How to write with insight.

writingdesk

It’s one of the most difficult parts of being a writer: slowing yourself down to the point of curiosity. True curiosity can be very distressing for a writer. If you look at it another way, feeling curious means that you have no idea what you’re going to write.

This is also known as writing blindfolded, writing while holding your breath, writing with a divining rod, writing what you don’t know. Your best work will come out of this place. A curious writer is engaged with her work, and a reader can sense that. You can’t fake curiosity. But my god, it’s uncomfortable!

Say you get an idea for a character named Jesse P. Gold. He’s 6 feet tall, likes to wear pinstripe suits, uses hair gel from the 80s, and smokes clove cigarettes.

Because you have come up with these details, you convince yourself that you have enough material to write Jesse P. Gold. You keep these details in your mind, and you sit down to write a character description. It feels good – at first. It feels good because there’s some certainty involved. You go to your desk feeling like a writer, because you know what you’re going to write about Jesse P. Gold. You start by describing his height, his pinstripe suit, his hair, and his cigarette.

But if you don’t pause and feel uncertainty before you write about Jesse P. Gold, you’ll only write a cariacature. That’s because you’re holding those details in your mind as if they’re the prize. You write them down without looking at Jesse P. Gold himself. You write what you think he looks like, based on those details. You’re projecting your ideas on top of your imagination, before you’ve even given your imagination a chance.

Yes, your imagination gave you four good details. But they’re only clues! They’re not Jesse P. Gold himself. If you want to know what your imagination really wants to show you about this character, you have to slow down.

You can’t know everything beforehand. You will discover the real Jesse P. Gold as you write him. Those details will help you find him (and they do help – the more clues, the better) but they are not the final goal. The goal is to write with curiosity.

How to write with curiosity:

1. First, try to recognize what it feels like when you’re writing without it. Get familiar with what it feels like when you write like a know-it-all. When you can see that happening, pause, and say something nice to yourself right away. This is really important: think generous thoughts immediately. All your mind is trying to do is to save yourself the discomfort of uncertainty. That’s cool.

2. Now take a deep breath. You’re about to go into the unknown with only a few details in your hand for guidance. This is the point most writers want to give up. Do not give up. Use this moment as an invitation to go deep. Breathing deeply is not a cliché: it calms your nervous system, which is probably bunched up right now. Lie down on the floor if necessary. Jumping jacks are good, too: a short burst of cardio. Whatever it takes to get you breathing.

3. Now, focus on the smallest edge of one of the details you have. Focus on something small and exact: this is one way to trigger your sensory imagination. What does Jesse P. Gold’s hair gel smell like? Get in close to his hair – is it neatly snipped above his ear, or is it a bit shaggy and hanging over his shirt collar? What does it sound like when he inhales on his cigarette? Focus on small details, and be patient at this step: less is more. You want quality – quantity is not important.

4. As you practice doing this, you will soon sense more details, and you will be able to see them more clearly, because you are no longer as distracted by your thoughts. You will find things about Jesse P. Gold that surprise you. You might not know what it means to the story, but for some reason, Jesse P. Gold has a scar on the knuckle of his right pinky finger. Describe the shape of the scar. You don’t need to know what caused the scar yet. Show your imagination that you trust it by writing down the images that it gives you. Write these things down without judgment.

5. Recognize the feeling of “live wires” or sharp tendrils of detail that feel important simply because they’ve appeared in your mind. But be vigilant! Dulling, know-it-all thoughts can and will come back to you and try to force themselves in at any stage of your writing. Go back to step 1 to recognize when you feel this happening. When it does, locate the last live wire you wrote down. Repeat steps 2 - 5.

When you approach your page with curiosity, you allow insight to rise up out of nowhere to meet you in the story. Insight will eventually come to you. But first you have to stop blocking the path.

xo,

Sarah” width=

Interview with Frances Phillips - Summer School.
Get rid of that jerk!

11 comments

durga holzhauser

Dear Sarah you hit my heart, i will print it out and read it loud again and again. this goes underneath my skin and my bones know: my curiosity is a magic powder. and you just told me the secret styling instructions. Thank you so much for this with much love Durga ( South France)
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Gabriele Kohlmeyer

Thank you for this fantastic column, Sarah! This came to me as if on cue. Been struggling with my work, the unsatisfying feeling that what I'm writing is bland. Now the revelation triggered by your column: I decided to know too early what I'm writing about and my draft became a regurgitated reiteration of stories and opinions I've thought or told before. Just added another nightly writing session after reading your advice and voila: what came up was much more messy but also quite fresh! xo Gabriele
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Jennifer Louden

exactly what i needed thank you!
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yes yes yes thank you thank you thank you
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Sarah Selecky

I'm happy that this one clicked for all of you! It's not easy, but it is simple. You know?
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Jennifer Louden

worked on it today and yesterday! not easy. will continue.
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Details, details, and more details. Will do the work. Thanks for the reminder that it matters and is possible. Have a great words-down night.
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Karin Pinter

Thank you, needed the reminder! This is priceless, "When you approach your page with curiosity, you allow insight to rise up out of nowhere to meet you in the story."
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shaun corcoran

I am now more intrigued about the 'cat' within me; slightly purring in slumber, but now astir. Thank you for the pertinent article. Your name rolled across my face-book page, after sending out a request to my writing contact, in search of a lead to shake my dormant writer's block. Looking forward to further tapping into your knowledge. :)
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This hits the mark exactly for me -- and reassures me immensely that what I'm doing when my 'dulling know-it-all thoughts" interfere is trying to stay out of the unknown. That's all it is! And I will pause and offer myself kindness because, well, nothing else works when I'm scared. Thank you, Sarah, you are generous and astute.
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Love this! Thank you for clearing this up.
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