Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, July 4, 2016

Book Review: Accidental Genius (Or When I Discovered Freewriting)

I have been reading Mark Levy’s Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight and Content and although it might be too soon to tell, I think its going to change the way I write. In that I will feel less terrified to write in the first place. And get more words written.

Here’s my current writing process:
I get an idea, get totally excited, then I remember that I have a ton of unfinished projects already on my plate. So I write down the idea dutifully in Evernote and file it in my Ideas notebook. Then, still on the high from my fabulous idea, I try to work on one of my many incomplete projects. I open the document, and then it all comes flooding back to me. All the hopes and dreams I had for this project. How amazing it was going to be. And how spectacularly I failed. All the unwritten sections and the badly written parts stare at me, feeling listless and dull and somehow I try and fail to get enthusiastic about writing. I close the document.

As sad as it sounds, this is basically how I write. Its a miracle that anything gets finished at all. The other day I was telling my dad how I was absolutely hating working on my current project, which is basically a revision of one of my previously published books. Now I thought I hated it because I had already written and revised this before, and this rewrite has been dragging on for months, as I keep dropping it to do something else, and then come back to it thinking, oh no not this again. So I thought he would be sympathetic. But to my surprise he was said, “Oh that’s what you say for every book!” He laughed. With no sympathy for me whatsoever.

And I realized, oh gosh, I do do this for every book. What is wrong with me? Am I glutton for punishment? If I hate the process so much, why do I keep doing it? Part of the answer is because of how excited I get about the idea. And the initial part is fun, working out what it will be like, what the various aspects will be. And then inevitably it comes time to start writing a first draft, and its like nails across a blackboard. I can’t bear to be in the same room and my computer.

Reading Mark’s book on freewriting felt like someone had handed me a parachute. Like I suddenly was floating in air - I didn’t feel so claustrophobic and stuffed. Sure, with most of my books I found the editing the hardest part, and especially with my most recent one, I breezed through the first draft and struggled hugely with the editing. But here’s why - I actually struggled writing the first draft of the parts of the book that I realized I had missed when I wrote the initial first draft. The sections I knew that needed to be inserted, the introduction, the boring sciency bits that I wanted to include but didn’t know how to write about.

And the reason it was so hard was that somehow I breezed through the initial draft on a high, I was having fun and not really thinking about it as a book. As something that I could screw up. I was just thinking of it as fun notes that I was jotting for myself. When it became this section is the intro to my book, or this section is for chapter 6, it became all too real and scary. Then my brain seized up and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

Okay I have to admit I haven’t exactly tried the freewriting method for writing a book yet, but it has worked wonders for me on writing several blog posts, in fact, for once I am ahead of schedule, instead of scrambling madly to come up with something to write about. And I really really hope this will cross over into my book writing too.

Basically the part that really helped me was realizing that most probably by giving myself permission to write anything that comes to mind, I would most likely be writing something real and original and imbued with my own natural voice, not some stilted version of what I think I should say, which often is the voice that comes out when I am writing. Especially when I sit down to a session of “serious writing”, working on my “very important book” or “very important blog post to prove that I am a real writer”. Usually I give up trying to fix that tone, but its such a drag writing like that, that I would do anything to avoid writing more than I have to. By putting off writing my book. And begging other authors to write guest posts for the blog, so I wouldn’t have to. I know, I know, terrible.

Now it feels like I have opened up a dam, and words just keep gushing out. Okay I am still struggling mightily with my current book rewrite, but that is mostly because I wrote it in “boring author voice” and I am dying to imbue it with some personality, but I don’t think thats really appropriate for a book about cluster munitions and how they kill and injure people. And its not even that I want to write it in a fun style, its just that the newly unleashed writer part of me wants to just be done and say “yeah sure I think this revision is great, let’s move on”, and the old pedantic, fearful part of me wants to say “no let’s spend another week on research”. I don’t really know who to listen to at the moment, so I am stuck, and hence playing hooky by writing this blog post.

But just to get back to what we were originally talking about - if you feel like you’re struggling with your words at all, consider getting this book. And in the meantime, here are some tips to get your writing out of its rut.

1.  Set a Timer
Tell yourself you only have to write for 10 minutes. I tried this trick with myself several times in the last few days, and my daily word count has shot up. On a day when I had to contend with incredibly incompetent and slow service people, when normally after they left I would have ended up getting nothing else done and sulking, I managed to write almost 3,000 words. Mostly of blog posts and experimental pieces, but still. And if you find that after 10 minutes you don’t want to write anymore, that’s fine. At least you did 10 more minutes than you would have otherwise.

2.  Write Badly
By this I mean, give yourself permission to write without worrying about grammar, punctuation, spelling (if that works for you, personally it drives me insane so I have to stop to fix it). Write in a casual style if that helps, pepper your writing with slang, with dialogue, even ignore quotation marks if that makes it easier. I even told myself that this was a rough rough draft, the pre-draft if you will. I just had to note down some ideas, that is all. Which brings me to the next point…

3.  Think on the Page
I have found it always helps tremendously to know what I am writing about. Except when I don’t. Sometimes I don’t have an idea. I have no clue what to say about a topic, or maybe I had figured it out, but by the time I am sitting down to write, I can’t remember, and moreover I am distracted about the fact that my washing machine is busted and needs to be fixed, and I have to make dinner soon, and oh gosh I still haven’t gotten to the gym. Usually I would by this point simply give up. But I discovered that I could just start by writing what I was thinking, and trying to randomly write down whatever occurred to me about the topic. To write one sentence and hope the next one would show up. Well it did. Maybe I had a few sentences that were fluff, that I would need to throw away, but there was enough there to constitute something usable, maybe even something good.

There’s lots more advice in the book, but I think these three are enough for you to get on with. I will warn you, the book wasn’t written for a writer. Not really. It seems to be written for business executives facing sales quota and marketing problems, but if you can get past that, I think its a brilliant manual for writers. Especially for those starting out who may feel appalled at the poor quality of their writing. Don’t worry, its just a hurdle you have to get through. I heard Jeff Goins say that maybe we all have a few terrible books in us, that we need to write quickly, to get to the good ones.

So go on, freewrite your way through those first few doozys before you can get to the good stuff. And if you’re just naturally brilliant, then be warned I will be hugely jealous, but will of course feel intensely smug and take the credit for helping you “unleash your natural brilliance”. So what are you waiting for? Your kitchen timer isn’t exactly going to wind itself, is it?

Side Note: This is going out on the 4th of July, so I want to wish any Americans reading this, a Happy Independence Day. 
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