Writing Fast and Slow: Creative Writing Lessons from Daniel Kahneman
I’m reading Nobel Prize winning Daniel Kahneman‘s groundbreaking book Thinking Fast and Slow.
What does a celebrated psychologist turned economist have to say about creative writing (besides the fact that his step-daughter is the fiction editor at the New Yorker)? A lot. The lessons I’m learning from Thinking Fast and Slow are transforming the way I write, and I think they will help you, too.
Kahneman’s ideas aren’t new. Last week, I shared the best quotes from Ernest Hemingway about writing, who said he never thought about his writing after he finished for the day because he didn’t want “think his story out and lose it.” Fascinatingly, this insight has been confirmed by modern research
Two Ways to Think: System 1 and System 2
Much of Kahneman’s book deals with two different systems in your brain for thinking. System 1 controls your subconscious, and it has more power over your daily decisions than you probably realize. System 1 is fast, making split second decisions that may or may not be accurate.
System 2, on the other hand, represents your conscious thought. For example, what is the solution to this math problem: 17 x 24?
Kahneman says that as you calculated the answer, your pupils dilated, your blood pressure went up, and your muscles tensed. Your conscious mind was straining to work on the solution (it’s 408), and until you solved the problem or gave up, your body would continue to stay in stress.
System 1 is More Creative, System 2 is Better for Problem Solving
Creativity is about bringing several different ideas into a single thought, and this is where System 1 thrives. While System 2 is a focused, precise engineer, solving any problem set before her, System 1 is a fun, spontaneous artist splashing paint on the walls and making messes.
Writers often try to write like they’re solving a math problem: “Act 1 must have the inciting incident; this scene doesn’t have a turning point; what’s the correct point-of-view for this novel.” When you get stuck thinking like an engineer as you write, writer’s block tends to follow. You start focusing in on everything that’s wrong with your writing until you’re exhausted.
Instead, let each system do what it does best. Keep System 2 out of the writing room, which can be reserved for making messes. Then bring System 2 back in for cleanup.
Because it turns out that System 2 is a much better editor than System 1. It will spot your typos and errors in logic. It will clean up your copy and make sure your writing is readable. System 2 may not be very creative, but it will certainly keep you from looking like a fool.
5 Tips to Stay in System 1 While You Write
Personally, I have a hard time following this advice though. I tend to easily fall into System 2 when I write, and it often makes me a painfully slow writer.
How do you stay in System 1 even when your body is telling you there’s something wrong, that you should quit writing and focus on editing? Here are five tips:
When you’re happy, you’re more likely to be in System 1. If you’re sad, on the other hand, you’re likely to switch into System 2.
Thus, monitor your mood as you write. Don’t let yourself get frustrated when things aren’t going well.
For a surefire trick, smile as you write. Smiling has been shown to change your mood to make you happier. Try it when you write today. It’s fun!
2. Write What You Know
We often overuse or misinterpret this advice, but there is wisdom to writing what you know. Hemingway said:
I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about…. What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most?
To keep yourself from overthinking and moving into System 2, write about something you know so well that it’s effortless, something you’ve experienced so completely you don’t have to think about.
This way, instead of having to recreate the experience in your head, you’ll just be letting it flow from your body, almost like muscle memory.
3. Keep Your Pen Moving
When you stop writing you risk the chance of System 2 taking over. Don’t stop. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from the movie Finding Forrester:
No thinking. That comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write, not to think!
And then a little later:
*Punch* the keys, for God’s sake!
The rhythm of your typing will create its own flow and soon you won’t be thinking about what you’re writing, you’ll just be writing.
4. Don’t Overthink
In another quote in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway says:
When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day.
Try this: when you finish writing for the day, don’t allow yourself to think about your story. Anytime you feel your mind begin to think about your story, distract it with something else.
The next day, go back to the story you were working on. How does it feel? Is your writing more fresh? Are you ready to work on it now?
5. Find Your Writing Workspace
Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, thanked an art museum in his hometown in the acknowledgments of one of his books. When he got really stuck in his novels, he said, he would go write in their café, claiming that all his plot snarls would go away within an hour.
We’ve written about the importance of your writing workspace on The Write Practice before, but it bears repeating here. System 1 thrives when it feels comfortable and happy. Put yourself in a place where your imagination can stretch its legs.
Write Fast, Edit Slow
In the end, you need both System 1 and System 2 to be a great writer. System 1 helps you create imaginative (but very rough) drafts. System 2 turns those rough drafts into great manuscripts.
The first step is to learn to identify when you’re thinking in System 1 and System 2, and then try to move yourself into the one most suitable for the task at hand. Sometimes, this is impossible. You may find yourself stuck in System 1, checking Facebook and unable to focus when you should be editing. Or you may find that System 2 is blocking you from writing and being creative.
Hopefully, with practice, you can learn to steer your mind to be the most productive for your writing.
How about you? Do you spend more time writing in System 1 or System 2?
Free write for fifteen minutes using the words orange, sweat, coin, and elm.
As you write, try to stay in System 1 using the tips above. When your time is up, edit your writing using System 2 (try frowning while you do it!). Then, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, give feedback to your fellow writers.