Excerpted from Writing Open the Mind, Ulysses Press, 2005
Could you be open to the proposition that the murky and quirky part of your mind is wiser than the thrust-and-parry datebook mind? Here we have discovery by means of imagination. No need to grip the steering wheel so tight. Enjoyment is what it’s all about. Let go. The mind likes that. It responds well to indulgence.
People talk about "freewriting.” Free. Writing. What would it be to write totally free? To be liberated from all the niggling habits, the tendency to adopt a certain stance? What might your mind do and say if it weren’t in the office drafting memos? A sassafras hickey zowie brainstorm.
Writing discovers your own life. Don't box it. Don't expect it or force it to be this or that. The way most of us approach writing, we’re stuck in the detention room. But when we give ourselves permission to play, the subconscious is liberated and makes patterns outside of the analyzing mind. Those patterns are far more complex and rich than a strict Euclidean geometry cleansed of all the burrs, rough edges and tangled seaweed clumps.
Writing Open the Mind is a delicious compendium of tricks, stratagems and experiments to let you into your own subconscious world. I offer you three of my experiments here. These gateways to the subconscious work when you remain open and watching and delighted. Let us be interested in the New. Inexplicable. Bonk!
Ok. Relax. You're going to try these right? They work. I've offered this work to thousands of people for more than 25 years. Get your writing project going, and have a blast doing it.
Experiment One: COBBLINGS
The first liberation is of listing. Writing a list, there’s nothing you can do wrong. The fact of the list asks you to add to it: it’s an endless cabinet of blank spaces. Because the slot is there, it asks to be filled.
This one is a great way to get a rapid first draft of an essay or story or blog post, or to explore a topic of feeling or situation. Choose something you’ve been wanting to write about. Anything is good. Surgery. Archery. Cliques in high school. Global warming. Anything at all. Could be a story, could be an issue you're wrestling with. You’ve got things you want to write about. Choose one, write it down.
STEP ONE: Write five column headings down on a page. We’re going to be playing here with abundance—plenty, lots. The headings are: “Faces.” “Scenes,” “Ideas,” “Feelings,” and “Questions.” Faces are people, people associated with this topic. Or dogs. Or puppets. Anybody. Scenes are places or situations. Feelings can be any kind of emotion or mood that comes up around your topic or story. You can come of with some weird ones like aspirational or perplexed or downhearted. Ideas, or concepts if you prefer, are thoughts you have about this. "Generational trauma," "Resilience," "Dialectical materialism." (Let's not ostracize the intellectual world!) Questions—you could name this column “Mysteries” if you prefer—are things you still don’t know. Not knowing is interesting. They always told you, "Write about what you know." Down with all limitations! Just because we don’t know the answer, you don’t have to avoid writing about the question.
Now take about seven minutes and write down every association or connection you have in your brain about said Topic or Story in any of these columns. You don’t need to fill a single column first, all orderly-like, and then proceed diligently on to the next column. Jump all over the place. Just a word or three each. You will not be held accountable or even have to explain all your list items, so just put down whatever you think you might use. This is because plenty is good. Let the question, “Why does she act like that?” lead, inexplicably, to the concept “trust,” which engenders, then, in rapid succession, “doubt,” “lies,” “frangipani,” “my cousin’s messy car” and “Bob Hope.”
Bob Hope, of course, is a Face, and it reminds you of despair. God knows why, it just does, and there it goes, down under Feelings. Keep moving like this. Don’t stop. You won’t have to use all these kernels and nuggets in the next part of this experiment, so if you have a little inkling to put something down, do it. (Frangipani doesn't fit in any column? Stick it somewhere! Say Yes to the pen. Try to get a goodly number of items in each column, but some columns will have more than others: writing has a mind of its own. That’s OK. It’s temperamental that way.
OK. Got your lists? On to STEP TWO: Choose just one list item, one tidbit/kernel/radioactive nugget from any one of the columns that you think it would be interesting to start with, one that intrigues, or surprises. Place a circled number beside it, on the left. The number “1.”
Now float your eyes all over that piece of paper—any column is OK—and choose another item to go next to the first. We are not going for “flow” here. In this instance, we think flow is bad. We’re looking for disjuncture. What would be an interesting leap? Diagonal? What would be a non-opposite, dissimilar connection here? Not logical, not illogical, just interesting to you. Put number “2” next to that. And keep going. Choose one item after the other and move forward. Go up to nine.
Now to the writing of it. STEP THREE. Choose an amount of time. 35 minutes? Set a timer. (And turn off all other distractions, right?) You will be freewriting, and the Three Rules of Freewriting Are: 1. Keep the Pen Moving 2. Don't read back. 3. Don't scratch out. Feeling elated? Keep the pen moving. Sure it's the worst crap ever? Keep the pen moving. Lost in space? Keep the pen moving. Rules 2 and 3 prevent you from triggering the judging, evaluating mind, which is much less wise than the dreaming, full speed ahead mind. Trust me.
So what you’ll do is write one “chunk” of writing for each number. A chunk might be a few sentences. It might be a paragraph. It might be only a few words of a disconnected phrase. You write that chunk in any way or style that you want. And then move on to the next item, with no transition or padding. That’s important. We’ve been taught to move smoothly, putt-putt-putting “the reader” along. We’ve been taught transitions of logic, indoctrinated into a regular Ex-Lax ideology of slithering from one milquetoast concept to the next. No! The mind likes to move around haphazardly: let it jump. Try to fit in all nine chunks in the thirty five minutes, even if you have to stop midway in a bunch of them. Move ahead one leap at a time. Each item or piece stands alone, and it makes no apologies for itself. If something unexpected and disconnected comes up, put it down: “Welcome, Friend!" Okay? Go!
Questions for the Curious: (For after you’re finished.)
So there it is. You can walk away from the page, get a cookie (or even milk and cookies), stretch, take a short footbath, and come back to the page. You could, of course, skip the footbath and all that, but sometimes it’s a gift to read a piece with a different mindstate than the one that wrote it. Be generous! Don't start looking for problems. Find the rich bits. Appreciate them. How do those gaps you’ve created work? How is this different from the way you usually write? Were the leaps between chunks creative of new connections in your brain?
The Mind of It:
In this piece, what you did was to juxtapose different parts against each other. The orangutans right up against the international financial markets. What’s the connection? That’s an interesting question. Really interesting. Let’s not pre-decide an answer to it.
Each word in the world connects to a series of memories, ideas, and emotions all over the brain. And when we juxtapose chunks, rock-salt-to-crows-feet up next to each other, synapses flash together, and stored up energy is released. It could be funny. It could be profound. It might be Mystery itself.
(Want to know more about Asymmetrical Juxtaposition? It comes from... Japanese Flower Arranging! You can read more about it here. )
Experiment Two: WILD AND STUFFY
What is wild writing? Lots of cuss and swear words? A kind of rampage? Screeching? Define it for yourself. And ask yourself, “If I were to write something irreversibly wild, what would it be? What instructions would I give myself?” Would you be rude? Would your sixth-grade boy narrator take dissected frog parts and throw them at squealing sixth-grade girls? Make your little list of "wild" practices and policies. An annotated wilderness. It is well said that “Wild women don’t get the blues.” What wild do they do?
So, how do you get wilder? Just as you can clench a muscle first in order to relax it, by swinging back and then forth, our Wild and Stuffy is going to give us the width of the spectrum. The stretch marks and the proofreader’s marks. The loan sharks and the Noah’s arks. By oscillating back and forth, we create space in between and freedom at the edges.
Let me also, professorially, say something about stuffy. We used to hate “stuffy”: the polysyllabic pomposity, the operationalizations of variables, the passive voice-over always ducking the blame, the insecure and baroque flourishes to make oneself sound important. But now “stuffy” can be a tool, a permission to go farther. Allow yourself (on occasion) to get exceeeeedingly stuffy. Polarization stretches the limits.
Again you'll want to get "something" to write about. Put it down now at the top of the page. What we will do is go back and forth between stuffy and wild, oscillate six times. Four minutes for each. (Or more if you have more time.) Get out your timer. Start with stuffy. Speak genially of its nuances and aspect ratios. Adopt a thoroughly genteel air. Slide the wire rims down to the end of the nose. Explicate carefully the theme under consideration. Your countenance is cool, your manner precise. The timer is set. You have four minutes to pomp and to circumstance.
Suddenly you go wild, you freaking freak! The barrel over Niagara, the streaker, the football hooligan. Tear down the goalposts with a hoard of other screaming maniacs. Bark out commands. Let the furor roar. Four minutes, no more.
Now back to the library and the small pinch of snuff, decorum and sanity, “enough is enough.” The understatement, or the contrite soliloquy, the desideratum, not the fantasy. Four minutes.
And back! Ha haaa! You’re horsemeat now sucker! Exaggeration is good. Four minutes.
And back, “Thus, the upshot of our thorough analysis is decidedly such.” Four minutes.
And again mud wrestling amid the writhing shameless hussies and the high stakes bingo grannies. Four minutes.
Oscillate wider and wider, to the furthest extremes. Each apogee-parabola-hyperbole on one end goads on the next. Watch what your mind does as it goes on its spree. Finish when you have your six chunks.
Questions for the Curious:
Well . . .what did you discover? Which felt more natural to the right-now-you? When you swung back and forth, were there interpenetrations between Yin and Yang? Sumatra and Newfoundland? How did the content spill over? How did the feeling spill over? Did you get to feeling more free?
The Mind of It
Different mindstates fertilize and intensify each other. Conjuring up the “stuffy” and plunking it right next to the “wild,” and careening between them makes each of them seep into each other’s dominions. We get more wild than we could have if we brutally enforced “only wild” for a certain piece of writing. On the stuffy side, the wildness gives bite and storm to the pompous gut and pretentious clog. On the wild side, we find that we’ve been living too small. We thought wild was only dirty words, or epithets and expletives, but in fact it was monkey screechings and lice scratchings and warlock bellyachings and maniacal seed-saving, and long intense glares. Who would have thought? Polarization is your friend.
Experiment Three: SHUFFLE THE NUGGETS, RESEQUENCE THE MIND
One thing leads to another. A headline leads to an explanation, which leads to a quote. A long, long time ago leads to a galaxy far, far away. The coffee leads to the bagel; showing up at work leads to the paycheck, which leads to the rent. The same thing happens tomorrow. Patterns repeat themselves and we know what to expect. The synaptic electrons flow down one neuro-rivulet in the brain and not down the other. Soon the trickle turns into a gully, and it’s hard to think new.
Language does this too: newspapers, emails, weather reports, phone conversations, self-help books: all have their sequences. Each one grooves a track that gets harder to budge. We are like those people announcing departing flights by the gates, saying the same thing over and over, again and again. “Passengers traveling with small children . . .” “We’d like to welcome our business class hamsters . . .” “Have your boarding passes ready for the agent . . .” They’re probably getting a repetitive stress injury of the brain, even as they speak. But it’s not just them. We’re all in it together. Language is the stuff of consciousness, a very major part, and we run in its groove. So, how to escape? "Shuffle the Nuggets," of course.
You could to start this one with something already written. But anything will do. It could be a page from your teenage diary. It could be a letter you found in a box in the attic, written by your great uncle to someone named Susan. It could be your short story. You can use the newspaper. Anything where the words have something in them for you. Or a new freewrite you just drafted.
STEP ONE: Read through the piece rapidly and look for outcroppings of interest. Underline a short phrase/part of a sentence—three to eight words, but nothing too long. Underline another. Five phrases, or seven. Odd numbers are good. And when you choose phrases, follow your instinct, follow what seems to be calling to you, or troubling you, or intriguing for whatever reason that you may not know. These are your nuggets.
STEP TWO: Copy out each one of these phrases onto a separate small scrap of paper. Index cards or the backs of business cards work swell. Now take these little shards, and shuffle them around. Invite the holy god of Random into the core of your piece. Let chance be your birthright, your ticket. Yes, shuffle them blind. With your pen and paper at the ready, lay them out in a row.
STEP THREE: Now look at the flow of the chunks, and get ready to write. What new story or flow suggests itself? (A whisper is enough.) You will expand the piece back out again, stretch it back out to size. And in between chunks, you can put in anything at all. You use the same words, in the new order, but put anything else in between. The freedom part is this: it can become a completely different piece. Maybe the same topic, maybe another. Maybe you turn it into a tone poem, or perhaps it's a farce. Maybe you don’t know what it is. The secret to transforming the piece is to allow any new words to come in. In the spaces between, you can insert jelly doughnuts or NASCAR dads or nitrogen phosphate: anything. Just keep these very same words in the order that they’re in. Spread the nuggets out through the new piece in any way you like, some close together, others farther apart. Set the timer to twenty minutes, move all the way through, and see what you find.
Questions for the Curious:
What grew in the cracks? Connections unlooked-for, oblique turns of phrase? How did the piece shift? Did you resequence your mind? (It works even trippier if you take phrases from the second piece and do the whole shebang one more time.)
The Mind of It:
Most of the time, we write by connecting pieces of text by logic, by chronology, or by “X made me think of Y,” which creates in the reader the feeling of “flow.” In re-arranging a sequence, words connect and combine. Juxtaposed objects spark the mind to create. We say to ourselves, “Why is that there?" Shuffling the nuggets sparks a “Huh?” and a pause, and a wanting to know. There’s a field of speculation, of guesses and clues. And since words connect to synapses, new leaps are fomented, and new patterns are born. The rearrangement of phrases creates a new brain.
So, why write this way? A traditional writing class or method will teach you techniques and tools. Yet there’s a certain point when that will carry you no further. Hello stuckness, or repetition. At that point, we wonder what to do. We’ve forgotten what the child understands intuitively: that language comes from the deep wilderness of life itself, that it comes from play, and that the unsuspected appears from nowhere again and again. The trick is to give yourself a little break from the tyranny of ends-means rationality, to try a more relaxing way: to simply write, and let go of the leash.
For more inspiration, join a couple of upcoming "Writing Open the Mind" circles with Andy Couturier. More details and RSVP info here.