Soap gets in your eyes

[November 2013] Many years ago, when I was a full-time software developer, I was also an avid bicyclist. My programming partner and I would work until mid-afternoon, take a break, go for a 15-mile bike ride, go back to the office and work until the early evening. It was a way of getting some exercise, but also a way of freeing up my mind to tackle programming problems. Cycling required very little of my attention, so my mind was free to wander. To look at problems in different ways and to come up with (sometimes) elegant ways to code algorithms.

According to the legend, when Stephen King was a university student he approached the editor at the Maine Campus to say he’d like to write a column for the paper. The editor said fine, but it has to be in by noon on Wednesday and it has to fit in this amount of space. The first week, 11:30 came and went, 11:35, 11:40. Steve wandered in at 11:45, grabbed a sheet of paper, stuck it in the typewriter (see Wikipedia if you don’t know what that is!) and reeled off a near-flawless article that fit the allotted space. This process was repeated week after week.

In a recently uncovered interview from 1982, the newspaper editor expands on this story. He didn’t believe that King composed the article on the spot. King, he said, wrote the article in his head during the week, refining and improving upon it until it was ready to be set down on paper. This jibes with the stories King has told about how he tells himself stories as he goes to sleep, recounting a little more each night until he reaches a point where he’s ready to start writing it down.

I do some of my best writing in the shower or on the elliptical trainer, far from a keyboard or notepad. This part of the process isn’t about putting words together to create sentences—that comes later. It’s about solving story problems and advancing the plot. The morning I wrote this essay, for example, I was stumped by my work in progress. I dawdled and procrastinated until the end of my writing session without accomplishing anything. Then I got on the elliptical trainer in the room next door, put on my iPod and proceeded to ignore the music. I thought I had written myself into a corner but over the course of the next 30 minutes, I was able to test out, reject and expand upon various ideas.

It was a non-linear process. I didn’t think “and then this happens, and then this,” I visualized the scene and the characters and listened to what they wanted to say. Sometimes I went back in time to figure out how they got to that point. By the end of the session, I had it all mapped out, more or less. I went back to my office and jotted down about 100 words to record the impressions I wanted to invoke the following morning when I returned to my computer. So, in one sense my day’s work amounted to 100 disjointed words. However, I’m quite happy with the results because I now know the story and tomorrow I should be able to set it down.

Then I got in the shower and thought about the process and came up with the idea for this essay. It would be fair to say that this essay was written in the shower (even though the words were entered into WordPress many hours later). I hope I didn’t get any soap in your eyes.

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