The whole goal of creative writing is to write without your loud mouth, bully of an Ego destroying your work before it's even done. This isn't just a new writer problem. Elizabeth Gilbert, that beautiful woman, talks all about how she was frozen by the fear that Eat, Pray, Love was the only good idea she had in her. Tell me that's not The Ego at its finest.
There are a couple strategies I’ve used to keep the Ego tied up until the second draft: NaNoWriMo, timed sprints, writing first thing in the morning (apparently I have a sleepy Ego). These options push the Ego to the side so you can try to get as much work done as possible while he remains complacent, but I've recently discovered an exercise that gives him a chance to be what he is. It graciously gives the Ego a chance to get all the critical thoughts out, leaving him tired and out of breath- happy, finally, to give creativity a chance to shine.
This wholesome exercise goes by many names and is practiced in different ways. Here I'll refer to it as a Stream of Consciousness. I've heard of this in one form or another at conferences, in writing articles, or even on this podcast that has nothing to do with writing, but I didn't actively put it into practice until I started reading “The Artist’s Way” where the idea was emphasized as a daily necessity.
Here's the general idea:
For an extended period of time (30 minutes is what I would suggest) sit down in a quiet place with your preferred writing method and write everything that comes to mind -your stream of consciousness- without stopping or self-editing any thoughts, memories or emotions that might come. Do not stop before the time limit, do not resist a thought.
It's simple, but maybe a little uncomfortable, especially the first couple times you try it. Push through that discomfort.
When you start your Ego has full control; you may notice the thoughts start very analytical, very critical, very structured. As you let the Ego speak, he will start running out of things to say. For me, it happens about halfway through. The thoughts slow down. I start drawing blanks. I become antsy to fill up the empty space… but I sit there because my time isn't up and I wait. Then, shy at first, new thoughts start to come. These thoughts are often questions- the creative mind is all about questioning reality. When it gives me a question, I work through answering it with whatever thoughts come in response until a new question pops up. If my ego pipes up and starts to complain that we didn't give a good answer, I write that down too and continue on. But he doesn't try too hard to stand in the way anymore- he's tired now. When the timer goes off I have often come up with something… kind of great!
As a regular practice, this opens you up to new ideas. You can use it to develop self-love and combat those ugly inner voices that would love to see your thoughts spiral into negativity or to find answers to questions that tie up your mind. It's meditation.
As an exercise for writers, though, it has other uses.
I want to start by clarifying- this is separate from the narrative tool that shows the readers the inner workings of a character's thoughts. Instead, these words are often kept privately in a journal, as there can be some intensely personal material. If anything from this exercise makes it into your work it will be only polished bits and pieces.
However, it is a useful exercise if you are trying to figure out the inner workings of your character for yourself.
I don't know why it so often feels like we finish our first draft and still don't really know our MC, but it's a real problem.
A couple days into NaNoWriMo this year I realized I had no idea who Atali was. I felt like I had everyone including her mom more fleshed out. When I brought this concern up to my writing group my brilliant friend suggested I look at Atali from someone else's perspective.
I was already practicing Stream of Consciousness, so why not combine the ideas. I stepped inside her mother's head (who knows a person better than their mother?) and asked her “Why do you love Atali?”
Then I just let the thoughts come as they will. By the end of 30 minutes, I felt like I had finally connected with Atali. I knew her, I knew what she wanted and I knew why! It was beautiful.
I suggest trying this if you don’t know what decision your character will make next, if you’re not sure what your character’s driving desire is, or if you are unsure what would hurt your character most. Pose your character a question based on whatever is holding you up, and then write down everything that comes to mind, whether or not it seems relevant. Do not read over what you’ve written until the end.
Stream of Consciousness is also great for the plot. In the same way, sit down with your question in mind- Where do they go next? But why do the Gods even care? What if the death star didn't explode? And see where the question takes you. This is a real workout for the creative mind, as it has to push past everything it already came up with and look for something more. If the ideas don’t sound good, consider that your Ego might be critical because they sound different, and explore them anyway. There is no harm here in the stream of consciousness in going someplace that doesn’t pan out- it’s only 30 minutes after all. Give each idea a chance.
I have also used it to come up with story ideas. If you have a theme in mind, spend some time with it. For example: Is it better to be deeply rooted in a strong opinion or to live in a balance between two? Be hard on it, challenge it with more questions, and then listen to what your creative mind throws at you. To follow our example, you could ask, “What does a person lose when they sit on the fence?” Or “What are they afraid of when they take a strong stance?” If your Creative mind answers with personal experience don’t be afraid to explore those deeply. When you have a page full of thoughts, read over them. You might find connections that you hadn’t thought of before, the perfect protagonist, or maybe the climax.
Often your first idea or even your second or third is just the Ego sending you something that fits the pattern of things you've already read. The ego would love you to use something it's seen as provable, something it knows already works. But, past those mundane thoughts, your creative mind will tentatively present you something new and through Stream of Consciousness you can nurture that idea and see where it takes you. As a result, your plot and characters and life can blossom into something fresh, and unique to your beautiful mind.
I'm mostly in love with this exercise. I want to shout it from the rooftop, print it on a business card and hand it out to any writer I meet. If you have any questions about how to use it in your own writing I'd love to hear them! Also if you have another favorite writing exercise tell me about a time it saved you bellow!
"The world needs your novel"
That's NaNoWriMo's motto. Whether you've never written more than a letter, or you're John Green and writing rip-your-heart-out novels is old hat, the NaNo Team's motto is that your novel is important. And they back it up, too. Just to rehash their October 2016 press release 384,126 people frantically cradled new ideas while dashing through a 50,000-word count marathon over the course of November, hoping their guts out that their idea wouldn't fall flat half way through. Behind the scenes, the wonderful team organizes write-ins, meet-ups, a night of Dangerous Writing, and pep talks from published authors just so aspiring writers will have the help and encouragement they need.
When I think of vulnerability for the sake of writing, I think of Emotional Intelligence. Maybe you've heard of the all coveted idea- that it’s the new IQ as far as determining your worth as a person? As long as my understanding is correct, Emotional Intelligence came into the conversation around 1995 because a reporter named Daniel Goleman found an article published by psychologists Mayer and Salovey about the idea. Then Goleman took their theory and a bunch of other research and wrote the book Emotional Intelligence. Now it’s used by schools, and businesses, and creatives all over the world. Basically, the idea is that if I am emotionally intelligent, I can correctly recognize emotions in myself and others, and create a rational plan of action for dealing with those emotions.