Chaos & Blindfolds

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All storytelling (and maybe even all art) is a negotiation between order and chaos.

I know I may be oversimplifying when I say that, but if that’s true, then all storytellers (except for rare and very fortunate ones) fall into one of two camps: chaos-forward storytellers and order-forward storytellers.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone who knows me to find out that I fall into the order-forward camp, meaning that shaping the clay into an ordered mass comes much more naturally to me than does producing that clay to begin with. Therefore, much of my process revolves around trying to inject chaos into my writing and turning off the ordering mechanisms in my brain while I try to produce the raw material I will shape later on.

Which brings me to the picture at the top of this post. Full disclosure: this picture is staged. David Mitchell Robinson took it when we were hanging out in our hotel before catching our flights out of Atlanta yesterday afternoon. But the photo does represent how I write when I’m trying to generate that elusive raw material, when I’m trying to capture that elusive “flow.”

Yes. I am blind-folded. And no, this is not a joke.

This is an idea I got while talking to my friend Nathan Green several months ago. I noticed he was working with a bluetooth keyboard, and I wondered if people who are very confident in their touch-typing could use a bluetooth keyboard to write without actually looking at what they are writing (meaning the screen is in a different room or turned away from them, etc.) in order to not censor themselves and remain in the moment while they’re putting words on the page. Nathan then talked about how contemporary word-processing software often makes the words you type look like a published book as you put them on the screen, and that this visual impression of creating the final product as they type can put tremendous pressure on writers, causing them to clam up.

So I bought a cheap bluetooth keyboard which I can use with my iPhone (the small screen minimizes my temptation to look at it while writing) and I started using a sleep mask to shut out all light so I can be in the moment while writing. My rule is that I can’t take off the mask until I’ve either finished the scene or I’ve been writing non-stop for one Pomodoro.

Oh, and I pair this with listening to binaural beats underneath music that has enough repetition and simplicity to put me in a trance-like state while also remaining chaotic enough that I can’t get distracted by its patterns. Right now, that means listening to the musician Omar Bashir‘s oud albums while I write. Other times, it’s jazz. Other times, it’s ambient music.

To be sure, blind-folding myself like this is not some magic key that suddenly unlocks everything for me. This part of the process is just the tip of an iceberg that’s buoyed by weeks (if not months) of research and thinking through my characters. And sometimes, when I’m really stuck, I’ll get up before sunrise so I’m still in that semi-dream state, throw the sleep mask on first thing, and write for an hour without doing anything else. The point is, this is just one tool I use, and is only effective when paired with a lot of other tools and strategies.

Thus far I’ve found this approach has worked wonders for my productivity. It means that, by the time I start writing on a project, I can sometimes write as much 10 polished pages in a span of two hours. Yesterday, I only ended up writing about forty minutes, but in that time I solved a scene that had eluded me for weeks because I forced myself to just sit down and write it.

I also attribute that startling (at least to me) flash of progress yesterday to another approach I’ve started recently; an approach I’m calling “rehearsing my scenes.” I had written a version of a scene that hit all the crucial story points but didn’t really move between them artfully and lacked depth and subtlety of character. Typically when I set about revising such a scene, I will try to do so on my computer. Sometimes I’ll print out the scene and attack it with a pencil. But both approaches involve my looking at the old version of the scene as I rewrite it. Lately, I’ve decided to “start again from the top” by briefly rereading the old scene, so I have a sense of its structure, before blindfolding myself and just trying to rewrite the scene again from scratch. The old scene structure provides an entry point, and even though the second pass may not be perfect, it’s likely to be far more artful, nuanced, and attentive to my characters. And I can likely take some parts of both scenes and combine them into a much improved version of the scene.

OK, so now that I’ve shared some of my strategies for capturing the elusive “flow” and stifling my inner critic, I’d love for you all to share some of yours. I have recently found out that there are more of you reading these posts than I previously thought, so don’t be shy. Share your tricks of the trade.