@wdavisliterary posted this on Twitter a few weeks ago: “The Four Horsemen of Procrastination”
It’s a solid observation, and it was meant in good fun. I did, however, have one quibble. Naps are part of the writing process. I cheekily said as much in my reply. She responded as well, saying that napping is “totally” procrastination. And To be fair, the act of napping is not the act of writing. But napping IS part of the writing process (the creative process more generally) as are showers, bike rides, long walks, and getting lost on public transit.
I’m not much of a fighter, but this is one battle I’m not going to take lying down.
Things are going to get Biblical
There are a lot of themes in the Bible, but the importance of dreams seems to permeate all 60+ books. There’s Old Testament Joseph and his famous technicolor dreamcoat; Jonah who was fast asleep before being thrown overboard to a whale; Job, whom God scolds for not listening to his dreams; and New Testament Joseph who decides to divorce his miraculously pregnant fiancé before settling down for some zzz’s. After a good nap (and some meddling angels) he changes his mind.
It’s this last point I want to emphasize. Joseph had a problem he wasn’t sure how to handle. After he thought about it for a while, he took a nap. The Psalms also speak about this magical, problem-solving nap. “…Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). “Hear my cry for help… In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice” (Psalm 5:2-3).
The general theme here is that your problem is too big for you to comprehend. Don’t even bother trying to solve it. In fact, you’re better off getting a good night’s sleep. Somehow, miraculously, the problem will solve itself.
Research into creativity has revealed that there is real wisdom in ancient, well, wisdom. Your brain needs time to ruminate on ideas. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson refers to this as the “slow hunch.” Over time (minutes, days, years?) you slowly, subconsciously consider the same problem as you age, mature, learn, and change. You open yourself up to “serendipity” (another of Johnson’s terms), as your brain forms new, unexpected connections. (It had never occurred to me that when I did a bible study with my wife five years ago, I could use that information for ammunition in a Twitter argument about screenwriting.)
In his work The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas shares this reflection from the prolific German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz.
…happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table… They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.*
Wallas goes on to describe Helmholtz’s three stage process: preparation, where you consider the problem at hand; incubation, where you do not think about the problem at all; and finally, illumination, where the solution simply pops into your head. Sound familiar?
Physical activity is great way to keep your neurons on their toes, but don’t worry if there aren’t any “wooded hills” near your writing desk. Johnson thinks dreams may be just as beneficial as fresh air. In fact, he wonders if that most analytical of dreamers wasn’t on to something.
Sigmund Freud, he says, had it backwards. Dreams aren’t repressed memories trying to come to the surface, but our brains searching for meaning through all of the clutter (sights, smells, conversations, thoughts, obstacles, emotions, etc.). Although the evidence is anecdotal, the sewing machine, the periodic table, and the theory of relativity were all conceived by people sleeping on the job. It’s not just science and technology. Artists dream up crazy stuff all of the time. Famously, The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all started in dreams.
Sometimes a Nap Isn’t Just a Nap
When it comes to creative processes, the best approach is not always head on. Ideas are ephemeral things and you may spook them. Instead, the research seems to suggest that one great approach is, well, napping. Now to be clear, you can’t use this as avoidance (which is what spawned the initial tweet). But what has actually proven to be very effective is gathering all of the pieces in your mind: the inputs and outputs, the technical hurdles, your fears, and in regard to writing, your subject and audience, characters, stories, motivation, and criticisms.
Hold them there. Look at them objectively. Write them down if it helps. Then, forget about them.
Go for a walk. Do some painting. Cook dinner. Take a nap. As long as you’re going to hit your deadline, take a day or two to just let everything simmer. And if you do, you’ll be surprised to see how things miraculously work themselves out.
I hear your protests, but don’t say anything now. Just think it over. Sleep on it. Get back to me in the morning.
*Miller, Susan. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 2009. 236