Thursday, June 29, 2006


Channeling your inner squirrel

I got to Borders at 3:30 today, started writing a 1,200-word article, and finished it at about 5 pm -- and this included taking a coffee break, reading the "Found Porn" department in Maxim magazine, and staring out the window at the lightning.

Writers always ask how I can write so quickly, and in reply I stammer something about not being a perfectionist, which kind of implies that I race through my articles and do a half-assed job.

Not true, but I couldn't figure out any other way to explain how I can write a 1,000-word article in an hour -- and a damn good one, too.

Well, after I finished working on my article at Borders today, I picked up a copy of Overachievement by John Eliot. There, in the first chapter, was my answer: I'm a squirrel.

If someone laid an eight-inch wide board on the ground and asked you to walk across it, I'd wager that you could waltz across that thing no problemo. But suspend the board 20 feet in the air, and suddenly you're calculating wind direction, holding out your arms for balance, and taking tiny, measured steps.

Now take a squirrel (well, don't really take one -- they bite). Tell it to cross a wire suspended 20 feet in the air between two trees, and it would be across that wire in no time at all. (And you'd be rich -- you have a squirrel that obeys your every command!)

According to Eliot, the squirrel doesn't think -- it just takes in all the sensory input that's bombarding it and acts accordingly. In humans, Eliot calls this mindset the "Trusting Mindset." This is opposed to the "Training Mindset," where we're thinking, calculating, analyzing, and training ourselves to improve.

Another example from the book: If someone standing six feet away asked you to toss him his car keys, you'd pick up the keys and lob them with perfect accuracy, without even thinking about it. But should someone offer you the chance to win a million dollars next week by tossing him his car keys, you'd start analyzing angles and trajectories, reviewing videos of yourself throwing keys, and working out your key-throwing fingers at the gym. And guess what? When it came time to toss those keys, you'd probably choke.

To get to that "Trusting Mindset," ironically, you have to just do, do, do. I've probably written more than 500 articles. When I started nine years ago writing for trades and small magazines, I'd print out my first draft, go over it with a red pen, make the corrections, and print it out again. Then my husband would go through it with a red pen, and I'd make the corrections and print it out again. And again and again, until there were no red marks left.

Nowadays, I do my research, interview my sources, get an iced coffee (extra light with one Splenda), sit down at the computer, write the article, read it over, correct any typos, and turn it in. It took writing hundreds of articles on sleep disorders, artificial intelligence, small business marketing, credit unions, printing processes, and a whole lot of other topics to get to the point where the writing just flows.

When you write, practice turning off your critical mind and see what you come up with. If it stinks, you can always revise it. And if it doesn't stink, you've taken a step towards learning to trust your writing abilities.

Soapbox: put away. Me: feet back on the ground. Over and out.

I don't think of myself as a squirrel, but I probably am one, given that I once pumped out eight chapters of a book in eight days. (Before you throw tomatoes, know that it was not a pleasant eight days. It was hell. Sheer hell.)

Linda, do you do a lot of prewriting in your head? I spend a lot of time thinking about my article so when it's time to write, I can get words down on paper fairly quickly. I am, however, a tinkerer. I wish I could write, proof, and run!
Diana, I think I do prewriting without even thinking about it. I came up with the lede for an article I have to write tomorrow while I was in the shower today. An idea for organizing an article (subheads, bullet points, sidebars, etc.) might also pop into my head at any time.

As I'm writing, at random times I go back and read some of what I've written -- maybe a sentence, maybe a paragraph. (I think this has more to do with my short attention span than anything else.) So by the time I'm done, the thing has been pretty much pre-edited.
This piece was very helpful. Thanks!
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?