At some of the best and most powerful writing workshops I’ve been to, I haven’t really learned anything. What they did was reconnect me, at the right time, to crucial things that I already really knew but was neglecting.
The fundamentals are valuable. Look at the great sports teams and sporting individuals when they’re under tremendous pressure – they rely on an almost exquisite grasp of the basics to see them through.
Today’s “Unlocked in Lockdown” invitation, the “slow walk” – the second central support that I’m suggesting you try for the duration of the next ten weeks – is so ordinary that you may feel disappointed. To which I’d respond: if it’s so routine and straightforward, why aren’t you doing it more often, and in the right way? <smile> We often neglect the fundamentals, we fall into bad patterns.
RESOURCE #2 – “MIND-WANDERING”/TAKING YOUR PROJECT FOR A “SLOW WALK”
Michael Corballis: “mind-wandering is the secret of creativity”.
There are different options outlined below for the “slow walk”. Issues with physical mobility – disability, injury, “lockdown” self-isolation/shielding – may be limiting you. So, feel free to choose option (2) if that is the case. You may even prefer (2) in fact.
Developments in neuroscience have proven what writers have already known through experience for centuries – much of our brain’s thinking activity isn’t really conscious or intentional. Neuroscientists have identified something they call the Default Mode Network. The Default Mode Network may be the true engine room of the brain’s creativity.
One brilliant book on this topic is Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Pang explains that the brain is barely less active when “resting” or performing routine, “mindless” activities than it is when strongly focused on a challenging problem – each consumes virtually the same amount of energy. That’s because, when you’re resting, the Default Mode Network, a system through which connections are fired between different parts of the brain, is functioning busily. Have you ever wondered WHY so many of the best ideas finally arrive only once you STOP writing and start doing the washing up, cooking or taking a shower? The Default Mode Network is kicking into gear, subliminally processing, making connections, rotating creative wheels.
The poets among you already know this. Michael Longley, contemporary of Seamus Heaney, has said that what poets need is “not just space, but, ideally, space around that space – space for meditation, reverie, subliminal link-ups.”
If we actively cultivate – even plan for – experiences of boredom, we bring subconscious creativity into our life more often. Not easy to do with the world the way it is. “You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.” (Rest, p.10). This often requires that we adopt a different approach when negotiating our responsibilities. Sometimes it’s a huge challenge to do this.
Here are three ways in which you can access your subconscious creativity during the next ten weeks. You could either try the first two below as experiments OR if you already have tried and trusted ways in which you access the Default Mode Network, simply do OPTION (3): more of what you know works for you.
OPTION (1) “Solvitur ambulando”
Go for a (slow) walk outdoors. Take your body out for a walk as part of your permitted “lockdown” exercise, and take your project “with” you in your head. Carry its images, ideas and situations alongside you as you stroll past trees and buildings. Then daydream. Mind-wander. A good trick, especially useful if you don’t currently feel a strong connection to your writing project, is to have a read of a few pages of it just before you do this. But then to “let go”.
Søren Keirkegaard: “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”
The key, with option (1), is to walk at the right speed. It’s a leisurely stroll, an amble rather than a pacing or striding. You’re not trying to get anywhere. You’re trying to rest.
Take your project “for a walk” WHILE LYING DOWN flat on the floor. Yep! Lie down and do NOTHING for fifteen minutes – or longer, ideally. (Make sure, of course, that you have what you need to feel supported and comfortable.) Don’t churn through problems, worries, doubts. And don’t even set the intention to meditate and empty your mind. Mind-wandering is more exploratory than meditation. Just daydream, let your brain actively yet gently meander. End up somewhere you weren’t when you started. It is just as you would experience while bored and staring out the window of a train. (Or, if you’re anything like I was at school, exactly as it did in the middle of Mr. Wagstaff’s physics lessons.) TIP: In order to “keep the scenery moving” while lying down, you can put on some quiet background music. Especially music that changes every few minutes. Again, it may help to read a few pages of your project just before you do this. And then “let go”.
Pick some other activity that you routinely use for “mind-wandering”. Often this involves some sort of “autopilot” mode of physical action, one that allows your brain to access the Default Mode Network while your body is otherwise occupied: it might be doing the washing up, chopping vegetables, ironing, hoovering, dusting, jogging, driving, etc.
Crucially, however you’re doing your mind-wandering, don’t set out to consciously “solve a problem” in your project, don’t grapple hard with thorny issues. You’re trying to switch off the conscious computer-brain. This is different from that other writerly trick of leaving your desk after a session of furious typing, in order to stride around, solving a problem. Just let go of these things and carry the characters / poems / themes / settings / images lightly in your thoughts, lovingly in the back of your mind. (If it helps, think about your connection to the “Slouch to 5k” project, and your writing friends willing you on.)
After your mind-wandering, jot down brief notes about any ideas, insights, even thoughts and feelings that have arisen about your writing. This is where your Project Journal has a role!
If, over the next 10 weeks, you regularly follow this invitation to “take your project for a slow walk” – engage in some mind-wandering – in which you allow your project to take up quiet residence in your subconscious and ferment there, blockages WILL dissolve, inspiration WILL flow.
But it takes deliberate, planned brain-rest. It takes patience, and a willingness to ‘resist the lure of busyness’. Which you and your project deserve.
In short, what I’m inviting us all to do is to spend more time daydreaming, and notice what happens.