When the Tough Get Napping

In nearly every book I write, I struggle with one question: What is keeping the couple apart? What? What? WHAT? Often, I write half the book (the falling in love half), and then I hold my nose and jump, praying that my subconscious will catch me….

And usually, it’s a long way down.

What I need is a breakthrough, a new thought that has never occurred to me before, and has quite possibly never occurred to anybody. I have no idea when the new thought will pop up, no idea what it will look like. What I do know is that I can’t force it to appear. Creative problem-solving–which drives forward everything from education, to science, to public policy, to international relations–is not taught to us in school. We seldom see it modeled, but we live the results every time we pick up a well written book, drive a well made car, use a prescription drug, or pull a relationship through a knothole.

Fortunately, some people smarter than I am have focused on breakthrough thinking, and what makes it more likely to happen. The Net and the Butterfly, a lovely book summarized by the authors in this video, gives us a few clues about how to approach sticky mental problems.

First, get plenty of rest. Great work goes on in the brain when we sleep, combining what we know with what we need to figure out. Second, get plenty of new mental stimulation–read widely, talk to a few well chosen strangers, walk a mile in new surrounds or in somebody else’s shoes. Wear different clothes, try different foods. Novelty, variety and creativity are great bedfellows.

Third, foster hobbies that absorb you in ways your work routine doesn’t–read, crochet, go fishing, take a stroll (scientists apparently favor this one)–find things to do that give your mind a chew toy without taking up all your mental capacity.

In short, we are most likely to make breakthroughs with difficult problems when we… play. Goof off, follow rabbit trails, indulge an impulse, commit a random act of kindness, read a new author in a new genre, and relax enough to enjoy the frolics anddetours.

So I do this, and the answers come–eventually–but it makes me aware of the societal forces I battle because breakthrough thinking is critical to my livelihood. When as a society, we need creativity and insight the most, we’re busy working one of the longest work weeks in the developed world, taking the fewest vacation days, going short of sleep, and holding down multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Maybe we’d all be better off we built recess into every day, no matter who we are or what our calling is.

How do you build in mind-wandering time? How do you vary your routine or take small risks in the name of bolstering your creativity and problem-solving abilities? Or have you devised a different approach to solving the thorny problems? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Marquesses at the Masquerade.



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14 comments on “When the Tough Get Napping

  1. Again Grace your blog this week makes me think of how I problem solve or ‘re think situations that need to be tackled within my orbit(family friends neighbours strangers.I have been fully retired now for three years and have found that since then I find it easier to steer through the sticky problems,the reason for this I think is_1,I sleep better2,less stress 3,I have more time 4,I observe people around me more and can identify their problems and perhaps offer help. 5 ,In other words I see more and I listen.6,I have a way to be useful and helpful in my old age that gives me satisfaction.7,I worry less about things that used to wind me up.8,I try new things clothes,foods,holidays.9,I give myself some challenges like quizzes ,puzzles and games also sometimes I do something silly just for a laugh and make a fool of myself.10,I make myself try and take on board the saying HAVE FAiTH IN YOURSELF this usually works or GIVE IT TIME.We all have our way of getting there eventually.Loved your latest book.

    • I’m getting better about the “give it time,” strategy. This is one of the reasons I keep several projects going at once–so I can put this one on pause, and take up that one. I’m less anxious when I feel productive, but putting any old words on the page isn’t enough. They have to be GOOD words.

  2. I write a weekly blog/column for my professional society’s website. I usually base those 700 (or so) words on emails I get but sometimes I write a rant or something near a dear to me or…??????

    When I agreed to write the blog, I had no idea how difficult it would be to carve out time every week to, not write it, but THINK about what to write. So, every morning I stare into space at the breakfast table (as many days a week as I can). I pour a cuppa, rev up the (physical)daily newspaper to be read with the cuppa, and read, then stare. I have been able to focus (first, I gather, then focus)my thoughts enough to have missed only one week (the website was experiencing some technical difficulties).

    My weekly piece appears on Thursdays and usually I sit down on Monday nights after dinner to write it. I answer questions about rehearsal etiquette or interpersonal issues within the rehearsal/concert structure….doen’t sounds that interesting but boy, do I get letters! Tomorrow I’ll be writing about choral cults (and there are some choice stories)and have been thinking that about since I submitted my last blog.

    I think I’ve been doing the “getting enough sleep, and changing things up then doing something interesting I love” stuff too, without knowing it’s supposed to be good. Makes sense. Sometimes we creative-types need help.

    Enjoyed your Marquess…I read it on Kindle but would love that print copy!

    • That screensaver-mode time, staring into space, is important to me. I have often figured out book stuff or blog stuff while driving the 25 miles to or from the office. I’d had the same commute for 25 years, and am familiar with all variations on the route. It’s good thinking time now.

      I’m also better at “new words” first thing in the day. I occasionally get a blast of creativity after dark, but not often. I need the alpha-waves of early morning.

      And I bet choral leadership is well worth blogging about. Any volunteer organization is prone to certain dynamics, and that’s before you toss in all the creativity and performance issues.

  3. I often found that if I just give myself time to mull things over (often at least overnight) another thought will appear. Perhaps not the solution, but an action that will get me closer to the solution. Sometimes the solution is not to do anything at all – tho that wouldn’t work for your writing – you need to find a reasonable path for your characters.

  4. My day to day doesn’t require much creativity, although I admire those who bring it to repetitive, mundane tasks.

    I spent a day in an abaya in my small town before 9/11 and found it enlightening. Mine is quite comfortable.

    I do look after my sleep. I’ve been told I think outside the box, but I’ve never been very good at seeing it. You do manage to come up with some eminently readable, practical solutions for your people, where some resort to what I call the deus ex machina finale. I like those, too, but it isn’t as satisfying.

    • Thanks for the compliment. If you only knew how much fretting and discarding of possibilities go into those resolutions…. All the novel writing coaches tell us not to go with the first, second, or third solutions we think up. Those are predictable, and readers don’t want the predictable… I’ve wondered how many terrific endings were discarded in favor of some goofy DEM “twist” that well, yes, the readers weren’t expecting, because it’s not a good fit with the story. Options A or B would have been much better, but the author didn’t trust her instincts.

  5. So there is a book called The Artist’s Way by: Julia Cameron. My girlfriend did a 12 week workshop at her house. The emphasis was on play. I got a hula hoop. I went to the Museum. I would have play dates with myself. I wrote 6 poems. Another gentlemen did some beautiful photography. But the workshop emphasized the importance of adults playing which is something we have lost.

    • That book is cited in many courses on creativity. I found the book–oddly–pedantic, but the message entirely worthwhile. We must frolic! And were in society is there any support for such a notion? Children are begrudged recess in many jurisdictions, and I had one-coworker who pretended to smoke just so she could hang out on the loading dock twice a day.

  6. Until a couple of years ago I stayed at home for about 30 yrs. (I worked full time for 15 years previous to that. I got a part-time job (partly out of necessity). I’ve gone from being home almost every day to never being home. While not working I found that I spent way too much time worrying about everything. I now work, spend time with my mom in assisted living, babysit my grandchild and still find time for family, friends and games. I don’t have time to worry about everything. It’s amazing how many things never happen or solve themselves. The more I worry about something the worse it seems to be. By just going with the flow, I find solutions just seem to work themselves out. Just living life and not worrying about it seems to work for me.

    • There’s a lot to be said for keeping busy as a antidote to many ills. Not only are you occupied mentally, but you’re reminded every day that you can get up and DO stuff, make a difference, organize your time, and take charge if not of THE world, of YOUR world.

      But you do sound busy!

  7. My mind wandering happens frequently as I consider myself a ‘dreamer’. When I have evenings to waste time I will start looking into other areas. I am passionate about traveling so I find myself looking at places to travel, things to do and even places that I may like to live. I can search real estate for prices and even look at pictures of houses for ideas and inspiration. Maps and reviews of surrounding restaurants, parks, activities are included. My bucket list is a mile long travel list and for every place I mark off there are several more added. The world is full of amazing places and I would love to see them all. I once again spend time reading through travel books, online blogs and travel sites searching for a new place to travel and planning a new adventure. I may or may not actually get to make the trip but I definitely have a list of ideas if I do go. All this searching, although done on my phone most days, gives me inspiration, hope and dreams for an adventurous, full life.

    • In the January doldrums, nothing picks me up like planning a trip to Scotland. Just the pretty pictures and the details of an itinerary is enough to pull me away from Maryland’s cold, gray skies and to a happier place. Haven’t been for a while though… who says I can only plan those trips in January?