Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Inner workings of a writer's mind

I'm researching for a piece on writers' own experiences of how they use different parts of their minds for different writing tasks, and if they are aware of this process. From what I know already, there are several viewpoints on what might actually be going on in there. Freud saw it as levels of consciousness: subconscious, ego and superego, working almost like separate entities. Some neuroscientists claim that the brain is like a number of parallel processing units all functioning at once, sending the task back and forth until it pops onto the screen of awareness. Psychologists talk about lateralisation, in which the two halves of the brain take dominance for different functions, and many books have been written about right-brain creativity, and how to harness it.

For my own part, I could almost be two different writers; if I let myself write purely creatively, the words and story flow onto the page, but I can't spell, punctuate, or write prose. If I consciously analyse my writing, my prose is great and so is my grammar, but I get mired down with detail, losing any creative flow. I regard these two aspects as my internal artist, and internal editor.

I'm interested to know how other writers find their inner workings. Given that it is National Novel Writing Month, it would seem to be the ideal time to give writers an excuse to procrastinate for a few minutes, have a look inside themselves, and let me know what they find.


  1. I can't say I care much for what any theorist from any discipline says about the process of creativity, they might as well be on a quest for what's at the end of the rainbow for what it's worth.
    What does fascinate me however is the experience of writing. At best it feels like some kind of divination or channeling; entire scenes seem to arrive fully formed out of nowhere and characters that supposedly, I've created surprise me with their choices. Now if I was a theoretical type I might be inclined to theorise about this phenomena...but I'm not.

  2. I am blessed with a natural feel for spelling and punctuation (though anything intended for publication definitely benefits from a good proofread-and-tidy). I don't tend to worry about it while writing. It doesn't stop me from writing things that feel valid in the moment, and inane when I return to it, however.

    I write in spurts, leave it for a while, come back to it later and make sense of it by organising it almost like video editing. Get the footage into the camera/get the writing down on paper, edit/organise/prune/knock some shape into it later.

    I definitely need to let some time pass between the writing and the editing to "see the wood for all the trees".

  3. We have met, briefly Simon,

    Now that’s a question. How the mind and the universe works is unexplainable (and is designed to be in my view) how we feel about why and how we write is, perhaps, a more fruitful pursuit and I like the way you’re going with this.

    I am by nature, a dualist, (I have not tried to be, it’s just how I feel) and experience a clear and distinct separation of mind and body. I do appreciate that some people don’t feel this separation, believing instead that body and mind are the same thing.

    The materialist argument is that that the body is dependent on the body and, therefore, can be broken up and destroyed – just like a table, or a car, or a story. If this particular type of “scientist” believes in a mind dependent on the body for its existence then the mind dies with the body.

    The materialist approach feels counter intuitive to me simply because I don’t feel that the essence of what I am is dependent on the physical body - I feel separate from it. For those who feel the body and the mind are co-dependent then they are not wrong necessarily, they are just a different type of person.

    So, how does this affect my writing, I wish I had the time.

    Have a look at my site and see if you can use it?

    Anthony Bounds

  4. Hi Simon, I think you need to attach electrodes to our heads and see what parts of our brain light up when we are writing or 'creating' for writing is a creative act. You are trying to define the undefinable and I like that, creativity to me suggests words like 'animate ' 'quicken' ( look that one up) even 'spirit' 'soul'; and I mention these things because it is creativity that makes us different from animals. But to answer your question, I write in my head, then I go to the key board, I don't think I would be doing this if it was handwriting or a typewriter, like you I also consider myself an artist, and I suspect if there was no pc then my creativity would come out in the form of paintings.Paintings, or any art form tell us a story or offer us a thought or an idea, just like words. I end up editing as I go along. This blog is a bit of a free write, what ever is in my head in response to the idea you have raised blurts out. Free writes then need to be panned for gold-

  5. Hi Simon, I hope your project's going well. How I write is not something I've thought a lot about to be honest, although I've often heard or read about writers just writing streams of consciousness and following the creative flow, similar to what you mention above - which often makes me wonder whether I'm a really rubbish writer, or not a natural writer, because I don't think that that's how I write. I'm well known by my friends and colleagues as being extremely anal, almost to the point of OCD, and I think that probably follows me into my writing. Thinking about it as I write this comment, I think I spend quite a lot of my writing time thinking about the writing - what I'm writing, how I'm writing, trying to think of what the next thing to write should be - rather than just, simply, writing. At least as far as writing non fiction is concerned - it might be a different experience with fiction, I don't know as it's been a while since I wrote any fiction. I hope all this makes sense! Sounds like an interesting essay you're preparing - would love to see it when it's done. Good luck! Is

  6. Hi Simon
    I can get very bogged down with making sure spelling, punctuation and grammar (stickler for that) and FACTS are correct. One of the best things was when I didn't have constant access to the Internet and so couldn't check on things - I'd just highlight to remind me to check and keep on writing. As a first-time novelist I think there is often a lot of ourselves in that first novel, so yes, in a way I think Freud was correct - that alter ego can kick in - not who we really are - but who we might like to be or aspire to be. Now this is really sharing stuff and maybe not what you want - I nearly killed off my protagonist- well in fact I have - probably wanted to kill a part of myself off (might be worth looking at Jung too - the collective unconcscious or was it concsious)but have decided not to...she is resurrected like a phoenix from the ashes (oh cliche). However, I know when my subconscious has really kicked in cos I can just write on a roll (with correct spelling, punctuatation and grammar an' all). I liken it to a cryptic crossword - you get the answer to a clue intuitively but then have to go back to analyse it to see how you got it. Hope this waffle helps.

  7. Hi Simon
    The last part of the above comment is true for me as well - when I'm 'in the zone' (silly but accurate phrase) it all comes out right first time, concept, grammar, punctuation and all (possibly I'll rearrange a few sentences as I go along). I can look back and analyse (well we had to...) but it was after the fact. This is mostly for short pieces though. Longer pieces, where I don't have a single 'concept' I find messier, with far more going back and refining, to get at what I was trying to say. But I also find them more fun. Grammar and punctuation usually is fine, though, it's just the *point* that often eludes me!
    Briefly, then, I'd say it's just how hard I can concentrate, whether I have a firm idea of what I'm saying, and how well my brain is working at the time.

  8. Hi Simon

    As promised, my writing process, such as it is.

    For journalism, I always start with the overall structure - which usually isn't terribly complex, since most articles are ordered chronologically or according to argument/counter-argument/synthesis.

    Once I've got the overall 'beats', it's just a question of filling in the words between them, which is usually a matter of alternating direct and indirect speech. Direct speech is good for opinion and emotional colour, but it's very inefficient for conveying factual detail, so the need to paraphrase tends to force you to alternate between the two anyway.

    For speed, I write with one eye on the overall word count and edit as I go. I'm pretty ruthless about removing any redundant words from quotes, since nuances of speech aren't usually critical in the sort of technical material I cover. When I hit the target word count, I just wrap up, and don't worry too hard about whatever gems I may have discarded.

    For not-journalism: none of the above. I tend to write according to the rhythm of the words or free association of ideas; use far less standardised vocabulary and sentence construction; and almost never have an overall structure in mind -- the kind of 'we'll fix it in post' approach that would make my journalistic interviewees shudder.

    I often write while walking, or sitting on trains, or when I wake up in the middle of the night, and I tend to rehearse riffs in my head until I can set an entire passage down on paper verbatim. Whereas I can knock out a 4,000-word article in a normal day if I have to, I'd be lucky to do 500 words of not-journalism -- which, not entirely coincidentally, is about the most I can hold in memory at a time.

    Does that tell you anything about the inner workings of my mind? Beats me.

  9. This is an interesting debate, Simon. Most of my creative writing begins with visualization. I see the scenes and story developing before any writing hits the page. Saying this, while working on my current novel, The Mobile Librarian, I've also done quite a bit of stream of consciousness writing. Even then, I tend to have a starting point - a vision of a scene.

    After many years of previously focusing on writing non-fiction, I've found writing fiction a very different and much slower process. I think this is because there is so much of my spirit and creative energy invested in the work but also because so many elements need to be in place. I believe it requires a certain balance where the thinking process is concerned and also calls more upon our emotional rather than rational responses. I `feel' what the characters are feeling, and that's why the process is exhausting and consuming.

    I have to say that, at times, the visualization and the writing feel `channeled' and, when that happens, it is wonderful! The process of thinking, however, sometimes gets in the way. :) All the best with your project!


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