How to Focus Ideas through Generous Writing
It’s happened to all of us. We start writing with a crisp idea of what we want to say. As we venture into the details, however, we get lost–in the minutiae, in a sense of personal inadequacy, or in fear and shame. Maybe we simply get lost in the research, lost in everything we know about the topic and in the struggle to distill that knowledge into something finite, coherent, and comprehensible.
This is the second post in a series I’ve entitled Generous Writing (you can read the first here). Today I’m reflecting on how to build generosity into the writing process itself in a way that helps refine your focus and crystallize ideas in your work.
What to Do
When you find yourself stuck in the ennui I’ve described above, one helpful exercise is to imagine a conversation with one person in your life who is interested and curious about the topic/ sentence/ paragraph/ chapter that’s causing you grief. It could be a friend, a family member, a colleague, or a stranger you met only once but who really wanted to hear what you had to say. Ideally, this should be someone who makes you feel expansive, i.e. someone who makes you feel like you can take your time to explain things, with whom you can make some mistakes but who will still be there to listen.
For the purpose of this exercise, we’re simply imagining that conversation–real conversations are great, but not always feasible in the heat of the writing battle. Imaginary conversations force us to rely on our creativity and the power of possibility to picture how a dialog on our topic could unfold in the best possible scenario. So imagine just sitting down with that person in a warm environment, maybe with cups of cozy, steaming coffee, and talking candidly in an atmosphere of trust, curiosity, and gentle excitement–friend to friend, peer to peer, human being to human being.
What would you say to this person? How would you explain what you’re trying to say? What questions would they have–what types of questions would you hope they have? How would you respond? What is this person going through in their lives that relates to what you’re talking about? What sorts of examples would you use to connect your ideas to those experiences?
Take some notes (mentally or physically) about the imaginary conversation. Pay attention to phrases you used that you hadn’t used before. What words, terms, questions, or concerns emerged? Was there a new approach that was unlocked or a clarifying example that came to mind? Finally, consider what didn’t come up in the conversation–what isn’t necessary to say on this topic? How much explanation is too much?
And then, after the conversation is over, sit down and write. Begin in a fresh word document, Scrivener card, or Evernote note and tackle afresh whatever it is that’s been hanging you up. This time, though, write just to that one person. Write it in the hopes that it will make sense to that curious, welcoming, inquiring friend or colleague. Address that person’s questions, concerns, pain, mistakes, struggles–not everyone’s. And write what you have to say out of the hope that what you have to say will matter to this person rather than saying your piece out of defensive or fearful scrambling.
Why it Works
Silly though it may sound, imaginary conversations like this are extremely useful. They open up space in our minds where words can evolve in an environment of friendly openness. Sometimes, they’re even more effective than a regular conversation, because we don’t have to give all the context or go through the formalities of a real conversation.
Finally, talking–or imagining talking–with someone forces us into dialog rather than monologue. And dialogs have parameters built into them that monologues simply don’t. There’s a give and take, back and forth. We more naturally limit what we have to say according to our interlocutor’s needs, mannerisms, personality, or background, as well as on our particular history with that person. We often adopt different ways of speaking and explanation depending on who we’re talking to. I use a whole different set of vocabulary when talking with my former doctoral advisor, for example, than I would use with my mom or my priest or my friend’s five-year-old daughter.
In short, a dialog gets us out of the trap of trying to be everything to everyone in our writing and going off in a million different directions at once. Instead, we are invited to say something rather than everything. And to say it meaningfully, warmly, and legibly.
How it Cultivates Generosity
At first glance, this idea of pretend conversations may seem like just another writing exercise to get you unstuck. And it is.
But it’s also a way of practicing generosity in our writing. Conversations–like writing–are built on self-giving. (Note: not in an egotistical way –> “My gift to you, dear friend, is my words. You’re welcome.”) Think about it: the best conversations (real or imaginary!) happen when we take the time to be with another person and give them not only our time and energy, but our self–our unique way of seeing, explaining, and being present with things. When we open ourselves, and when they open themselves to us.
It is easy, when writing, to make it about us–our skills, our ideas, even our failures. We forget, sometimes, that we are writing for others. In my experience coaching clients (and being a writer myself), many episodes of writer’s block or standstill boil down to forgetting or disconnecting from our audience and their needs or curiosities. We approach our work as an insular monologue rather than a focused dialog.
When we sit down to write that sentence or chapter with our special person in mind, we can silently dedicate that little chunk of writing to the person whose imaginary interlocution helped move us forward. I do this a lot (though I rarely alert the people I have these fictional conversations with). Funnily enough, on more than one occasion, those people have come to me and voiced their appreciation for particular sentences or paragraphs in my writing–the precise sections I wrote for them.
If you try this suggestion, let me know how it goes!