Beyond BICHOK: How, When and Why Getting Your Butt Out of the Chair Can Make You a Better Writer | Jane Friedman

Beyond BICHOK: How, When and Why Getting Your Butt Out of the Chair Can Make You a Better Writer | Jane Friedman

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Today’s guest post is by freelance editor Sarah Chauncey.

You’re driving on a long stretch of highway when you have an insight about your main character’s childhood. Or you’re mid-hair-rinse in the shower, when you suddenly understand how to bring together the braided strands of your novel. Or you wake up at 2 a.m. with the resolution to that thorny plot issue you’ve been wrestling.

Have you ever noticed how many ideas arise when you’re not sitting at the keyboard? 

As writers, we’ve all experienced the law of diminishing returns—the point at which our writing stops being generative and begins to feel like we’re pulling each word from our synapses by hand. I spent the better part of a decade investigating how to create what I half-jokingly call a “law of increasing flow.” How might writers support our writing practice in a way that doesn’t leave us mentally burned out?

Conventional advice: butt in chair, hands on keyboard

For decades, writers have been told the most important thing to do is to put “butt in chair, hands on keyboard.” As acronyms emerged with USENET forums in the 1990s, this became abbreviated “BICHOK.”

BICHOK is essential to writing. You can’t publish a book without sitting down to write, to revise, to revise again (and again and again), to query, or to fill out your author questionnaire. Yet so often, it’s treated like a Puritan work ethic or a punishment: “You put your backside in that chair, young man, and don’t get up until you’ve written 10 pages.”

That may work for some writers, and if you’re among them, more power to you! That kind of disciplinarian approach, though, doesn’t work for me.

Putting hands on a keyboard doesn’t make someone a writer, any more than holding a Stratocaster makes someone a musician. There are many times when we can gain insight by looking away from our work. These include: Before we sit down to write, during the writing process, and between revisions. What we do during those times is every bit as important as getting the words down.

To understand how this helps your writing, it’s important to understand the interplay of the conscious and subconscious mind.

How the subconscious and conscious mind work

When I was younger, I used to tell people that my best writing bypassed my intellect entirely; it came from my heart and flowed down my arm. While that might sound precious and woo-woo, it turns out my instincts were right on. The intellect has many wonderful uses—categorizing and sorting (and revising, oh so much revising.)—but it’s a terrible writer.

The thinking mind informs our writing; it’s what allows us to conduct research, analyze information and execute the ideas we have. Original ideas, though, can only come up when we deliberately allow the mind to wander—and pay attention to its whereabouts.

The conscious or rational mind, including what we call the intellect, takes in about 2,000 bits of information per second. However, it can only process about 40 bits of information per second.

The subconscious mind, on the other hand, takes in upwards of 11 million bits of information per second. We know more than we are aware of knowing. The subconscious retains everything we’ve ever experienced. It combines seemingly disparate ideas and experiences and comes up with new and unusual connections. Just ask anyone who’s ever dreamt about their aunt Myrtle performing Riverdance in a T-Rex costume. The subconscious is creative.

Creativity comes from beyond the thinking mind

J.D. Salinger once wrote, “Novels grow in the dark.” By that, he meant that they emerge from the subconscious mind. In my experience, what we call intuition is logic of the subconscious, delivered to us in aha moments after it has had time to percolate.

Consider the old-fashioned tin coffeemaker, the kind you put on a stove. You add the ingredients—water in the bottom, coffee grounds on top—but you don’t expect coffee right away. The stove has to heat up; the water has to boil. Then it has to percolate, mixing the bubbling water with the grounds, as the water slowly takes on the flavor of the grounds. The process takes time and can’t be rushed. creative percolation is the same.

Many of us get ideas from sudden insights, but waiting around for those is a fool’s errand, because there’s one major block: The thinking mind is as noisy as a jackhammer, whereas intuition whispers. As long as our thinking mind is engaged, it will be difficult to notice subconscious insights.

When we look away and we relax the thinking mind, we’re more receptive to our intuition.

Looking away gives the subconscious time to percolate

Writers get into cognitive ruts when we’re looking at the same material for a long time. Looking away helps us to see our words anew.

It’s not healthy to sit in front of a screen all day. Writers write, yes, but writers also research, experience, dream, ideate and live.

Critical thinking and discernment are essential, but not during the delicate, generative phase of creativity; it’s far more helpful during revision. In the process of creating, our thinking minds aren’t much more helpful than AI: We produce words we’ve been conditioned to produce, using thoughts that we’ve been conditioned to think. We gather information and we regurgitate it.

Stanford happiness researcher Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. wrote in the Washington Post, “Truly successful people don’t come up with great ideas through focus alone. They are successful because they make time to not concentrate and to engage in a broad array of activities … As a consequence, they think inventively and are profoundly creative: they develop innovative solutions to problems and connect dots in brilliant ways.”

Bestselling author and neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. writes about the difference between directed thinking (focus work) and purposeful daydreaming (creative ideation). Both are necessary for writing or any creative endeavor. That’s why it’s important for writers to learn how to identify our insights and navigate our creative flow, both of which emerge from the subconscious.

In order to have effective look-away time, we have to learn how to quiet our thinking mind and pay attention to our thoughts.

Learn to notice thoughts, feelings and sensations (or how to quiet the thinking mind)

According to another Stanford researcher, Dr. Fred Luskin, most of us have about 60,000 thoughts a day, and 90% of those are repetitive. Yet most of us are also completely unaware that we’re thinking. We simply believe our thoughts to be reality. Learning to notice our thoughts—developing what Dr. Siegel calls the “observing circuit”—can boost creativity exponentially.

Try this: Set a timer for 15 seconds and see if you can catch any thoughts that arise during that time. Then see if you can catch yourself thinking as you’re going about your day.

According to a study out of the Netherlands, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, daydreaming can only help boost creativity if you are able to notice your ideas bubbling up. Study participants who practiced mindfulness experienced increases in creativity while daydreaming; those who didn’t experienced no such boost.

When I first began learning to observe my thoughts, I would walk around with my head tilted to the side, like a dog listening to an unusual sound. What was me, and what were my thoughts? Once I began to become aware of thinking as a separate process from observing, I was able to become aware of many, many more creative ideas than I had previously.

When to look away

Conventional writing advice suggests taking a break when you know what’s coming next. That presumes that only your writing time is productive and that all look-away time is unproductive.

But in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, the late sci-fi author wrote: “As soon as things get difficult, I walk away. That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.” He clarifies by saying that when you move toward cats, they tend to move away, but if you ignore them, then they become interested.

Here are some of the ways I know it’s time for a break:

  1. I’m zoning out
  2. When words are sputtering out instead of flowing
  3. I’m tab-hopping instead of writing
  4. I’ve rewritten the same paragraph ten times
  5. When anxiety is present and I believe the thought “I can’t possibly take a break, I’m too busy”

Paradoxically, when I believe that I can’t possibly take time away from writing, that’s when it’s most essential. That anxiety-to-panic isn’t doing my writing any favors. It’s a state of contraction, which is the opposite of expansive creativity.

If I work until the point where I feel completely depleted, it takes a much, much longer time to rebound than if I routinely top off my creative reservoir. It is so much easier to prevent burnout than to recover from it.

Aside from your personal creative rhythms—and each of us has our own—there are three main times when it’s important to take time away from the keyboard, with different recommendations for each.

1. Preparing to write (before you sit down)

In a hypnotherapy session, the therapist spends up to 75% of the time (or more) getting the client’s body to relax and their mind in a receptive state, so the suggestions can get through to the subconscious. The same principle applies to leveraging the subconscious in your writing. Making your mind a receptive environment for ideas to bubble up is essential to writing more, better and faster.

Novelist Haruki Murakami aims to put himself into a trance—a hypnotic state—through his daily routine. When he’s writing a novel, he gets up early, writes for a stretch of time and then goes for a long run and/or long swim. He’s in bed by 9 p.m. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he’s quoted as saying. “It’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

The more time I spend getting into a quiet, aligned place, the more smoothly the words flow out. Generally speaking, my first drafts that come from a quiet place are far better and require less revision than those that I overthink from the beginning.

How to prepare: There’s an old joke about a student of Buddhism who asked his teacher how long he should meditate. “One hour every day,” replied the teacher. “I can’t do that!” the student replied. “I’m too busy!”

“Okay,” the teacher said. “For you, then, two hours.”

Many of us, especially those with full-time jobs and/or families, have limited writing time. “I don’t have time to look away!” I can hear you saying. For you, then, I say, take half your writing time and get grounded. Even if that’s 15 minutes out of 30 at 5 a.m. Just experiment with it.

If you want writing to flow through you, take time to quiet your mind first. Have the courage to be utterly unproductive. The quieter you can make your mind, the more space you’ve generated for new ideas to arise, and the more easily your writing will flow when you sit down at the keyboard.

Instead of trying and pushing and forcing, see if you can make the mental switch to allowing, receiving, flowing.

Play around with this idea of “relaxed but alert” and figure out what works for you. By learning to develop the observing circuit and purposely engaging that circuit alongside the daydreaming one, you will become more attuned to your deeper creativity.

2. Take regular daydreaming breaks while writing

In my experience, writer’s block comes from overthinking. Taking regular breaks—say, every hour to 90 minutes—can help clear up space in your thinking mind for the subconscious to bubble up original ideas and story solutions.

In Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the creative Mind, psychologist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman and journalist Carolyn Gregoire write, “Turning our attention away from the external world and tuning in to the world within—dreams, fantasies, stories, personal narratives and feelings—not only builds a sense of meaning and hope…but also allows us to tap into our deepest wellsprings of creativity.”

How to daydream for increased flow: The idea is to relax your mind and allow ideas to arise, rather than pushing and pushing and pushing. A few years ago, a client made a custom hula hoop for me. Trying to hula hoop without knocking down a plant or terrifying my cat invariably results in me laughing—and a complete pattern interrupt that creates more space for creativity to arise.

Let’s say you’ve been working on a pivotal scene where your main character faces her biggest fear. You’ve been hammering away at this scene for a while, and it doesn’t feel as though you’re making progress. Instead of doubling down and pushing harder, try stepping away and allowing, as Bradbury wrote, ideas to come to you. Don’t push your brain—creativity doesn’t respond to efforting; instead, try to relax your brain and let your mind wander.

These breaks don’t have to be long. According to Kaufman, even 15 minutes of shifting your focus—say, washing the dishes, doing some mindful stretching, or taking the dog out for a walk around the block—can relax the thinking mind enough for ideas to bubble up.

Often, I’ll print out a hard copy of an article-in-progress and go for a walk. After a bit, maybe 30 minutes, I’ll sit down and take one pass through the draft. I might spend 10 to 20 minutes making notes. Then I put it away and continue walking. Another half hour or so later, I’ll find another bench and sit down for another pass. I’m also a big fan of what I call “coffee shop edits”—taking a hard copy to a coffee shop and editing in a different environment.

Maya Angelou took this “different environment” idea even further: She rented a hotel room in her hometown by the month and wrote there in the mornings, then edited at home in the afternoon.

From a young age, Angelou also implicitly understood the difference between the conscious and subconscious minds. As she told the Daily Beast:

[My grandmother] used to talk about her “little mind.” So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. and the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.

Not everybody has the freedom to work this way, and this is my process; within the boundaries of your own life, you can find your own rhythms. The key to remember is this: The quieter you can make your mind, the more space you’re creating for ideas (and thorny plot situations) to resolve.

3. Look away between drafts

The between-draft look-aways are a bit different. First, celebrate that you’ve finished a revision—woohoo! The writing life has enough challenges; celebrate every single milestone.

Now is the time not necessarily to daydream, but rather, to shift your focus entirely for a longer period of time.

By looking away and shifting focus, you’re cleansing the palate of your mind. When you pull out the draft again, ideally, you’ll be looking at it through fresh eyes. What needs to be cut will jump out at you, as will gaps in the narrative that need to be filled or sentences that need to be tweaked. (I’ve used this process extensively for this post!)

What to do: Anything except work on your manuscript. Decorate the baby’s room. Go on a family vacation. Take a pottery class at a local art studio. In other words, do something completely different than writing. Do your best not to talk about your manuscript with anyone; the purpose is to give you a ‘beginner’s mind’ when you return to it.

Practices that work at any stage

Meditate on it. There’s a good reason mindfulness meditation is touted as an essential tool for writers: It’s all about learning to observe the thoughts that arise. That’s the whole point. Learning to meditate can be daunting and boring at first. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg runs a month-long meditation challenge, The Real Happiness Challenge, every February, with short (5–8 minute), gentle guided meditations injected with her signature humor and warmth.

For a fresh perspective, take a walk in nature. A Stanford study showed that walking boosts creativity significantly more than sitting. Walking in nature, in particular, generated about a 50% increase in participants’ creativity.

If you live in the country, nature will be easier to find, but you don’t have to be a rural resident to connect with nature. For the 80% of Americans in a city, you can try this exercise to connect with nature: look for flowers and grass poking up from sidewalks. Peer way up and see how many layers of clouds you can notice, or the way the sky changes from a rich blue overhead to paler, almost white, along the horizon.

Look for connections with nature, whether that’s smelling the lavender from your neighbor’s window box, communing with trees in a forest, or noticing a ladybug on a random daisy. Lie on the floor with your dog or cat, and see the world from their perspective.

Take a creative nap. Einstein reportedly took naps specifically to generate ideas that might help him solve problems. So did Thomas Edison, Mary Shelley and Salvador Dali. The key here is to work with your brainwaves. The ideal state for generating ideas is an alpha/theta state, where your mind is alert, but relaxed and open.

When we’re in the beginning stages of falling asleep, or just in the early moments of waking up, theta brainwaves predominate. According to educator Ned Hermann, “During this awakening cycle it is possible for individuals to stay in the theta state for an extended period of say, five to 15 minutes—which would allow them to have a free flow of ideas about yesterday’s events or to contemplate the activities of the forthcoming day. This time can be extremely productive and can be a period of very meaningful and creative mental activity.” While this is true of all professions, it’s particularly helpful for creatives, and especially writers.

The trick here is to remain aware of your thoughts without falling completely asleep. However, if you do, you could join the ranks of Edgar Allan Poe, George Saunders, Stephen King and many others, who have written stories inspired by dreams (or nightmares, depending).

Where water flows, ideas follow. As Kaufman and Gregoire point out, when we step into the shower (or bathtub), we effectively block out the entire external world, which allows us to focus solely on our inner experience. We can relax our minds as well as our bodies and notice what bubbles up.

What not to do

Not all writing breaks are equal. If you spend your break checking the kids’ homework, scrolling through social media, binging Netflix or even texting with a friend, it’s probably not helping your writing.

Other things to avoid during creative percolation:

  • Watching TV
  • Listening to or reading news
  • Social media, games, texting or any other kind of screen time
  • Heady or emotional conversations

Personalize the process

To find the particulars that work for you, consider:

  • What inspires you?
  • What place or activity lets you exhale deeply and relax?
  • Where do you work best?
  • How do you work best?
  • Where can you find nature nearby?
  • What type of exercise feels the most relaxing to you?

Coming back to the computer

While it’s important to take look-away breaks, it’s also essential to identify when you’re ready to sit down and write or revise again. After all, you can’t have written without sitting down to write.

About 20 years ago, I noticed that when my subconscious was primed and I was ready to sit down and write, my body would experience a surge in adrenaline. It often took the form of walking around a particular square block in Toronto faster and faster, almost like a human centrifuge. If I hadn’t been paying attention to my body’s signals for so long, I might misinterpret the adrenalin as agitation or irritability. That slightly amped-up state, though, means that it’s time to sit down and, as an actor friend of mine says, “Open the valve.”

Sarah Chauncey

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