Thinking about Thinking

Part of the reason that I have struggled with writing these last few years is because I haven’t had time to think. I don’t know about other writers, but for me, thinking is 90% of the job. The rest is essentially dictation. If I don’t have time to think, there just isn’t much to dictate.

It took a while for me to recognize this problem. Various activities–work, reading, family life–have fragmented my time so much that I no longer just sit around and think–daydream, if you will. About the only time I do this is in the shower. Granted, I often get good ideas in the shower. But not enough to sustain my writing.

As I planned to start writing again, I knew that I had to try to solve the problem of thinking. I knew that I couldn’t sit down to write every day without having given my writing some thought. I finally decided that I would set aside 30 minutes each morning to do nothing. In other words, 30 minutes to just let me mind wander, and think.

I gave it a try for the first time this morning. After returning from my morning walk, I set my phone on my desk, and then wandered out onto the deck with nothing but a pen, my current Field Notes notebook, and my thoughts. I sat there for 30 minutes and let my mind wander. I watched 2 cicadas mate shamelessly before my eyes. I watched unusually fat squirrels climbing trees. I listened to the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker somewhere out of sight. In the background, the car-alarm droning of cicadas filled the air. And every now and then, I thought about the story that I am writing.

It seemed to work. I jotted a page and a half of notes in my notebook. Most were questions, hows and whys. They weren’t all about the story, some where about how best to tell the story. I thought I would come away with more–a big revelation that would spark motivation and jump start things. That didn’t happen. But that kind of insight is always rare for me. Mostly, I tried to let my mind wander around the loosely fenced idea of my story. I was pretty happy with the results.

I suspect it will take practice. Sitting down once for thirty minutes and just letting my mind wander is not something I am used to these days, and like anything, it takes practice. I was surprised at how quickly the half hour passed. I probably jotted more than I should have. I’ve found that some ideas aren’t worth the ink, and being able to recognize that is an important skill for a writer. I’ll get better at that as I get back into practice.

When I finished, I transferred my notes into a notes file I keep for the story, organizing them a bit, and seeing where the ideas I jotted fit with ideas I’d already had. Something is taking shape in those note, and I think that something will form the skeleton of the story.

I’m interested in this process more than usual. If I am going to attempt to write ten novels over the next ten years, I need some way of learning from each one, and using what I learn from one to make the next one better. This way, when I retire, I’ll have enough practice under my belt to make my first attempt as a full time writer worthwhile. I think sitting for thirty minutes each morning and letting my mind wander around the borders of the story is a good use of time. We’ll see if it pans out.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about Thinking

  1. This really resonates with me, as have your posts about trying to write again. The one you wrote a little awhile back about your sustained writer’s block cut close to the bone for me. I find that I’ve filled up all the daydreaming time with podcasts, audiobooks, and scrolling. I like your idea of forced time to sit and think….I think I’m going to implement that on my lunchtime walk…no headphones, just letting my mind wander.

  2. I am not a bookwriter, but I would think that it takes more than half an hour thinking a day in between all kind of chores to come up with a good plot.
    Did you read the book of Sönke Ahrens on “How to take smart notes”.
    That gives the impression, that bookwriting is a lot of hard work.
    I wish you a lot of inspiration.

  3. Jaap, I’m constantly thinking about the story in the background throughout the day, but the half hour is useful for settling my thoughts on what part of the story I am going to try to tackle on that specific day.

  4. Melanie, three days of this thinking so far and it seems to be bearing fruit. It definitely helps focus my mind on what I want to try to write on a given day.

  5. Emerson advised writers to keep manuscript notebooks without structured headings or themes, and to write any train of thought that came to mind along with associated imagery. Very interesting, almost a meditative practice. Maybe leaving the structure and order of our “regular” lives allows our brain to make unexpected connections. I’m going to try this over the next week.

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