This morning I read a terrific article by Tim Ferriss about an interview he did with Fred Waitzkin, author of Searching for Bobby Fisher, a book about his son's journey to win the national chess championship.
8 Ways To Channel The Power Of Your Unconscious To Help You Write
Specifically, Tim Ferriss was interested in the tricks and processes Fred Waitzkin has used to help him write fiction. Ferris writes:
[I disagree with labeling Fred Waitzkin's son, Josh, a prodigy] because Josh has a process for mastery, and he’s applied it to many fields, not just chess. As it turns out, he’s not the only one in his family with this skill. His father, Fred Waitzkin, has processes and tricks he uses for writing both non-fiction ... and fiction…Although there is no cut-and-dried method for summoning the muse, here are various processes the elder Waitzkin has found useful. They all involve ways to access your unconscious.
1. Write down your dreams.
Working on The Dream Merchant with numerous characters and dramatic scenes to bring to life I had to learn how to access my unconscious. This is an important part of my creative process. Let’s start simply. We all dream but some of us cannot recall our dreams in the morning. You can train yourself to remember your dreams. Put a pad on the shelf beside your bed and begin writing the second you open your eyes. Even before you open your eyes reach for the pad. Don’t turn on the light. Start scribbling in the dark. You will remember your dreams if you do this. The way I think of it, and I’m not a psychologist, you’ve created a bridge between your conscious and unconscious.
2. At the end of your writing day leave a small portion of your writing unfinished.
As a novelist I want to travel on this bridge, regularly–in fact, every day I want to cross over. Here is a deep trick that I learned from an interview with Ernest Hemingway: At the end of each writing day I leave unwritten a small portion of what I still had in my mind to compose that day.
[Tim note: Hemingway would routinely leave a sentence half finished, as discussed in A Moveable Feast.]
Then riding home on my bike from my office, at some level my mind is working on the unwritten paragraphs that I might have written but didn’t. I’m working on these paragraphs while I’m chatting with my wife or watching the ball game—but I am making connections that I never imagined.
3. Always carry something with you to write in.
This can be either a pad of paper or an app on your cell phone.
Sometimes my thinking is just a vague sense of impressions but other times an idea comes rushing to the surface. I always carry a small pad in my pocket to write it down. I’ve learned that if I don’t write it down, the insight is likely to disappear like many unwritten dreams. Then when I begin writing again the following day, I’ve discovered that the unwritten scene already contains hints and urges about where the narrative might next go–very often there are elements here that I hadn’t consciously thought about before.
4. Treat your unconscious as a collaborator, give it assignments.
When I was writing The Dream Merchant this dalliance with the unconscious felt very natural and I was able to give this hidden part of myself assignments. I would say to myself what does Jim worry about at night in bed? Or how does he tell his wife that he is going to leave her for another woman? Then I would be riding on my bike or watching the game, and the answer would rise to me–this would happen surprisingly often. Although each time it was a little thrilling, this bolt from the blue connection with a shadowy hard working world that we don’t know so much about.
5. Don't give up.
One last point about my unusual dialogue with myself: It takes practice like running or swimming fast miles. When I haven’t written for a month or two I cannot access this part of being and I have to begin training in my fashion. But it gives me confidence to know that I have been there before and will probably be able to get back again.
6. Get energized.
For me, inspiration is primarily energy.
. . . .I look for energy all over the place. Often just riding my bike along the river for three miles from my house to the office heightens my mood. Then I make a cup of green tea and look at my work from the previous evening. I always read back several pages before I try to write anything new. Moving back through interesting material seems to give me momentum to push ahead…
But what if there is no energy? I read the paper. I switch on sports talk radio. I look at my watch. I pace. I am eyeing the lunch hour. It’s getting closer to lunch. One hour before I meet my friend Jeff for turkey burgers. Forty-five minutes. Now I’m getting nervous. Thirty-five minutes before I have to leave my office! Suddenly I feel an urgency. I CAN’T leave for lunch without writing one good paragraph. I’m sweating, feeling the time pressure… and the words pour out. Sometimes a writer can do more in a fervent half hour than in a dreary eight-hour day. I’ve often played this game with myself.
There are many energy tricks. Sometimes in the afternoon when I’m groggy I wander over to Starbuck’s for a coffee. But it’s not just caffeine. I know all the women who work there. They know me. We chat. I love these talks–okay, innocent flirtations. Sometimes I even get a free latte. When I get back to my office I usually feel fired up.
7. Get friends to help you break through if you're deadlocked.
I have a couple of friends that I rely upon. They are very perceptive about the human heart. I’ll talk quite specifically about what isn’t working in a section of my book. I listen closely to what they think. I’ve done this many times. My wife Bonnie has helped me many times like this.
Here is the curious thing. Often her advice or the idea of a friend isn’t what I end up doing. But listening to the ideas engenders a new idea. The whole point is that you have to get moving. Movement begets movement. You need to get unstuck.
8. Make your characters "true".
When you are trying to create a character he or she must be “true.” Fiction is not making up stuff out of whole cloth. It is always linked to a writer’s experience. Fiction is a wonderful tango between the writer’s experience and his imagination.To read Tim Ferriss's excellent article, click here: The Alchemy of Writing--More Tips from a Pro.
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Photo credit: "The lonely walk" by VinothChandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.