Brains Don’t Do Random
Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.
Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.
Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.
As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:
- You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
- You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
- You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
- You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.
The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.
So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3
Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:
- Decide to go.
- Sign up to go.
- Participate in the meal planning.
- Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
- Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.
I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.
Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:
Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.
Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.
I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.
In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.
The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”
Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”
So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.
Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.
Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.
How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.
The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.
Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.
Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.
Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.
I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.
A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.
Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?
Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.
The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.
The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.
The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.
My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.
Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.
The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.
Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.
It was fine.
I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.
The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.
The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.
I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.