At every stage of the writing process, mental space is a must. Without this space, ideas die before they’re born—or, once born, they scatter before we can gather them into a comprehensible form.
As an editor, I find that the final process of sorting and smoothing the writing also needs mental space. For months, I’ve had a few manuscripts on my desk that I couldn’t crack open, because the mere thought of doing so put me in “I’d love to take a nap” mode. Never mind my own writing. That languished, too.
I don’t know about you, but I’m the problem-solving type, and, the way I see it, an editor who can’t edit is surely a problem. A writer who can’t write may or may not be a problem, depending on whether someone is counting on that writer to make good on a promise.
Assuming that you want to write, promise or not, I want to share with you the “space tricks” that finally made it possible for me to get at least one of those manuscripts ready to publish—and, as you see, has me writing to you today.
5 Simple Tricks to Create Space for Your Writing
1. Curb Communication
While some writers find communication of all kinds (email, phone, Voxer) to be the best last-ditch effort to bring their writing into the world, I find that it’s almost always a substitute and a siphon for actually getting the work done. Call these dynamics, respectively, the McDonald’s Effect and Running On Empty Syndrome.
The McDonald’s Effect is a retail phenomenon that allows you to escape the good thing you’d been after, simply by first intending to go that direction. It’s the salad on the menu that you consider, seriously, then ditch for the burger at the last moment. It’s the apples at the front of the grocery store that you consider, seriously, and maybe even buy; then, by virtue of that, you feel justified a half hour later to drop that pint of Ben & Jerry’s into your cart as you exit the final aisle. (Yes, that final aisle is, in the most strategic stores, always filled with sweets you wouldn’t have allowed yourself upon first entering the store. There goes your good food lifestyle!)
Running on Empty Syndrome means just this: your brain might feel like it works on magic, but it’s a physical entity, with a metabolism, just like the rest of you. Spend all your literal brain energy (in the form of oxygen and glucose) on talking about your writing (or writing status updates on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook), and you have no neural energy left over to ideate, compose, or revise.
Curbing communication may be one of the most difficult writing-space strategies, but it will keep you from using excessive chat to cheat you out of your writing.
2. Make Writing Its Own Room
One of the most prolific and vibrant writers I know goes to her writing as if it’s a room she escapes to each Friday. Accompanied by her favorite notebooks and pens, and dressed for the occasion (this week it was plaid tights, to accomplish one of the less delightful aspects of writing: finishing the Front Matter of a book), she turns out piece after piece—almost like, yes, magic.
This approach is similar to the “write every day” mantra you’ve heard chanted, but for the writer who doesn’t have everyday space (or who finds the everyday approach narrowing instead of expanding for their soul), it’s a fresh alternative: escape to your writing-as-room on a particular day for a few hours.
For me, this is less about ferrying off to my writing-as-room on a particular day and more about experiencing this “room” as literal space. For my recent goal to start editing again, and then to start writing again, I chose some places in my house where I don’t usually sit to do my work. Charm.
3. Stop Reading
Stop reading?! This is like asking me to stop breathing. But I did it. Radical needs occasionally call for radical measures.
Of all the strategies I tried out recently, to give my writing and editing the necessary mental space, this decision has been the most surprising and the most fruitful. Whole stacks of books I’d been just waiting to read went back to the library, unread. I cleaned out cabinets instead. Emptied the fridge, and the freezer. Broke down boxes, or packed them up. Filled bags with clothes and passed them along to new owners. It’s amazing how much mental space you acquire when you’re not worried, any longer, about spice jars throwing themselves onto your head every time you open the L-shaped cabinet in the corner.
And, while reading has often been the source of my best ideas, even revolutions, there comes a time when my brain is so full of other people’s ideas and issues that I can’t find an inch of space to open my own hand and write.
If you are an avid reader in need of mental space, try this. You’ll miss turning pages, but you may find that you start producing them, instead.
4. Start Walking
As I noted in “Curb Communication” above, the brain has a metabolism that involves the need for both glucose and oxygen, and it wasn’t until fairly recently that health care entities began to connect the dots for us: heart health = brain health. Get the heart going, and you get the brain going.
It’s about oxygen and glucose, but it’s also about other chemicals that help create a good mindset by improving alertness, attention and motivation.
Any wonder why the “Greats” of old were such prolific and intelligent writers? They walked, and walked, and walked.
So the next time your writing feels hemmed in, go out. Walk until you feel alive and ideas start to surface and combine, or revisions begin to present themselves.
5. Just Write Details
Sometimes it’s not so much that we have no mental space for our writing as it is that our writing has no mental pizazz in its space. The walls seem white, the floors seem grey, the curtains (if there even are any) hang dully straight.
A quick fix? Just write details, without trying to make something of them. This can be as simple as a stack, such as these details I’ll pull right now from my own living room…
the scent and scratch of pine on the red oak floor
silver-bearded nutcrackers on the mantle piece
little wood angels from Guatemala
white candles in hurricane glass
the amber, bent nasturtium, silken above glass-beaded elephants
black & white memories of Mexico leaning beneath the lamp
hardwood unburnt in the fireplace
From here, you can see how easily this could take shape into a poem or a vignette that, just moments ago, did not exist in my own mental space.
These 5 tricks are some of my best, though it was number 3 that finally tipped the scale for me after a long season of feeling spaceless.
How about you? How do you make space? Has anything tried and true suddenly failed you? Have you dreamed up something fresh you think will help other writers?
As for me, I’m off to do a few jumping jacks to jumpstart my brain, but I’ll be back to listen soon.
Photo by Phil Richards, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing.