Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why You Can’t Force Yourself To Be Spontaneous But Should Anyway

As a screenwriter, knowing how to allow yourself to be genuinely spontaneous in your writing is an important skill, but it’s easier said than done in a culture that glorifies deadlines and a 24-7 work ethic.

As Edward Slingerland writes in his intriguing tome Trying Not To Try, the Chinese have been wrestling for thousands of years with concept of spontaneity. Moral behaviour has to be spontaneous to be genuine and authentic, and yet you have to learn good manners. As Slingerland explains, Chinese schools of thought varied from the Confucian ideal of training yourself endlessly in etiquette and virtuous behaviour until these become second nature, to the Daoist ideal of not trying at all to master anything and living entirely spontaneously.

The jury is still out on which approach is most desirable, but the question still remains: Why  is increased mental effort not a guarantee for better results? Indeed, why is the opposite often true: great athletes and performers are famous for ‘choking’ and being unable to perform at crucial moments because they are thinking too consciously about what they are doing. And trying too hard to impress a potential date just makes you seem desperate. On the other hand, making no effort at all is not particularly productive either. Why do people get in their own way so much?

Is Your Nose Ironic?
Psychologist Daniel Wegner has done some fascinating research about what is known as Ironic Process Theory. This basically refers to the paradoxical effect of trying to control your own thoughts. If you try not to think of a purple car, that’s what you will think of, and if you to try to focus solely on a purple car, that will be the only thing you can’t think of. Here’s an example from my own personal experience: I have a large nose. I love my nose, but I live in a country (the Netherlands) where most people don’t have large noses, and I regularly encounter people who struggle unsuccessfully not to glance at my nose, and whose efforts to avoid any olfactory references in their speech lead to precisely the opposite effect. They use phrases that contain nasal metaphors and then squirm in embarrassment as they hear themselves saying what they had resolved not to. I’m sure you have your own examples of unsuccessful thought repression.
Look at my nose,
my nose is amazing...

The point of mentioning this is: Making an effort to be spontaneous is a self-defeating paradox. However, creating circumstances in which you are most likely to be spontaneous is an achievable, practical task. It requires you to become aware of what type of circumstances or tasks trigger your own spontaneity. What type of writing (outlining, writing dialogue, writing prose, longhand, etc.), at what time of the day, in which locations, with or without music, standing on your head, and so on. It also requires you to acknowledge that this is not a set of ‘rules’ you need to make, but rather an ongoing awareness of how you function. Armed with this knowledge you can adjust your writing process to minimize situations in which you have to make that (counterproductive) effort to be spontaneous.

Of course, not all stages of the writing process require the same degree of spontaneity. For example, when you’re editing or rewriting your own work, you need to look more critically and analytically at what you’ve written. In these circumstances, spontaneity is less of a priority. Which, ironically, can sometimes lead to very spontaneous creativity, so keep your notebook handy. As can going for a walk or doing the ironing. If you have any experience at all as a writer, you will know that great ideas often ‘come to you’ while you are doing something completely different. It can sometimes be very inconvenient, too. Have you ever stood up from the table in the middle of a conversation, to surprised looks from everyone, and quickly scribbled down a thought on the back of the first scrap of paper you could find?

Pull Over, Will You?
What I’ve learned from reading about trying not to try and the ironic process effect, is that there comes a point in every writing session when I need to stop, even though I could carry on. Like when you’ve been driving a long distance and you know you need to pull over and stop to stretch your legs, even though the road ahead is straight and empty. I know I can push on, and in the past I’ve done that too often. But I’m more aware now that stopping at the right moment is paradoxically more productive than continuing. At that moment I’ve done all the good writing I can do for a while—maybe I just need a break, maybe that’s all there is for that particular day—and stopping means I avoid regressing into a kind of self-recriminatory slave-driver mode, which is antithetical to spontaneity and creativity. 

This still leaves the issue of how and when to make the effort to start writing in the first place. Isn’t that in itself counterproductive? Well, no it isn’t. There are lots of different ways to start a writing session. I don’t think it matters one bit how you do it, as long as you start putting one word after another at some point. I sometimes like to formulate a very specific task: Today I’m going to describe character A’s emotional reaction to character B’s revelation in the sauna scene, or: This morning I’m going to imagine five ways for character X to further endanger his marriage. It doesn’t matter what it is, and nine times out of ten I’ll end up writing something very different and completely unexpected anyway. As long as I give myself something to start on, and as long as I’ve stopped my previous writing session on time (see above), my brain will be eager to get stuck back into the story.

As for deadlines, the main point is to achieve productivity rather than to be busy all the time, and paradoxically, trying hard to be productive often has the opposite effect.