How do we abandon the concept of being good, or getting it right? How do we train ourselves to produce stories on command?
Those are hard questions to answer, since no two writers are quite the same. But brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.
The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. I have one I use every day.
It doesn’t have to be much of a ritual. No arcane symbols need be drawn (probably). No goats need to be slaughtered (certainly). No virginity needs to be lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building stories. The trick is to get the brain to play this game on demand.
For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. I roll a ten-sided dice and go to that number in my list and use that topic. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine.
Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.
I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.
The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”
Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”
So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.
Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally. If you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.
About the Author:
Award-winning writer Eric Witchey’s background in theoretical linguistics, course development, and creative writing combine with over 27 years of full-time freelance experience to allow him to distill nebulous concepts normally attributed to talent or internalized through years of trial-and-error into clear, executable techniques writers can begin to practice immediately. These techniques have been tested in the marketplace, and he has sold 2 collections, 5 novels, and 150 short stories. His stories have appeared under several names, in multiple languages, and on 6 continents. Using the techniques he teaches, he has garnered many awards and accolades, including recognition from Writer’s of the Future, New Century Writers, Short Story America, the International Book Awards, the Independent Publishers Book Awards, the Irish Aeon Awards, Writer’s Digest Awards, the Eric Hoffer Prose Awards, and a number of other organizations. His fiction how-to articles have appeared in Writer’s Digest, The Writer Magazine, and other print and online sources.
Originally published by the author on Shadow Spinners with the title, “Brains Don’t Do Random.” Re-posted with author’s permission.