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[process] Writing without thinking - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2012-04-17 05:42
Subject: [process] Writing without thinking
Security: Public
Tags:media, music, process, writing
Yesterday I happened to be in the car as OPB broadcast the Canadian variety magazine show Q. The segment I heard included a reprise of an interview with jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In the interview, Rollins talked about playing without thinking, about how when he was really playing his best he was sometimes surprised at what came out, and he didn't consciously consider it. He and the interviewer talked about how you needed to practice and acquire the basic skills to do something before you could begin immersing yourself in the activity unthinkingly.

That struck me as pretty interesting.

I remember when I first learned to drive an automobile. It seemed impossible to keep track of all the elements at once. I had to think about the accelerator, the brake, the clutch; remember to check my mirrors; flick the turn signal on and off; keep track of the gas and watch for the idiot lights; plan my turns; think hard about parking in any form, whether head-in, head-out or parallel; and a host of other, less urgent issues like where I was going, what the posted traffic control signage said, and so forth. All this long before doing the important stuff like tuning into good music on the radio or cruising through the fast food drive through. It was overwhelming.

These days, after having been on the roads for over thirty years, i get into an automobile and go somewhere without thinking about it at all. Driving has become practically an autonomous process. Conscious thought intrudes if I'm driving to an unfamiliar destination, or in a different state where some of the traffic laws might be different (like right turn on red), or am otherwise introducing a novel element. But even then, once I've dealt with the new situational element once or twice, it becomes part of my autonomous process as well.

So with writing.

I can remember in 1990 or 1991 when I first got serious about writing, with the Slug Tribe back in Texas. I had an enormous problem for a while with control of tense. Stories would start out in simple past, wander into present tense and back into past without rhyme or reason. I can remember being very frustrated about how I could possibly keep track of the difference.

Sort of like being frustrated about having two feet and three pedals when driving a car.

These days, I still sometimes write stories that shift tense, but always for a reason. And that reason is (almost) never a conscious decision. It just feels right when I do it. I can't even analyze it when I'm doing it — if I tried, I'd screw up. The practice of writing has become increasingly autonomous for me. Unconscious. Unthinking.

And very rightly so.

This means that when I want to add something new to my bag of tricks, or sharpen an existing skill, I can focus on that without worrying about juggling the rest of the balls. Just like driving to a new destination. I may be concerned about where to turn, but I long ago learned how to turn.

This also means that most of the time when I'm writing, I doing it the way Sonny Rollins described. I've mastered enough of the skills that I can focus on the practice without conscious attention. I think athletes call this "being in the zone". I've also heard this referred to as "unconscious competence."

It's pretty cool to think about. How far are you along the process of unconscious competence in your writing?

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mlerules
User: mlerules
Date: 2012-04-17 13:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ah, intuition-related stuff...I likes it.
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Keikaimalu
User: keikaimalu
Date: 2012-04-17 13:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I spent most of my writing time in The Zone when I was younger. Going to Clarion changed all that. I learned invaluable lessons and made fantastic friends, but the ease of writing evaporated in much the way a centipede's walking skills would when it was asked how it coordinated its hundred legs.

I do occasionally reach that blissful state still, but in terms of sheer inspiration, the Muse at her best, my pre-Clarion writing was stronger, and for longer periods of time.
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jimvanpelt
User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2012-04-17 19:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hi, Keikaimalu. I think that writers go through waves of self-consciousness and unconsciousness, and that is a part of our development as writers. We learn new things, and then we're keenly aware of them for awhile before they fade into our base skills that we use without thinking about as much. In the meantime, though, a new way of thinking about our writing will impinge on us, and we're aware of that while we're working on our next pieces. I would think that Clarion would give you a ton of things to be aware of that will gradually integrate into who you are as a writer.
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Keikaimalu
User: keikaimalu
Date: 2012-04-18 03:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey Jim,

I do find that's true of some aspects of writing, but I also find that my writing process is rarely as delightful as it used to be. The overall quality and workmanship of my writing has increased, but its inspiration and joy have decreased. Not a bad trade, as it has resulted in solid sales, but I get wistful sometimes thinking of how it used to be.

And given that Clarion was 18 years ago, I suspect the experience has been pretty fully integrated by now. :)

BTW, we've actually met and been on panels together at Norwescon; I'm Melissa Shaw.
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a_cubed
User: a_cubed
Date: 2012-04-17 14:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a writer of non-fiction: I'm generally in that state where I'm thinking about the ideas and not the expression of the ideas per se when writing an initial draft. I think that's what you mean. In fact, if I can't get into that state it usually means I'm too tired to write or I haven't got the ideas sorted in my head and I need to think about them more befor writing them into linear prose.
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russ: watchmen
User: goulo
Date: 2012-04-17 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:watchmen
I first remember seeing the notion of the 4 levels of learning from a comic by Lloyd Dangle, viewable here:

http://troubletown.com/store/product.php?productid=16152

It seemed to have the ring of truth!
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Jay Lake: funny-samples_photo
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-04-17 14:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:funny-samples_photo
Oh, yeah. That's me... Especially panel one.
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silvertwi: journal pen
User: silvertwi
Date: 2012-04-17 19:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:journal pen
I'm going to go back to music, since I consider that my primary art/craft (music major, you know).

I'm in my third semester of music theory. Our first major assignment was to write a menuet, it being the longest thing I've ever written. I was working out music on both my keyboard and on my flute. I played my flute up to the part I'd already written, and kept going with what sounded right on it. I wrote it down, and it turned out it was a typical chord progression to follow, even though I can't play an entire chord at once on flute. It's just that I've been playing it so long that what comes next was what I instinctively did. The same results take a lot more thought when I work solely on piano, because I've only been playing it for a few years.

On the writing side, academic writing comes pretty naturally to me, as does grammar and tense and all kinds of things. It's enough that I can trust myself to write a reasonably good first draft in terms of flow, and can concentrate on the new forms I'm asked to write (such as research papers).

As far as fiction goes, I'm somewhere in the intermediate zone. I critique for others often enough that I'm really good at catching things, but it takes thought for me to write something of my own. I know theory, but don't have tons of practice, mostly because I take other things more seriously. (Also, for real, it's easier to get into classes for any Humanities or Art classes that *aren't* creative writing. There's just too high a demand. Music, on the other hand, has a big demand but less competition because there are more classes.)
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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2012-04-17 19:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
>>It just feels right when I do it. I can't even analyze it when I'm doing it — if I tried, I'd screw up.<<

I ran into something similar the other day when I tried to explain...well, how I write to somebody. I can tell them that I draw inspiration from nearly everything. I can tell them that I sit down most weekdays at roughly the same time and write. I can tell them how much I think about the story ahead of time, how research can drive plot, and so on. But when I actually try to explain the writing I stumble. I very often tend to get into a zone and emerge as the clock tells me it's nearly time to go to another obligation; the more conscious processes come in the editing.
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barbarienne
User: barbarienne
Date: 2012-04-17 20:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmm. The aspects that I have unconscious competence in:

1. Grammar/spelling/punctuation. I've had all that since I was a child, and only gotten better and more complex with it as I've aged. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

2. Rhythm of dialogue. Sometimes I miss a beat, but mostly the give-and-take of speech and bodytags flows easily, and the timing of jokes seems to work fine. I could write character patter all damn day, and I had to learn to rein it in.

3. Scene endings. On occasion I end a scene too soon, but I almost never have a scene that runs past its time. I just know when to land a capping line and put the # and move on.

4. Fight scenes. It's like character patter--I know what the next person will do and what the response will be and so on. I have to watch out for over-choreographing, but that's not a serious problem.


Things I'm still having to think about:

1. SETTING. I still have to have a special revision pass just for this, to make sure my characters aren't standing around in generic rooms.

2. Incluing. I'm getting better, but I still tend to dish info to the reader in the form of inner monologue and characters discussing problems. I'm long past AYKB problems, fortunately; but I still want more ways to smooth expository lumps.

3. Lack of interesting language. I've managed to excise most cliches, but only to replace them with rather literal statements and solid prose best described by the dreaded "workmanlike." I'm no poet, but I think I could achieve "clever." It's frustrating that someone who knows what "retromingent" means can't do this better.
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