The Second Rule of Engagement
My mind works like a computer. I bet yours does too.
Because I am a writer, I spend a good portion of my time living in a dream world. Also, because I am a writer, my mind often receives simultaneous demands to think through or plan something in both my external, day-to-day life and my inner world of stories and characters and places that don’t really exist.
Fortunately, like my trusty laptop, my mind has the ability to carry out several analyses and lines of inquiry at the same time.
In keeping with my past post on how maintaining a routine allows regularly-occurring tasks to essentially carry out themselves without the need for conscious thought, my mind is able to split it processing power along multiple tracks. This allows larger or more important thoughts to stay in the forefront and receive the majority of my attention while smaller or less-immediately-important considerations chug away in the background on whatever power is leftover.
It’s like how your Windows or Mac OS updates silently download and install themselves while you’re busy composing and formatting your latest blog post. Or how your computer’s anti-virus program scans your hard drive in the background while you’re busy editing photos, and listening to iTunes, and chatting on Gmail Chat. The anti-virus takes forever to reach completion this way, but it does eventually get the job done.
My mind works exactly the same way. Eight years ago, I gave my brain a “command” which, written in programming language, might look like this:
In other words, I instructed my mind to take the historical fiction idea I’d come up with and turn it into a novel. My mind has been grinding away on the task ever since, constantly adjusting the amount of mental resources allocated to it task according to what else is going at the same time. For example, while blasting through a project at work: low resource allocation; while in bed at night just about to fall asleep: high resource allocation.
And that right there is the entire point: because my mind is continuously working on my novel in the background, outside of my conscious attention, I never know when a useful bit of “data” – a line of dialogue, an exciting plot twist, a picture-perfect metaphor – will pop up into my awareness. Past experience has given me a good idea of when it could happen – situations in which my hands are occupied* such as driving, doing dishes, showering, and cutting grass are all prime candidates, as are boring meetings at work, boring movies, exciting movies, and grocery shopping.
But there is no sure way to know when inspiration will strike.
I know I’m not the only one whose mind works in this way. If you’ve ever been shocked awake right on the verge of sleep (or at any equally inconvenient or unlikely moment) by your mind’s triumphant cry of “lemon juice” (or whatever random piece of information) in response to a fact you tried to recall or a question you asked yourself some four days earlier, you have a computer-brain as well.
And if you’re anything else like me, past experience has (painfully) taught you too that once your subconscious sets the information loose, if not captured immediately, it will be gone like the proverbial wind, and is likely never coming back.
That’s why I always need to be ready for when an idea comes to the fore. ‘Cause this novel is gonna get created whether I’m ready for it or not. Whether what’s created in my head actually ends up written down or not.
Hence, The Second Rule of Engagement:
Always carry a writing implement, and always be ready to write.
A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of leaving my office at lunchtime with paper but no pen. Wouldn’t you know it that not one but two ideas came to me within the space of five minutes, forcing me to borrow a pen from a guy running a taco stand.
I prefer to go the pen-and-paper route because my ideas, when they come, are short and fast, and so too is my handwriting. My thumbs are as opposable as the next Homo sapiens, but they’re not as dexterous as all that when it comes to smart phones and touch screens. Anyone who’s ever awaited a text message from me of more than three words in length can attest to the truth of that.
Regardless of what writing tool you use, though, just be ready to use it. At all times. No matter what you’re doing at the time. You’re a writer now: your sleep, your convenience, your desire to appear to be a normal human being not obsessed by some imaginary world that taken hold of your mind are all secondary.
What comes first is the story.
Little by little, take to time and set it free.
*The main concept for my WIP came to me while I was brushing my teeth. I had a vision in my head of one of the main characters speaking a critical line of dialogue, and then another main character answering the statement. From there, a whole series of visions spun out of my subconscious over the next couple of days, and eventually a complete storyline was born.