Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Like Writing a Bike

My daughter learned to ride her bike remarkably quickly. She had a very hard time of it the first day, of course, but already on her first attempt of the second day she had found her balance. Learning to brake showed the same pattern. One day she was running into walls, or falling over, the next day she was skidding to a stop and landing her foot expertly on the pavement. Yesterday, she suddenly sat herself up on the seat and started from a complete stop. This opportunity to brag about my daughter got me thinking about how we learn things, and how we form ideas.

Here's my not very scientific theory. Felice is learning how to ride her bike (and everything else) in her sleep. She is, for lack of a better word, dreaming about it. Once she became familiar with the bike -- what it was like to sit on it, steer it, drive it forward, and even fall over on it -- she had learned all she needed to know. She needed one day to learn, "the hard way", what pushing the pedals backward could accomplish and a good night's sleep to catch up with that understanding. She had won the necessary experiences. The rest happened, if you'll allow it, subconsciously.

Hemingway said that he wrote this way. He would struggle with a text in the morning and then (this was the hard part) not think about it all the rest of the day. He trusted his subconscious to be working on the problem in the meantime, while he was free to live and observe things that he might use in his writing. But the story he was currently working on would left well in the back of his mind.

This method can be recommended to academic writers as well. Try writing at a particular time each day, gaining whatever experience this may offer, even if you don't make any notable progress. You may not hit on the exact formula you are looking for as you work, but if you try not to think about it, knowing you'll have a crack at it again tomorrow, you may loosen the knot in your sleep and untie it when you sit down to write in the morning.

There is an important rule that my daughter now no longer needs me to enforce. Always get back on yer bike when you fall off. Never stop the day's work right after getting hurt. Or, as Hemingway said, stop when you know how the story is going to continue. That can be difficult; it is tempting to keep going when you know what you are going to say. But always stop with some "juice" left. Give your subconscious something to be optimistic about.