My five-year-old loves asking me to make up a name of an animal that doesn't exist, something like an orangashark or a poopapotmus. Then, without missing a beat, he'll describe in great detail the physical attributes, dietary needs, and mating habits of the rare and deadly poopapotmus.
You ask your average adult to make up an encyclopedia entry for an as-yet-unheard-of creature and he'll sputter, cough, and say he can't think of anything.
Of course, that's a lie.
There're over eighty billion synapses firing across our brains every second. We are, quite literally, always thinking of something -- billions of somethings.
So what's the difference between the five-year-old and the 35-year-old?
Somewhere around the age of puberty we develop a sense of judgment. It's like a little bar bouncer in our brain has set to patting down each thought to see if it's safe enough to be let out into the world. Most are not.
Judgment is not a bad thing. My five-year-old is much more apt to run naked through our yard - or a Target - than I am. I'm usually socially acceptable thanks to the Bouncer in my brain, saying, "Hey buddy, keep the pants on."
As a writer I use judgment in my editing and revising. It's an essential tool for sharpening sentences, condensing paragraphs, and focusing themes. Let the Bouncer kick your darlings to the curb.
But when I'm facing that blank screen, I don't need the Bouncer slapping down every other idea. When I'm judging each sentence as I write it, I'm creating an unsafe space for ideas. If I was an idea and I saw that Bouncer, I'd stay the hell away too. I'd hide out in the back of the brain and let the safe, unthreatening, sure-to-please ideas cut to the front of the line.
But I want those ideas from the back of my brain. So I make a mental practice of giving the Bouncer the night off and opening the door wide. I don't just allow the ideas in, I welcome them with backslaps and cheers. And when word gets out that the gate is unwatched, ideas, memories, and images start strolling in. Including all those low-lifes the Bouncer kept out -- the clichés, the wrong turns, and the clumsy sentences. It's a messy party, but memorable and unexpected things happen at messy parties. I don't care if the ideas are good or bad -- I can decide that later -- I want them all.
The silly ideas, the surprising ideas, the ones so immature or lust-driven or naive or disturbing or even hateful that they would never dare step forward if the Bouncer were on duty. I need the dangerous ideas, the ones that scare me. The ones that sneak out at night when I'm dreaming and make me fly or kill or screw with sweat-breaking verisimilitude.
I'm grateful that for hours of the day those images and thoughts are kept at bay allowing me to eat dinner with my friends, drive my kids to school, edit my work. I don't need to be standing in the storm all day long, so I appreciate the umbrella. But as a writer, you must be able to put that umbrella away and let the rain fall hard.
This is not the dismissal of craft. You've studied, you've read, you've developed your craft. Now stop thinking about it and write. Let all you've learned sink below the surface, and allow the uninhibited muck and life float to the top. Craft is primarily control. But creation needs some chaos. It's the magic non-thinking of dance, improv, jazz, love-making, play.
Get alone with your page and invite the thoughts you won't let yourself think. Write with the freedom of knowing this draft need never been read, like Anne Lamott's Shitty First Drafts and Stephen King's Closed-Door Drafts.
Write like a drunk child. Humiliate yourself over and over. Scribble secrets you've never told anyone, scribble secrets you've never told yourself. Confess, lie, sing, babble, keep your fingers typing even when your words make no sense. Surprise your page, offend your page, amaze your page. Revel in the heat, the mess, the mistakes, and grin like a madman at the outright word-snap miracles coming to life.
Then press save.
You can revise tomorrow.