“All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.” – Stephen King
You’ve finished your first draft.
Good job! Mission accomplished.
Time to sit back, relax, and share your masterpiece with the world, right?
Yeah, if only creativity was that straightforward…
Unfortunately, unless you’re blessed with incredible luck and superhuman literary genius, you’re going to have to do a rewrite.
Why? Because as proud as you may be of your work, let’s be real: it’s most likely still a bit “shit” [Hemingway’s preferred adjective for first drafts].
When John Irving said, “Maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting.” He wasn’t kidding.
The journey between the first and final draft is often longer, harder and peppered with more pitfalls than most would-be writers would have you believe.
Critiquing Your Creative Work Without Bias
“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” – Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette
In order to rewrite, we need to take off our subjective artist’s hat and replace it with our objective critic’s hat. We need to learn to see our work with a fresh pair of eyes.
Do you ever see other people’s work and know exactly how you could have made it better?
The key to successful rewriting is the feel this way about your own. Easier said than done. It’s much harder to rewrite your own work than someone else’s.
For artists, this problem of looking objectively at your work has been always been a problem. Leonardo da Vinci was no exception:
“We know very well that errors are better recognised in the works of others than in our own; and that often, while reproving little faults in others, you may ignore great ones in yourself.”
But even if you try to be unbiased, that’s very often not enough.
The old saying, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ isn’t necessarily true. Studies have shown that people in relationships rate the attractiveness of their partners lower when their photos are horizontally flipped, but rate themselves more attractive when their own photos are flipped.
People like their own mirrored image more because its familiar.
Familiarity creates blind spots.
Da Vinci, it may not surprise you, popularised the use of mirrors in art for getting rid of such bias:
“I say — that when you paint you should have a flat mirror and often look at for work as reflected in it, when you will see it reversed, and it will appear to you like some other painter’s work, so you will be better able to judge of it’s faults than in any other way.”
The technique of flipping an image so you can look at it with fresh eyes doesn’t just work with paintings. Film director James Cameron periodically flops [reverses] his movies during the editing process to stop his eyes from predicting the movement of the action.
This is a great way for artists and filmmakers to gain objectivity over their first draft, but what about writers?
While we may not be able to mirror our writing to see it anew, we can do the next best thing…
We can mirror the neurology of people reading it for the first time by harnessing the power of what neuroscientists call:
“[The discovery of mirror neurons are one of the] single most important unpublicised stories of the decade.” — V. S. Ramachandran, PhD
Emotions are contagious.
When we spend time around stressful, angry people, we get stressed. When we see someone get hurt badly, we ‘feel’ their pain. When someone does something embarrassing, we too cringe with embarrassment.
This neural WiFi that causes us to absorb and reflect the emotions of other people is mediated by a recently discovered mechanism in the brain called mirror neurons.
Bestselling author Daniel Goleman explains the discovery of these neurons in his book Social Intelligence:
“Neuroscientists stumbled on this neural WiFi by accident in 1992. They were mapping the sensorimotor area of monkeys’ brains by using electrodes so laser-thin they could be impacted in single brain cells, and seeing which cell lit up during a specific movement. The neurons in this are proving to be remarkably precise; for instance, some neurons lit up only when the monkey was grasping something in its hand, others only when it was tearing it apart.
But the truly unexpected discovery came one hot afternoon when a research assistant came back from a break eating and ice-cream cone. The scientists were astonished to see a sensorimotor cell activate as one monkey watched the assistant lift the cone to his lips. They were dumbfounded to find that a distinct set of neurons seemed to activate when the monkey merely observed another monkey — or one of the experimenters — making a given movement.
Since that first sighting of mirror neurons in monkeys, the same systems have been discovered in the human brain. In a remarkable study where a laster-thin electrode monitored a single neuron in an awake person, the neuron fired both when the person anticipated pain — a pinprick — and when merely seeing someone else receive a pinprick — a neural snapshot of primal empathy in action.”
The implications of mirror neurons involvement in creativity are very exciting.
To me, this research is evidence that great art cannot be faked — it must be born from true passion.
Actors who don’t genuinely feel what they’re portraying on screen will never convince us, no matter how many courses they attend. Speakers who don’t feel first the emotions they want to elicit from their audience will never appear charismatic. And if your work doesn’t tantalise your mirror neurons, don’t expect it to trigger anyone else’s.
I’ll write future posts about the various ways mirror neurons can help us with our creative process, but for now, let’s stick to rewriting.
How Tarantino Uses Mirror Neurons In His Writing Process
As an aficionado of the creative processes of other artists, I’m always on the lookout for fresh ideas. When Quentin Tarantino won the Best Screenplay Golden Globe for Django Unchained in 2013, I paid particular attention to his acceptance speech. I’m glad I did:
“The other thing that I have to thank is my group of friends as I’m writing the script that I read scenes to as I go on. They’re the ones man. They’re the ones as I’m writing I’ll read a scene this time, I’ll read a scene that time, I’ll kind of piece it together. You guys don’t realise how important you are to my process. I don’t want input; I don’t want you to tell me if I’m doing anything wrong. Heavens forbid. But, I write a scene and I think I’ve heard it as much as I can, but then when I read it to you – I don’t give it to you to read, I read it – but when I read it to you, I hear it through your ears [my highlight]. And it lets me know I’m on the right track. And you’ll never know how much encouragement you give me during that. So thank you very much.”
Tarantino, just by being in proximity with someone who’s hearing his scene for the first time is able to connect with their mirror neurons and experience his own writing for the first time… again.
“This triggering of parallel circuitry in two brains lets us instantly achieve a shared sense of what counts in a given moment. This creates an immediacy, a sense of sharing the moment. Neuroscientists call that mutually reverberating state “empathic resonance,” a brain-to-brain linkage that forms a two-person circuitry…”
You’ve all experienced the phenomenon Tarantino is describing, even if you’ve never read your work aloud to a friend. For example, have you ever watched a film you’ve absolutely loved, and wanted to watch it again with someone who hadn’t seen it?
We enjoy doing this because it allows us to watch the film again through their fresh eyes and re-experience the twists and turns without expectation.
The telepathic writing technique is not as groundbreaking as it sounds, but that’s why having the science to back it up is so important. It allows us to take more seriously what we’d otherwise consider common sense.
How To Write With The Telepathic Technique
You don’t ask someone to read it in their head because you won’t know exactly which parts work and which don’t. And you don’t ask them to read it out loud because you don’t want them to be more focused on reading it well than experiencing the content.
You read it out loud to them. Don’t ask them for feedback. People are notoriously bad at explaining why they feel the way they do. And asking the wrong person for feedback, could kill your confidence.
You want to know what you think about your work as a first-time reader, not someone else.
Note: Some writers get rid of the familiarity with their work by locking it away for a few weeks. This is a great technique for a final draft, but a momentum killer on the first. You’ve just finished your first draft; the worst thing you can do is stop now.