Writing the Five Genii Way

Mind, Heart & Soul of writing

#2 – Always on My Mind: Thinking like a writer

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Willie, Elvis, the Pet Shop Boys, Brenda Lee, and others popularized the song “Always on My Mind.” At first, this gentle, rueful song made me feel sad. Then I listened closely to the lyrics and got mad. The song was a lousy excuse for not saying or doing something to demonstrate your love for someone. The singer was conscience-stricken, sheepish, hang-dog: “Little things I should have said or done/I just never took the time/But you were always on my mind.” Having someone always on your mind (but not saying or doing anything) is lame for love affairs. Having something always on your mind (but not always acting upon your thinking, or at least not immediately) is beneficial for writing.

One way to decide what to write is to keep writing always on your mind. That doesn’t mean that all you think about is what you are going to write, what you’re writing now, or what you have written. Otherwise, think of the appointments you would miss, the friends you’d ignore, the family that disappeared, the job given to someone else, and all those bills, unpaid. Horrors!

I am conscious — as you probably are — of the many layers of my brain. One level ensures that I look both ways before crossing the street. Another level gets me to my job and appointments. Another makes sure I know and do what I’m supposed to do on the job. Still another focuses on my friends and family. And then there is another level. That’s the one that keeps going underneath all the rest. It’s like the subway below the street. It speeds along under the other levels: the buildings (and each story), the sky clouded with planes, the astronauts backing into their parking space at the International Space Station.

What am I doing when I’m thinking about my writing?

Replaying. . .

troublesome scenes, weak character development, plot gaps or anything else that is hassling me with phrases such as “Not quite right” or “Doesn’t work” or “Needs attention.” Sometimes I’m less kind to myself with solitary words: “Lousy” or “Sucks” or “Atrocious.” Whether I consciously want to or not, my brain replays my dilemma until something clicks. Meanwhile, I do my best with social, emotional, and operational aspects of my life.

Rehearsing. . .

what I’ve written. My brain likes to hear what I’ve written, especially if it is newly written, especially if it is dialogue. Subconsciously, I listen to the 8-track in my mind that may not remember exactly what I’ve written, but remembers the main idea, and fabricates the rest. Sometimes, repeatedly. Some part of a fabrication may be so exciting that I have to write it down. No paper? No pen? No phone? No iPad? Try marker, chalk, even lipstick on the palm.

Ramping Up . . .

for the next steps. My brain likes to organize itself. If it has been properly replaying and rehearsing, it probably has a few ideas about what to do next. If there’s only one item on the list — such as a change to plot — there’s probably a list of enabling steps. Changing plot, for example, may entail going back to the opening paragraph of the piece. . .

Rereading. . .

what I’ve written to begin writing again. Not everything but especially the parts that are hassling me (see Replaying above), newly written or in dialogue form (see Rehearsing above) require rereading. I might also reread steps I think I want to take next (see Ramping Up above).

The suggestions in the first blog post Paying Attention help you keep your writing always on your mind. As you pay attention, you’ll find that subway level of your brain connecting what you’ve noticed to what you’re writing, perhaps minimally unless you keep thinking about what you noticed.

For example, while you are creating code in your cubicle (yes, really), you are rehearsing a scene you wrote about a vulnerable main character. It plagues you, just doesn’t work, sucks. You look out the single window in your cell-like office and notice that pedestrians are trying to make their way through a duck-loving rain. You don’t notice any particular person or think of ducks. Instead, you see that one holds up an umbrella with three adjacent broken spokes that let the water drip on the walker’s neck. Subconsciously, you wonder if that detail would be usable with your vulnerable main character. You may keep thinking about this image. You might discard it. Or — sometimes unbeknownst to you — it lurks on the subway with your vulnerable-main-character-problem, ready to pop out when you need to use it.

Or, let’s say you are writing an essay about bureaucratic dysfunction. You have replayed this essay in your mind too many times, hoping that you can find a guiding metaphor. No such luck. One day you hear the sputter of a siren. Somewhere, it blares, seems to burp, and then stops. Blare-burp-stop. Blare-burp-stop. You notice this abnormality and then go on with your life. But deep down in that subway part of your mind, the dysfunctional siren gets together with your thesis about bureaucracies, and both emerge, holding hands.

As you’re making mac ‘n’ cheese for the kids, you rehearse an opening sentence to introduce the resemblance between a dysfunctional emergency vehicle and a dysfunctional bureaucracy. They both blare loudly and sputter to a stop. At the subway level, you rehearse variations of the opening sentence while you stir the morning’s oatmeal. As you quick march to the bus stop, you’re not quite conscious of your mind working, but your brain is beginning to ramp up your ideas.

Put ’em together: Paying attention + Letting your mind work on what you’ve noticed.

During what seems to be an otherwise unproductive writing session — there, suddenly — the broken umbrella appears. Or, somehow — you don’t know why — the broken siren on an emergency vehicle becomes the controlling metaphor for your treatise on government. An extended metaphor that works all the way through the development of your essay.

You may feel you’ve dithered around with these ideas enough. You’re ready to get back to your writing. In fact, the results of paying attention and letting your mind grind demand that you write. YOU PROBABLY FEEL YOU MUST MUST WRITE.