Note to Self: Don’t Think Too Much

You ever have one of those problems you just can’t solve? A riddle you just can’t work out?

Here’s a tip: stop thinking about it and do something physical to get your mind off it. Go for a walk, take a run or hit the treadmill.

Where the best ideas come from?

I’m suggesting this from experience. I’ve been thinking off and on about a flash fiction piece I want to write. I’ve really, really been struggling over what the title should be. Things have flashed before my mind, popped in there, but each time I was dissatisfied. So, I tried to attack the problem. That didn’t work either. Nothing seemed to feel right.

So, today, there I was on the bike at the gym. Not thinking about the title, not thinking about the flash fiction piece and Bam! It just popped in there. Out of nowhere, the perfect title came to me. The title that summarizes the piece and sets the tone at the same time. It’s all you could ever want in a title. 

I kept turning the title over and over in my head as I worked out. And, when I was done with the workout, I fired up the my cell phone and tapped down the title. Done.

So, next time you’re stuck with a thorny logical problem in writing (a need for a title, a plot problem, a scientific realism issue for you SciFi  writers), do these two things:

  • Stop thinking about it.
  • Do something physical.

Often times, your problem will suddenly and violently solve itself.

A favorite song of mine was also playing at the time the title suddenly popped into my head and this may have had something to do with it as well. I’m not sure, but I’m adding that point just in case it did. And who knows? Maybe that song helped push down the conscious mind even more, allowing the great idea to emerge.

Mendeleev's_1869_periodic_tablePerhaps the most famous account of a huge breakthrough that came while its creator  WAS NOT thinking about anything—in fact, wasn’t even conscious—is Dmitry Mendeleev‘s dream about the periodic table.

Having reached the highest level of nervous exhaustion, he was compelled to lie down for a while, and fell asleep at once. “I saw a table, where the elements were arranged in perfect order. I woke up and put it down at once on a piece of paper. Only later I revised one point.”

Apparently, there is some dispute as to whether this was true or something that Mendeleev made up. The book, The Elements: A Very Short Introduction by Philip Ball, also has an account of the dream. I highly recommend the book for that scene and as a good book overall.

I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth about that historical incident. We basically have only Mendeleev’s word to go on, so you can believe him or not. But with my latest experience, I have to say the unconscious can be a great help in solving the seemingly insoluble. Also, certain resonances between my experience (albeit on a much smaller stage) and Mendeleev’s—such as struggling day after day with a problem and then finally unplugging the conscious mind and having an answer that “just popped in there”…gives weight to his story. 

“It just popped in there.”

PS: This week at work we had training which included a course called “Creativity and Innovation.” Oh, the irony hung thick. A creator sitting through a course on creativity…if they only knew! Anyway, the instructor asked the students how they came across good ideas in their everyday life. The top two answers were:

1. At the gym.

2. While sleeping.

Other answers included ‘running’ or other unrelated physical activities. I think the underlying theme is that you have to give your conscious mind a break, let the problem fall into the subconscious either by taking a nap or exercising—and let your subconscious take a whack at it. And according to the instructor, you should keep a notepad or cellphone handy to jot down your idea. I couldn’t agree more. There have been times when I’ve got a particularly strong idea and literally walked off the gym floor, opened my locker and grabbed by phone and wrote an idea down in my notes App. I almost always have my phone with me and I’m ready to capture any idea that comes up anytime. 

One final data point: I had been troubled by the main character for a long piece I’ve been thinking about for some time now. Earlier this week, I woke up extra early for a medical appointment (we’re talking 5 a.m.). I was sitting on the couch, munching my cereal like a zombie and suddenly I had it: that character’s main motivation, the thing that made him tick, that drove all his actions. It was perfect. Well, earlier today, I inputted that into my notes for the novel. Another anecdote that supports Mendeleev’s story that sleep or dreams can suddenly solve a problem your conscious mind has struggled with for months.

In a running tally, I count the score as 1 for sleep and 1 for exercise. Both are great sources for problem-solving.

That’s all for today. Until next time, don’t forget to stop thinking, hit the gym or take a nap. And don’t forget your notepad. There’s no telling when a good idea will  pop up.

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