Try Not To Think About Thinking

In the video linked below (called On Being A Science Fiction Writer, but more widely applicable), Cory Doctorow talks about the writing process, and makes the point that writing is a partly unconscious act. But the conscious mind gets involved and tries to force rationality and structure on the process.

“Every time I’ve actually bowed to that, the story has died. Because I think you can’t be cognitive and metacognitive at the same time. You can’t be thinking about something and thinking about what you’re thinking about at the same time. You can’t revise and create in the same moment. You’ve got to do one and then the other.”

The conundrum of being cognitive and metacognitive strikes a solid chord with me. It reminds me of what Stegner described as being, “infected with consciousness and the consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death.” That’s existential and makes for all sorts of literary fun. But in creative writing, it’s a real problem. Worse than Facebook. The hardest thing about trying to create anything is overcoming the temptation to criticize it before it has a chance to live.

And it’s only getting worse, I think, with the metastasis of technology. I used to write poems with the idea that I might show them to someone in a couple of months, at a workshop, perhaps, after a few more drafts. Now I’m thinking it’s been a few days or a week since I posted anything on my blog, so I really ought to try to cough something up. Today or tonight, but soon.

I guess that’s always been the way it is for journalists. You’ve got to fill the column inches between the ads with something. And maybe I’ve digressed.

How is it possible to keep the conscious mind from getting in the way and mucking things up? Well, Doctorow seems to say that he faces this challenge by focusing on the tension imperative to driving his plot.

“Plots run on tension, and there are lots of ways to make tension and lots of ways to diffuse it. But the one kind of iron-clad, always works way to make tension is to have a person in a place with a problem. The person tries to solve the problem, the person fails, and things get worse.”

OK, that’s one excellent kind of tension. I have to say it’s not the kind of tension that drives the things I write, unless I take a fairly broad view of what constitutes a problem. My tension tends to be more emotional, more existential than the problem I think Doctorow is talking about.

It seems to me that often it’s not just the problem and the search for a solution that builds the tension, but the greater awareness of the self in the context of the problem.

Here are two paragraphs from my novel in process, in which my central character states his problem:

I hated that the night had gone by so fast and I had to confront my consciousness again, my life and its anxiety, and the fog-soaked dripping valley still sleeping around me. I needed more time to think, to sort things out. I woke up in a vague melancholy, a general discomfort with damn near every facet of my life. Papa was sick and maybe dying, this old house sighed under the weight of the rain and fog. And I didn’t have a clue how to move forward with my life. …”

I laid in my bed and saw that almost thirty years had stood, been glimpsed, and died away since I was eleven years old. I laid here in my lumpy old bed and tried to believe in Papa moving on, maybe soon, in Dad following, and in the whole world going on without me. Can the world really go on spinning when all of us are gone? It seems to have that intention precisely. I thought the world should have something wise to say about all this,  some bland apology to make. But it only rained more ardently, as though it would not stop for days.

OK, so I’m not writing To Kill A Mockingbird. Now there was a plot with tension. I won’t even defile it by restating the problems Atticus Finch faced, and his children. But I think you’ll agree my guy has a problem. He doesn’t particularly care for the way the universe is built. And I suppose under Doctorow’s thesis, my task is to generate tension by making you watch me – I mean my character – try to solve it.

This should be interesting. And more interesting, here’s the video of the interview with Cory Doctorow.

Coming soon: An update on my favorite geeky writing tools for getting stuff written, while staying organized and keeping the bad wolf of premature editing off your tasty bits.