Thursday, December 8, 2011

All Work and No Play* Makes A Dull Writer

Have you ever read the work of a young, uncorrupted writer? It’s like venturing into a jungle: Fresh. Green. Wild. Monkeys beating their furry chests. Parrots shrieking. Anacondas curling around trees. A chaos of creativity.

Such a writer is ruled almost entirely by her subconscious. The subconscious—let’s call her Crazy Daisy -- doesn’t know the difference between a gerund and a dangling participle; she only cares about expressing herself. Writing is play not work.

Unfortunately Crazy Daisy, charming as she is, has a problem: Her work meanders like a toddler strewing petals at a wedding: she needs to be reigned in.

Enter Ms. Grind.

 Ms. Grind cares most about the rules.

She’ll tell Crazy Daisy that a sentence can’t run on for three pages or that exclamation points shouldn’t be showered over a page like pepper. She’s so bossy and judgmental she frightens away Crazy Daisy. Ms. Grind doesn't care; she doesn’t needs that wild little girl hanging around anyway. Yet when she tries to have fun with her prose, it’s scary like having Dick Cheney ask you to pull his finger. Most of her writing comes out freeze-dried and soulless.  

Fact is, all writers are slightly schizophrenic, their mind divided between Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grind. We usually start out dominated by Crazy Daisy but once we immerse ourselves into the sea of endless writing rules, Ms. Grind tends to take over.  

Can Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grim live harmoniously in a writer’s head? In other words, is it possible to create prose that’s technically proficient but also has passion, wonder, and playfulness? Yes, but only if you allow Crazy Daisy and Ms Grim to play to their strengths.

New ideas usually come from Crazy Daisy.

You’re talking a walk or daydreaming and suddenly… BAM! You get a great idea. Crazy Daisy, impetuous minx, wants to start writing immediately. It’s like she has a case of diarrhea. You’ll be tempted to run with her. Don’t do it. Stop and take a moment to diaper the little imp.

Believe it or not, it’s time to bring Ms. Grind into the equation—not to shoot down the idea--but to structure it. Ms. Grinds loves outlines and plans and she’s good at them. After a little structure work, she might find that the idea isn’t workable after all. Sadly not all of Crazy Daisy’s ideas are golden. She likes to take risks and some don’t pay off.   

In fact, it’s wise to begin with every writing session with Ms. Grind and structure your thoughts when you sit down to write, whether to compose a short scene or a brief essay. You’ll satisfy Ms. Grind and give Crazy Daisy some perimeters. T.S. Elliot summarized this process:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its upmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.

Keep Ms. Grind Out of Your First Drafts  

Once structure’s in place, time to let Crazy Daisy loose. Allow her to scribble on walls, turn somersaults or eat paste. Sometimes she might break down structural walls and that’s okay too. Ms. Grind, however, isn’t allowed in.  Why? Because she’ll keep up a steady stream of inner dialogue that sounds something like this:

That sentence was abysmal. It must be fixed immediately. Can’t you do anything right? Who do you think you are, passing yourself as a writer?

Occasionally Crazy Daisy interjects, bringing flashes of brilliance, but mostly it’s Ms. Grind who stands over the writer, wielding her ruler.  

Not surprisingly Ms. Grind doesn’t give up her authority easily. How can you keep her out of your head when you're drafting?

Learn How to Break the Judgment Habit

Most people aren’t aware of the stream of criticism flowing in their mind while they’re writing. Thinking is so fast and transitory; it can be hard to catch Ms. Grind’s endless digs. That why it’s helpful to develop a habit of sitting quietly and meditating for fifteen minutes each day. Ms Grind will no do doubt object saying, “What a ridiculous idea.  Do you realize we’re wasting valuable writing time sitting around doing nothing?”

She’s no dummy. Ms. Grind knows that meditation is the best way to access all of Crazy Daisy’s wild brilliance.  Meditation helps you to recognize Ms. Grind’s judgmental thoughts, and to ignore them when you’re drafting a piece.

When Crazy Daisy takes over the draft, watch out, because diamonds and gold nuggets will start shooting out of your computer. BEWARE. Don’t pat yourself on the back because that, too, is a judgment and any time you make a judgment, you’re issuing an invitation to Ms. Grind. The time for judgment, positive or negative, is in the re-write. Not now.

Writing will suddenly be fun again and as effortless as letting out a whoop of joy. You’ll find yourself falling in love all over again.

One caveat: Crazy Daisy is very messy. 

When you go back to revise, you might be horrified at the results. Yes, the writing was intoxicating but the hangover’s a killer.  Ms. Grind will say, “I told you so.”  Don’t listen to her. Simply ask her to help you clean it up. She’ll balk at first, saying, “If you left things to me there wouldn’t so much clutter.”

True but neither would there be so much fresh, wild writing. Give it a try and see. It can be a little disorienting. You might not even recognize your own prose. 

By the way, there’s an easy way to tell which personality dominates your writing. If you love the drafting phase and hate structure and rewriting, Crazy Daisy probably dominates your writing. If you like outlines, loathe the drafting phase and love to polish your prose, you need a T-shirt that says “Team Ms. Grind.”    
*If you resisted reading this article, thank Ms.Grind. She’s not interested in articles about making writing fun. It threatens her authority. She much prefers list articles like “Ten Ways To Punch Up Your Dialogue.” They’re useful; this article is a waste of time. Crazy Daisy, indeed. 

Karin Gillespie is novelist who loves to pick daisies. Follow her @gillespiekarin.  


Susan Cushman said...

This is sooooo good, Karen. Neil White gives a craft talk at writing workshops called "The Art vs. the Craft"... like your post, he talks about the importance of laying down the draft (ART) without judgement, with all engines firing, creatively. Then the CRAFT comes in - the work of revision. But I LOVE the terms you use in this post and the way you bring this process to life. THANKS for this! Happy Holidays!

Susan Cushman said...

Ooops, sorry I misspelled your name, Karin. Guess I wrote that comment in ART mode and never went back with CRAFT to revise it!

Karin Gillespie said...

Thanks, Susan. What a nice thing to say. I'm glad you enjoyed. I will have to check out Neil White

Quilters' Quarters said...

Great article - I recognize both Crazy Daisy and Ms Grind! My overuse tends to be with ellipses, not exclamations, but one is as habitual as the other!

I have just begun my second career as a writer, having retired after thirty years in public school classrooms as a teacher of both general and special education. I've reviewed three Peggy Webb titles at my blog this week, and invite you to view them at:

I'm enjoying your work!

Karin Gillespie said...

Thanks for the nice comment, Terry. Good luck with the writing. I also like ellipses.

Allie L. said...

What a marvelous thing you have done! Bringing to life the two sides of the brain so writers can see them! Yes, Ms. Grind must always be put in her place. But what a struggle that can be.
I must confess to being a Crazy Daisy, who is nonetheless unduly influenced by Ms. Grind! said...

The comment above is actually from me -- I didn't realize my daughter was ogged in to my google account!!!!

Karin Gillespie said...

Thank you, Allie. I'm sort of in the middle, but Ms. Grind has been in my first drafts too much lately.

Jane said...

Love this!!! It is wonderful encouragement!!

Karen Harrington said...

This is a wonderful way to look at the process, Karin! This really energized me as I am setting out on the journey to start a new book in January. Thanks so much!

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Debora said...

Well, tat was certainly inspiring. I'll give you about 5 more minutes and then Miss Rant will put every single thing that motivated me from that, and stuff it in er catty bag. I don't have a benevolent (even if sometimes excitable writing )part in my brain! I have Miss Rant. She killed every single one of the remaining productive ones. I'm kinda convinced I'm still in mourning. She doesn't let me think about it that way. Well, this is awkward...
I did like your post. You know when you wish for a brother, a puppy or pair of pliers for Christmas? I wish Crazy Daisy would invade my mind and do something that would eventually kill Miss Rant. I'll let her play for a bit and all that. Then she can rename herself (if she so chooses it) and live inside it FOREVER. OK. Thank you for this. Keep it up.

JDY said...

You'd inspired me this morning! Thanks alot.

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