How Dirty is Your Mind?

Dusty AtticSherlock Holmes, the great fictional detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was purported to have one of the best minds of his generation. In one of the first Holmes stories ever written, Holmes described how he came to have such a clever brain:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of any sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or is at best jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficultly laying his hands upon it.

I’m inclined to agree with Sir Doyle that the creative mind is very much like an attic, but there is one thing I disagree with:

Crowding our brain up with too much knowledge isn’t exactly the problem that most of us encounter.

Our problem is often that the corners of the attic are so very neglected that we can’t see them anymore for the dust and grime and cobwebs. That story you thought of in 1999 is still in there, somewhere. Possibly behind that couch in the corner, the one buried under boxes and old clothes. You’re not sure, though. It could be anywhere, really.

When we neglect the attic of our mind, all our creativity goes to waste.

So let’s do a little spring-cleaning, shall we?

Writing: The Great Dust-Mop of the Creative Mind

Every writer, particularly professional fiction writers, will tell you that in order to get to the truly genius stuff, you have to write pages upon pages of complete and utter garbage. You could write a hundred pages of terrible stuff to get to that first good page of your first novel – and that’s just the first page.

You don’t want to know about the second one.

And yet, those who do write professionally for a living often find it much easier to get to the good stuff than you or I do. Stephen King doesn’t write much crap anymore. He’s been doing it for too long.

Now, my theory is that King didn’t get to write pretty darn good stuff every single time he sat down at the table just because he was genetically gifted with brilliance. My theory is that he keeps the attic of his mind clean by regular daily writing.

Think of writing like spring-cleaning your creative mind. When you first start writing creatively, you haven’t been in your attic in a long time. It has all kinds of stuff in there. Everything is dirty. You won’t even know where to begin. No wonder writers are always exhausted by the very idea of writing if we haven’t done any for awhile.

Now think about King’s attic mind. He’s been writing pages a day, every day, for years. He has basically been going up to his attic room with a dust rag and a mop every single day, making sure everything’s in order. It takes him almost no time to get through the dirt because he’s never away long enough for dirt to accumulate.

It might take King a couple paragraphs to get through the extraneous stuff, but then he’s right back in a nice clean attic, picking up pieces here and there that might make a good story.

Spring Cleaning Takes Patience

The problem most of us encounter is that we’ll not write for long periods of time, then come up to that dusty, abused attic room and expect it to be clean within the hour. That’s complete and utter folly. You wouldn’t expect to clean a room with years’ worth of accumulated grime and dirt in an hour, would you? Absolutely not.

To give you an idea, my own apartment was a complete hellhole when I moved in. The two women who lived there before had both had small children under six years old, and they had painted the rooms of the house with daycare colors such as bright pinks and greens and turquoises. They hadn’t properly scrubbed the floors or dusted the corners of the ceilings, ever. The paint was old and neglected and had tons of nail-holes in it. The wood frames of the windows needed to be sanded and repainted.

You better believe it didn’t take me a day to get through that. In fact, it took more than a year to get the whole apartment the way I wanted it: repaired, repainted, and refurnished. And unless I want it to descend into squalor again, I still have to do a full house-cleaning every Sunday. It doesn’t take long – but if I leave it three weeks, it takes a lot longer.

The same applies for your attic-brain. It’s going to take a long time to get that neglected space to the point where you can find everything, where it’s simple to just walk in and start working. You’re going to have days where you do a bit of dusting, which is to say you write some lousy stuff, but you won’t have it happen nearly as often if you walk into that room every single day and make use of it.

I know it’s scary. You may have neglected your attic mind for years. It’s going to take a long time to clean it out. But the only way it happens if you go up there and work on it. So pick up a pen and start cleaning out your attic, an hour a day. One hour every day, and one day you’ll wake up and realize it’s clean. The words flow out so easily. You tap into creative ideas without any effort. Your attic is finally clean.

And then your only task will be to keep it that way, so that you never have to go through that crazy process of starting from scratch again.

Your attic’s not getting any cleaner. Go get started.

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

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  1. True. The metaphor about furnishings and cobwebs covering the good stuff in our minds is spot on.

    The more I write the better I get and the better I get the more I write.

    Blogging has provided my mind with the Spring cleaning it has been in need of for a long time.
    .-= Roschelle´s last blog ..Post-Avatar Depression – Why Am I Not Surprised… =-.

  2. I think this holds true for ideas of any kind. Writing, business, personal. You don’t want ideas to get lost in your attic. In the same vein you have here, the way I keep my attic free of clutter, is to write down my ideas and pin them on a board in my office. This way I have a record and can pull the idea back to the front (of my mind) and then act on it.
    .-= Heather Villa´s last blog ..What Compels People to Hire You (Instead of Your Competitor)? =-.

  3. Adore this analogy. I’m a big advocate for daily writing, but since I’ve fallen a bit short in recent months, I’ve noticed the dust accumulating.

    My favorite way to start clearing the dust is to do ‘morning pages’ — 3 pages of writing whatever the hell comes into your head first thing in the morning. You kinda expect it to be illegible crap, so it’s fine if it is. That loosens up the mind a bit to get into writing that is, hopefully, legible and coherent…
    .-= Zoe´s last blog ..Building Your Online Home =-.

  4. @Zoe – Taylor’s trying to get me into the habit of Morning Pages. I’m protesting silently because they just seem so… fu-fu. And in longhand! I get hand cramps! But the few times I did do them (big writing, very scribbled, and I gave up after a page and a half), I actually did feel better.

    It would be much easier to keyboard it but I know it wouldn’t have the same effect as writing it by hand.

  5. Or, you could simply say that to be any good at anything you have to practise. The more you do it the better you are. Look at Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers. Ten thousand hours of doing the thing you are good at takes you from talented to genius.
    However, as both a Blogger and someone who takes her daughter to swimming coaching five times a week, you sometimes wonder why you do it. All those hours ! Trying to be the best you can be is frequently exhausting.
    .-= Lucy Thorpe´s last blog ..Why I want a man cave. =-.

  6. I went and wrote a 1000 word short story after reading this post.

    I do feel much more comfortable with a keyboard than hand though. By hand the ideas get stalled by my writing speed.

  7. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    If I am remembering right, in Stephen King’s book “On Writing” he gives advice that one should always cut at least 10% of each first draft. He knows how to declutter.

    Great post Taylor. Great way of looking at writing—and cleaning.

    Dang, that bathroom is a mess and I just cleaned it yesterday.

  8. Bravo Taylor. not only is the post great but you even used my favorite author Doyle for the illustration.
    No worry. I’ll not lash at you but instead agree that our minds need defragmenting. And that’s why I don’t believe that writers should write everyday.
    A great writing teacher said that we even need to let our ideas percolate first before putting it in paper. But after that, the defrag or spring cleaning of course.
    .-= poch´s last blog ..TV Remote Control now a Dying Gadget Too =-.

  9. For me, it’s always hard to get my writing flowing. It feels like I need to add some WD-40 to some very rusty gears. Once I’ve been at it awhile, the words flow from my mind far easier. If I have all my ideas (i.e. technical info, scribbles, Venn diagrams) on an article together, it’s simpler to work my way through the mental debris.
    .-= Natalie´s last blog ..Almond & White Bean Epi Wreath (B&P35) =-.

  10. I agree with Zoe. This post reinforces the value of what I call my ‘daily writing practice’ (the yogi in me coming out). It’s part of my ‘settle down to work’ routine every day. Similar to Zoe, I just write whatever comes to mind until I’ve filled two pages. I actually find it quite therapeutic and sometimes, a form of meditation. If my brain is buzzing on any given day, it really helps to settle things down.

    As for hand-writing versus keyboard, I too am much faster when using the latter, but for me, that’s not the point. Slowing down to think is a good thing! And I find that there’s something about the act of forming each letter and word myself that gets my creative juices flowing for the next task.

  11. I like the analogy you used here. I believe where people struggle is trying to be an editor and creative writer at the same time. Sean D’Souza write a post (on Copyblogger I believe) saying you can do both at the same time, but I’d say if you want to clean out your attic, turn the editor off and get writing. Once the space is clean, then try both.

    And if that doesn’t work, you could always give our website a try (shameless self plug), 😉


  12. The daily writing exercise is fine – but lose the notion it has to be done by hand. ANYTHING that gets the process moving is good. Yeah, handwriting has its advantages, especially if you do a lot of “creative” writing, such as novels, short stories, ad copy, blogging, etc. It does slow you down a bit, and it does make your writing more “personal” in some way, ESPECIALLY if done with a fountain pen–my personal favorite writing instrument of all time.

    However, you can achieve most of the same effect by sitting down and typing a page of personal commentary on the major headline of the day. It gets you thinking, it gets the words moving, it jumpstarts the engine.

    Coffee optional, but highly recommended. For especially slow days, add a piece of dark chocolate.

  13. Definitely write first, edit later. I like the “Morning Pages” idea. Kit’s dark chocolate idea is even better!

  14. The only addition I’d make to this is that Stephen King always refers to the place he writes as a mental basement instead of an attic. I think that works too: it’s full of pipes and hardware and clutter and goo that smells bad!
    .-= Catherine Caine´s last blog ..5 minute mission: Comment on one blog post =-.

  15. @Kit – I disagree that writing by hand isn’t necessary. In fact, I’d say it’s almost crucial to making a cleaning count. Writing by hand has a very different effect than tapping something out quickly on a keyboard – it slows us down, it takes thought, it requires more effort…

    And it sticks.

    Writing out statements by hand has been used in various wartime strategies to cement ideas into POW minds. Prisoners would write out statements they didn’t believe in, and the more they wrote them, the more they became to believe them. I’m not convinced the same effect would occur if they had to type the statement over and over.

    Handwriting has much stronger persuasive power than we think, I feel.

  16. I just wish my handwriting did not look as if ink hurled itself out of the pen nib.

  17. You mean not only do I have to clean in real life (which I never do), I have to clean in METAPHOR, too?? Nooooooo.

    But, of course, you’re 100% right. And you took such great effort to dress it up in literary references, to make it palatable to the cleaning-averse among us. (I don’t even own a dust mop… but I am gonna try Morning Pages now.)

    As for King — he IS practically Old Faithful when it comes to reliably turning out huge volumes of good stuff. But…

    Have you ever read The Mist? The first story he got published?

    If not, you should, because it will break any preconceived notion you have about being born a genius. It is complete and utter garbage. I’m amazed it ever got published at all.

    And that’s said with love. I think King is awesome, and he’s managed to make me cry with his books, and move me, while simultaneously freaking me out. He’s an amazing example of where you can get with sheer bloodyminded persistence.
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..Your Questions: Amy, how do you learn? =-.

  18. Not the post I was expecting when I read the title. Where the hell are the pictures of hotties in bikinis and wet T shirts? You copywriters are oh so deceiving 😉

    But yes, clean the attic. I write a journal everyday… but not like fruity ass journal where I write down all my feelings and shit. It’s a place to dump my thoughts and hone my craft. Instead of cleaning the attic, I have my very one dump ground. Still clears my mind… just a different way to go about it.

    Sometimes though… I’m not sure I want my head to be clean. Sometimes I want the chaos. I want the random, hyperactive ideas flying at me in every angle while I furiously struggle to scribble them on page. Part of the fun is taking that massive splash of mess and creating something even James can understand. Then convince his ass to post it.

    Good times.
    .-= FitJerks Fitness Blog´s last blog ..5 Reasons Why You Need Amazing Abs! =-.

  19. Very good post. An English professor in college hammered the “writing process” into me during college. Just get a draft out and heavily revise afterwards. This really helped me because prior to this I was a perfectionists who wanted to do everything right the first time (and thus didn’t achieve anything!)
    .-= Julia´s last blog .. =-.

  20. I can’t even begin to tell you how insightful and helpful this post has been. I’ve neglected my writing for some time now and the idea of sitting down and trying to write has been so daunting and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I *wanted* to write, but I just didn’t feel I had the energy and I was fearful that it would all be crap anyway.

    Getting over the fear of writing out crap for awhile, until the clutter is gone and the good stuff starts to flow again will take some work but this article has given me great inspiration to be fearless and just get started! I cannot thank you enough for this piece.
    .-= Shanna´s last blog ..Tweek! Twits for the Week of 2010-01-10 =-.

  21. This post really touched on something it took me the longest time to figure out. Four years ago I started a webcomic. In that time I’ve redesigned the website four times, changed the drawing style three times, and posted…one page. One single page.

    How could this have happened? Well, I’d just keep getting stuck; it would take me ages to try to draw the next character or prop. The colours had to be just right, the shapes had to be just right, and then ohno, the speech bubbles don’t quite fit, the proportions are a little off, the dialogue jars. I was creating and deleting and creating and deleting and getting nowhere.

    Eventually I decided that this years resolutions would involve doing drawing exercises every single day, to try and build some self-discipline. Two weeks in, it’s going really well. I just hope that when my attic is completely cleared out, I’ll be able to properly tackle my comic, and maybe some day, finish page two.

  22. @Heather – I think you’re right. I’ve been trying to slowly add in another hour a day for work stuff and creative writing as well as my morning journaling. It’s slow going! But then again, I know that my copywriting skills never seem to flag, and I credit that to the fact that I never have more than a few days go by without some sort of copy to write. So clearly it works!

    @James – Suck it up, Jamie-boy. Be strong.

    @Lucy – This is true as well. Anything you see anyone excel at requires practice. I’m reminded of my actor friends yet again. One of them who’s working to get into a Masters program gets up every morning and first thing runs through all four of his monologues. Then he does them another three times at intervals through the day. Is that a man who’s going to forget what he wanted to do at an audition? Never happen.

    @Patrick – There are a lot of advocates of the hand-written screed. I’m one of them. You’ll find that the more you do it, the easier it comes, AND that you can sometimes get deeper into things when you’re forced to spend more time on them.

    @Marlene – I think there are many, many advocates of the morning pages for a good reason. I have yet to find anyone who hasn’t found them valuable. Some people gave them up, but they wish they hadn’t.

    @Shane – I think you’re right. It’s possible to be both writer and editor, but I definitely think that’s AFTER you get to the point where you can just jump up every morning and start writing, which is in turn definitely after your attic is all clean and sparkly.

    @Amy – Bwah ha ha! You must be cleeeeeeean! Good reminder on how wonderful writers initially wrote crap. I comfort myself with this thought often. Thomas Pynchon actually published a set of short stories specifically, he says, so that other writers can learn that it didn’t just happen magically. These stories suck, and they’re amateur, and I didn’t learn my craft until a few years after them.

    @Fitnessjerk – I would venture a belief that your “thoughts and craft” are probably also your “feelings and shit”. Everyone thinks that journaling is supposed to be sob stuff but usually it’s just getting through anything that’s on your mind so you can focus.

    @shanna – Aw, Shanna, I’m glad. Good luck to you.

    @Sandra – And good luck to you, too! It’s hard to learn a discipline, and I commend you. I hope you’re a standard at Comicon one day.

  23. Part of the fun is taking that massive splash of mess and creating something even James can understand.

    I’m not sure if I should be flattered or insulted… 😉

  24. @Tei – Hey Hey, It’s FITJerk, FIT… not fitness. But yeah you’re partially right. I do express my feelings on certain “issues” when it comes to my subject matter but not nearly as much as I COULD. But then if I did that, it wouldn’t be content anymore… at least not the kind of content I’d want to put out.

    @James – Haha, damn you caught on. It was actually carefully crafted to be both. A “spicy” compliment if you will. Maybe I can bottle it with my awesome sauce.
    .-= FitJerks Fitness Blog´s last blog ..5 Reasons Why You Need Amazing Abs! =-.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Todd Rutherford, BloggingTweets and Troy Manning, Suranee Perera. Suranee Perera said: RT @OLWriter: How Dirty is Your Mind? […]

  2. […] How Dirty Is Your Mind? compares writing skills to house cleaning. ”When we neglect the attic of our mind, all our creativity goes to waste.” In short, it’s easier to keep a clean attic and solid writing chops when you attend to these things on a regular basis. […]

  3. […] tried forcing myself to write. Every day. I worked hard at it, too. I put hours into blog posts that used to take me about 15 minutes. I agonized over words and […]

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