stop. I perform like a robot. I reduce everything to a simple input-output algorithm and absorb whatever life throws at me. People make requests, and I find the logical response to them. They say, “do this,” and I just do. I throw myself completely at the mercy of the universe, and bend to whatever is required of me. It’s creepy, but a good lead-in to the following point.
Almost needless to say, when I arrived at the cafe this afternoon, I didn’t feel like writing, or doing anything. My brain was still a mental lock-out. Without work and orders, I had nothing to do but settle into my routine. Good thing it wasn’t Sunday when all the cafe’s are closed. I don’t have a routine for those yet.
But I still managed 1600 words, and it’s only been about two hours. Not my best rate of getting them down, but whatever. That’s a chapter in my current and unexpected work in progress. This is what I did.
I went to my normal writing spot for afternoons. I wrote in my journal after grabbing a cup of coffee, as always. I opened my laptop, powered it up, and let myself check on some social media stuff for thirty minutes, as per routine. I wasn’t excited about any of it, but I was acting like a robot and doing the things I normally do before a writing session. Nothing more, nothing less.
I opened the document of my work in progress, scrolled to the last page, put the cursor where I wanted it, and then stepped out for a smoke. As per the norm.
Am I stressing this enough? 90% of daily writing is nothing more than developing a habit. Human memories are created by coded patters in neuron firing. They fire a certain way, reminiscent of how they fired at some time in the past, and that past work flow follows suit. The trigger is the initiating event: a word, a smell, a sound, etc. Once that pattern fires, the rest of the memory plays out of habit.
The same is true with creative processes. You put the initial pattern in, and you get a similar result. But as we all know, it’s not that easy.
When I came back from my break, there was a rather larger group than normal in the coffee shop, making more noise than usual. I resorted to a tactic I often use when I really need to focus. I put my fingers on the keys, and typed a couple sentences, just to explore the next scene a bit. (You might notice in my books that a lot of scenes start with a tiny bit of description. Not an avalanche of detail, just a little nugget. These are symptoms of my writing process more than intentional story elements)
Once I had something on paper. I shut my eyes, and kept typing, and typing, and typing.
It may sound like Zen, but there’s more mechanical about this process than spiritual. Let me start with why I love fountain pens, and go from there.
I know many of you don’t use fountain pens every day, if at all. Some of you may consider them anachronistic or archaic devices for posers and show-offs. Some simply don’t want to deal with the “mess” of refilling. That’s fine. For you, I’ll explain them a little bit.
While I could spout off poetically for pages about the smooth glide of a soft nib riding a lubricating layer of ink across the page, my thoughts on the matter would not be 100% genuine. A well tuned pen is truly a wonder to hold, but most of the time a solid gel pen or roller ball can accomplish much of the same action (except for the writing angle, but don’t let me digress).
The primary difference between modern pens and old ones is how the ink flows to the paper, not the smoothness of the action. Most modern pens are constructed with either a felt tip or a captive ball design. Felt tips are closer to our ancestral writing, so let’s focus on the captive ball types.
Captive balls work because of surface tension. The little ball in the tip rolls across the page dropping ink from one side while the other side is wetted by a tube of ink. This is why they generally cannot leak under normal use. The ink layer on the ball is so thin that it acts as a lubricant, the ball acts like a bearing. The result, only the ink you want to use is generally deposited on a page. Try it. Take your Bic or gel pen and hold the tip against the paper. It’ll leave a dot.
Do this with a fountain pen, and you’ll get a growing spot, that continues to grow. If a fountain pen is touching paper, then ink is being deposited. This is how felt tips work as well, by capillary action.
In fountain pens, quills (or what most people call “dip pens”), reeds, and so on, ink flows down a very thin channel. It is captive by the space it’s allowed to occupy, but give it any excuse to “leak,” and it’s coming out. When such a pen touches paper, the captive ink comes in contact with a substrate material, and begins to flow, and keeps flowing. The reservoir is indirectly attached to the paper.
What this means for users of such anachronistic devices is this. If the pen is touching paper, then it needs to be moving. There’s no tapping, or holding it in place until you feel like moving it, otherwise you end up with a mess. You put the pen down, and it starts to move, and it doesn’t stop until you pick it up again.
While such action does some lovely things to your handwriting, it also instills a mechanical component to the art of writing. If you want words, all you have to do is touch the surface of the paper. You absolutely will write, or you will quickly ruin your notebook. The words flow just as readily as the ink. Thus, with a fountain pen, all you need to do is put pen to paper, and go.
Sounds dumb? Let it. I’m not going to get into all the psychological reasons of why this works, or argue over the quality of words. The creative process isn’t a damn technical production. It’s creative. Everything must flow, even if that means making some mistakes along the way. Fixing mistakes is another part of the process. Such mechanical action can force you to spit out words, even when you don’t feel like it.
Put the pen on the paper, and get the story moving. Your subconscious will handle the rest. This is the real reason that I write with a fountain pen when I’m outlining story ideas. As long as the pen is moving, ideas are being generated, by a purely mechanical process, because I cannot stop the pen to wait. If you flip through my notebooks, you might find pages filled with nonsense, because my brain wasn’t ready yet. The following pages are pure gold. I run circles around any idea I can hold onto, sometimes just scribbling instructions for myself to write. Once the creative process is jump-started, ideas will eventually follow, and some of these ideas cannot be captured by any other method.
Of course, it’s always nice to have an idea to begin with, but on days like today, I don’t always have that. The muses very rarely call me, usually I’m leaving messages on their voicemail.
Typewriters allow us to dig a little deeper into the philosophical methodology of why “hammering the keys” just works. In addition to what I said about fountain pens, the keyboard is a very different animal. While soft buttons are kind of nice, I often prefer my Remington when storyboarding. I start pounding keys, and the ideas generate themselves, much as they do with an ink pen.
My understanding is this. First of all, if you haven’t ever used a classic typewriter, I encourage you to test one out, at least once. It’s hard to explain the feel to someone who has only used electronic keyboards. Typewriters are generally mechanical devices. When you hit a key, it moves a lever, this lever engages a spring that yanks on another lever (or this is accomplished in some other way). A movement of about an inch worth of key-press translates to a sweeping metal arm with a tiny club at the end of it striking against a loaded ink ribbon, and squeezing it against a page. The result is that a letter is literally driven into a page. The harder you hit the key, the darker the imprint. Sometimes you even get dots from the ribbon’s texture on the page inside of closed letter space, like the tiny closed part of a lowercase ‘e.’
This mechanical striking is annoying as hell to the modern typist. In racing, there’s a term known as “sissy shifting,” which essentially means traversing manual gears with minimal force required by modern transmissions. If your transmission has straight-cut gears and aggressive dog teeth, this isn’t allowed. The gear needs to be placed deliberately. Not necessarily forcefully, though a little extra force is usually used, but in a very specific way. The same is true for a keyboard where you need to move a physical key more than an inch, versus tapping a keyboard. If you strike the key too lightly, or without moving it far enough, the result is either a light strike, or no strike at all.
Thus, there’s no “sissy typing” on a typewriter. Each keystroke must be deliberate. Because of this mild annoyance (by modern classification), a good portion of your mental capacity must always be concerned with the mechanical act of moving print onto the page. The same mental energy is required for manual manipulation of a fountain pen. Fountain pens are notorious for writing specifically to one hand, one angle against the page, and a certain amount of oblique. These are specific to the writer, and for anyone else, the pen will sometimes skip and give false starts.
This mental capacity is your “robot” capacity. It’s the lesser drudge work of daily life that is uncreative. This is the part of your brain that automatically answers simple questions with pre-programmed responses, even to the point of using the same “conversation algorithm” when it isn’t appropriate. I’ll often ask people how their day is going, and the response is, “No thanks, that’s all.” Conditioned communication is a thing. It isn’t that they’re ignoring me on purpose, but their brain is repeating a known and well-documented pattern. We sometimes catch ourselves doing this, which leads to some embarrassment.
But what is embarrassing in a restaurant line can be used to your advantage when producing creative work. You can divert the non-creative parts of your brain to what they like best, a simple repetitive task to keep track of, such as punching keys with just the right amount of force, or ensuring that a quill pen isn’t rotating in your fingers as you write. With the rational, boring part of your mind distracted with these menial tasks, the creative part can dominate what it does best.
What does this have to do with typing behind closed eyes?
I’ve never met a blind man who wasn’t at least a little philosophical in their dialogue. The boring, drudge part of their brain is constantly obsessing over where they are, what dangers are nearby, or “holding the map.” Knowing where to go, where to sit, and how to get around is a very active process for them. They can’t get distracted and walk an extra block, only to realize that they passed the shop they want to be inside. Such an event could have devastating consequences, especially if they are roaming the streets alone. (I know this doesn’t happen everywhere, but I’ve spend a lot of time in downtown St. Augustine, Florida and there was another blind school near one of my hangouts in Lafayette).
As such, the part of the brain that’s normally active with boring bemusement has something to do, and in their speech, their mannerisms, etc, they tend to be quite creative.
I would like to think that I invented this process on purpose, but I didn’t. Most of us writers know how to type. Not all of us, but enough to stick this point. Your fingers already know where the keys are. You’ll have no trouble finding them, but you can still see mistakes on the screen as you write. This makes your brain a bit lazy. Just like being able to see makes you lazy to certain potential dangers because you can quickly adapt to unwanted feedback.
Try closing your eyes and typing. . . Different experience isn’t it. Now you cannot see your words. There’s now quick correct until the little red line under the text goes away. The drudge part of your brain now has a task to do, and this on a touch keyboard. Your fingers will hunt more deliberately for the right letters. You will be more cautious about making mistakes, since it isn’t as trivial to fix them. That damn backspace key is quite far away and could be mis-struck, resulting in an ‘=’ or ‘\’ showing up where you wanted a correction. Moreover, your brain switches from encoding whole words to specific letters. Your typing will undoubtedly slow a bit, especially the first time you try it.
When I’m writing (and this confuses the shit out of people, so it makes a good party trick), my eyes will drift away from the screen to have a conversation with someone. I’m carrying on dialogue with them and scribbling at the same time. Evern if I’m not speaking, someone from across one of my writing spaces will catch me staring at an overhead light while I’m writing, or looking at a painting. It bothers the shit out of them.
“How do you do that?”
“You’re typing without looking at what you’re doing!”
As fun as it is to make people nervous with new and unimaginable powers, like writing without looking at the screen, the better part is that because the part of your brain rsponsible for simple, mundane tasks is busy doing something else, your creative focus shines through. You can literally drive your focus to the next level, and that alone can shine through just about any block.
So, in short. If you really want to block out all the shit piled on through the day and write, try writing blindfolded, and make the process mechanical until you settle into your creative process. Look at that, I just wrote 2700 words on a topic I’m sure no other writing blogger wants to touch 😛
Sorry this post was so long, hope it was interesting, and back to the main point, I wonder how many other forms of art this could apply to. Music most definitely. What do you think?