Managing the Backburner Is The Third Most Important Skill That A Writer Can Acquire*

2007-10-02stove
It wasn’t until I was several years out of college that I suddenly realized, in a flash of insight, that in addition to being a metaphor, the back burners are also a real thing that you can find on your stove.

A long time ago, I read a book whose name I don’t remember. It was nonfiction. I don’t remember the topic of it either. But it contained an essay by a scientist who was talking about his creative process. The book might’ve been about the creative process, even though I feel like I’d never read a book that used a term like ‘the creative process.’ Maybe they were sly about it and didn’t use that phrase. Maybe no one really uses it.

Anyway, the scientist was saying that he had two ways of solving creative problems. The first was to beat his head against them and think about them constantly and go through tons and tons of experiments and brainstorm every possible solution and chase down every possible lead for weeks upon weeks until he finally tracked down the answer. And the third was to not think about the problem for three days, until the answer suddenly popped into his head.

He had some tips for the right way in which to go about not thinking about the problem, but I’ve forgotten them.

However, I’ve learned how to do much the same thing. For me, writing often involves these wide rivers that I don’t think the story can ford. Crossing those river requires some sort of intuitive leap. Sometimes I manufacture that leap, by jotting down every possible solution and writing draft after draft until something gels. And sometimes I do something else until it all comes together.

Both solutions seem to work just fine and both seem to produce work that’s of roughly equal quality. But the latter is, obviously, a bit less time-consuming.

However, there’s a way in which I have to go about it. Because there’s different kinds of “doing something else.” There’s the “doing something else” where you’re subconsciously facing the problem and there’s the “doing something else” where you’re running away from the problem.

And it’s very difficult to tell which is which.

In order to avoid forgetting about the problem I’m working on, I sometimes…

  • …do a little work on it, even if that just entails jotting down a few notes or writing a paragraph of text.
  • …daydream about how great it’ll be once the story/novel/essay/blog-post is done.
  • …create a dedicated folder for it and move all the relevant material into that folder.
  • …set a target day or month during which I plan on working on the project.
  • …figure out where I’m going to send it when I’m done.
  • …write a blog post in which I vaguely allude to working on something that’s really kneecapping me.
  • …reread whatever I’ve already written
  • …read some book or online post or something that’s somewhat relevant to what I’m working on

 

The trick is to keep the project somewhere in the brain’s active memory without allowing it to come so far to the forefront that it drives me crazy. Then, eventually, the solution will suddenly come to me. Usually when I am either driving somewhere or am just about to fall asleep.

Actually, this is how I solve all my life problems. It’s almost a joke how many times I’ll begin a conversation by saying, “So, the other day I had an epiphany…”

I have life-altering epiphanies like once a month. It’s a bit crazy. Just three years ago, I wrote a blog post about how the epiphany doesn’t really exist! But I was wrong. It absolutely does. It’s just that it’s a skill—a mode of thought—that gets stronger and more perceptive as you use it more often. Nowadays, the epiphany-making centers of my brain are so strong that I actually find it a bit difficult to work out issues in a logical and rigorous fashion.

When people have problems, my standard advice to them is to worry about it until they have a sudden epiphany. I think that, to some extent, epiphanies are self-defense. The great thing about an epiphany is not the quality of the insight (it’s often no better than something you could’ve worked out consciously), but the level of certainty that accompanies it. I think the brain generates that certainty because it’s just so damn tired of thinking about the problem (even unconscious mulling is tiring for the brain, I think). The brain is all like, “Okay, this answer is good enough, so let’s just go with it.”

Of course, maybe that’s just me. Sometimes I think I might perhaps be a little more certain about some things than other people tend to sometimes end up being.

 

*Oh, the other two skills are obvious:

  • The first and most important skill is learning how to manage your despair and avoid giving up, because any amount of production, if you engage in it over a long enough period of time, is likely to eventually result in something of value.
  • And the second most important skill is learning how to work in a sustained and regular fashion, because while it is possible to have a writing life that relies entirely on inspiration, that life’ll certainly be a lot easier if you learn how to make inspiration keep a regular schedule.