Thinking With Your Hands by Julie Williams
Much has been said about the need to show up at the blank page with some kind of regularity whether you feel like writing or not. Different writers offer different suggestions for the hows and whys of honoring this aspect of the writing process. Some focus on the need for a routine schedule. Some share about magical writing appearing out of the void. Others talk about how even if what they write constitutes what writer Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft” it’s better than not showing up and it’s something you can work with. I get it.
In my own writing practice, I experience this in my first-thing-in-the-morning journaling. I do it no matter what. It’s an act of meditation, one where I try not to edit my thoughts or the words that flow onto the page. Sometimes it’s a jump-start on the novel I’m working on. A scene might emerge fully formed in the journal. Often I write pages and pages of back story that helps me to flesh out the characters and trim and hone the action. And I try to draft one poem each morning.
My journaling takes between one and two hours. Afterwards I eat breakfast and go to my computer for email and a glance at the news online. And then, depending on how I feel (yes . . . I admit it . . . on HOW I FEEL) I either open up a document and go to work on my current writing project OR . . . I go to my art table.
When I first started doing mixed media artwork I had a tendency to over-think the process so much that I could often get stalled before I even made a mark on the page. That doesn’t happen as much now that I have an art journal practice that’s nearly as regular as my writing journal. But when it does, I always find myself thinking about what my friend, Linda Townsdin (an author and visual artist) told me years ago when I was first dabbling in paint and markers and pencils and gel medium. “When I do artwork,” she said, “I think with my hands.”
At first I had no idea what she meant. Think with your hands? Then I began to experience it. My mind would go blank or fill with thoughts that had nothing to do with the canvas I was working on. And I would somehow know to add a dash of red over there, or glue down a bit of a map or a piece of vintage book in that corner. They weren’t decisions I made by thinking about composition or color balance or any rules I had learned. They just happened because I was relaxed and allowing myself to be in the creative flow.
Director’s notebook for DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE, Character “Chart” for the Jumbles, collage map of the setting/place
Okay, sure, that’s a great experience — but what does it have to do with writing? I mean, come on, you have to think with your mind in order to write, don’t you? Well, now that I know what it feels like to think with my hands I sometimes make the choice to let my mind and hands join forces in a way that’s different from typing or writing longhand in a notebook. In the novel-writing process (which, as you know, can be long and complicated and often frustrating), I intentionally stop writing to create visual objects that further the storytelling process. I keep what I call a “Director’s Book,” that is modeled after the notebooks I keep when I’m directing a theatrical production. This is filled with character notes, backstory jottings, plot points, descriptions of place. The notebook fills up with images that conjure emotions and inform my decisions about character and place and story action. Any time I’m stuck in the writing, I can open up the Director’s Book and absorb what I’ve already entered there and add to it as I like. I try to keep it playful, grabbing images from my image box, doodling, adding colorful bits of ephemera. There’s never any question here of whether it’s right or wrong. It’s about process and about visual stimulation. I also like to draw or paint or collage maps of the action or setting. And I sometimes draw character charts like the one in the above photograph of Jessie’s large and nontraditional extended family from my recently released novel, DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE.
There are other ways of thinking with our hands, too. All those times when we walk away from our computer or notebook and do something we consider mindless (we wash the dishes, we go pull weeds in the garden, we stitch something, we knit or crochet, we clean out a hall closet or reorganize a drawer, add some pieces to an ongoing jigsaw puzzle, give the dog a bath) we are thinking with our hands. I’d go so far as to venture that we are actually still writing. Something different is happening than when I go watch a TV show, pick up a book to read, get lost in email, or talk to my husband. Those activities can be refreshing and necessary. But I’m not writing while they’re happening.
Of course each of us has to find the manner of working that suits us best. For some people, staring at the blank computer screen for a set period of time does the trick. But we’ve all got closets that need cleaning out and weeds that need pulling. Pay attention to what happens to your writing after you’ve been absorbed in that kind of work. When you go to your computer again and the writing is now effortless, probably you’ve been thinking with your hands. Maybe you find a solution to a problem that had you stuck. Maybe it’s a brand new scene. What’s happened is that the creative force that works to tell that story was working somewhere outside of your conscious thought and the work of your hands helps it along.
Give it a try. And let me know what happens, won’t you? Happy thinking with your hands!
About The Author
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About The Book
Sixteen-year-old Jessie Jasper Lewis doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t surrounded by method actors, bright spotlights, and feather boas. Her parents started the Jumble Players Theater together, and theater is the glue that holds her crazy family together. But when she discovers that her father’s cheating on her mother with a man, Jessie feels like her world is toppling over. And on top of everything else, she has to deal with a delusional aunt who is predicting the end of the world. Jessie certainly doesn’t feel ready to be center stage in the production that is her family. But where does she belong in all of this chaos?
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