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Don’t work hard, work soft

I love the term “soft eyes”. I first came across it in The Wire (“Refugees”, Episode 4, Season 4) and it has stayed with me since.

Det. Kima Greggs and her soft eyes, as seen in “The Wire”. Image:

In that episode, new arrival to the Homicide department Detective Kima Greggs is sent to her first crime scene. An experienced colleague advises her to use “soft eyes” – that is, to take a wide overview of the scene and let intuition and the subconscious come into play in order to spot things and make connections.

Getting bogged down or stuck in details is a problem shared not just by writers, or even creative types in general, but by anyone with a creative aspect to their work.

I am currently in the early stages of writing one of the stories in my work-in-progress short story collection. I had been floundering around for a few days, trying to work out the finer details of certain scenes.

Then I remembered about soft eyes. I zoomed out in my mind’s eye, brought the scenes into soft focus, and let my mind do its thing for a while.

Mentally, this process (or some variant of it) is what happens when you put on your soft eyes. Physically, you can help soft eyes happen if you sit back, close or half-close your eyes, do some slow breathing or shoulder rolls – anything that you find relaxing.

Linda Formichelli discussed a similar idea the other day on her blog The Renegade Writer. In a post titled “Are you pushing away ideas – and work – by trying too hard?”, Linda’s main points are:

  • Focus on the input, not the output: it’s easy to get caught up in producing output, but you need to feed your creativity by absorbing other material.
  • Go wide, not deep: this is the idea I mentioned above of not drilling narrowly into details at the expense of the bigger picture. As Linda says, this is intended to be an easy, relaxed process: “Just take [ideas] in and let your subconscious do the work.”
  • Be playful: anyone who is familiar with the techniques of Mindfulness will know this as a creativity-enhancing technique called “habit releasers”. Brush your teeth with the other hand, or go to the cinema and see a movie at random rather than planning and booking ahead. The idea is to get your mind “unstuck”.

These techniques also tie in with some good advice I have heard from Nuala Ní Chonchúir in her short story workshops: don’t get tied up too much with plot. Instead, just get writing, and plot will emerge. This to me is a related idea, as it too focuses on relaxing and trusting the subconscious.

Try it! And after you do, post a comment below. I’d love to hear how “soft eyes” works for you.

Tapping into creativity for writers (you will need: Lego)

Who would have thought that tidying up some Lego would help with structuring a story?

I constantly have to keep in mind that writing time is for writing only and not other tasks, no matter how strong the temptation. Mostly, I am fairly successful at walking airily past household messes and sitting down at my desk to write.

One concession I sometimes allow myself is to do a quick tidy of the room I work in – after all, it is part writing den, part children’s play room. (The two parts are separated by room dividers from Woody’s – highly recommended if you share a writing space.)

So this morning I was in the play room / writing room, on my hands and knees (what a way to start the writing day), picking up Lego and mulling over the short story that I had started yesterday. I had most of the components of the story in my head: main character, secondary character, a strong visual image, and setting.

Some elements in the story are a little out of the ordinary, and I was stuck for “something” that would tie together all the pieces in a plausible way. I was beginning to get quite grumpy about being stuck and was wondering if I should just park the whole story.

As I tidied, an idea struck me and I began playing with a few of the pieces of Lego.

I selected a single yellow piece and put it on the kids’ play table. This was my main character – the component around which everything else in the story is built.

Then I took a bigger, blue piece. This is the story’s central visual image. It is strong in both size and appearance, like the image I have in mind. I placed this piece beside the yellow one, but not attached to it, just as the components of my story were disjointed at that point.

Next, I added a purple piece to the ensemble. This was the secondary character. I was really getting into the Lego-as-symbol thing at this stage, so I stuck this piece on top of the original yellow piece, but only partially, to show that the secondary character is only loosely connected to the main character at this point.

By now my Lego creation was looking like a bit of a mess, just like the story. (If I were someone like Tracey Emin, at this point I would probably throw something sticky at it before placing it in an exhibition and charging people money to look at it.) Something was definitely missing.

Then it hit me. My story needed another narrative layer to tie it all together. In other words, another character who would narrate the story as told to him or her. I remembered Wuthering Heights and how Charlotte Brontë famously used multiple narrators to make the book’s wildly romantic, sometimes fantastical characters and events plausible and believable to the reader.

I chose two long red Lego piece as my supporting, super-narrative layer and attached the existing structure to the top of it. The red pieces now supported everything else and connected it all together.

I have now started translating my Lego “creation” into words  – that is, creating my additional narrative layer. This does raise questions about having too many characters, which can weigh down a short story. However, I am inspired (again) by Raymond Carver’s story “Fat”. This story’s main character tells her story to a friend over coffee, which is a variation of the technique; the reader hears the story as told to a third party.

The creativity that I was able to tap into by playing with the Lego led me to this solution. Techniques for tapping into creativity are something I have toyed with in the past but never devoted much attention to. I may re-visit them now.

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