Stoke the Soul Fires



You see that up there? White space. Blank, empty, open page. Writers face (and curse) that every day.

“What?” The vast white screen chins at us. Aggressive. Challenging. Mocking. What are we going to put on it? What ideas, characters, settings, emotions are we daring to scrawl on that pristine open void?

It’s never easy to face the blank page. But sometimes, when you do, you get in a flow. The rest of the world melts away and your imagination runs utterly wild. Time dissolves and you hear nothing around you in the real world. You are aware of nothing else but the story gushing out of your every pore. You pulse with creation. You are ablaze. Never have you felt so alive, so poised and effortlessly perfect.

That flow state is such a nice place to work in, isn’t it? It’s one I savor on the mat at the dojo. I feel that effortless, flowing, internal blaze when we engage in randoris (multiple attackers) or jiyu wazas (freestyle encounters where you don’t know who is about to attack or how). The world beyond that place, that moment, that next inhalation of air, completely disappears and I am nearly euphoric.


I’ve often thought it would be so nice if I could hit that flow every time I sat down to write. Even better: what if I could light that fire as soon as I sat down to write?

Oh to be alight with creative fire the moment I open my laptop or journal!

Well, recent advances in neuroscience suggest that writers and artists can train their brains to immediately flip that fire switch. Not only that: they can even set their creative fires to a permanently “ON” position. Kind of like a pilot light.

So join me on a brief journey into our brains where we’ll not only face the the blank page, but also learn how to go sprinting across it with fire kites of amazing prose and poetry streaming all around, soaking the void in white hot ink!

Flow: Why it Matters and Why It’s So Hard to Achieve

flow-coverMihály Csíkszentmihályi (that’s mee-HI chk-szent-mee-HI) literally wrote the book on flow, which he defines as a mental state of operation in which the person performing the activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, deep and effortless involvement, and enjoyment. The concept of flow has been widely referenced across a variety of fields. According to Csíkszentmihályi, everyone knows the feeling of flow.

Olympic swimmers, X-game snowboarders, rock climbers, even chess champions describe flow in the same terms. Regular folks (non-experts or non-pros) who get immersed in an activity also describe flow in the same way, regardless of cultural backgrounds, income, or age.

I first heard about flow from my brilliant classmate and fellow Wingbuilder, Ashlee Glasscock. In fact, her graduate lecture was all about how writers could use the flow state to defeat procrastination. Leapfrogging from Ashlee’s shoulders, I want to examine how writers can train their brains to flow so that the writing comes electrically fast and supernova hot!

You see, attaining flow is not easy. Csíkszentmihályi notes that evolutionarily, flow is a bad state for humans to enter. We evolved to have quick-cutting brains that continually chatter and mumble as they take in information here, there, everywhere (because you never know what’s lurking and waiting to make you its dinner)! If you focus so intently on something that the rest of the world melts away from your awareness, then odds are pretty good a saber-toothed tiger is going to eat you.

Compared to those old saber-tooth predator days, the modern world pretty tame. But the brain prattles on. And its eternal nervous chatter distracts and stresses us. It compels us to multitask. It nags us. It interrupts a perfectly good train of thought to — oh dang, I forgot to order more tea.

See !?

But lucky for us, the brain’s wiring is plastic, meaning it can change constantly. We can rewire our brains to chatter less and focus more.

Artistic Immersion Makes a Better Brain

A yummy way to think of the brain (for zombies and non-zombies) is to imagine two hunks of angel food cake. Squish these into two lumpy blobs about the size of your fists and place them side by side. Next, envelop those cake lumps in pliant fondant. The angel food cake represents the white matter, or the fatty tissues that connect the left and right sides of the brain, ricocheting information back and forth. The fondant represents the gray matter, which is where the brain transacts the majority of its thinking and processing of all that information.

Like fondant and all its billions of densely packed sugar particles, gray matter is densely packed with cells called neurons. In his 2011 TED Talk “A Map of the Brain,” Dr. Allan Jones estimates no less than 86 billion neurons. Neurons are hairy with wires called synapses that connect and “talk to” other neurons. At any given time, one neuron can be connected to at least 10,000 other neurons, says Jones.

To operate efficiently, your brain maintains a use-it-or-lose-it policy. Not consulting that area of gray matter where you stored high school French lessons? Kiss it good bye. The brain will prune it out. To save your neurons from the pruning, you need continual learning. New challenges, new information, new anything allows the brain to continually connect more and more neurons. So long as neurons stay connected, they do not get pruned out.

Spent too many decades thinning your gray matter? Don’t worry: your brain can actually grow it back! This ability to generate new neurons and new connections is called plasticity.

In the September 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a team of New England-based researchers published findings on how adolescent brains developed thicker areas of gray matter in response to regularly playing musical instruments. Other studies have found that artistic activities like dancing, crafting, sculpting, etc. also bulk up the grey matter.

In a June 2014 study, German researchers found that connectivity across the brain’s gray and white matter was significantly improved with participation in artistic activity. Led by Anne Bolwerk of the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg, the researchers used fMRI to observe brain activity in 28 retirees aged 62-70 years old. One half of the subjects participated in an art class where they actually drew or painted, while the other half took a class where they would only be observing art.

[Technical note: While MRI is like taking a still, satellite image of the brain, fMRI (f = functional) is like a weather balloon monitoring the live-action blood flow around the brain. As you undertake an activity, different parts of your brain are needed to do different things. The working parts are the ones in need oxygenated blood.]

Bolwerk and her colleagues found that the retirees who actually made art had better brain connectivity/plasticity than those who just looked at art.

Bolwerk suspects that a better brain is one regularly exposed to the kind of focused immersion usually associated with creative activities. Training your brain to flow ultimately makes it a better brain AND a brain better able to flow! When you flow, you are maximizing the functions of your white matter, harmonizing the left and right sides of the brain. The two work as one. With all roads smoothed out for stimuli, the better your brain can focus. The more your brain can focus, the more it is engaged in learning. And when your brain is learning, you are building robust gray matter full of neurons electrically firing!

Flow for Writers

So, after I found out all that, I wondered: “How is it I can write all the time and yet I don’t always flow. Are these neuroscientists politely insinuating that I’m gray-matter-deficient or something?”

Well, it turns out that the act of sitting down to write doesn’t always fulfill the essential components of a flow activity. According to  a flow activity needs to be something you can finish. If I sit down to work on my novel, odds are good I’m not finishing in that sitting. So, to make writing a flow activity, I could set smaller goals: I am sitting down to write 1,500 words….

Another important facet of a flow activity is the need for immediate feedback. If I were to sit down and work on a craft project, I could hold it up when time ran out and proudly say, “Look what I made!” Polite people who love me would nod, applaud, or otherwise give good feedback. But those people who love me can’t always immediately stop what they’re doing and read what I’ve written. And even if they could, I probably wouldn’t want them to!

So what’s a poor writer to do? One thing a writer can do is weave short flow activities into her day. Before your designated writing time, give yourself anywhere from 30-90 minutes to immerse in a bonafide flow activity. If you paint, paint. If you craft with metals or beads, do that. And don’t forget: athletes experience flow, too. So if you bike, go for a ride. Jog? Hike? Walk? You get the idea. Do what you do, but do it with attention and focus.

And if, like me, your flow activity takes place at a regularly scheduled class (like martial arts at a dojo, or yoga at the gym), then set up a 30-90 minute writing time to immediately follow that activity.

The first time I tried this, I was hand-crafting Christmas ornaments. I gave myself 30 minutes to craft and then I followed up with a writing session. Let me tell you…


I came to page on fire! My pen sliced up page after page. Or my fingers hit the keys and didn’t stop until my timer went DING! (I use the tomato-timer, AKA pomodoro, method which forces me to take much needed breaks.) Exhilarating. Satisfying. Productive!

bantock_tricksterNow, if you don’t count yourself among the “artsy,” “crafty,” or “mountain-climby” types, fear not. For you, I recommend Nick Bantock’s The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity. This book is loaded with timed flow activities designed to supercharge your angel food cake and fondant! Some of the exercises are writing exercises. Some involve art: draw a 1″x1″ box and inside that, scrawl as many animals (stick figures are fine) as you can in one minute! Some are just fun: for no more than two hours, go outside and use only raw materials and found objects to build a tiny village.

Okay, off you go! Focus. Immerse. Just be careful where you fly those fire kites!









Radical Approaches to Writing, Pt. 5

When last I posted on the Radical Approaches to Writing series, I was prepping for my Ikkyu (brown belt) exam in aikido. To pass, I had to master over 140 hand-to-hand combat techniques. Essentially, it’s like a really long kinesthetic multiple choice test.

How would you respond if someone attacks you by…

  • grabbing your arm,
  • grabbing both your arms,
  • whacking you on the head,
  • stabbing you with something sharp?

According to the ikkyu rubric, there are at least 20 different responses for each scenario. Following the attack-me portion of the test, there was a lengthy weapons component where I demonstrated all kinds of taisos and katas with a bokkend (wooden sword, katana-training stick) and jo (wooden staff).

And after about two solid hours of demonstration, I passed!


Me, demonstrating Kihon Hassei with bokkend (wooden sword). My partner is John Partenope, who recently passed his shodan (black belt) exam. Photo courtesy of Zach Hively.

If you were to plot my year on a storyboard, completing this test would definitely be my midpoint, that huge climax right at the middle of the story where nothing could possibly be any better. But the year is not over yet. Who knows what great things await me in the 2014-still-to-come? Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m certainly getting ahead of myself in this discussion of revise-before-you-write techniques.


Storyboards comprise the last step in the revise-before-you-write methodology—that radical approach to writing which invites the two halves of your brain (the wild creator and analytical editor) to be at peace and work as one.

The storyboard is where you track the entire trajectory of the novel. Every character. Every action. Every emotion. Every scene.

Like Beethoven, the writer is an orchestral composer and the storyboard is the sheet music for the literary symphony, tracking every note for every instrument. Every crescendo and every coda. It will take creativity and analytical pondering to figure out if your beginning is allegro or sonata, if your middle transitions from scherzo to adagio or the other way around, and if your ending returns to sonata or closes out with a rondo!

To make a storyboard, you can use a cork board or simply use masking tape to quadrant off a section of a wall in your house. Either way, you need a place to tack up all those scene cards.

Because stories are told in many different ways, the board gives you the freedom to stick your scene cards up in a variety of ways. You could have a 3×5 free-for-all.  Or think of the board as the night sky and you are the deity responsible for installing the stars. You could stick each card on at random, or you can arrange them into constellations, configurations with explicit and implied meanings. To render meaning from your arrangements, you’ll need an organizational schema.

The schema I’m using is the screenwriter’s three-act structure.


It’s called a three-act, but you can see that this storyboard is broken into four sections: act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3. Similarly, author Tom Birdseye suggests what is called a quartile board which also splits the story into four distinct quarters.


Interestingly, symphonies are also divided into four movements. Y’see? You are a composer. (Cravats and frizzy hair optional.)

If four is not your magic number, then why not try a seven-act paradigm, or the twelve-step formula, or the twenty-two-point framework. Writing professors, professional screenwriters and theorists like Syd Field, Robert McKee, John Truby and others have come up with an endless range of organizational schemas all derived from classical drama, mythology, and even psychology.

(Note: for a truly mesmerizing exploration into all the myriad structures available to storytellers, definitely check out Ingrid Sundberg’s “Organic Architecture” series!)

Screenwriters use three acts because it helps them demarcate the beginning, the middle, and the end of a story. Researchers also use a three-part frame. They divide their papers into sections of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or common ground, disruption, and resolution (Booth et al, The Craft of Research, 249).

Regardless of what each section is called, it’s helpful to know that each section has a function. Each one serves the story in a particular way.

Act One

Act One, Quartile One, the Common Ground, the Beginning, (whatever you call it) opens the story. It introduces the reader to the main characters and the world. Blake Snyder refers to it as a “before shot.” How things were “before” the adventure. Wilbur’s beginning is in a cozy box near the stove in the Arables’ house. Harry Potter’s beginning is the Dursley’s home on Privet Drive.

Act One also hints at problems with the world or the characters. This is very similar to the introduction of a research paper where the writer presents the “common ground” or the context of the topic along with a problem or a series of problems surrounding that topic (Booth et al 162). Wilbur is not a pet and can’t live indoors forever. Harry has powers he cannot always control and does not know where they come from.

Act Two

Act Two, Quartiles Two+Three, or the Middle, takes the reader, and more importantly, the protagonist away from the familiar or away from how things are. If we see it as antithesis or anti-thesis, then it is an upside-down world. Compare Wilbur’s box by the stove to the Zuckerman’s barn. Compare Harry’s life at Hogwarts to Privet Drive.

In research, this section is where the researcher tries to establish and defend what he believes is the kernel of truth at the crux of the research. As you might recall, the theme is your story’s kernel of truth. While you state it in Act One, you will fully establish it and test it in Act Two (Snyder, Save the Cat, 79). Either the unfolding events will successfully defend the theme or they will destroy it.

For example, Act Two of The Wizard of Oz grapples with “Is there really no place like home?” If Dorothy Gale can face every obstacle and survive every danger in Oz, then you betcha! Because there’s no place like home, Dorothy is willing to face flying monkeys, a wicked witch, and an all-powerful wizard just to get back to it.

Act Three

And Act Three, Quartile Four, the Conclusion or The End, is where problems are resolved. Some writers are satisfied with defeating all the villains and getting to the happy ending. Similarly, some research papers use the conclusion to restate supporting evidence and annihilate the antithesis. But both examples miss an important opportunity to achieve synthesis. Synthesis is sort of like aiki, where two opposing forces are blended. From it, truth emerges out of our better understanding.

To synthesize the story, the protagonist takes lessons learned from Act Two and applies them back to the problems and conflicts of Act One. We see this clearly in Charlotte’s Web. Remember the logline we came up with for this book?

In order to avoid the autumn slaughter, an ordinary pig must become extraordinary to all humans and to himself.

Throughout Act 2, Wilbur has been doing all he can to prevent his own untimely death. But the book’s theme centers on the miracle of life. Specifically, the theme is: All life is extraordinary.

When Wilbur stops fixating on death (first his own, and later, Charlotte’s), he starts thinking about life. And that’s when he finds a solution: he will take her eggs back to the farm and care for them until they hatch. He will see to it that they live. In other words, Wilbur comes to understand the theme and by doing so, E.B. White implicates the “so what?” of the whole story.

An ordinary pig become extraordinary and saves a spider’s egg sack. So what?

So what? Every life is exceptional and extraordinary. A pig’s. A spider’s. Mine. Yours. That’s what!

Researchers think of the “so what” in terms of the significance of all that has been studied and presented in writing (Booth et al 252).

Equipped with your logline, beat sheet, scene cards, and storyboards, you too can map out your entire manuscript, including the elusive X that marks the deep, philosophical treasure at the heart of all you’re trying to say with, “Once upon a time….”

Here’s a basic example of a storyboard with scene cards arranged to fit a traditional, linear hero’s journey/arc plot:


And, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, just like all the other revise-before-writing methods, you can revise the board over and over again before you sit down to write the first draft. It’s one more tool to help your creator-brain and your editor-brain team up. Playing with the storyboard is a lot like playing with Legos. You can create, stack, and layer to inconceivable heights, but if you don’t logistically analyze the structure of those stacks and layers, your creation will surely crumble.

And just like Legos, a storyboard is more fun to play with than your laptop! So play, play, play. “Keep playing with it,” Tom Birdseye instructed me in an email, “[keep] arranging, rearranging, until, ideally, it is so good, and feels so right that it gives you the writer’s electric buzz of triumph. Or at least a feeling of ‘this may actually work.’”

And once you’re buzzing, you’re ready to write. So go write. I have given you all the steps you need to revise before you write. Please know that despite the clean, linear order of all the steps, you will often work on different stages simultaneously. You don’t even need to draft your scenes in order. You can and should skip around. In fact, your brain will appreciate it if you start with the awesome scenes, the ones that made you want to tell this story or get to know these characters in the first place (Snyder 103). I call these the cookie-scenes and ample neurological research proves that cookies can help you complete long and difficult tasks!

Cookies for Writers

Scientists gave put a bunch of college students in a room with a bowl of radishes and a bowl of freshly baked cookies (Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 135-36). Half the students were told: DO NOT eat the cookies, but the other half was told they could eat cookies.

After noshing, the students had to try to solve a difficult puzzle. On average, students who did not eat cookies were grumpy and easily frustrated. They spent less than six minutes on that stupid puzzle. Why?

Because willpower is what enables the brain to exert discipline and self-control.  Willpower is why you get dedicated to a project, a diet, or a workout routine. It’s like a muscle. You can exercise it and train it, but then it gets tuckered out (Duhigg 139). And when you’re out of willpower, you’re saddled with decision fatigue. That’s why the cookie-eaters could work on that puzzle forever. It took no willpower to sit in a room and eat warm delicious food. Two hundred other studies have modeled this one, and they all found the same results: Cookie-eaters work harder and longer (136).

The moral of this story is: eat your cookies, which is to say enjoy your sweet-scenes whenever you want!


Photo courtesy of Kimberly Vardeman, Wikimedia Commons. Image CC.

Storycrafting is demanding and complex. Be prepared to follow its crooked path. And never let any process or plan box you in. Be as plastic and ever-changing as your brain. Writing, after all, is a life-long pursuit. As you change over the span of your life, permit your writing process change with you. Allow your process to grow, shift, and adapt over time.

In closing, I hope I’ve encouraged you to see the storycrafting process in a new way (especially with NaNoWriMo coming up)! When we see revision first rather than last, we can tackle it more successfully. When we see the two sides of the brain in harmonious cooperation rather than in battle, we can accomplish more on the page.

“Thinking, we believe, tends to be for procrastinators. Writing is the real work. But that is a fable,” says author Tim Wynne-Jones. And he is right. Throughout the Radical Approaches to Writing series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), you have seen just how much work can happen before writing. You have seen that revising does not come after writing. And you have seen that you can tell a story without putting your brain in conflict. You do not have to banish your editor-brain to the dungeon only to resurrect it months later, when it is a dust-covered, half-rotten thing. And you do not have to handcuff your creativity while revising each word and sentence as you go, which is like supergluing each grain of sand in a sandcastle—pretty soon you’re working with a lump of granite.

In light of all this evidence, isn’t it time we reconsider the old writing process? Rather than put writing at the front and center of your novel’s cosmos or making it orbit revision throughout, start with some revision. Instead of imagining the battle between the two brains and crafting in the middle of their battlefield, imagine the harmonious path of your story paved with scene cards and lit by a logline. Imagine yourself not merely attempting a novel, but completing it.

Take this moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself anew. Imagine yourself as competent and confident. Imagine yourself as a storyteller. Imagine it now and alter the tendrils of your living brain.


“Child of the Universe,” by Josephine Wall.


Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 1

(Migrated post. Content originally published 1/2014 on

Waaaaayyyy back in November, I promised to write about the kind(s) of writing that can lure the writer down the path of self-defeat. I have returned from the black hole hiatus of holidays to fulfill that vow, like your own knight in shining armor!


Edmund Leighton, The Accolade, 1901. {{PD-US}}

Actually, like a true knight, I have returned from a quest out in the hinterlands. December was a mostly internetless existence (due to bad routers and damaged towers) wherein I was delightfully plagued with many a late night squandered on writing new material. My beloved, Zach, discovered a neat little contest that I just had to enter. Yes, there’s good money at stake and, yes, my chances of winning are slim, but who cares? I was provoked to write. Invited to explore a new world with new characters. And I had such fun!

But, now that my entry is submitted and my e-powers of communication are restored, I am back to look at writing from a radical angle. I want to share with you a dastardly approach to writing that helps eliminate writer’s block and plows a traversable path all the way to THE END of your novel!

I call it writing in reverse…or revise before you write!

Jeeeezzz — now you tell me, you grumble, post-NaNoWriMo.

Well, if I’d told you to try this before you tried writing a novel in a month, you wouldn’t have believed me. But now, you’ve made the attempt and had time to recover. Now you’re in a prime position to reflect back on your writing performance and pinpoint where things went off track, tapered off, or tuckered out.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Now’s the perfect time to ponder why the galloping novel challenge may have bucked you off its thick bully back.

Typically, we writers tend to think that first comes writing a draft and then comes revision. Or, we align the two steps like binary stars and revise while writing the manuscript. Instructions, recommendations, and advocacy for either approach appear in dozens of craft sources.

But is either approach truly effective?

Whether you write-then-revise or revise-while-writing, here are the most common craft elements you should alter or reconsider: plot, theme, symbolism, structure, stakes, motivation, obstacles, character arcs, character authenticity or 3-dimensionality, antagonist arcs , antagonist authenticity or 3-dimensionality, point of view, opening scenes, closing actions, back story, endings or resolutions, climaxes, page turns, concrete vs. abstract desires, objective correlative, metaphor, narrative proportions, motifs, repetition, simile, rhythm, pacing, conflict, dialogue, setting, typos and errors, etc, etc, etc.

Staring down that long list can feel overwhelming. We have no idea where to start. Or we feel the onset of writer’s block. I know that’s how I felt for a long time.

You might find parallels in your New Year’s fitness resolutions. Like I said in my last post, you can suddenly take up jogging, buy bushels of fruits and veggies, upend your normal way of life and evict all the junk food inhabiting in your pantry, but the path to the newer-trimmer-you peters out as quickly as it appeared.


Because the new options in food and activity — like the list of craft elements you must tackle – overwhelm your brain with decisions. Recent studies show that decision-making fatigues the brain (Tierney). The more choices we make, the harder each one gets. After too many decisions, the brain suffers from “decision fatigue.” Writers are no doubt regular victims of decision fatigue. Every single word on the page is a decision the writer must make. Tackling that long list of tasks after the first draft or juggling it alongside the writing is a sure way to fatigue the brain.

So if traditional methods fatigue our brains, why do we use them? I suspect these approaches came about because of common observations — sort of like how Earth started off in the center of the solar system. It seemed right based on what everyone noticed.

We writers all notice how our brains seem divided between a creative sphere and an analytical sphere. Drafting demands the free-wheeling, creative side of the brain, while revising requires the more analytical, logistical, editorial side of the brain. As a result, the storycrafting process can feel like an adversarial tug-of-war between the two. To combat the tug-of-war, author Natalie Goldberg instructs the writer to defeat or else ignore the editor-brain (28). Stephen King cranks out his fast first draft so that he can outrun the editor-brain (209). In short, most writers shush the editor-brain because it keeps the creative-brain from creating. Conversely, they will chain up the creative-brain so that it won’t muck up everything the editor-brain is trying to fix.

Sounds a lot like the iconic struggle of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: two warring personalities trapped inside one body. But things don’t exactly turn out well for Jekyll or Hyde, and the same is true for our brains.

Artwork courtesy of injurdninja on

Artwork courtesy of injurdninja on

When we defeat, ignore, shush, and suppress a part of the brain, we are actually causing neurological damage.

The brain is made of many neural pathways, or neurons that are connected to one another and working together. The more you do something, the stronger these pathways get. When you write-then-revise, your creative, amorphous neural pathways get big and strong. But shushing the logistical neurons for many months of drafting results in neural atrophy. It’s like turning one side of the brain into a couch potato. Your logistical neurons get flabby. They get weak. They diminish. And, after months of banishment, suddenly you spring upon them the monumental task of revision. Likewise, if you spend many months juxtaposing short bursts of writing with mini-bouts of revision, you literally develop short-circuits, or amorphous neurons good for only a short while and logistical neurons good for a short while.

Lucky for us all, the damage inflicted during either approach is not permanent.

Newer studies have found that the brain is malleable or plastic. Unlike a laptop from the factory, the brain constantly rewires itself. This ability to rewire is called neuroplasticity. In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, psychologist Norman Doidge explains how neuroplasticity has enabled stroke victims to overcome paralysis, the deaf have learned to hear through their tongues, and the blind have been taught to see through their skin.

And surprisingly, your imagination can cause the brain to rewire itself. “Each time you imagine…you alter the tendrils in your living brain,” says Doidge (213).

Artwork courtesy of archanN on Wikimedia Commons. Image CC.

Artwork courtesy of archanN on Wikimedia Commons. Image CC.

This is a staggering fact for writers, but not just because our jobs demand lots of imagination. It’s a big deal because if we imagine the writing process as one sphere of the brain battling the other, then our neurons will physiologically respond. In other words, to imagine conflict is to produce the carnage of the battlefield.

Interestingly, Morihei Ueshiba articulated this principle long before modern neuroscience. At the turn of the last century in Japan, Ueshiba founded Aikido, a new martial art dedicated to eliminating conflict. Continual conflict—imagined or actual—ruins the mind and spirit (8). As an alternative, Ueshiba proposed aiki training. Aiki means harmony, thus aikido is a way to practice harmony.

Photo courtesy of Zach Hively. That's me, demonstrating for my Nikyu test in 2013!

Photo courtesy of Zach Hively.
That’s me, demonstrating for my Nikyu test in 2013!

My aiki training started in 2007, and it’s the reason why I can’t lock my brain in a Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle while writing! Richard Moon, an internationally renowned sensei, notes that a harmonized “aiki” brain functions with more creativity. For writers, this means that when we put the brain in a state of harmonious cooperation rather than in battle, we can accomplish more on the page. We can be better storycrafters.

Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to invite each of you to indulge in some aiki writing training so that you can unify and harmonize the Jekyll and Hyde spheres of your brain. Let’s rewire those plastic neurons and elevate our writing abilities!

Don’t banish your editor-brain to the dungeon only to resurrect it months later, when it is a dust-covered, half-rotten thing. And please don’t handcuff your creativity while revising each word and sentence as you go, which is like super gluing each grain of sand in a sandcastle—pretty soon you’re working with a lump of granite.

Rather than write-then-revise or revise-while-writing, I would like to show you how to revise-BEFORE-you-write. I’d like to suggest that you have opportunities to revise BEFORE the first draft of your novel is even written. Seems impossible, I know. How can you possibly be creative and logical at the same time? And how can you revise what you have not written?

Tune in next time to learn about writers who revise before they write: screen writers and research writers. Pros like Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino, E. O. Wilson, and Stephen Hawking use similar techniques to revise before they write. And I’m going to show you how they do it—how they mix preliminary creation with logistical revision in order to tell good stories, which is the goal, whether you are writing an EPA research report, a blockbuster script, or a middle grade novel, whether you want to be the next Dr. Seuss or the next Junot Díaz.

How to Write with Forks and Spoons

(Migrated post. Content originally published 8/2013 on

I had a writer’s epiphany.

It happened while I was making my usual Wednesday night drive home from the dojo. I’d just spent two hours on the mat practicing Aikido, a martial art founded on principles of ki (energy) rather than combat. Essentially, Aikido teaches its practitioners not to hit back when hit, but to a.) avoid the hit, b.) absorb its energy, and c.) give it back to the attacker in a harmonious way. “In a harmonious way” tends to mean incapacitating the attacker. Pinning them down…which is comparatively harmonious.

So, I’m heading home, all amped up with leftover ki, feeling harmonious with everything — admittedly, I’m in an absorbent and impressionable state of mind. I’m listening to American Routes on the local public radio station.

Producer and host Nick Spitzer is interviewing Pat Martino, Philadelphia jazz modernist. Martino left home when he was a teen and pursued jazz in Harlem. He played ensemble for a while, then went solo and got big. But in 1979, he underwent an emergency operation to correct an aneurysm. The surgery damaged a part of his brain and left him with amnesia. Family, friends, and how to play music: all forgotten.


(Pat’s story comprises a portion of the second hour on the show called “Guitar Heroes: Pat Martino & Ben Hall.” Jump to about a half-hour in, unless you want to groove to the whole show.)

As Martino recovered, his father pressured him constantly to pick up the guitar and play. But the guitar felt alien to Martino. He didn’t understand what he was supposed to do with it. He avoided it.

But not playing began to feel “volatile” so he picked it back up. He learned how to play again, bit by bit, and returned to all-new realms of jazz greatness.

To achieve any level of greatness, Pat talks about having to simultaneously reduce and elevate the guitar. He likens it to any necessary, functional item around his house, specifically spoons and forks. They are tools he takes out when he needs them. They are tool that serve their purpose.

Oh, baby, that admission walloped me hard.

I thought immediately about the writer’s tools: pen/paper or e-pens/paper (laptops). Some writers, both famous and unpublished, often fuss over having just the right kind of pen (roller ball vs gel ink, smooth flowing vs scrape-heavy) or the right kind of journal (hardback spiral-bound vs soft, sturdy leather-bound), or the right kind of laptop (tiny, lightweight vs a good, ol’ fashioned typewriter). I used to fuss over these exact things. And while I fussed, I did not have to worry about writing. How could I possibly write when  all I had was a Bic click pencil and a floppy five-subject notebook to scrawl in?

But when I finally got the exact pen I wanted and the precise kind of journal, I emptied the one and filled the other with words. Not stories. Meaningless, rambling, disconnected words. By themselves, words do not tell stories. They are just words.

But I had all the right tools to tell stories, didn’t I? Shouldn’t the stories just be pouring from my ballpoint?

Well, no. Stories don’t come from the pen, the paper, or the keyboard. They come from the storyteller.

The same is true for jazz guitarists. Notes may come out of an instrument, but music flows only from a musician.

Pluckers may pull strings and writers may scribble, but it’s musicians and storytellers who do the real work. And to transition from one level to the next, the artist must learn how to properly use her tools.

I was not using my pens/papers like tools. Instead, I treated them like divine totems. Years ago, when I finished my undergraduate degree and had to push writing out of my prime time and into my spare time, I learned how to reduce the pen/paper to tools. Because I worked full-time and managed a household, time was tight. When I sat down to write (around 11 p.m.) I felt the necessity to get the story out because 2 a.m. was gonna creep up like an assassin and kill my writing time. When I commuted on the bus to and from work, I wrote with anything I had on hand. I wrote on anything that had blank sheets of paper. And I wrote despite the bumps and sudden swerves that mangled my handwriting.

Oh, how I would bemoan the corrosion  and corruption of my writing. It used to be magical. It used to come out in gorgeous swirling script from a fancy pen on smooth stone-ground paper. Now it was relegated to pragmatic, get-it-done taskery.

And that was how I continued to work, even when I left my job and took up graduate school. Every month, I had to produce twenty pages of creative work. Twenty pages of story. So I sat down (anywhere, anytime possible) and I wrote (with anything available).

And it wasn’t until I heard Pat Martino talk about his guitars like spoons that I realized what a huge favor I had done myself. My pen/paper, and all the other craft elements that go with writing (using metaphors, crafting settings, exploring objective correlatives, mapping character arcs, engineering storyboards, etc) had all become tools. No more mysterious or elusive than spoons and forks.


“Spoon Slave” by Forked Up Art.

I could take them out and use them when I needed them.

They were there to serve me.

Imagine if every time you sat down for breakfast, you had to summon the spoon-muses just to eat your bran flakes! Imagine what you’d look like if you only ate when the mood struck just right.

Writing IS eating to me. It is sustenance. I can’t wait till the mood is ambient and gods are friendly. Screw moods and gods — I’M HUNGRY!

Yes, I have relegated my pens and paper to mere tools, but I have not demoted my storytelling. Because I had mastered my tools, I could use them to construct many amazing things!


Art by Matthew Bartik.