Does it shock anyone else how deeply connected our mental and emotional health is to our writing productivity? I have loved the recent acknowledgement that writer's block is not a sign of failure, but of a potential imbalance in a writer's life that can be addressed. I discovered a writing practice a couple of years back in a book called The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This book focuses on embracing the inner creative and really nurturing it by putting yourself and your creative projects first, taking yourself on creative dates, and by using a Stream of Consciousness exercise to daily clear your mind. Though I have yet to follow her advice to its full extent, I have used her Stream of Consciousness exercise regularly. It is a wonderful tool to loosen up the brain, reveal and address emotional issues that clog your creative flow, and make room for your creativity to break through at it’s finest. I would suggest reading her book, and hearing it from her own words, but in this article I will break down how to do the exercise, and why it is so effective.
So what is a stream of consciousness exercise?
The basics are simple- for a set amount of time, write your unedited thoughts as they come-- no editing, no restricting no judging.
The function of the exercise is more complex then that may convey as doing it regularly will encourage mental health, self awareness, and creativity.
We tend to be very judgmental of our own thoughts, especially when we write, but this means we often suppress thoughts we think will not reflect well on us or will not be accepted by others. Because we live in a state of constant suppression, it’s good for our creative mind to feel like it has a safe place, so to speak. To practice letting our thoughts come without judgement, the creative brain feels safe to let daring ideas loose.
Often a writer’s block is a manifestation of emotional distress or imbalance in our day-to-day lives. We may never be aware of other symptoms these imbalances bring on, such as tension, fatigue, feelings of melancholy, lack of motivation, and instead we go through the day telling ourselves to work harder, be happier, and do more. When we take time to receive our thoughts as they come, we allow ourselves the chance to discover where the imbalance is.
Something to understand before we start
The Stream of Consciousness exercise softens the line between the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. It can be an uncomfortable exercise in the beginning, but if we can understand the natures of the conscious and the subconscious, it will help make the process a little smoother.
The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, explains the difference between them so well. The subconscious mind is like an elephant- wild and impulsive. And the conscious mind is the rider- the leader, the protector, the planner. The wild, subconscious part of the mind reacts and holds on to emotions deeply. It can be the reason we run quickly in the opposite direction of rejection. But the rider understands that there is a path we must take to be productive in life, and that there are rules to get us safely there: keep negative thoughts in check, don’t binge watch Netflix when deadlines are due, get enough sleep to function, etc. It’s the unabashed love of new, interesting things that stems from our subconscious that makes us good writers, and it is the strict logic of our consciousness that helps us adhere to the patterns that other published authors before us have used to lead us to our own success. Unfortunately both can be overpowering, but teaching them to work together in balance will enable the most productivity in your writing.
The Stream of Consciousness is an exercise in teaching your conscious mind to quiet down for a moment and let the subconscious speak without judgment, establishing and strengthening that balance.
Should I type or write with pen and paper?
I like writing my manuscripts on my laptop. I can get thoughts down quickly, and then go back and organize them easily. In The Artist's Way, Julie Cameron insists on pen and paper, so I followed her advice when I started out.
There is something about the physical act of writing that sends signals to the brain that you are ready to work. Studies have shown that writing by hand activates more areas of the brain, increasing recall and memorization, as well as “reasoning, judging, planning and problem-solving.” It also seems to send a signal to your brain that the things you are writing are of greater importance. These studies seem to fit in nicely with the purpose of the exercise. We want to open up the brain and let it know that we are ready for the thoughts it has been protecting, so writing by hand can help.
On the other hand there are inconveniences that come with writing things out by hand. If you’re not used to it your hand can cramp, adding an extra level of discomfort to the exercise. Notebooks can be lost and can only be accessed if they are physically toted with you. Pencils can break and pens can run out of ink. I encourage you to see these things as easy obstacles to overcome and at least try the exercise the way it was intended.
Does that mean we should rule technology out? If the point of the exercise is to keep up with your thoughts, it seems to me typing can be a better way to go. It’s faster and often looks neater, making it easier to reflect back on. However, easier may not mean better. Author Robert Stone was recorded in an interview saying that when it comes to an elusive idea, he prefers to write the old fashion way.
“ ...I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor, you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed-- you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The Pen Compels Lucidity.”
Though keeping up with your thoughts can seem like a trying to catch a whirlwind, consider that slowing down may help you uncover the nuances, richnesses, and lucidity in your own thoughts.
Technology, of course, can also lead to distractions. You often have the clock visible making it tempting to watch the minutes pass instead of focusing on the practice at hand, research and social media prove to be extremely tempting.
With all this being said, I went back to typing for the most part, bringing out the pen and paper when I could. We are nothing if not creatures of convenience. No matter how you choose to practice, though, I think the thing to remember is the experience you’re giving yourself. The goal should be to relinquish control of your thoughts and write uninhibited for a while. Whichever tools help you better fulfill this goal should be the ones you choose.
How long should I write?
I suggest a time limit of 30 minutes. In my experience, it’s long enough to really dig into your thoughts, but short enough it can be scheduled into an already full routine. However, it’s important to be mindful of your own needs and set a time accordingly. When you’re ready to decide what time is right for you, here are some things to consider.
It will take time for your body to relax into the exercise, and it will also take time for your brain to work past the mundane thoughts and to get into the deeper ones. If you rush through, you will likely never uncover the beneficial thoughts. But we must be realistic- if the time limit is too long, we won’t do it at all. If 30 minutes is unreasonable for your right now, consider slowly working up to it.
Going for the full time limit is where most of the discomfort in the exercise will manifest. Especially in the beginning, it may make us anxious to sit quietly and write down all your thoughts. The conscious mind has the tendency to make you feel guilty for spending so much time writing about “nothing” instead of working on your project. Ignore this thought! Sometimes the first thoughts you write during this exercise will feel forced and shallow, and sometimes no thoughts will come at all. The quietness, solitude and reflection required for this exercise is something we are culturally giving less and less importance, despite the evidence that they can be a powerful key in fighting stress, improving memory and sleep, and stimulating the brain.
If you find the discomfort is keeping you from doing the exercise for long enough, consider that either way you’ll be experiencing discomfort- whether it’s staring at a blank page, unable to come up with anything because of writer’s block, or attempting the exercise. Yet one discomfort will help you overcome obstacles in your life and writing, and the other discomfort comes from avoiding them. If you have to choose your discomfort, I encourage you to choose the one that leads to eventual success.
After I move past the initial discomfort, there is a point about halfway through where my mind goes blank. I will be following my thoughts, writing them down, and then all of a sudden --nothing--.
The temptation here is to think “I’m done, there are no more thoughts left. Time to move on,” and you might cut your time limit short next time. Do not stop your exercise here. This can be a key part of the exercise, and the reason goes back to our goal to soften the line between the subconsciousness and the consciousness. At some point, your conscious brain will have fed you all the “appropriate” thoughts. The ones it has experienced don’t rock the boat too much or break any rules. Then it will run out of steam. Now the subconscious thoughts, the ones that usually get drowned out, or pushed to the background, will have their chance to shine. So, if we wait patiently through the pause, a wave of new thoughts will be right around the corner. These thoughts may be more vulnerable ones, so it’s important to give them time to surface, but they are also going to be the more valuable ones. They will bring you personal insight, and when they’re out and acknowledged, you’ll find it easier tap into your creativity.
What should I write about?
There are two directions you can head with this exercise when you start. Both are valuable, but they will achieve different things. If you’re feeling generally blocked, you can do journal entry style sessions, where you write about your thoughts as they come, but they’re not necessarily story related.
It is very important not to self edit these thoughts as they come in any way, and do not judge them as good or bad. Write exactly what you think and do not stop. The first couple of times I tried, my initial thoughts were negative: “This feels weird… nothing’s coming to mind… I forgot to do the dishes… maybe this isn’t for me…”
They didn’t seem insightful or even cooperative. This is okay. The Conscious mind only wants what it’s used to, so when you ask it to try something new, it comes up with a million reasons not to. That’s one of my favorite things about this exercise. You can physically see on the paper that as you clear away the first wave of thoughts, the next waves will grow and deepen. Write all thoughts down, don’t assign any disappointment or guilt to them. Just let them be, and then move on to the next.
The other path you can head can be more focused on your WIP. If you feel stuck on a specific scene or character, you can write specifically about things related to that. To do this, try a question and response approach. For example:
“Why do I hate this scene where MC talks to Love Interest?” Then write down all the thoughts that come as a response to that question, even if they don’t make sense or they seem off topic. Try to stick to one question per session to allow time to explore it deeply.
You can do this with the setting, character development, plot problems, or just about anything else. Because the conscious mind loves things it's used to, the first couple of solutions to a scene or character might be cliche because it’s drawing from things proven to succeed before. Doing a Stream of Consciousness exercise specifically on a problem you can’t solve in your manuscript will help you move past those old, tired ideas and explore ones that are more unique to you, and will make for more daring writing. That’s the stuff that will excite your reader and set you apart.
Should I read through my exercise?
Right after or weeks later, take a moment to go back and read your thoughts. There may be hidden gems there that you can use to enhance your writing or your life. Still try to look at the thoughts without judgment.
I hope this exercise helps writing come more easily for you. There will always be an element of struggle in creative writing. It is so personal, and as writers, we put a lot of weight into the success of our projects. But I hope that making it even a little easier on ourselves will help us rediscover the joy of it all.
If you're interested in other ways to up your writing productivity check out this article on the connection between physical exercise and writing, or this article on how to keep up with writing and children!
Let me know how the exercise goes for you, and if you have any other exercises that beat writer's block, share them in the comments below!
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.