A Writing Paradox

image of open notebook with pen

JD Fox on starting a writing conversation

One of the best ways to think of something to write is to write.

You may be familiar with this scenario:

Teacher: Okay, class, today I want you to spend five minutes freewriting.

Student: But teacher, I can’t think of anything to write.

Teacher: Then write about not being able to think of anything to write.

Student (starting to write and grumbling): I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write…

Ideally, sometime before the five minutes are up, the student will go on to write about something that spontaneously occurs to them and run with it.

You may also be familiar with some riff or another about why such advice works: the mind likes to busy itself with thinking and frequently will go on wonderfully serendipitous tangents regardless of our starting-place thoughts.

But I’d like to explain it a different way here, one that might make it seem less like tricking your mind into being creative and more like simply leveraging one of the ways our minds work.

To do that, I’m going to first step away from the act of writing and ask a question:

What is your favorite band and why?

Now that you’re thinking about that band, I’ll ask another question:

Were you thinking about the band before I asked you the question?

Chances are my original question prompted the thought and subsequent answer. If we continued from that point, your answer would generate more questions from me. Or maybe encourage me to comment on my own favorite band. Either way, my response would likely generate additional thoughts and responses from you followed by responses from me and so on…

In common talk, we’d be having a conversation.

Writing is a conversation with yourself.

Sure, you can plan out what you’re going to say or write, but so much of the true substance of both comes out only after you become engaged in the act itself. Beyond being a gifted wordsmith inspired by God or a legendary raconteur born with inherent eloquence, there’s no other way than to simply start typing—or start talking—and see where it leads.

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