I am a very slow writer. It doesn’t matter if I’m crafting a blog post for this site, an editorial letter to an author, an email to a publisher, or a short story of my own. I’ve tried to write faster, to just get my thoughts down and then go back in for polishing. But what makes me an effective editor is also what makes me a timid writer: that insistence on perfection, the cultivating of lightning-quick analysis, the default mode of problem solving.
Every time my creative Right Brain tries to speak up—“What if …?”—her twin sister, analytical Left Brain, silences her, with fingernails digging into her arm and a glare that means “Don’t you dare say something stupid and embarrass me.”
If you’ve experienced this, too, you know how frustrating it can be. And the longer we sit at the computer willing ourselves to type, the more stuck we feel. So how do you silence your inner editor? In short, distract her.
Tuning Out the Noise
In her gorgeously insightful book The Mind of Your Story, my friend Lisa Lenard-Cook illuminated why our best ideas come while we’re doing mundane tasks like driving, showering, or folding laundry:
Thinking … is a left-brain activity, and when it’s particularly all-consuming, which it is when you’re frantic, right brain can’t get a word—or in right brain’s case, an image—in edgewise. But as soon as you engage left brain in a less stressful activity … right brain takes the opportunity to—nyah! nyah!—let you know it knew the answer all along. … [W]hen you engage left brain in an endeavor that requires its focus, right brain can send its images over without left brain trying to interpret (or censor) them in its own distinct way.
In other words, feeling “stuck” in a writing problem can elevate your anxiety, and that anxiety causes a lot of white noise in your Left Brain as it searches everywhere for an answer. But if you can divert her attention, your Right Brain often offers just what you’re looking for.
Distracting Left Brain
Whenever I’ve spun my mental wheels on a writing problem, these are some distraction techniques that have helped me regain my traction:
- Repetitive movement: When I’m stuck trying to figure out an angle for an article or the best way to transition from idea one to idea two, I walk in circles around my office building. This is very different from hiking on a trail or through a park; your surroundings need to be familiar and boring, so Left Brain isn’t asked to chart a path for you. If you like to bike or jog, find a track that you can circle. If you’re a swimmer, laps in the pool work the same way.
- Housework: Similar to walking in circles, sweeping, mopping, dusting, and vacuuming all require focus but no analytical evaluation. You’ll solve your writing problem and—bonus!—get your chores done simultaneously.
- Yardwork: Like housework, tasks such as weeding your flower bed or mowing your lawn free up your creative mind. The fresh air and sunshine help your mood too.
- Sleep: Ever have the perfect idea come to you just as you were drifting off or in the middle of the night, only to realize you’ve forgotten it by morning? Sometimes if you’re stuck in a writing problem—particularly if it’s one you’ve been struggling with for a while that day—it could be time just to call it a night. Grab a notebook and pen, leave it on your bedside table, and let yourself relax into sleep with some mindful rhythmic breathing. Then if anything bubbles up from Right Brain before you zonk out, you’re ready to jot down reminders so you can start again fresh tomorrow.
Right now, whatever you’re working on, consciously stop self-editing. Even if you have to back Left Brain into the corner, one finger poke to her chest at a time, or distract her by sorting, washing, and folding every last piece of laundry in your house, make her take the day (or even an hour) off.
Give your creative Right Brain a chance to make connections between those ideas you’ve been obsessing over (also an idea from Lisa, so seriously, find her book and read it, because it’s amazing) and then take a deep breath, sit down at the keyboard, and let her voice—which is really your voice—come through.
—Lauren M. Bailey is the director of Kirkus Editorial.