Back to Basics, Part 6 – The Lopside of Your Brain

This is Part 5 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

I began to put down brief descriptions of loves and hates. …I circled around summer noons and October midnights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark season must be something that was really me. …

I wrote the title “The Lake” on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later…I realized I had at last written a really fine story. The first, in ten years of writing.
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Back in Part 1 I mentioned having picked up some new tools for this journey, namely a cheap spiral notebook, ballpoint pens, and dinosaur stickers. I’ve done this—set aside my fancy bound notebooks and fountain pens for the time being—because they were making writing feel so serious. It is very hard to take myself too seriously when I’m writing with a pink ballpoint on a page festooned with colorful dinosaurs. For me this becomes particularly important as we move into the next stage of our journey, which has so often resulted in creative paralysis in the past.

So far we’ve examined some of the things that hinder us: focusing on some nebulous future outcome of our writing, instead of on the process of writing in the moment; worrying about the market and trying to second-guess what editors and readers want; and comparing ourselves to others. We’ve realized the importance of making “the smallest effort” regularly, and engaging our own personal passions. But how do we find them? How do we get them on the page?

Zen in the Art of Writing, as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, is not a how-to book. There are no explicit exercises for the student to turn to. There are only the thoughts of a true master of creative fiction on the subject of creativity. But within these essays, there are hints. There are clues, some more direct than others.

We started by making lists. We trust that somewhere in those lists we will find our authentic self, our unique voice. When I look at my lists I see memories, and can recall to mind some of the emotion behind them, but I don’t yet see a story. What comes next?

Well, if you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.

I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

So that’s our direction: not a story, not an outline, just a “prose-poem-essay” about one of our passions or fears, found in our lists of memories. There’s no pressure in this—there’s no future audience for this piece of writing we’re about to execute. No editor will reject it, no critic will evaluate it, no one will ever see this except us.

“But you need to produce a story!” my Inner Editor cries. “You need to finish something and submit it! You’re wasting time!” Well, Self, how well has that been working lately? How’s all of that boot-strapping going? Has it got us anywhere other than the doldrums? No? That’s because something is missing. Now please go sit in the corner and be quiet while the rest of us do the work of finding it.

So what is a prose poem? If we want to get technical about it, we can look at this definition at poets.org. But here be dragons–that seems perilously close to something that our Inner Editors are going to judge and chastise us for until it meets their standard. So let’s not get bogged down in forms and definitions.

Later in Bradbury’s life he referred to these (and to his stories) as “love letters.” That’s something I can embrace—it’s a form meant to be private and personal, for the eyes of myself and my beloved only. When I look at my list and see THE CHALICE WELL and THE TOR, I am confident that I can write a love letter to Glastonbury, England with ease.

And I can make the leap from love to fear—when I look at my lists and I see THE JESTER HEAD I definitely don’t have kind and loving things to say to it. But fear and anger can be written in much the same way—I can write about the sensations, the emotions, the quality of light, the chill in the air.

One last thing, before we get to work. One of my very favorite tools in the world is a timer. I have a specific one I use, because it bypasses all of my excuses and laziness (and yes, I can find an excuse even to avoid the effort of setting a timer). Using a timer for writing helps me focus. When my energy starts to flag after a few minutes, I know I only have a little longer, so I push ahead and often discover new things to say that I would have missed had I given up just a minute or two sooner. And if I’ve found a flow, I can always ignore the buzzer and keep going.

For the next few days, let’s pick a noun from our lists each day, set a timer for a short, achievable sprint—say, fifteen minutes–and write a prose-poem-essay/love letter to our passion. We might be surprised at what we uncover in the process.

Next time: The Thing at the Top of the Stairs


Would you like a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing? Let us know in the comments below if this series has been helpful to you! I’ll give away a copy of Zen to two commenters chosen at random. Thank you for reading!

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  • I like the way you connect writing with emotion. I’ve come to realize recently that what makes me enjoy a book or story the most is the feelings it sparks. I’m currently re-reading a book that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with on first reading, and since I’ve had that experience before, I tried to understand just why I wanted to read it again. I finally decided that the book (or the first part of it, anyway) resonated with me emotionally in a way that I found very satisfying — enough so that I’m willing to overlook the novel’s flaws in order to experience those feelings again.

    And to answer your question, I am finding this series helpful, even though I haven’t gotten to act on it much yet — sadly, I’ve needed to work overtime the past few weeks and it’s left me tired and drained. But I’ve been reading your essays and bookmarking them, and I’m starting to feel that itch to work on my writing again, which must be a good sign, right? (And I’ll happily accept a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing if I’m chosen. Thanks for sharing!)

  • This: “let’s not get bogged down in forms and definitions” I find that that’s where most writers and poets get stuck.

  • Mahesh Raj Mohan

    This series has been very inspiring! And practical, for writers living in our current media “fishbowl.” Thank you.