Writing is a complex mental process, working several parts of the brain at once. I think of it as the ultimate form of multitasking.
First, the author uses imagination to know what comes next in the piece of writing. In the case of nonfiction, this might be the next step of the process described in a technical document, the next logical corollary to the argument put forward in a legal brief or blog, or the supporting facts and references to buttress the theme of a journal article. In fiction, the imagination probes what happens next in the story, the consequences of the character’s previous actions, the response to a line of dialogue, the next thing that will drop out of the blue sky and land on the character’s head. Imagination, the projective part of the mind, the part that “sees ahead,” is lodged in the prefrontal cortex, which has the responsibility for orchestrating thoughts and actions in line with personal goals.1
If nothing else, writing is the act of aligning your thoughts with a goal or intention. Without that goal—the purpose of the writing—the process does not even begin. The goal can be a formal statement somewhere in the author’s notes, or a few simple ideas that attracted the author to the subject in the first place. For a longer work, of which the day’s writing exercise may be just a part, the goal will be expressed in an outline or story notes that break the bigger project into simpler, more manageable pieces.
Second, the author uses the brain’s speech center to formulate the words that will be used to put these products of imagination—these ideas, arguments, actions, images, and lines of dialogue—into discrete, defined words and then place the words into orderly sentences and paragraphs. The words come out of the speech center in the cerebral cortex in a raw form, not unlike rambling speech. Before those words can reach a final form on the page, they must pass through a mental filter, a kind of “editing grid,” or a mental spelling-and-grammar-check mechanism. This grid arranges the words into the structure of grammatical clauses and prepositional phrases; tightens up loose ends and adjusts the passage’s overall meaning; challenges the definitions and connotations of the words and finds more appropriate or evocative substitutes as necessary, working against the passage’s intended reading level and/or the character’s dialect and word choices; checks a thousand and one details of grammar and style, such as subject-verb agreement, appropriate use of pronouns and conjunctions, contractions, colloquialisms; and finally inserts appropriate capitalization and punctuation.
This grid doesn’t exist in the mind naturally. It is something the writer has to build over the years through practice and self-correction, driven by a belief in the importance of detail and the necessity of getting things right the first time. Without this grid in place, the act of writing is little better than a kind of verbal brainstorming, creating a pile of slush that must be corrected later through tedious revisions—or left to the ministrations of an editor. In time, the writer learns that it’s simply easier and faster to go through this process of mentally testing words, sentence structures, grammar, and punctuation before finalizing them on paper. It brings you closer to what you want to express the first time around.
Third and finally, the author engages the brain’s motor functions to deposit those words and sentences, complete with punctuation and paragraph spacing, onto some formatted base layer, such as a computer screen or piece of paper, by using a mechanical device such as a keyboard; a pen, pencil, or stylus on paper or tablet; or some form of dictation. So deeply does the writing process rely on this mechanical function that many writers become locked into the physical actions of using it. They can only write easily with a pencil on lined notepaper, or with a fountain pen on good vellum, or with one or another computer keyboard and word processor. They can only write when the mechanics are so ingrained as to become invisible to the working mind.2
With time, an author can bring all these steps—imagination, formulation, and physical translation—into action quickly and easily, surrendering to the process and “getting into the zone.” And then, once the mind is in writing mode, the author’s world disappears. The author’s own self disappears. His or her involvement with worldly cares and problems, other than the textual subject at hand, or with actual people, unless they appear as characters in the story, and even with physical sensations such as heat and cold, distracting noises or smells, and cramps or butt numbness—all of it entirely disappears. The author’s mind is suspended halfway out of his or her head, halfway onto the screen or page, in a trance of imagining, formulating, testing and deciding, creating and adjusting that is a bit like pure bliss.3
But the process is not automatic.4 Two conditions will keep me from entering the zone. They don’t just shut it down; they make it impossible to begin.
The first is not being clear on what to write. This is a problem with the goal-orientation of the prefrontal cortex. It goes deeper than not having a complete outline written down on paper, it belongs to not having an idea—or the right idea—to begin with. Sometimes I will have an outline for the next part of the novel that I think is solid, or pages of notes from which to write an article, but when I sit down at the keyboard, nothing comes. I’ve learned from painful experience that this is not the time to force my brain. If I try to pound out the words through sheer willpower, I’ll get something, and it may even look like coherent English sentences, but it won’t be right. It will not go in the right direction, reach the right conclusions, achieve the right tone, or make the right cut—in terms of intellectual level and understanding—at the material or the story. It will be a string of words that even serious revision can’t save. They will eventually need to be deleted and the process started over.
In this case, I know that something in my outline or my notes is undecided. Either I have a plot or logical problem that still needs to be addressed, or I have not reached the deepest level of emotional truth and understanding of the situation or the material.5 Until I fix this problem or find the proper approach, my prefrontal cortex is blocked and the writing process won’t start.
The second inhibiting condition is the lack of a starting point. In order to write a nonfiction article, I need to have an insight to share with the reader, a question that I know will appeal to the reader’s mind or current concerns, or a common public perception or proposal to which the article responds. This is the insertion point, the gateway into the maze, the first incision in the surgery, the cleavage plane in the diamond that the jeweler taps with his hammer. With the right insertion point, the right fault line, the article opens up like a flower. With the wrong insertion point, the wrong incision, it will take paragraphs and pages to find its feet.
In order to write a piece of fiction, I need a thought, a word, an action, an Aha! insight, or a sensory perception—a sound, a smell, a visual image—that introduces the reality of this moment in time for the point-of-view character. With that first stab, so like the surgeon’s first cut, I can release the story’s latent emotional momentum, and the rest of the writing process is just following my built-in sense of direction.
I call this starting point—the article’s entry point, the fiction’s placement in time and space—the “downbeat.” Like the movement of a conductor’s baton, it signals to the rest of my waiting brain “Start here.” I know when I’ve got a downbeat. It comes to me as a word or image in the moments that precede my sitting down at the keyboard and starting to write. If I don’t have it, I don’t sit. I may pace up and down, go get a cup of coffee, take a shower,6 or fiddle with something else. I can usually force a downbeat. Lacking one is not as critical to the process as having a hidden plot problem, a misunderstanding within my notes, or a hole in my thinking. But until that word or action or sense image makes itself known, the writing process is stuck at top dead center, like a piston at the top of the crankshaft that doesn’t know which way to turn it.
But give me a clear objective and a starting point, and the word generator starts putt-putting and my consciousness flows. That’s how I get into the writing zone.
1. The prefrontal cortex is that part of the brain right behind and above the eye sockets. It’s the structure which mental health professionals used to detach through surgery, or damage with a thin metal spike thrust upward through the socket, in order to calm psychotic patients. The effectiveness of this therapy is not hard to understand: without the brain’s executive function, without the ability to order your thoughts and plan your actions according to some goal or belief system, you naturally become passive and calm. You can’t think much about the future, plan your day, or anticipate the consequences of your actions and possible responses to other people’s intelligent conversation.
The doctors who performed these lobotomies thought they were helping the patient deal with fears, frustrations, and anxieties. What they were doing actually yanked the patient out of the mental time-stream, out of the conveyor belt of ideation and anticipation that looks forward to the future, plans a response in the now, and tests it against past action. The patient entered a Zen-like state of inexpectant, untroubled present experience—one from which he or she could never return.
2. Because I have a pretty good editing grid, built over years of working as a book and technical editor and an internal communicator, my writing no longer proceeds in quite a straight line. I will be testing and editing sentence structures, choosing and replacing words, adjusting subordinate clauses, and improving punctuation as I write. So the paragraph appears on the computer as a rippling wavefront of words and their relationships that are proposed, retracted, edited, and improved as the cursor moves down the screen. This process proceeds so fast that a pen or pencil can hardly keep up, and a paper page would too quickly be filled with cross outs, corrections, circles, and arrows. So I must work with a compliant word processor to really make progress on a piece of writing. Paper is just too slow and static.
3. I once thought that the hours I spend writing didn’t actually count against my natural life-span. They were a cessation of time and a blurring of the aging process. Now, as I draw closer to some kind of inevitable end of that life, I know better. Still, it’s a soothing thought.
4. A pictorial joke going the rounds on Facebook, at least among members of the writing community, shows a dog at a computer keyboard and screen with the commands “Sit!” and “Stay!” written in above his head—as if having your butt in a chair and your eyes fixed on the blank space of screen or page for some unspecified amount of time would produce anything. These actions may be necessary for entering the writing zone, but they are certainly not sufficient.
5. See Working with the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.
6. For some reason, hot water on the back of my neck stimulates the imaginative processes. See The Author’s Job from January 19, 2014.