Free Your Mind to Write. Smoke a Cigar.

When you have something to write, how do you start? Where? With an outline? Or a burst of notes?

I didn’t plan it this way, but a large part of my interview with Leonard Mlodinow, bestselling author of Elastic, in the Los Angeles Review of Books doesn’t talk about his book. Instead it is about his writing process.

That’s because for nearly my entire career as an editor, teacher, and writer, I have been fascinated by the different approaches that writers use.

One of the biggest challenges, and one of the reasons why so many people think writing is a painful chore, has to do with the way they’ve been taught to write.

Rather than focus on the creative side of the work, they’ve been taught to approach it practically first — generate the outline, create a list of arguments and sources — even if they don’t have a clue about this stuff when they first sit down to write.

The reason why I love the writing process — always have, always will — is because of the element of discovery. When you don’t limit yourself to a blueprint and give in to your writer’s voice, you find yourself moving into unexpected places … exciting places. That excitement creates energy, and energy takes you to even more places.

Back to my interview with Len. He absolutely hates deadlines because they smother his creative processes. When his friend and colleague Stephen Hawking, arguably the greatest physicists of the 20th century, died in March, Len had no choice. He was given a hard deadline by the New York Times, which asked him to produce a commentary piece about his friend on a ridiculously tight turnaround.

Rather than sit down and make a list of what a tribute piece should contain–Hawking’s greatest accomplishments, for instance, or his medical challenges, Len’s personal interactions with him–he avoided all of that. He did something else instead.

He just sat down and wrote. He had no plan in mind. He just wrote and wrote.

Even with a murderous deadline breathing down his neck, he sat on his balcony with a pad of paper, a pen, and a good cigar … that cigar was very important … and (to paraphrase Morpheus in The Matrix) Len freed his mind.

“I sat there, still feeling emotional, still feeling pretty raw, and I just opened up my mind and wrote whatever came to me,” he told me in our interview, “I didn’t think or judge or analyze. I just wrote.”

After he had filled several pages with various material, anecdotes, and associations, then his analytical side kicked in. It was much easier to shape and organize an article out of this raw material rather than start off with a blank page or a structured outline (which is what our teachers taught us in school).

Even then, though, it can be difficult to get started. If that is true for you, let me know. I can help. Learn more at “About Me.”

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