Warm up before writing: theory and practice
Photo credit: Nicholas_T via Foter.com / CC BY
Today I started out having a crap time writing. Really crap. I ended up feeling as though I was wasting my life. And I ended up writing about that feeling.
This happens a lot: both the "having a crap time writing" part and the "feeling as though I was wasting my life" part.
Usually I just soldier on. Eventually the feeling passes. And eventually I get back to writing.
Today, I did something better. I figured out what's wrong, and what to do about it. I learned something that will stick, at least for a while. But we'll see. In the meanwhile, I'm going to post this hoping that both future me and other people find it useful or at least interesting.
So here's the practice, and the theory behind the practice.
The practice: warm up before you write. Don't write without warming up. Don't.
750 words is one of my venues for warming up. So is a notebook in which I can write longhand. The ideas is to free-write, to just put down whatever comes into my head. To stretch the writing muscles with waking the internal writing critic.
Secondary practice: if you run into trouble don't grind. Do some stretching exercises. Then go back to work.
Now I just have to do it.
Jumping right into the middle of a tough piece of writing is madness. It's like playing a game without warming up first. It's a good way to get hurt. That's what's happened to me today.
To carry out any intellectual task requires mental resources available to that task. I think the mind marshals those mental resources this way. Multiple processes run in the mind, and at any moment each has some number of Mental Resource Units (MRUs). MRUs are assigned to tasks as they need, require, or demand them. Some are held in reserve.
Writing is not a single process. There are processes that produce the words; there are processes that monitor what comes out to make sure it makes sense; processes that monitor over-all quality; even a process that moves my fingers. There are always processes too, running in the background. There are processes that monitor my state, internal and external. And there are processes that were previously solving other problems and which have not yet shut down.
Sitting down to write kicks off the processes that produce writing. They might quickly marshal some MRUs, say, 100. That's the amount needed to do a simple bit of writing. As the writing goes on they might marshal more, or they might release some MRUs. I was doing a demanding bit of writing, one that needed way more than my initial allocation of 100. Let's say I needed 200 MRUs for a satisfactory job.
Since I had nowhere near the number of MRUs required, my writing was not up to the task. Or in plain English: it was shit. The writing quality monitor detected this, grabbed some MRUs and started ringing alarms. That woke up the state-monitoring processes, which grabbed some more MRUs and started broadcasting its assessment of the state of my life. "Attention all units. I am wasting my life. Again." And that fired up a whole bunch of reactive processes that absorbed more MRUs. Pretty soon, almost no MRUs available for writing said challenging piece.
I backed off and went to 750 words to write, but by that time I was in full reaction, and didn't have enough MRUs for that.
Warm up before you write. Stretch if you get stuck.
In another universe I started with warm ups. I did my free-writing in 750 words. The 100 MRUs that I start with expand to 150 and then 200 and then more. When I turn my attention to the tough writing, I've got the MRUs I need to tackle it.
So goes the theory. How does this go in practice?
Remember: "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are different."
This is Post # 2 on the day.