SOA_Building_Blocksjpg1Whenever I get stuck on a story or am just trying to figure out stuff in general, I’ll do some pacing or some driving or some fidgeting or some walking, and I’ll just think about things.

I used to think that the only way to work out a story problem was to actually write it and see if it worked, but now I’m past that. Instead, I just walk around and think really hard and test out possbilities in my mind. It’s a very organized form of thinking, in that I need to constantly step in and assert order on my thoughts, or else all the thinking in the world is useless. For instance, sometimes I’ll be test out a possibility for a plot event and it’ll seem almost right but still wrong. And my instinct will be to shoehorn in some explanation in there and graft something extra onto the story that makes the plot event square out. For instance, if the story is a about a bank robber, and I’m wondering what bank he’s robbing and why he’s robbing it, I might say, “Oh, he’s robbing it because he’s angry at the bank because his credit was so bad that he refused to open a checking account.”

And I’ll almost think that I have it, but it still won’t be quite right. It’ll feel too contrived. Too disproportionate. Would this protagonist really rob a bank just because they denied him a checking account? And my instinct will be to be all like, “Oh, I’ll raise the stakes. When they denied him a checking account, he wasn’t able to deposit an important check and that led to him losing out on some opportunity that was really important and…”

And it’s possible for me to go on and on like that, improvising on the idea.

That’s not productive thinkings. That’s just idle brainstorming.

But when I’ve really got my thinking cap on, I’ll be able to step back and think, “What do I like about this idea? What I like is that it gives the protagonist a reason to commit this crime at this place. What don’t I like about it? It feels too contrived and too forced. Now how can I find an element that will have all of the good and none of the bad of this idea?”

And then I’ll be able to go back and start tossing around possibilities again.

This process of thinking up ideas, testing them out in my mind, and then subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny is something I call “clicky-space,” because it literally feels like I’m maneuvering building blocks and trying them on in different ways and then finally clicking them into place in my head. I assume that ‘clicky-space’ is a ‘flow state’. It certainly feels really right and really pleasurable in the way that flow states are supposed to feel.

But there’s also something frustrating about it (particularly if it goes on for too long). Clicky-space is not a place that I go for the fun of it. It’s a place that I go in order to do something. And if that thing isn’t getting done, then I feel very thwarted.

How can workshop be less boring?

It’s so cheesy to be into a pop-psychology book like Flow, but it really has continued to have an impact in my life. For instance, I sometimes get bored in workshop. Forgive me, but I do. I know. It’s awful. This is the reason I am at Hopkins, and here I am, waiting for it to be over. But Flow made me realize two things: A) everything is boring if you’re not paying attention; and B) everything is boring if you don’t put part of yourself into it.

Normally, in workshop, I sort of half pay attention and wait for moments in which I can insert the comments that I came up with when I was reading the story before class. But when I am conducting my own workshop, I hate that! What I most want to happen is for the students to actually respond to each other’s comments and think about what works and doesn’t work for the story. So in yesterday’s workshop, I actually made an effort to listen to what people were saying, to understand their point, and to try to speak whenever I had something to say that was directly related to what they’d said.

I am sure that the end result was only marginally different from how I normally act, but I did enjoy workshop more and pay attention more.

I think that somewhere in here is the secret to active listening. I am awful at every form of listening: I can’t tolerate lectures, readings, and podcasts. But there has to be some way in which I can incorporate what I am hearing into my thought processes in a way that keeps me involved.


cover            I think this what happens when I read books. I am a great reader. And I think it’s because I don’t hold myself distant from the book. I engage in active conversation with it as I read. For instance, I recently read another amazing book: Made To Stick, by Dan and Chip Heath. It’s a book about how to communicate ideas in such a way that they, well, stick in peoples’ minds.

The book was extremely unsettling!

For my entire life, I’ve prided myself on my communication skills. I’m not talking about fiction, I’m talking about my blog posts, newspaper articles, journal articles, white papers, speeches, presentations, etc, etc.

Reading this book made me realize that I don’t have the first idea about how to appeal to people. The book is actually the first example of its own effectiveness, because its ideas are very sticky. The book’s schema is that when you convey information, it should be in the form of: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional stories. And then each chapter unpacks each of those words and examines, oh, what do we mean by “simple” or “credible” and includes tons upon tons of examples of great messages.

It was bit humbling to realize how little I know about something so basic. We devote so much thought to how to argue a case in an academic paper, and so little thought towards basic communication.

Anyway, I am already trying to reorient my communication strategy a bit. For instance, I started this blog post with what I hope was an unexpected and concrete admission about workshop and yesterday I did my best to summarize, in a simple way, what this blog is about.

Obv it’s all a work in progress, though.