I was half listening to NPR while cleaning up the kitchen when I heard a singer-songwriter named Valerie June refer to “receiving a song.” The interviewer asked if it came to her in her own voice. She responded that songs come in many different voices. Warming to the subject, she added that she hears songs in her head all the time and tries to write them down. “If you just write every one down, you get to the good one.”
I was fascinated because my brain is often writing something if I have not otherwise engaged it. When I am meditating and trying to focus on my breath, my most common stray thought is something being written. Although my typical message to my brain is “Let go,” I sometimes find myself saying,“Stop writing.” I often have to use those words when I am trying to go to sleep and my brain is composing something new or reworking a sentence to get it right. If I tried to capture every bit of writing my brain does without my conscious motivation, I’m afraid the dirty dishes would pile up, my walks would include many stops to make notes, and getting to sleep would be a chore.
The author John Ehle once pulled a notebook from a shirt pocket to write down something my husband Bill had said and what it triggered in John’s mind. He chuckled the whole time and said all writers carry little notebooks. My nephew-in-law Joel Garreau, also a writer of considerable repute, advised me to have a notepad by the bed to capture writing thoughts in the night. “You won’t remember them in the morning,” he cautioned.
When I am walking with Nigel and see an unusual cloud formation or a deer peeking out from behind a Fraser fir, my brain starts writing a description and sometimes a little story. I try to remember the idea until I get home and can write it down. Similarly, at night when I have said my usual thanks that I have a good bed and can go to sleep, I don’t want to rouse, stop the CPAP machine, unhook the mask, turn on the light, dash off some words in a notebook, and then reverse those actions to go back to sleep. Instead I issue my preemptory command hoping to silence that soft voice relentlessly dictating. Once in a while I give in and turn on the light so I can scribble a particularly intriguing sentence or thought.
When I’m involved in a specific piece of writing, the off-duty work of my brain might recast a sentence or paragraph that has been problematic or just won’t flow. If it sounds pretty good to my suddenly attentive mind, then I do interrupt the sweeping or the ironing or the nap and write it down as fast as I can so I get it all. Another thing I don't ignore is a new idea for an essay that will often come as an opening sentence. I know I’ll regret it if I don’t jot down this fuse that when given my full attention will ignite an explosion of ideas.
I find that anything transmitted to my brain from my five senses can become grist for the mill of my grinding neurons. One thing I can’t do is sit myself down and think up a topic to write about. The ideas usually come unbidden, but I can discern what sensory trigger spawned them.
My writing process is separate from the idea formation that my brain does without my direction. If I go to the computer to write a first draft, it will often be a tiring session as I lay out and develop the text, and then start revisions. If the seminal thought did not come to me in a full-throated voice, I will choose first to do a “free write” by hand. I sit with my journal and record the thought delivered to my consciousness from my deeper brain. I will then write whatever comes into my hand for fifteen minutes. When the timer goes off, there is usually something on the page that I can work with. I then begin transforming the first creative blush into a crafted piece of writing that I deem worthy of sharing.
Now for those who think literally, I want to assure you that I know my subconscious writing brain and my active working brain are one and the same. However I’m trying to describe the way I experience these different modes. The first—which can be annoying— is when I’m the audience for a creative process I don’t summon or direct. The second is when I grab hold of one of those ideas, images, or insights and run with it.
The part that brings me the greatest joy is when I feel that I am in a dialog with the brain cells that work around the clock. I stare at a sentence that doesn’t sing and from nowhere comes a new melodic iteration of the same idea. If it is a post for this blog, I send it to Polly, my sharp copyeditor, who finds the typos my old eyes don’t see, and makes sure attributions and facts are correct. If her brain comes up with a better idea about the flow of a particular sentence or paragraph, she’ll write a comment such as “Try reading this aloud” or “Perhaps recast this sentence” or “Consider reversing the order of these two words.” Her hints or questions give me a nudge, and I take it from there.
The sensory trigger for this exploration of my writing brain came from Valerie June “receiving” songs in many different voices. I recognized a creative process similar to my own. Later that day during a nap, my writing brain wakened me, and this time I got up to write a note of my own. A few days later, I sat at the computer and lit the fuse.
Next post: 09/03/2013