The Craft: Learning Not to Think

[This is part of a continuing series on the craft of writing fiction.]

You know… There’s this great, great passage in The Book of Chuang Tzu. It’s about a cook, Cook Ting. [For those interested this tale is from Chapter 3 of The Book of Chuang Tzu, “The Nurturing of Life.”] His master, Lord Wen-hui sees him finishing up butchering a large ox one day and stops to admire his work.

Cook Ting is so absorbed in his task, he’s not even thinking about it. He’s just going about it naturally:

….Every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

When Lord Wen-hui asks him how he does it all so masterfully, Ting just sort of shrugs and says:

“When I first begun cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.”

There’s a big gap of time and culture between me and Ting, but I think I know what he was talking about. We’ve all been taught how to think and, furthermore, we’ve been taught that thinking is an important and good activity. And it is! But too much of a good thing is not good. “The poison is in the dose.” In fact, I’ve come to believe that one of the most important things in writing is learning NOT to think.

Let me explain…As I’ve gotten more…ahem…experience in writing, I feel “thinking” is overrated. Writing is a craft like being a woodworker, or a mason, or a cook like Ting. You have to use your intellect to figure things out, but as you get more experienced you rely on different things to get the work done. You tend to turn more often to hunches, your gut, or instinct to help feel your way through problems. You’re not sitting there and analyzing, and then over-analyzing, and then rethinking your next step. Like Ting, you’re getting out of your head, the part of your brain where you rationally analyze and weigh things and plugging into something else.

Lately, before I begin my writing day, I first try to “get into the zone.” That means, I think, I try to mentally go into a quiet place where I’m not thinking of the words I write or about plotting or characterization or tone…or anything technical. I’m just writing, experiencing the scene as you, a reader, would, but from a different vantage point. The vantage point of the writer. In fact, when the writing is really going, I am NOT thinking. I’m just getting it down (maybe the images or words in my head) as quickly as I can. It doesn’t always goes this way, but when it does, it’s a good writing day.

I have talked to other writers about this and they tend to concur that getting and staying “in the zone” is one of the greatest challenges of writing. I also feel this is a challenge in my professional (desk job) writing career as well. Only there, it’s extra challenging because non-writer colleagues (love you guys!) don’t seem to “get” how important being in the zone is. [I.e., please don’t interrupt me if I’m typing loudly with my headphones on!]

So, how does a writer get in–and stay in–the zone? Well, it’s going to be different for everyone and you’re going to have to find out what works for you. That being said here are some things I’ve found that work for THIS writer.

Ritual. That is probably the number one thing. I have dedicated time every weekend for when I write. And this is key: IT HAS TO GO DOWN THE SAME WAY EVERY TIME. At least, as much as humanly possible in the 21st century. For me, this means: waking up, having a relaxed breakfast/reading the Internet some, grabbing a simple lunch (not too heavy and no alcohol!), and then going for a short walk (10-20 minutes). Then, I make a tea (Earl Gray with milk/cream and a bit of sugar is the only real, civilized choice here, People!], grab some chocolate and sit down to write.

During my writing session, the ritual continues. My smartphone is in Airplane mode and STOWED IN ANOTHER ROOM. However, Internet is usually on on my writing laptop PC (initially I had to train myself to not make this a distraction and I’ve found it handy if I need a little impromptu research). I put on my headphones and turn on some music (it used to be instrumental only or in a foreign language, but I have trained myself to be able to listen to music with English lyrics now, too). I listen to the music for a bit and maybe read a little bit of the book I’m currently into and then I begin.

Did I mention it’s the same process every time? Well, it is. I have heard anecdotally that athletes and musicians go through similar rituals before a competition/concert. Why? I think it’s because, again, you’re plugging into a different way of thinking/doing things. Ritual causes a different part of your brain to start to take over. I’m not really thinking when I’m out walking and then making my tea and putting some chocolate next to it. And then rushing upstairs and plugging in my headphones. I’m just going through the motions, doing what I always do. It’s almost like you’re preparing (tricking?) your mind into entering this more instinctive, craft-based mode of consciousness where you will make decisions based on impulse and hunches, instead of data or facts. Non-discursive thinking. But in a positive way, unlike, say with gambling or addictive behaviors.

There is, of course, some emerging science occurring around this. I am NOT an expert here, but it seems the task is getting out of your normal way of thinking, the default mode network, and getting into another way of thinking. To me it seems like you want a calm, undistracted mind to start with. No lingering thoughts from the work day, no worries about a traffic ticket, or a bill coming due. Then, you want to almost overwhelm your mind (I mean the rational bit of it), but not too much–with music–or some other mild activity…and drive yourself into the zone.

I could write (muse?) much more extensively on this topic. But I’ll leave you with one example from my life: flamenco. Yours truly, long ago, took flamenco dancing lessons. (Sorry, I don’t think any photos survive!). Flamenco, like any great art form, has a whole philosophy and point of view associated with it. It’s ancient, it’s modern. It’s Eastern, it’s Western. It’s rigid and formal, it’s improvisational. It’s many, many things. But one of the key tenets is that performers (and by extension, audiences) should reach a state of “duende.” As my instructor had it, “duende” can be translated as “possession.” In this case, a spirit comes down and “possesses” the performer (a dancer, singer or guitarist) leading them to the heights and ultimate potentialities of flamenco. And how does one get into this trance-like state? You guessed it! By overwhelming the conscious/”default mode network” mind. In flamenco dancing you’re listening to the beat, taking in the music, doing your dance steps, moving your hands, watching your partner and responding to them. It’s too much! At a certain point, your conscious mind can’t take in, can’t process and respond to all this information. You MUST let go. But if you’re good enough and you’ve practiced enough–it’s quite natural. Something else takes over and you’re going through your steps, moving your hands, responding to your partner and the audience, but not in a rational, everyday world way. Whether you call it “duende” or “the Zone” or “going at it by Spirit” as Cook Ting would say, it’s the same thing. [BTW: This may seem like a bit of a disturbing experience for the student, but the right flamenco instructor will guide you into it gently, firmly, and circumspectly…]

So, my advice to writers out there looking to get into the Zone? Find a ritual and stick to it. Maybe consider listening to music using headphones. Find your own way into the zone. And once you’re there, forget about it. Don’t think. Follow your gut and instinct and let it happen. Let it all come down. Let the images and dialogue form in your mind, get the basics down, and just run with it. For as long as you can.

And then come back to it, week after week, day after day. Ritual and practice. Practice and ritual. That’s the key to unlearning and letting yourself go. Good luck!

See you next time and any writers out there, I would love to hear how you get “in the Zone” in the Comments.


By the way, the guy in the photo up there is Antonio Gades, a famous flamenco dancer. The most auténtico clip I was able to find of him is from the film “Ultimo Encuentro” here:

As you can see, he’s…intense and definitely had something of the duende about him. But for me the ultimate embodiment of duende will always be the guitarist Paco de Lucia. He really transports me. Just check this out:

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