Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] Writing without thinking

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?

Tags: media, music, process, writing

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