How to Harness the ‘Performance’ in Your Writing

And tap into your spontaneous, creative mind more often

Some days, writing is like climbing a sand dune. We work and rework, but we can’t gain traction and frustratingly our words and ideas seep away from under us.

Sometimes, though, when we sit down to write, our ideas flow out of a higher state that combines our thought, reading and imagination into one flowing moment. We transcend our normal day-today struggle and connect to a flurry of inspiration that surprises and amazes us. This is a performance.

I’m an orchestra conductor. I’ve conducted concerts that transform and take us “beyond”, and also, as a writer, I’ve experienced the fleeting, but extraordinary writing ‘performances’ that flash through my mind from time to time.

I’m fascinated by the similarities that I recognize between these two experiences, and as a writer, I want to find the way to get into this performance mind — this inspired, flowing, creative flurry of writing — as much as possible.

How can we tap into our writer’s performance mind?

There are 3 important elements

We can take tangible steps that empower potential for this to happen.

  1. Deep focus connects our mind to its full potential
  2. Focus opens the door to awareness
  3. Finally, if we “let go” and stay aware, we connect to our full minds (the subconscious as well as the conscious), and we open ourselves to spontaneity in the moment.This allows us to get to the “other side” — the side where art resides.

In a music performance, we take all of the details that we’ve worked on in rehearsal (notes, rhythms, sound), and then, in concert, we elevate beyond mere tangible aspects of music and seek to communicate, and to symbolize, create emotion and surprise. How can we tap into our writer’s performance mind?

In writing, if you substitute music for words, then you understand that, as writers, we have the potential to create a concert of words when we let the music play itself. When we relax, our mind seems to take over unto itself. When we release control sometimes, we get bigger. It’s in these moments that we feel the creative flow — the rush of ideas and words pouring out.

Sometimes beautiful sentences seem to conspire from some higher place and we wonder where they came from. They come from us — from deep within our mind when we allow our brain to connect within itself and unlock what it already knows.

How to prepare for a performance

And so, if we think about writing as a performance, how might we best prepare for each performance (knowing that as writers, we never know when the next performance will be)?

This article delves into writing performance in two parts:

  • Preparation for the concert: How we can prepare, train our mind, and empower our writing potential.
  • Performance: How to get into our flow so that we find the balance that allows us to use our tools while elevating to a creatively inspired place.

Why do we practice?

We start the practice of anything important by focussing on why we care about it. When I think about my writing, I recognize, that for me, the process itself is the true gift.

There are days when I feel like I’m pushing against a wall, or deflated because it seems beyond me to capture my disorganized, fleeting thoughts, but I never lose sight of the fact that it’s because of my writing that I’m examining life with a fresh and evolving perspective. I’m more aware of my mind and I’m passionate about what I learn.

Writers impact the world with their thoughts and change the world. Alison Gopnik writes in The Philosophical Baby:

“Learning is about the way the world changes our mind, but our minds can also change the world.”

5 steps to help you prepare for the performance

Good musicians don’t just practice — they practice in a highly focussed, deep way— interacting with their material, reworking skills and discrepancies, again and again, until they’re clean and automatic. They’re motivated and interested in what they’re doing, and as a result, they engage, remember and transfer these skills deeply.

As writers, the same can be said about how we need to approach the process. When we focus deeply on our work, committing regularly to both the process of writing and reading, we find that our practice is effective. We get better. And we have a better chance at producing inspired performances.

1. Create a cycle

Cycling your schedule is an important part of performance success.

Anything worthwhile takes time. Malcolm Gladwell wrote that we need 10,000 hours to develop expertise in a new understanding or skill in The OutliersIf you’re going to be a world-famous writer, violinist, athlete, or cook, it takes long-term commitment and focus on a goal that’s far in the distance.

Cycling harnesses the various kinds of learning and mental work that we desire to accomplish each day, the best times to approach them, and cycles between deep work and rest to avoid mental fatigue. Cycling helps us to achieve optimal focus and to simultaneously enjoy what we’re doing.

Think in big picture

We can’t accomplish our big goals in one day, so we need to commit to a variety of smaller goals that set us on the path for a manageable amount of time every day. What’s the eagle’s view of your goals? Every day, review the big vision that you have for your life and you’ll consistently reset your motivation each time.

Find your best times to accomplish the tasks that lead you there. When is your best writing time? How can you ensure that you are always reading or learning? Where is your time to think or create more deeply?

Schedule your commitment to all of these things.

Creativity needs open space, but it resides best inside a window of pre-ordained time that is part of our daily committed habit. Give yourself time to work without distraction. Schedule the time for distractions as well. Certain times of the day are better for answering emails and relaxing with TikTok, but this shouldn’t be during the special time that you’ve committed to your big picture.

2. Organize your mental plan

When I prepare for a concert, I study, prepare, think about the music — and then an interpretation emerges. The interpretation is the art — it’s the whole point. When I lead an orchestra, the musicians want to be inspired by my vision for the music and they want me to take them somewhere special in performance.

It’s tricky to prepare for a concert. My work in studying and learning the music ahead of a performance has to peak right at the performance time. If I start studying too far in advance, I might lose interest if the material sits too long in my head without growing in daily intense revelations. I can’t let myself get disconnected. Even if I’ve conducted a piece of music many times before, I have to reignite my passion for it.

Similarly, if I don’t put in the work and aren’t prepared in time, then I don’t know the music deeply enough when I start rehearsals and I don’t have a strong vision and connection to the music to share. Now I’m forced to grip onto the performance from the ‘surface’, and my mind can’t relax into the magical spontaneous place where real art happens because it’s too busy hanging on to details that I haven’t pushed farther back in my brain.

So, what does this mean for writers?

Writing process seems to have a relationship to a lot of external things as it comes together into a piece within our minds. For myself, if I cycle my work most effectively, I have the right chemistry of material in my mind — my own thoughts, experience, musings, deep thought — and also sparks that come from reading others’ work. All of it combines and connects in a way that enables my thoughts go into a flow without too many distractions.

If I read too many things, and don’t write about them, I lose them. If my mind is pondering too many fragmented areas, I get scattered and I lose this path, and although there’s so much that I have interest in exploring, I’m paralyzed and inefficient for lack of organization.

You’ll often have new topic ideas flash into your mind, and you’ll keep track — someday you may come back to them. But you also need to organize your mind around a single topic, and keep a flow — reading what’s helpful (and keeping it fresh), rereading what you’ve already got notes for, and creating outlines to keep bigger plan present in your mind. If you jump in on too many topics at once, you lose the chance to find one part of your art culminating just in time for the concert.

3. Think Deeply

As writers, we draw from a well of experience and craft, and importantly, by thinking deeply. Make open time in your life to have depth in your thinking and learning. Read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work to understand the importance of sinking, every day, into some deeper thinking time.

When we read, we soak in the style and thoughts of other writers and can find ourselves thinking in sentence structures that might seem intuitive, but rather are the culmination of imprints that have registered in our minds and are waiting for us to engage them. I’m always amazed at how I think “in the style” of a great writer for a few days after reading his work

4. Wrestle with tension

It’s the struggle of fighting with our ideas and wrestling with our challenges that ultimately forces us to grow. When we’re most uncomfortable, the tension shows us that we’re on the verge of breaking into new territory and pushing against our own ceiling.

Seth Godin writes in The Practice:

True learning is a voluntary experience that requires tension and discomfort (the persistent feeling of incompetence as we get better at a skill)…

Discomfort engages people, keeps them on their toes, makes them curious.

Discomfort is the feeling we all get just before change happens.

Change happens when we go beyond where we are to another level.

I suffer extraordinary tension when I conduct . I’m nervous, I’m trying to memorize complex scores, much of the time I don’t feel worthy of the task and I’m working with orchestras that I don’t know—but then when I stand on the stage and perform, the energy releases into this extraordinary euphoria that wipes all of this tension away. This high comes when we work hard for something, and then trust that we’ve done the work and let go

5. Harness your creativity by making time for it

Your creativity is what makes you unique.

Although you might be focussed on the tangible outcome of your writing work, your mind’s unique connections will only emerge if you create some spaciousness for them. We tap into our subconscious when we relax and find the sweet spot that opens our mind to bigger thoughts and new ideas — these moments where things ‘flash’ when we don’t push with our mind.

Art is a balance of controlled, focussed work and emerging, open creativity. It isn’t one or the other. To truly be effective we need to harness both.

So, although you work hard every day, you also need to schedule in timeless space to your daily cycle as well. Go for a walk, sit on a park bench, or go to a cabin in the woods for a week from time to time.

To be an effective creator, you need to be comfortable with time that has no plan. Practice not checking your phone, or always opening a book when you have a free moment. Instead, practice having moments of silence. The silence will teach you more than any 10-minute news feed.

The Performance

Performance has shown me that greater things are there waiting for us. A performance is a living, in-the-moment altered reality that seems to create itself, but only when we’re all in.

If I perform well, I mentally disappear into the music. If I succeed at doing this, I elevate beyond my normal state into one that is harnessing my greatest awareness, sensitivity and capacity — and I react and connect everything that’s happening in that moment, to what I’ve known from the past, in a way that transcends my normal abilities. The same can be said for the orchestra musicians who “zone in” — striving to find that elevated place they often experience specifically in performance.

Photo of author with RCM Orchestra in Koerner Hall, Toronto

As writers, we can connect to our inner performer. Great performance requires spontaneity. When we open up and flow we can experience our brain sparking in the moment with the deep thought that we’ve enriched it with — new connections and relationships lighting up in concentrated energy of the performance.

Our best writing performances often have motion. Our ideas build up within our mind and wait — and then there’s a tipping point, sometimes unleashed by something we’ve read, an experience we’ve just had, or just a great first sentence — that causes everything to come out in a flourish.

Our job is to release this flow, to tap into it, to find the performance. Most powerful are those moments where flow abolishes rigidity — where words and ideas conspire with themselves and pour, more or less, into one direction.

We can always go beyond. We can’t expect it every time, and must work hard to be professionals when it doesn’t — but as performers, we know that it can happen, does happen, and that sometimes we can transcend and experience something remarkable.

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