Habit 7.3: Sharpening the Mental Saw

Writing is a mental head game. The left side of the brain wars with the right side, the Divine Muse at odds with the Infernal Editor, kind of like the Road Runner and Wile E Coyote. We endeavor to be Road Runner, but all to often end up feeling like Wile E: none of our plans work out, then we end up falling off a cliff. And not even the sturdiest of tiny umbrellas can save us from the impending boulder.

Oh, Acme. If I’d been Wile E, I would have sued your collective, conspiring asses into the Tiny Toon generation.

If poor old Wile E. had bothered to sharpen the Mental Saw (say, in the physics department) he might have been better off.  If you’re like me, and deep in a story, it’s all too easy to find yourself up to the eyeballs in plot boggery and wondering how you got there. Finish the story, get to the end, write, write, write! *gasp* *choke* *thud*

And that’s just the first draft. I do three. Polish, polish, polish, like  one of Mrs. Hannigan’s orphans. And once the final (ha, final) draft is in the hot little hands of Editor Awesome  and a contract is accepted, it’s time for the next three passes–editorial edits, line edits, and copy edits.

And while all these editorial plates are spinning away, I’m working on the next story. Which wouldn’t be terribly undoable, except for the majority of my time being dedicated to Ye Olde Evil Day Jobbe. Bills, and all that. This means in addition to wifely responsibilities, my writing time is limited and therefore thoughtfully planned out each week.

So with all these Big Rocks rolling around and me without even a tiny umbrella, it’s difficult to find the time and effort to fill the well. But it can be done. Here’s some ideas that can help sharpen the mental saw:

Keep a journal–not only can it become a personal space for working out problems, or expressing the insecurities you may be feeling. I use mine to disentangle      knotty plot problems, or to mind map my way out of tight spot. I even have a Little Black Book I keep for story ideas–one idea per page, that I had notes and possible titles to as they occur to me.

Another thing I use my journal for is for “writing down the bones”, as Natalie Goldberg puts it. It’s exhilarating to take a journal and a favorite pen somewhere and hone the artistic eye. Is that sky blue watered silk, darkening to indigo, or is it the color of your grandmother’s prize periwinkles? What does that wood bench feel like pressed under your fingertips? Can you feel the grain, really feel it? Where does that take you in your mental meanderings? As a former theatre geek, I trained a little in method acting, and this is along those same lines. Experience your surroundings. Focus on them, drink them in. Describe all five senses, six, if you can manage it. You’d be surprised how much you end up using in your writing later.

Read voraciously–This is good advice for any writer. But to truly sharpen the mental saw, it’s best to read books in genres other than one you read in all the time, or      write in. Yes, it’s always good to keep your thumb on the ol’ industry hub, but trying other genres can blow your mind wide open with new perspective. As a geek of Geeks, I grew up on fantasy and sci-fi. But rying other genres has opened me up to some of the most beautiful non-genre stories I’ve ever experienced.

Collect Quotations–The  sentiments of great people stimulate the mind. Find them, write down what hey mean to you, how they inspire you. I try to read a little Shakespeare every day.

Alright, alright. I heard half of you spit take, while the rest hared it away with heels kicking and purses swinging.

Yes, Shakespeare. The Big Cheese Playwright Guy. Here’s why: he’s the unmitigated, unchallenged master of our craft. The language of Shakespeare’s time, in addition to the iambic pentameter style, forces the reading, writerly mind to slow the heck down. As readers, we generally love it when we can bust through an entire book in one sitting because it was just that awesome. And then we run around telling everyone about it. It’s new and exciting and all full of SQUEE!!!

That’s not the point of Shakespeare. The point of Shakespeare is to savor and mull over every word. Yes, it takes patience. But it’s worth it. I recommend every writer pick up a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare and stick it right by their dictionary and thesaurus. Because that’s where it belongs. (Seriously, some of his characters’ declarations of love are swoon-worthy). Choose a phrase that particularly strikes you. Write it down. Expand on it.

Develop a  hobby–this will help you exercise a different skill set, while still keeping you mentally active. Some hobbies you can enjoy while watching TV or listening to      music. I just took up piano again, after not having an instrument for many years. I’ve always been passionate about music, but now I can really indulge in it. I’d forgotten that enjoyment, and rediscovering it has been amazing. It was filling a void I hadn’t even been aware I’d been missing  until I started playing things by ear I’d thought I’d forgotten–ten minutes out of the box. (Have I mentioned lately how amazing my husband is? No? Well he’s da awesome in da sauce. Just sayin’.)

Continue your education–This doesn’t necessarily mean going back to school, though it can. Write down some things you’ve always been interested in. Research it, find out all you can about it. Find an enrichment course or teach yourself the subject from books and subject matter experts. Train your mind to stand apart.      Keep it open and curious and thirsty for knowledge. Keep it free of misconceptions, like a child discovering the world. The day we stop learning is the day we die.

And there you have it–Sharpening the Mental Saw.  Or, as I refer to it, “filling the well”. I hope it’s given you some ideas you can utilize in your own writerly lives, fellow word wranglers.

Now. Time for that letter to Acme. And a better Road Runner trap.

Next Time–Sharpening the Spiritual Saw.


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