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A mind in knots

My youngest daughter, Keeley, loves to bake and to play the piano. She loves to read and daydream. Monday night, she sat down at the piano and said, “I don’t want to practice. I just want to play.”


She was talking about riffing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.


“Don’t overthink it,” we tell Keeley often. “Don’t over analyze things. Just go do it.”

Keeley with a culinary creation


I feel like when my writing isn’t going well, I’m not freeing myself up. My mind is in knots, and my plot soon follows. It happens when I think and overthink. Plot is a result of character; therefore, what happens in the story is what must logically happen, based on the attributes of the characters. I know this to be true.


Yet, when I’m struggling with plot, I’m overthinking. Elmore Leonard said he wrote the first hundred pages before thinking about the plot. Just meeting the characters and seeing where they’re going. I don’t believe in the fifty-page dilemma –– that fifty pages in, the book is either going to work or not. I’m with Leonard. It’s a hundred pages.


When I hit a hundred pages, sometimes, I start to think about where we’re headed. If it’s not going well, I’m trying to steer, rather than following along like a reader. Maybe it’s overthinking. My mind can get tied in knots. Then my focus can turn to wonderful distractions: work emails or student writing (would you really rather grade a paper than figure out your damn plot, John?!) or conference presentations (death or public speaking?) or even U.S. politics (let it go, John. Biden won. You can sleep now).


The first half-mile is fine, but then the woods get dark. This is when I need to freewheel, to let things go. I used to listen to music when I wrote. Heavy stuff. Everclear, Nirvana. I got away from that. Not sure why. I think I felt like I needed to concentrate more. I’m not sure that helps the work.


Overthink it? I wonder where my twelve-year-old gets it.


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