Free the Marbles!

When I was in high school, one of my favorite teachers was preparing us for a big test. We were all very nervous about it, and she told one of her when-I-was-in-college stories to put us at ease. She’d visited her professor, worried about an upcoming test; she wanted his help to make sure she was prepared. He chatted with her briefly about the class, then got up from his desk and took her to a movie.

“You know the material,” she told us many years later, just as her professor had told her. “You’re prepared. Go home and don’t think about it. Just put it in the back of your mind, and you’ll do fine tomorrow.”

I’ve been using that back-of-the-mind analogy ever since. The back of the mind is the place where the marbles roll around loose, bumping up against one another and setting off new associations, new ideas. :) But it will only work when you release your tight hold on them, when you quit trying to line them up. Set those marbles free, my friends!

I often have authors worry that they’re stuck on a plot point or just can’t seem to make an idea work. I tell them to take a break. Get up and walk away. At the very least, sleep on it. If there’s plenty of time, I suggest reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. (And it’s even more fantastic if you can work your way through the book in a facilitated group. Either way, it’s not a book that can be rushed through. There are lots of mental exercises and built-in pauses to ponder.) Cameron’s version of “walking away from it” is the Artist’s Date. (Here are some more ideas about seeking inspiration.)

So I was delighted when my friend Michelle wrote this post. It’s the best description I’ve seen about what happens when you put things in the back of your head and let them roll around for awhile. I also have heard more than one author’s story about a peripheral character who ended up taking over the plot. It’s astonishing what can happen when you free the marbles!

Tweet: Stumped? Blocked? Take a break!

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6 Comments

  1. Michelle Ule says:

    And that’s exactly what happened when I returned to the manuscript and finished it off–a surprise, submarine in this case. And a remarkably cohesive ending. Joy.

  2. TNeal says:

    Okay, so I’m not just going to whiz through this post before heading out the door. You’ve gotten my attention, given me some links, but left me with too little time to chase them down in cyberspace. Looks like I better make room in my schedule for what appears to be some good reads. Thanks, Jamie, for linking me up (I think). ;)

  3. Sarah Thomas says:

    When I need to free the marbles at work, I do an on-line crossword puzzle. It engages the front of my brain while the back is free to rolls stuff around. More than one task I’d neglected has risen to the surface while I try to come up with a six-letter word for “collection of signs.”

    • Jamie says:

      Three things that work for me are massage, doing a jigsaw puzzle, and listening to Gregorian chant. The jigsaw works for me much like your crossword. If I really need to do some serious thinking, chant is the solution. It’s almost like white noise for me. All of these things are calming for me, and I think that’s key: you have to calm down, get away from the constant bombardment of input from life, in order to work these things out.

  4. […] hard work. Any creative endeavor is. So sometimes it’s good to step away from the computer and let your mind empty. I sit in front of a jigsaw puzzle. Some people I know play video games, […]

  5. […] You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (Nuala O’Faolain) Arrival, The (Shaun Tan) Artist’s Way, The (Julia Cameron) Art of Fiction, The (David Lodge) Art of Fielding, The (Chad Harbach) At […]

  6. […] Now I’m conscious of it, but in an unconscious way. It is not on the front burner, just “rolling around in the back of my mind.” It can stay there for weeks or even […]

  7. […] Here are a few more in this line of thought: On Inspiration • Free the Marbles • The Creative Spark • The Case for Procrastination • The Waiting is the Hardest Part • […]

  8. […] you’ve read this article about the creative process (or this one), you’ll see that the work-in-progress phase is what we call preparation and setting it aside […]

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Movies for Writers on 10 December, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    […] hard work. Any creative endeavor is. So sometimes it’s good to step away from the computer and let your mind empty. I sit in front of a jigsaw puzzle. Some people I know play video games, […]

  2. By The Bonus Round (2012 Edition) on 7 January, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    […] You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (Nuala O’Faolain) Arrival, The (Shaun Tan) Artist’s Way, The (Julia Cameron) Art of Fiction, The (David Lodge) Art of Fielding, The (Chad Harbach) At […]

  3. By The Waiting Is the Hardest Part on 29 January, 2015 at 8:49 am

    […] Now I’m conscious of it, but in an unconscious way. It is not on the front burner, just “rolling around in the back of my mind.” It can stay there for weeks or even […]

  4. By Short Saturday: Isaacson’s 5 Easy Theses on 1 March, 2015 at 7:23 am

    […] Here are a few more in this line of thought: On Inspiration • Free the Marbles • The Creative Spark • The Case for Procrastination • The Waiting is the Hardest Part • […]

  5. […] you’ve read this article about the creative process (or this one), you’ll see that the work-in-progress phase is what we call preparation and setting it aside […]