I’m beginning to think intuition is our own personal superpower.
While on vacation in Colorado, I picked up a magazine at a local bookstore and read aloud in the car (best way to quell the insurrection in the back seat). The article claimed about 95% of what we know is actually knowledge stored in our unconscious, with only the remaining 5% available for conscious recall.
The article used an example based on driving. When drivers were asked to consciously describe the steps involved in changing lanes, they were unable to do it correctly. However, they could all perform the motions easily when actually driving. They had long ago learned how to change lanes, and after many repetitions, the process gets “forgotten” by the conscious mind, turning into the kind of “muscle memory” familiar to pianists and athletes.
It doesn’t just work for physical tasks, though. Much of what we know, we have trained our brain to understand. We don’t have to recall a particular knowledge consciously to deploy it (very successfully) on intuition alone. The fact that you can read this sentence without sounding out the words is evidence of a complex task you learned a long time ago and now perform without consciously thinking about it.
My husband is a great example of this, having done tremendous amounts of engineering calculations and design work over many years. I often tell him that his off-the-top-of-his-head guess about a mechanical design is better than most people’s calculations. And it is. Because he knows how mechanics and structural properties and stresses work. He’s trained his intuition in mechanical design.
The same applies to writing.
When I’m learning a new concept (to me) about writing – whether craft or storytelling or process – I have to repeat it. Again and again, preferably with an actual WiP. Then there comes a point where I don’t have to consciously think about it (as much). I can feel it seeping into my unconscious. I’ve trained my intuition to use active verbs or build rising tension. (This is one reason why writing serials – or any short form storytelling – is fantastic practice in your craft. You’re repeating the storytelling process again and again, training your intuition along the way – see All About Serials.) This is similar to the idea of writing a million bad words before writing good ones or laboring for 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. Both involve a lot of training of your intuition.
Every writer has trained their intuition with years (decades) of reading great stories. (This is one reason why continuing to read is so important.) When you listen to that gut feeling about your story, you’re tapping into your intuition and reaping knowledge you may not even realize you have about storytelling.
And that’s a superpower if I’ve ever seen one.
Tapping Your Subconcious
My conscious mind thinks my subconscious is a mystically beautiful goddess with power and magic swirling around her. In reality, my brain is an amorphous cloud of data – bits of thoughts, ideas, feelings, and impressions are constantly being fed into it – and every once in a while, the cloud coalesces into an actionable thought. To say that it’s my idea feels presumptuous; I regularly tell people I steal all my best ideas from others. But this is how writing works: bits and pieces taken from the fabric of our lives and stitched together into something new (either patchwork quilt, or if we’re very lucky, Frankenstein).
- Fall 2009: The brain spark for my Mindjack series came to me while I was in bed, in that half-asleep state where you try to settle your brain and drift off into unconsciousness.
- Summer 2011: While on vacation, I read an article about how we store information in our unconscious mind, which led me to believe that intuition was our own personal superpower.
- Early 2012: I read a blog post about how we waste the best minutes of the day (the early ones, when we’re fresh), by checking email and blogging (*raises hand* guilty).
- April 2012: I read a book called The Power of Habit. Studies show that we literally “turn off” sections of our minds when habit takes over. Learned abilities are stored in a different part of brains, untapped until called upon. Like the brain knows how to be efficient with its resources, or something crazy scientific like that.
- May 2012: I set some personal goals to boost my creativity and bring more “beauty” to my writing.
- June 2012: I read Ray Bradbury’s The Zen in the Art of Writing. Ray believed strongly that his subconscious mind (or Muse, or Divine Inspiration, or what-have-you) was the source of all his stories. He believed that creativity was a matter of tapping into this source of knowledge buried within us, rather than forcing it through a conscious act.
Let me just state for the record, I’m not a fan of mysticism (sorry, I’m an engineer). But the fact that Ray Bradbury, my hero, was advocating this mystic pookie-pookism was enough of a shock to jar loose this idea: free writing for the first 15 minutes when I wake up – while I’m still half-asleep and hooked into my subconscious state – would boost my creativity and bring out my inner wordsmith.
Being a writer, I had to try it. Being a scientist, I was skeptical, but willing to test out the theory.
Result: Oh my… wow. This worked for me in a major way. When I free write, I don’t censor myself. I don’t write with a purpose or topic. Half the time, I’m typing with my eyes closed, so I don’t even know if the words are legible on the screen. I ramble. Ideas bubble up from below the surface like they’ve been waiting forever and now are venting free, spilling like an ugly yet fascinating lava flow all over the page. This isn’t the normal free writing I’ve done in the past, which always had a purpose: trying to discover a character or a plot twist. This is just… pure thinking on the page. And let me tell you: it’s addictive. And even without purpose, it is serving the purpose. And my inner wordsmith has been let loose.
Since discovering this powerful tool, I’ve incorporated it into my routine. I don’t free write every day, but I do use it as a conscious tool to stir up my creativity, dredge up the muck in the depths of my subconscious. Every single time, it energizes me and makes me more creative in my work – both storytelling and wordsmithing.
But it seemed too powerful a secret to keep.
Building Your Productive Capacity
We’ve talked about the powerhouse that is your subconscious and a possible way to tap into it, but how do you feed and care for that creativity? And how, in general, do you maintain the ability to create, day after day, hour after hour, without running dry?
In case you can’t tell already, I’m a fan of Seven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In it, he talks about Production vs. Production Capacity.
Production: Mowing the lawn.
Production Capacity: Maintaining the lawnmower… so you can mow the lawn in the future.
Production Capacity is the maintenance that builds the capacity to produce in the future. Covey uses the fable about the Goose That Laid The Golden Egg to demonstrate the difference: the eggs are the production, the goose is the production capacity. Both are necessary and important.
I excel at Production. (Rocket scientist? Check. Ph.D. in Engineering. Check. Novelist. Check.)
I sucketh badly at Production Capacity.
In Real Life
I’m too embarrassed to list all the ways that I suck at Production Capacity in Real Life, so let’s just focus on one example. I’ve always had a black thumb, meaning I can’t keep plants alive. I’ve killed a cactus (seriously) and long ago gave up keeping anything alive in the house besides humans, cats, and the occasional cheese mold. I suck at keeping plants alive because it requires maintenance, and I’m just not any good at remembering to water the plants. I cringed when my wonderful father-in-law gave me a beautiful planter of geraniums for Mother’s Day. I mean, I’d already killed the rose bush he gave me last year. Grandma understands the problem because she put Dark Omen in charge of watering, but the driest summer on record in Illinois looked ready to doom even that hope. When I realized that this plant was dripping with symbolism of my inability to build productive capacity into my life, I became determined to rescue it. I snipped off the withered blooms and watered it every day. Sure enough, the thing came back from the dead. I’m proud of every single bloom on it.
Moral: it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
How This Relates to Writing
Writing, unlike any other endeavor I’ve tackled in my life, requires a lot more Production Capacity than I generally manage to muster during my head-long pursuit of ever-more Production.
Production: Writing. Editing. Publishing. (I do not include marketing.)
Production Capacity for Writing/Editing: Reading. Watching TV/movies. Free writing. Studying bestsellers. Writing classes. Any kind of craft study. Staring out the window daydreaming.
Production Capacity for Publishing: Marketing. Social Media. Networking.
Even from the beginning (a mere five years ago), I excelled at production in writing. I cranked out words, addicted and fascinated by this unleashing of my creative side. I recently tallied it up, and I think I have hit that million word milestone (that’s a million finished words, not all published). That’s the equivalent of two 100k novels finished (with revisions) each year. And I’m getting faster as I go (see Making the Donuts).
But I suck at production capacity in writing. In my defense, I do manage some: I create craft study programs and examine bestsellers, as well as attend workshops and classes (recently one on screenwriting). I also invest a lot of time in publishing production capacity (see Social Media Quicksand). But I skimped on the production capacity that directly fed my creativity (reading, free writing, daydreaming). And this is vitally important to my long-term writing career, almost as much as the writing itself.
I want a career in writing that spans decades, not just years. To do that, I need to continually water that plant and bringing forth new blooms, or I will either burn out or stagnate – neither of which is acceptable to my highly productivity-driven brain.
Realizing this, I read more now. I free write. I even all allow myself to daydream on occasion. Plus I’m working on all those pesky Productive Capacity things in Real Life, so I can keep up my stamina for writing Production as well.
And when I sit down to write, my Creativity Well is brimming full.