Sunday, January 24, 2010

Snap decisions

My, that was an embarrassing pause. Sorry, I was addicted to reading.

I may have mentioned on here from time to time that I'm a big hobbyist photographer. (Here's my flickr.) One thing I enjoy about this pastime is the opportunity for--indeed, the necessity of--making quick decisions and acting on them without forethought. When you see something interesting, you have to react immediately to get the picture, and nothing really compares to the excitement of making something out of nothing in little more than an instant.

Writing a novel would seem, upon casual examination, to be the exact opposite--the product of long consideration, revision, and reimagination. But when I think about it, that isn't really so. I don't know how it is for all of you, but for me, when I'm writing at a good clip, I'm not thinking about anything at all. I'm making snap decisions and following them wherever they take me. If I have one particular strength as a writer, it's that I'm hooked on that feeling--of coming up with something and just going for it like a madman.

Of course, a lot of this stuff turns out to be gobbledygook, and eventually has to be deleted. But the best parts of my books, I think, have always been the things I've done with the least forethought. And the lion's share of work on a novel consists of supporting these sections and making them work together--not making up new stuff that's better than them.

I think that, when you practice something, what you're really doing is honing your instincts. We often find, in work and in life, that we spend days, weeks, months, debating in our minds things that we really decided in about a second back when the problem first presented itself. (I fell for Rhian after glancing at her at a picnic--maybe we should have just gotten married that afternoon?) And maturing as an artist, and as a person, is a process of learning to trust the instincts you've honed.

Maybe writer's block happens when you lose faith in your instincts. Here's hoping it doesn't afflict me this year. Or photographer's block, for that matter. Or, heaven forefend, marriage block.

11 comments:

Sung said...

You must be a subscriber of Malcolm Gladwell's "blink" theory. I think this also explains your prolific output -- that you do have the ability (a gift!) to riff on something off the cuff and go with it. Though it doesn't happen often with me, I know what you mean. The best parts of my writing are the sections that, when I look back, I think to myself, "Where did that come from?" It takes courage to keep going when this new path emerges; it's something I need to cultivate.

How do you like your Panasonic GF1, by the way (on your Flickr profile, it's one of the cameras you've listed)? When the micro four-thirds dip below $500, I'm gonna get me one. I bet I'll probably need to wait like 2-3 years...

jrlennon said...

I really like the GF1! Finally a thing that takes awesome pictures that you can carry in your jacket pocket all day long. You can also graft pretty much any lens ever made, for any camera, onto it--big fun for a nerd like me.

As for the "blink" theory...it has its pitfalls, the most important of which is overconfidence. If a writer digs snap decisions, he runs the risk of accepting too much of his work as good enough--and that is indeed my problem.

christianbauman said...

Oh yeah, and a good example, too, because it would seem you and I, JRL, couldn't be more different writers, based on work habit and output volume. But what you described is exactly what I feel when the going is good. In my case, it tenfd to be between 5 and 7 am, if and when it happens. It's as if a pump has been primed. The mechanical is pushing and pushing...and then the spinning gears disconnect from the mechanical and spin on their own. Thinking is absent, and decisions are made by the lizard brain. As with you, these sections don't always survive, but when they do, they tend to be the best parts of my books.

AC said...

When you say "any lens", does that include lenses for both film and digital?

And I've often thought I should have just married my husband the first time he asked (when I was 19) rather than the second (when I was 25).

jrlennon said...

Yeah, just about any lens ever made. The digital ones probably won't autofocus, though.

jon said...

yes, the stuff that just pops into your head, that you don't plan or decide about is the best. what i've noticed is, that over time, i can do more and more that way. it used to be i'd get on these riffs and then, later, realize i was trying to construct a novel around them, and having to re-write a lot to make the story work. but eventually, what i was spontaneously spieling out, was the story itself, so I can go back and there is something to work with that doesn't require re-doing the whole. if it weren't for the spontaneous writing, i would feel paralyzed and bored.

jrlennon said...

I think we're programmed to feel as though stuff that seems to come "easily" isn't "real work," and that we have to do the "real work" to buttress it. Sometimes this is correct of course. But at least as often this kind of thinking can lead to terminal doubt.

jon said...

it's the relationship between practicing scales and then improvising i suppose. and you play enough music, eventually you have this vocabulary of riffs and melodies and just plain stuff available.

Nancy said...

lovely entry.

when I take photos, it feels like my internal compass is working. don't recall thinking much in particular.

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