Thinking About Stories

As writers and storytellers, we spend a great deal of time in our own heads. We’re like tigers pacing the inside of our cages, or madmen pinballing between the walls of our padded room. We do so much work in our own mental head-caves, trying to create light and meaning out of the darkness, and nobody really talks about that. A lot of people online talk about writing — myself among them, of course — but it’s not very often I see talk devoted toward all the goddamn thinking we do.

It occurs to me now that it’s a damn worthy topic.

Shit, long before you start banging out an outline or a treatment, long before you start barfing up ink on the page or the screen, you sit and… well, you let the story tumble around inside your head. Characters. Plot. Odd ideas that don’t play together (yet). Metaphors that live in the space between sizzling spark plug synapses. The storyteller’s internal psychic life is the life is a little kid, right? It’s like your brain is a child. Bringing toys together, seeing which ones play well together, seeing which ones literally fit together. LEGO and GI Joe and some Silly Putty and a cheap plastic unicorn and Mommy’s hairbrush and Daddy’s Browning Buck Mark .22. target pistol and a roll of duct tape and so on and so forth.

But nobody really tells you how to do that.

Now, the easy argument — and this is true to a point — is that nobody can tell you how to think. You already know how to do that. And you can never really know how anybody else thinks because you’ll never really be inside their head (unless you have some bizarre-o psychic ability, which is why I wear a tinfoil top hat just in case ha ha ha foiled you, get it, foiled you? shut up). Just the same, I think it’s worth talking about what goes on upstairs. How you do it. How you can do it better, or at least differently.

So, I’m going to start a series of short(er) blog posts here at Ye Olde Websyte, thinking about thinking, talking about thinking, and thinking about talking about thinking. Or something. I just got a nosebleed.

Let’s start today about how you prime yourself for all that thinkery-doo.

I mean, the great thing about being a storyteller is you carry around atop your shoulders a space that is equal parts bookstore and theater and video game console and evolving drug trip on exotic hallucinogens. Right? It’s why we’re never really bored. Because whether we’re sitting at the DMV or waiting in line at the bank or sitting on Death Row for our inevitable execution, we have a big story-machine betwixt our ears.

But just the same, you can, I think, foster and encourage your brain to do what it needs to do.

The easiest thing is to perform tasks — Think-Time Tasks — where you find your mind more easily wanders afield. Right? Ideally such tasks are places that bring with them a sense of rote maneuvering, of routine, offering something almost like sensory deprivation. Mowing the lawn. Taking a walk. Taking a shower. Methodically dismembering a corpse you stole from the graveyard. Activities that allow you to… zone out, to retreat comfortably into your own head. The bank line, the DMV, those are less comfortable retreats because, well, they’re shitty. The DMV is a Sisyphean hell-mountain. The bank is dull droll doldroms (say that 5,782 times fast). But actions you choose, actions in which you find comfort, those open the doors to perception without you having to jimmy the lock.

You also have as an option certain… chemical enhancements. Caffeine does wonders for getting the old synapses to fire. Maybe a little chocolate here and there. And, of course, there’s the idea that a little bit of alcohol can help foment your creativity (from this article: “Sudden, intuitive insights into tricky word-association problems occurred more frequently when men were intoxicated but not legally drunk…” and “A moderate alcoholic high loosens a person’s focus of attention, making it easier to find connections among remotely related ideas…”). You could also quaff some hallucinogenic potion and battle the Monkey King for supremacy over his golden pile of dung, but that might be taking it a mile too far.

Also: you can set your brain like a slow-cooker. No, really. Throw in some ideas and questions — like so many chopped onions and carrots and hunks of raw meat — and then go to bed. Don’t try to think about it. Do something else. Let your brain wander elsewhere. In the morning, you might be surprised to find the simmering pot that is your brainpan now contains a delicious umami broth of insight and possibility where before you had only the raw ingredients.

So, the question for this first “thinking about stories” post is — how do you foster and encourage your brain to do the weird mental loop-de-loops necessary to noodle on stories?

What’s your secret?