Prolificity: Stock your head.

18 February 2006

[Note the later addendum to this piece.]

Like most people, I am confronted with enforced periods of physical idleness–in the car, in meetings, or what have you. Lately I have made a concerted effort to use this time to improve my writing. How? Besides reinforcing my long-time habit of always having something to take notes in, I have stocked my head in advance with particular subjects for reflection, namely, the subjects I about which I am currently composing essays, articles, and stories.

I think it was Anthony Trollope who talked about how much he interacted with the characters of his novels during the odd moments of his day. When he had the chance to daydream, he did not do it randomly: he thought about the novel he was writing. Sustained attention to the characters in his current book led to a deep understanding of them, so that when he sat down to write in his famous early-morning sessions, he knew intimately the people he was writing about.

In a fictional world, you make up the settings, the scenarios, and the actors. But this process need not all be programmatic. In fact, if you plan it out too strenuously, you run the risk of making it all too tidy, or too pat for the purposes of your story. At least some of your cogitating time ought to be given over to open-ended reflection, during which you can, as Stephen King describes, unearth the pre-existing parts of your story that are waiting for you to find them.

The same holds true, though, for nonfiction. You don’t make up the details, but you figure out how to tell the story, what the important parts of it are, what comes first and what comes next, how to characterize particular individuals and events, and on and on. There are hundreds of little decisions to make even for a short magazine feature; you can make some of them while you’re sitting through the most boring part of your weekly staff meeting–but only if you’ve stocked your head with your key facts and problems ahead of time.

As a psychological or spiritual discipline, I am trying to inculcate the notion that there is no wasted time. I am so overbooked these days, I have the tendency to think that if I’m not getting something done right-now-this-instant, I am wasting time. But it need not be so. I am living my life. I am breathing in and out, experiencing the world, and I can spare the foresight and effort to do it a little better each day.

Practically speaking, this also means that you can spend more than just one hour per day or whatever on your writing–even if you’re as overbooked professionally as I am. This helps to explain how Trollope got so much done: He had the remarkable discipline to get up and write every single morning. He had the wiring to write well on his first draft, and to press ahead with his story no matter what. But he also multiplied his time by using odd moments throughout his days to converse with the characters and the scenes of his mythical Barsetshire.

My marching orders for myself: Lay out your course of work. Then stock your head with the provisions to accomplish that work at all hours of the day and night, regardless of circumstances.


One Response to “Prolificity: Stock your head.”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    “There is no wasted time.”

    Good one! I promise you, I’ll remember that.


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