Procrastinating — or Percolating?

Go defrost your fridge!

The story goes that a reporter once asked Ernest Hemingway what he did when he was starting a new book. To which Hemingway supposedly replied, “Defrost the refrigerator.”

What on earth does that have to do with anything? How can one start writing a novel by procrastinating and not starting to write? Was Hemingway just trying to discourage budding novel-writers? Or was that really how he got his novels started–by delaying putting down that first word?

What Hemingway was advising might not have been “procrastinating” at all. What he may have been promoting was what I’ve always called “percolating.” That’s when the ideas are floating around in your head, but they haven’t taken a coherent form yet. So you pause and leave them alone and let them percolate in your subconscious for a while longer.

When you’re defrosting your fridge–or taking the leaves–or washing the car, or even staring into space–you are letting go of your iron control and focus. If you do things right, the most your conscious mind has to do is think, “Is this cottage cheese past the expiry date?” or “Oh look, there’s a lone sailboat out on the lake.” That means that your subsonscious is free to do its thing. Which, in the case of your writing, often involves solving thorny plot p0roblems, generating new ideas, or even creating a new character to spring on you when you least expect it.

The subconscious is very creative. That’s where your dreams come from, after all. So if you’ve fed it some ideas and a few plot points, once you go off and do something else, it will really go to town on them. You, with your rational, conscious brain, may have worked unsuccessfully for hours or even days, trying to resolve a plot problem. But turn your back for just a while, and your rule-free subconscious goes, “Hey, let’s put this upside down, paint it green, and look at it backwards in a mirror. And add a snippet of music. And a shoe. Now look at it–how cool is that?” And later, you bring your conscious attention back to the problem to find it beautifully and creatively solved!

Busily rewriting your chapter

Sometimes this process is called “sleeping on it.” You leave a difficult problem you’ve been wrestling with and go to bed. And in the morning, you realize that you’ve figured out how to solve the problem–while you slept. You might do something similar during the day, just by taking a walk through a nearby park to “get your mind off things.” Except it’s just a different part of your mind that’s on the job.

So Hemingway was right. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of a really thorny problem, that’s the one time you should not try consciously to work it out. And sometimes, the moment when you want to start your novel is the one moment you should not start it. Go do something kind of “mindless,” sendyour ideas deeper in, to the subconscious, and let them percolate till they’re ready.


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Filed under * Art and Craft of Authorship, * Writing tips

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