The shortest distance between two points may not always be a straight line, especially in writing. There is a natural tendency to write linearly. It’s the way we were taught. Remember those lectures on creating an outline? First things first is the phrase, but the phrase doesn’t require linearity. It refers to doing things in the proper order, and the proper order may not be linear. But so ingrained we are in the concept of linearity that many of us feel guilty if tempted to step out of line to work on part “F” before we’ve finished with part “D”.
If you are a mathematician, orderliness is important. Formulas need to be executed in a linear fashion. If you’re writing a process and procedures manual, linearity works best for obvious reasons. If you are a writer, especially of fiction, however, dedication to linearity can stifle your mind’s natural tendencies for creativity, which usually stems from non-linear thinking, chaos even, and involves lots of thoughts banging around inside your head struggling to get to the surface. It’s perhaps the discomfort of being non-linear that drives our efforts to be linear. Your brain’s logical and process driven left hemisphere—authoritarian by nature—is attempting to control the right hemisphere, where your more unruly creativity resides. Some people say that it’s in the left hemisphere where your child resides. I say, protect the child.
It’s important to realize that our brain’s two hemispheres have different approaches to coming up with and processing information and ideas. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to believe rigidity of thought is best because it shows control and discipline and maturity. Creativity frequently abhors discipline. More freewheeling, it tends to careen down the road rather than stay between the lines. Control and discipline involve meeting a deadline. Creativity deals with the content you create to turn in at deadline.
Ideally, the brain’s two hemispheres work collaboratively, and all writers should strive to develop that as part of their retinue of talents, but often we are torn by our learned allegiance to one hemisphere over the other. Discipline is needed, but of the sort that does not interfere with the creative process. A left-right allegiance, unfortunately, has more to do with what some third grade teacher may have drummed into our heads as s/he taught us the importance of a well-organized outline and yelled at Jimmy for looking out the window and daydreaming. (Jimmy, of course, was thinking about an adventure he wanted to write about or how he would tell his updated version of The Boxcar Children.)
Writers frequently struggle with this right-brain-left-brain conflict as the right hemisphere comes up with ideas and the left hemisphere, compelled to maintain a steady ship, forces them to get in line and await their “proper” turn. Sadly, great ideas sometime wither away and die there from inattention.
Our “non-linear discomfort” is the natural reaction to the learned discomfort from being around things chaotic. Even in meetings called to “brainstorm” an idea, there’s usually someone at the front of the room at the whiteboard who serves as the guide and shoves each “random” thought into a non-random schematic or outline. We tend to measure success with the level of compliance with rules, regulations, and procedures of creativity.
A resulting sprinkling of sameness blankets many of our creative endeavors. Apps start to look alike. Book covers look alike. People, in their effort to be “unique,” tend to dress alike. You can hardly tell one car make from another. Broadway plays cover the same ground from nuanced different perspectives, but always with the characters sitting on the ubiquitous couch as they deliver an overly dramatic monologue. Musicals are little more than loosely connected song and a dance numbers. The plot lines of TV adventures shows blend into an amalgam of similarity. We revitalize old stuff and spray it with a new coat of literary paint rather than try to invent something truly new. We end up in a world of replication and redundancy. But it’s efficient to reign in the outer boundaries of creativity and keep them manageably restrained and confined to the safe zones of profitability as it were. That’s what you do when you ignore your own brain clamoring to tell you something. You don’t wander too far afield. You ignore your own advice to take literary chances. You miss opportunities to be creatively new and/or different.
Writers should not ignore the random facets of the creative process. Consistency applies best to organization, which should come at the end of the creative process. Processes and procedures understandably have a mandatory order of progress from beginning through completion and thus when you write about them, linearity probably is the best approach. But don’t confuse compilation with production. A creative writer needs to write what needs to be written, certainly, but what needs to be written may not necessarily need to be written in a particular order. In reality there really are no rules for the order in which you think it or do it. Order applies to the presentation. There is a difference between form (the presentation) and substance (the content). Different processes are associated with each. One is the field of fruit from which you pick and choose, the other the box into which you put your final selections for delivery.
A writer serves a demanding taskmaster. She has to make up the parts and construct them then assemble them into an organized and readable product. It’s important for the younger, less experienced writer to become comfortable with the distinction between creation and assembly and the attendant discomfort to link them.
Rather than struggle against the tendency toward chaos, you’re better advised to learn how to cope with it so you can take advantage of those random thoughts and sparks of inspiration that flash to the surface of your brain like the explosions on the surface of the sun.
The irony is that you can use the natural inclination for orderliness of the left side of your brain to give bent to those bursts of creativity that explode from the right side of your brain. One of the reasons so many people resist succumbing to those flashes (although many, at least mine, later turn to scrap or crap) is they don’t want to be bothered with the chore of organizing their random thoughts. Instead they put off exploring creative thoughts until they get to them. There is no “get to them.” By then they have usually slipped away, or we march right pass them as they call to us from the side of the road. When they arrive, they demand and deserve immediate attention. They behave like a petulant child or a rude person trying to crowd into line. Ill-mannered as they are, give in and give them the attention they demand. Devise a scheme or system to manage the chaos.
There is nothing worse than writing something and losing it in a cluttered filing system. Writing non-linearly creates stuff that needs a place to reside until it can be fitted into whatever it is you’re working on. Rather than try to ignore what seems like mental interruptions, plan for them. The best way to avoid fighting and resisting them is to manage them.
Computers do not demand orderliness, but they give us the opportunity to create the means to achieve organization of our random thoughts. Take a book for example. It’s logically compartmentalized: cover, front matter (e.g., copyright notice), table of contents, introduction/preface, chapters, conclusion, epilogue maybe, glossary, and index. Depending on what you’re writing, a file folder under each project for each listed content item is a good initial step at organization. But in there you need a file specifically to warehouse your random ideas, pieces, scenes, even chapters. You might call that file “Pending” or “Ideas” or “Flashes.” I call mine “Pieces,” even though it might include a whole chapter that I’ve jumped ahead to play with.
Work to develop a comfort level with stepping out of the line of orderliness to work on something that deserves your immediate attention. If you’re writing about a battle between the Klingons and the Add-ons, simply name a file so you can remember its content (Kling_Adds) and consider including a date to further enhance your recollections (Klin_Adds_072516). You can then put the file in your Pending folder and have a better chance of not forgetting it or where you put it.
Years ago I knew a man from Quebec who would say after a plan was devised that we needed to “Newfy-proof it.” When I first asked what that meant, he said, “Make it simple enough so a Newfoundlander could understand it.” Obviously my French-Canadian friend had a bit of a prejudice against his neighbors from the province to the immediate east, but his version of “keep it simple stupid” (KISS) served as a useful reminder to avoid complexity. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve filed content into my own clever oblivion because I allowed by file system to become too cleverly complex.
I also keep a notebook for each project where I jot down what I’ve done and am doing on a writing project, and sometimes, what I don’t want to forget to do or include serves as a backup-backup. It’s not the same as a notes file, although the contents might be the similar in certain respects. It’s my own Newfy-proof system to protect myself from myself. The trouble with overly clever filing systems is that as time passes so does the clever scheme of where I put it. At times I have even forgotten on which device I stored it. By having a consistent and simple file system, you train and acclimate yourself to an organizational scheme that will help you stay in control of that wonderfully creative mind of yours without getting in the way of it. Don’t create frustrations.
Remember, your brain is filled with emotion. It falls madly in love with an idea and pushes it to the surface to show it to you. Grab onto it and write it down; capture the passion of its action and characters that have struggled to bring it to your attention. It may need work, even a lot of work, you might even end up not using it, but the value of acting on it and interacting with it brings the potential of a rough-cut piece that later morphs into a polished gem of content.
There is another reason to not ignore non-linear ideas. The creative brain works hard. It sometimes needs a recess—to go outside and play. That’s where it sometimes finds, invents, or discovers a new idea, and eagerly brings it in to show it to you.
Ever see a parent ignoring or shushing a child excitedly trying to share an idea? Don’t be that kind of parent to your ideas. Listen. Be courteous to yourself and them. You just might be trying to tell yourself something really great.
To better understand how your brain works, the following table from Gabriele Lusser Rico’s 1985 book Writing the Natural Way (J.P. Tarcher, Inc.) describes the dichotomy of functions between the left and right hemispheres of your brain.