Aspire to a Child’s Mind

People who get into animation tend to be kids. We don’t have to grow up. But also, animators are great observers, and there’s this childlike wonder and interest in the world, the observation of little things that happen in life. ~John Lasseter~

In yoga, the beginner mind is something even advanced yogis aspire to obtain. In writing, I wouldn’t want to go back to my skills as a beginner, but finding my way back to the Child’s Mind unlocks a whole new power and perspective in writing that can find its way around any writer’s block. Ever sat and just listened to children playing? At the park, in the grocery store, in your living room? They are incredibly adaptive and of course, creative. Ever argued with a toddler? There is nothing more embarrassing, but also instructive. There is never an answer that cannot be overcome.

When kids play they instantly adapt to new events as they collaboratively tell a story.

“MY guy can fly AND shoot lasers!”

“Well my guy is laser-proof and shoots jelly that can jam up your lasers anyway!”

“Okay, well but my guy will just jump and fly out of the way and shoot the ground under you and you will drop in a hole and his jelly gun can’t reach up here now!

“Well my jelly gun is also a bubble gun and it makes me float up out of the hole…”

It never ends. Until interrupted, that is.

Photo Credit: Melissa Heiselt

This practice is exactly what a novelist must do as they consider complications leading to the climax and ultimately the resolution of the story. Problem solve, throw in a wrench, problem solve, throw in a curveball… and somehow the protagonist comes out of it all. So the next time the children in your life want to play, give it a try! It will sharpen your writing skills as well as any prompt I’ve tried.

People who get into animation tend to be kids. We don’t have to grow up. But also, animators are great observers, and there’s this childlike wonder and interest in the world, the observation of little things that happen in life.

John Lasseter

This quote from John Lasseter really applies to all storytellers; whether they be the organic, real life storytellers in our lives, or actors and illustrators, and of course, writers of all kinds. Keeping a notebook of oddities said or done or seen in the world around us is a great practice, not just for the fact that it makes sure we have this incredible storehouse of vibrant detail for our work, but primarily because it keeps this Child’s Mind alive and active in our lives. In any art, learning to see is what makes all the difference.

Icicles cling to the edge on Building 321 on the Fort Myer portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall after a winter storm Jan. 22, 2014. Icicles are only one of many potential hazards to be avoided while working in the winter weather, according to JBM-HH safety officials. (Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall PAO Photo by Rachel Larue)

Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned illustrator and animator expounds on this process in his book, Starting Point, 1979-1996:

When people speak of a beautiful sunset, do they hurriedly riffle through a book of photographs of sunsets or go in search of a sunset? No, you speak about the sunset by drawing on the many sunsets stored inside you—feelings deeply etched in the folds of your consciousness of the sunset you saw while carried on your mother’s back so long ago that the memory is nearly a dream; or the sunset-washed landscape you saw when, for the first time in your life, you were enchanted by the scene around you; or the sunsets you witnessed that were wrapped in loneliness, anguish, or warmth.

Hayao Miyazaki

So record that sunset. Thoughts, emotions, colors, everything. Even if you don’t actively sort back through those notebooks, the act and practice of writing it down teaches your mind what is worth remembering. When you write a scene someday that requires that same depth of emotion and connection, it will be there waiting in your subconscious and ready to spill out onto the page.

Sabrina Pitorre
Totoro Corto Maltese
Water Color
Hommage à Hayao Miyazaki et Hugo Pratt

The final lesson we can learn from kids? Don’t filter. Particularly in the heat of the creative process, just let it all tumble out. There is no such thing as too silly, far-fetched, or random. As an anime aficionado, that is part of what makes some stories so endearing! Let all the ideas have their say. There is always time to edit later. When you are gathering material or working your way through a timeline, write first and think later. You will be well on your way to developing the coveted Child’s Mind.

Take a Breath, Get Inspired

If you’ve found yourself in a creative slump and are coming up short on ideas, or at least any worthy of pursuit, this is the post for you! In these situations, I recommend curating a space to recharge and be inspired. Here are some essays, albums, podcasts, and more that have been getting me ramped up to create so far this year!

The Day Job series
In this essay series on Medium, writers run down the details of toiling to make ends meet while writing books in their off time. These are must reads for anyone working a day job to support a dream!

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine
“Some of us are Norman Mailer, but others of us are middle-aged Portland housewives.” Here’s an opportunity for those who can dedicate full days to creative work to try out the writing schedule of a master! Personally, I see it as both aspiration and inspiration.

Ditch Diggers – Drinks with an Agent
On the latest episode of my favorite lit-adjacent podcast, Mur Lafferty sits down and, you guessed it, has drinks with her agent, Jen Udden! I’m always up for any insights a literary agent is willing to share, and this episode does not disappoint!

Yugen Blakrok – Anima Mysterium
I read the Bandcamp Daily feature about this album and, while intrigued, I was in no way prepared for how much I’d enjoy it. It delivers on the promise of a sprawling sci-fi excursion, but it’s so much more. Tripped out, down-tempo sonic atmospheres swirl around cosmic but truthful, potent, and (just like the best sci-fi) relevant lyrics, weaving an engaging listen that I can’t stop going back to. And that closing track? Read the lyrics while listening and try not to visualize the perfect scene to kick off your next masterpiece!

So I wear this cloak of raven feathers, holding a scepter
As letters from the ether fall like rain when I rip deserts
Welcome to the land of gray
Where troubles never cease, and man’s awakening is accompanied by grief

From “Land of Gray”

Stream Anima Mysterium on Spotify or Apple Music, or buy the album on Bandcamp!

Voyage to the Stars
Here’s a completely different take on the cosmos! This new podcast with Colton Dunn, Felicia Day, Janet Varney, and Steve Berg is an interstellar comedy about a group of underdogs stumbling into unfathomable situations. Not only is it hilarious and absurd in all the best ways, but all of the dialogue is improvised! The framework of the storyline is in place, but it’s on the actors to keep it progressing and make it fun. Though it feels like a nice escape, it’s also a great study in character creation and dialogue. This is an Earwolf show, so you’ll find it on the podcast app of your choice.

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj
While the news cycle can feel inescapable, Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix show focuses more on the often obscured issues and root causes behind the big news stories. New episodes premier weekly, but due to the format you won’t feel behind if you don’t watch as soon as they drop. Minhaj is a sharp host and undeniable comic force, which alone would make for a great show, but he also manages to break down complex situations with a dose of humanity. Even if your work is not overtly sociopolitical, you will certainly benefit from the show’s fresh perspectives and investigative nature, not to mention the plethora of ideas on how to torture your characters from the governments and corporations who do it best! Check out a preview and watch on Netflix.

Low – Double Negative
This album sounds like nuclear winter. Like everything’s changed. It sounds like the last swarm of bees. It sounds like breaking down. Structures and infrastructures, industries and societies, emotions and mental faculties, all breaking down. Collapse. It sounds like the collapse. Like the Doomsday Clock melting. All precedents are annihilated and you don’t know what’s coming next. It sounds like a warp through time and space, but feels distinctly present.

Low – Double Negative

Double Negative came out last year, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard anything quite like it and it continues to bloom, each listen dusting me in a new sensation of panic or discomfort or uncertainty or serenity. While it doesn’t stray far from the slow, deliberate movements that Low has come to embody, it also takes new compositional risks and melds them with bold production to construct something larger and far more affecting than just a collection of songs. This record is nothing short of striking, and if you’re in need of something new to shake you out of old cycles, this is that something. Low has been around for over twenty-five years, so for them to create something this unique and potent at this stage is itself inspirational. If nothing else, listen and try writing a description of what you’re hearing and feeling—that’s a writing exercise in itself!
Stream it on Spotify or Apple Music, buy it on Bandcamp!

Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
Can you tell music is my go-to when I need some direction? Stranger Fruit is another release from last year, but I just can’t shake it. Zeal & Ardor is the brainchild of Manuel Gagneux, and seeks to answer an odd, genre-crunching question: what would slave spirituals sound like in the context of black metal? The answer, under Gagneux’s capable guidance, is, well … fucking incredible. While the previous two releases were eye-opening and enjoyable, Stranger Fruit is the most fully-realized yet. It’s the perfect soundtrack for you genre-hopping, interstitial types looking for new ways to blend seemingly disparate elements into something fresh, using tropes as pole vaults instead of borders.
Stream the album with your preferred service or purchase here!

Wondering why there are no books on this list? Check out my previous post, “Reading for Writing!” Additionally, I’ve found I’m too easily influenced by other writers when I’m struggling with ideas, and prefer to reach outside the medium. If you need to read to write (not uncommon!), I suggest starting outside of your preferred genres. Keep your expectations tempered and your mind open, you just might discover new ways to tell stories that you’d never considered!

Has something helped you get out of a funk recently? I want to hear about it!

(Note: We do not benefit from sharing links to purchase any of the works mentioned here, I just think they’re worth buying!)

Writing Past The Wall: A Guide to Beating Writer’s Block by Melissa Heiselt

It has begun. You are neck-deep into NaNoWriMo, or a writing project with a looming deadline, or your own creative baby. And it has come to an abrupt halt. Suddenly the ideas just won’t come. You aren’t sure what comes next or why you are even doing this anymore. Every. Word. Is. Wrong. Welcome to The Wall. Let’s discuss how to navigate around that sucker.

Embrace the Mess

I agree 100% with Malcolm Gladwell’s assessment that creative people have messy brains. It’s not just a matter of disorganization; many of us are actually painfully well organized. It’s just that we recognize that every experience can be useful, so we don’t throw anything out. Our minds are overly full, spilling over the boundaries of categorization. The problems arise when we try to pre-edit before that glorious mess comes out on paper. Embrace that mess. Learn the value of a good edit. Which comes later. Know that if it winds up even messier than you had planned, you can always hire a good editor to help you sort it out. Your job at the creative stage is just to see what might happen. What could happen. Scott Barry Kauffman, author of The Psychology of Creative Writing, claims the secret past the notorious writer’s block is in allowing for error, and realizing how non-linear writing can be.

Write Something Else

Prolific writer Graham Greene found that keeping a dream journal was his solution. It allowed him to be completely free of all compulsion to judge the work he was writing. It just was. He was merely the recorder. And everything could happen. Not much of a lucid dreamer? Try another writing exercise to get you going. Imitate another author’s work. Re-write your day the way you wish it had happened. Embrace your inner poet. Take another character’s point of view. Write their backstory, or the backstory of a totally minor side character, and have fun with it. It’s not going into the final product, so don’t worry about it being “right.” My favorite part of this strategy is that I can convince myself I am working on the project. Because it all matters. Even if those pages don’t wind up in the final piece, you as author knowing these details will enable them to emerge in meaningful ways throughout the text. Side trails do not make you less productive. They are an important part of the creative process!

Switch Gears

A routine helps ensure you are making room in your life for creativity and progress in your work. But it can also start to make you dread that 5:00 hour, or whenever you begin writing. Switch it up. Wake up early. Take your work outside. Read out loud. Write with pencil and paper for a bit. Beyond that, get up and MOVE. Literally get a fresh perspective. A Stanford study showed an 81 percent increase in divergent thinking in participants who went for walks. Science doesn’t lie, friends. I’ve also found it helps to go make something totally unrelated. Pottery. Cookies. Paper crafts. Bookshelves. Giving your brain a much-needed break to creatively solve other problems while allowing the story to marinate in your subconscious can create delicious results.

Allow for Distractions

Is there another project taking up brain-space just waiting for you? Tackle it. Do the laundry. Answer emails. Get some holiday shopping done. Get it out of the way so you can relax into the more creative work on your docket. Clear out those distractions. Setting a timer is a great tool for free-writing, but it’s also great for giving room to those nagging projects begging to be an interruption. Give yourself 20 minutes to tidy up the office, or make a phone call. Accomplishing something so visible and refreshingly complete feels fantastic when you’re in the middle of a beast.

Self Care

NaNoWriMo, huh? So… how much sleep have you been getting? Despite the urgency of the task, your brain is dependent on the rest of your body getting everything it needs for survival to function at its best. Make sure you are getting a reasonable amount of sleep. Take a nap, if you need it. Set a goal to drink at least 8 cups of water a day. Get some exercise. Running is known to release endorphins and help with memory and cognition. Run on a nature trail if you really want to break out of writer’s block jail. That combo of endorphins and stress relief found in the great out of doors is like dynamite to those walls hemming in your creativity. One 2012 study found that people who spend significant time in the wild increase their ability to solve creative puzzles by 47%. Finally, listen to your grandmother. Choose healthy foods. When you eat well, you feel well.

Hitting that wall can be a daunting experience, but with the right mindset, it can actually lead you down paths you would have otherwise left unexplored. Embrace the mess. Write, walk, and work your way around it. Take care of yourself, and carry on. You’ve got this.