Writing Takes Place Inside The Head
  • Humans spend the majority of their lives inside their own heads, to paraphrase John Milton.

    One of the primary reasons — and it’s a perfectly legitimate reason — that people give for not finishing a book or a writing project is that they don’t have the time to write.

    The good news is that at least half of the writing and plotting process takes place inside the mind, and you can do a great deal of important work when you’re driving, exercising, bathing, lying in bed, walking, gardening, et cetera. That process is called thinking.

    Thinking must be approached systematically and with focus (e.g. “What are you going to do now?” “I’m going to think for a while.”)

    In writing a story — particularly a long story — you’re presented with innumerable details and innumerable problems all of which you must sort out and solve. Many if not most of these are best done not when you’re sitting at your keyboard or over your manuscript with pen-and-paper, but when you’re alone with your own thoughts.

    It may sound formulaic and overly systematic, and it may at first feel as if you’re bleeding the romance out of the writing process, but please hear me on this: writing a story is like working out a puzzle — a puzzle of your own devising — and the sooner you learn to approach it in this way, the sooner you’ll be able to finish your book.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

5 Responses and Counting...

  • rhetoricaheroica 09.24.2011

    Walter J. Ong (1912-2003) believes there is a part of the brain only accessed by writing. I agree. So even if the bulk of writing may seem to be in the thinking process, noetic, the consciousness embedded in that special part of the brain will only emerge with the actual writing.

    Leslie Mc.

  • I do believe that writing (like music, painting, acting, sculpting and every other art) expands the human brain, and I also believe that the actual act of writing does complete the process of making abstract things concrete, but roughly half of the writing process takes place before pen ever touches paper.

    It’s nice to see you here, Leslie Mc. Thank you for dropping by.

  • This makes so much sense! No wonder some of my best “epiphanies” take place while sitting in traffic, in the dentist’s chair or grocery shopping.

    I’ve made it a habit to “sit in” my stories… Basically daydream with my eyes closed, imagining I’m in the characters’ heads. Similar insight comes while we sleep, I’ve learned.

  • In the outrageous novel Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (who considered Pale Fire his masterpiece, as did his wife Vera) inserted a 999-line poem, which he painstakingly wrote in rhyming couplets. At the 840-line mark of this poem, Nabokov, via a fictional character who’s an accomplished poet named John Shade, put in a passage that addresses exactly what we’re talking about here. Hope I don’t bore you in briefly quoting it. It’s just so beautiful and so relevant:

    And speaking of this wonderful machine:
    I’m puzzled by the difference between
    Two methods of composing: A, the kind
    Which goes on solely in the poet’s mind,
    A testing of performing words, while he
    Is soaping a third time one leg, and B,
    The other kind, much more decorous, when
    He’s in his study writing with a pen.
    In method B the hand supports the thought,
    The abstract battle is concretely fought.
    The pen stops in mid-air, then swoops to bar
    A canceled sunset or restore a star,
    And thus it physically guides the phrase
    Toward faint daylight through the inky maze.

    But method A is agony! The brain
    Is soon enclosed in a steel cap of pain.
    A muse in overalls directs the drill
    Which grinds and which effort of the will
    Can interrupt, while the automaton
    Is taking off what he has just put on
    Or walking briskly to the corner store
    To buy the paper he has read before.

    Why is it so? Is it, perhaps, because
    In penless work there is no pen-poised pause
    And one must use three hands at the same time,
    Having to choose the necessary rhyme,
    Hold the completed line before one’s eyes,
    And keep in mind all the preceding tries?
    Or is the process deeper with no desk
    To prop the false and hoist the poetesque?
    For there are those mysterious moments when
    Too weary to delete, I drop my pen;
    I ambulate — and by some mute command
    The right word flutes and perches on my hand.

    My best time is the morning; my preferred
    Season, midsummer. I once overheard
    Myself awakening while half of me
    Still slept in bed. I tore my spirit free,
    And caught up with myself — upon the lawn
    Where clover leaves cupped the topaz of the dawn …

    And so on.

    It’s nice to meet you, August. Thanks so much for dropping by.

  • Oh gosh, finding the time to write. That’s exactly what I posted about today. And I think you are exactly right. I do most of my plotting in my head when I’m away from the keyboard. I spent most of the day yesterday reading The Art Of War for Writers, and that got me thinking about my newest characters and plot for my new book. I couldn’t get it out of my head, even when I went to sleep. I dreamed about it all night long. This happened during my last book and I used to wake up in the middle of the night and jot down notes on my iPhone which I keep on my nightstand. I hope I have the same process this time around. I did some of my best work while I slept!

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