January 5, 2015

The Power of Pen and Paper

At a recent conference, I had a lot of down time.  I started reading Austin Kleon's book Steal Like an Artist.  In the book, he shares ten suggestions to help artists (including writers) be more successful.  The fourth suggestion is "Use your hands."  He goes on to say:
While I love my computer, I think computers have robbed us of the feeling that we're actually making things.  Instead, we're just typing keys and clicking mouse buttons. [snip]… computers are alienating because they put a sheet of glass between you and whatever is happening. [snip] You need to find a way to bring your body into your work.  Our nerves aren't a one-way street – our bodies can tell our brains as much as our brains tell our bodies. [snip] It wasn't until I started bringing analog tools back into my process that making things became fun again and my work started to improve.

I decided to see how this advice worked for me.  I left my computer in my backpack and bought an overpriced spiral-bound notebook in the hotel gift shop.  It turned out to be the best $4.99-plus-tax I ever spent.

There is a story I've been mulling over in my head, and on the computer, for over a year now.  I've never been able to nail down some of the major element.  For instance, I knew that there was an "event" which occurred years before the start of the story.  This event shaped the lives of two men, causing one to turn to crime, and one to fight crime.  I had no idea what that "event" was, and I'd been trying to figure it out for weeks.  The story hinged on it, so development was at a standstill.  I began writing down in the notebook (with a very cool pen, the Pilot G Tec C) what I knew about that story so far.  More of it began to take shape.  It wasn't long before I saw that phantom "event" in my head.  I knew why it happened. I knew how it happened, and why it affected my characters as it did.  I was much closer to being able to write that story than I'd ever been.  I wrote a series of notes telling the story from the point of view of every character. It was exhilarating. I wondered if it would help with another project I'd been stuck on.

For a couple of years, I've tried to brainstorm an entire science-fiction universe to play in, which could spawn an infinite number of short stories and novels.  It's never gotten very far.  After I started scribbling in my notebook, it really began to take shape.  I now know the history of my fictional universe, from thousands of years before the stories start to hundreds of years after they end.  I know how mankind got the faster-than-light technology, how a galactic civilization formed, and what its greatest threat will be.  I even have a decent picture of how they'll defeat it.  I have notes on several events that could spawn stories or novels in the universe.  This is more than I got from a year of brainstorming in my head or at my computer.  I consider it nothing less than a breakthrough.

If you're stuck on a creative project, try getting your body involved… even if it's only to take a walk.  Research says that a short exercise session can improve mental performance for a short time afterward.  In my case, switching from trying to create on a computer to writing with pen on paper made a big difference.

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