To Think or Write

Picture Credit: Patrick Fore

Neil Gaiman, the author of many notable books including American Gods, Sandman, Stardust, and Neverwhere was interviewed on the Tim Ferris show about many aspects of his personal as well as professional career. Writing is one of the interesting careers where one must balance a degree of creativity and inspiration with the raw grit and sweat of putting in draft after draft, refining ideas, and developing a style that is truly unique. Gaiman has developed a technique, almost a whole genre, unique to himself. One of the keys to being good at anything, but especially at being a professional writer, is the ability to generate a habit of productive work patterns. Whether this pattern is writing in the early morning or late at night, whether this means writing at home or writing in a dedicated location, whether this means writing consistently for a couple hours every day for months or for all hours of the day for a small handful of weeks, it is up to the individual writer to formulate a productive pattern for themselves. 

One of the interesting techniques that Gaiman mentions is the mental game, or rather technique, wherein when he sits down to write he gives himself permission to write or do nothing at all, without the possibility of doing anything else. This technique recognizes the incredible value of the wandering mind, how creativity and new ideas often come from a mind freed from many of the burdens of daily life. More than that it hints at the origins of storytelling as a means to communicate truths and history as well as pass time around the fire at night or during long journeys and through monotonous tasks. Writing never arose as forced creativity from 9 to 5, sitting in a cramped room agonizingly attempting to put pen to paper.

Further, in a world of constant distraction, this technique emphasizes the importance of solitude and the elimination of distraction. One of the methods of punishment within the prison population, solitary confinement, has been found by many to be unbearable. Even Nelson Mandela commented on solitary confinement as one of the worst punishments in prison, an experience he details in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The human mind is constantly looking for new objects upon which to focus. With the two options of sitting alone with nothing or writing, there is often but a short lull before writing becomes by far the favorable alternative. In allowing for only these two activities, Gaiman’s technique turns writing from something that one MUST do, to something that one CHOOSES to do. In one study by Wilson et al. published in the journal Science, they found that individuals preferred to administer electrical shocks to themselves instead of simply sitting with their own thoughts. These were not extended periods of time of many hours or days, but rather for time spans of as little as 6 to 15 minutes. Of course, the mind would prefer to write, to run wild with new stories, characters, and plots over sitting in perpetual boredom. Blaise Pascal noted in Pensees that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” In this setting, writing becomes a joy, the task that the writer gets to do instead of a task of drudgery. There is nothing else to distract, no scrolling through social media, no videos to watch, no games to play. In this context, writing becomes a joyful, guided meditation seeking both clarity and creativity. 

Wilson et al. Science 2014 Vol 345, no 6192. 

Published by JR Stanley

I am an MD, PhD student, training to be a physician scientist, with a deep interest in science, faith, and living life as an adventure. Join me as I entertain ideas from new findings in science, evolving interpretations of faith, and experience life one day and one adventure at a time.

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