“dirty little secrets about writing”

Knit Potion the blog is about knitting. However, given that knitting leads to thinking and thinking to knitting, it seems fair to feature the occasional eureka moment related more to thinking than knitting. Or something. Please imagine a graceful transition to the following . . . or take this opportunity to move on, but be sure to come back tomorrow for pictures of CeCe and the Calligraphy cardigan.

As you probably know by now, I’m obsessed with the way the brain works. A big realization for me as I approach the half century mark has been that the conscious mind is not infallible and that it can’t be one’s sole resource for navigating life. Saying it like this, it sounds absurd. Would someone really believe that? I’m here to tell you, someone really would.

Let’s have an example. Experience has shown me that practicing yoga helps me live a happy life. For as long as I’ve been doing yoga, though, I’ve had to fight the tendency to prioritize other things. When the time comes to stop working, grab my mat, and head out the door, I often think, “at this moment it’s more important that I make progress on this work thing than that I take an hour and a half to go bend and stretch.” For a long time, when I made the mental checklist, the work thing or some other thing often won out over yoga. But here’s the kicker. What slowly began to sink in was that yoga helps me in ways I don’t understand. There are benefits in the yoga column of that checklist that I can’t name or even access intellectually. I now do yoga because I know from experience that it’s important, not because I fully understand why.

Learning to spin showed me again that in some cases you have to quit thinking and start doing to get where you want to go, that reason alone might not be up to every task. I had to hit the pause button on my conscious mind and let my hands and body and my broader awareness figure things out. This realization didn’t come easily. I fought it for at least a year before Abby Franquemont’s exhortation that “the stuff you need to learn now about spinning isn’t in your brain, but in your hands” convinced me to quit trying to think my way into being a good spinner and start spinning my way into better spinning.

All of this has been gradually dawning on me, and the more I learn about the way the brain works, the more it all makes sense. We discount the overwhelming proportion of brain activity that occurs beyond consciousness at our peril. Books like Gonzales’s Surviving Survival and Richtel’s A Deadly Wandering shine a light on the dangers of assuming everything is within our conscious control.

Richtel talks about the radar operators in World War II whose job was to watch the radar screen for blips. Sometimes they made mistakes. Richtel says, “If you misread the radar screen, got distracted, fell asleep, well, people died. Villages burned. Without being too hyperbolic: Battles were won and lost, and wars, too.” These were highly intelligent, seriously motivated people, but time and again they failed to see what was right in front of their eyes. How was this happening? As Richtel goes on to explain, “They were running up against the limits of their own brains.”

And Gonzales’s shark attack survivor—she remained unable to function as long as she tried to reason her way beyond her “irrational” fears. These fears weren’t coming from her conscious mind, so the conscious mind was powerless to address them. If she had continued to assume that her ability to react, to focus, to understand was boundless and that she just wasn’t trying hard enough, she’d have been dooming herself to a lifetime of misery she had no way to combat. To move forward she had to recognize that the conscious brain is just the tip of the iceberg where human experience is concerned.

Here’s another great big honking implication of acknowledging that there are limits to our conscious understanding. It frees us from holding ourselves and other people accountable for everything. If I believe my husband has complete control over his attention and that his conscious mind is infinitely capable, then when he forgets to put the cutting board away and clean up the crumbs after he makes a sandwich, I have to think that he just isn’t trying hard enough to remember; or when we’re talking and he insists on what I think is a skewed approach to things, I have to assume he’s just being willfully contentious. I start to become annoyed because I think he’s choosing to be argumentative or disregard something important to me. In some cases, he might be, who knows—but in many many cases, brain science is teaching us it’s more likely that he isn’t. His conscious mind, like mine, simply works imperfectly. Being able to let my sweet husband off the hook, to imagine that perhaps he didn’t intentionally set out to frustrate me, is huge. This awareness lets me be kinder and more accepting of my family and my friends and of the guy who cut me off in traffic . . . And even of myself. Realizing that I can’t always know everything perfectly and fully and that sometimes it takes time, sleep, new info or perspective or a good meal or some knitting for my brain and body to make sense of something. . . . well, that helps me live more successfully and certainly more happily.

So . . . the occasion for my aha moment this this time around was an article I came across on writing, “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” by the historian Lynn Hunt. Hunt’s interest is in how relying on the conscious mind to map everything out ahead of time can actually prevent you from writing rather than help you to do it. If we assume our ability to think our way through things is absolute and we wait for this thinking through to be complete before we begin to write, we’re stuck. Whether we’re blogging, writing an email, or preparing a report for work, waiting until we’ve formulated everything we want to say before we start is deadly.

Hunt says of herself that “writing is not the transcription of thoughts already consciously present in my mind. Writing is a magical and mysterious process that makes it possible to think differently.” She elaborates on this idea:

. . . the process of writing itself leads to previously unthought thoughts. Or to be more precise, writing crystallizes previously half-formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions. Neuroscience has shown that 95 percent of brain activity is unconscious. My guess about what happens is that by physically writing . . . you set a process literally into motion, a kind of shifting series of triangulations between fingers, blank pages or screens, letters and words, eyes, synapses or other “neural instantiations,” not to mention guts and bladders. By writing, in other words, you are literally firing up your brain and therefore stirring up your conscious thoughts and something new emerges. You are not, or at least not always, transcribing something already present in your conscious thoughts.

Again, we’re talking about the limits of the conscious brain. It’s not a matter of thinking and then writing down what you’ve thought. Thinking doesn’t lead to writing. Writing leads to writing.

Hunt describes what she calls one of the “dirtiest of the dirty little secrets about writing” when she explains how trying to think through everything before you begin leads to perpetual delay:

Everything about history and life itself is potentially infinite (except one’s life span, unfortunately). There is always another document that could have been consulted, just as there is always another fact about a friend or partner that if you knew would make you understand her or him better. But life is short and if you want to write more than a dissertation or one book or two books and so on, you have to limit yourself to what can be done in a certain time frame. You cannot accumulate pages if you constantly second guess yourself. You have to second guess yourself just enough to make constant revision productive and not debilitating. You have to believe that clarity is going to come, not all at once, and certainly not before you write, but eventually, if you work at it hard enough, it will come. Thought does emerge from writing. Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought. You think something you did not know you could or would think and it leads you to another thought almost unbidden.

That right there is truth. If I’d realized it when I was not writing my dissertation, it might have helped. For better or worse, the conscious mind is not infinitely able. If it’s important to do a thing, start doing it. Now. Clarity will come, eventually.

Realizing this freaks me out a little. You mean I can’t figure out all the things right this minute?! You mean just jump in and start writing without knowing what I want to say?! You mean go to yoga even though I don’t understand exactly why it does me so much good? knit even though I don’t know why it’s so sustaining? Why, yes. That’s what I mean.


  1. Cari

    Reading your blog always makes me think a little deeper. I like where you take me, and it makes me want to try harder at lots of things – not just knitting. It’s a lifelong struggle of mine to “Stick the Landing,” so much that it can be paralyzingly to start something if I don’t think I can end it well. This means, too often, I want to know where I’m going before I make a move in any direction. You remind me in so many small and sweet, encouraging ways, that it’s okay to just “go”. I just love you to pieces.

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