The Value of Percolation

(This article originally appeared on Jane Friedman’s blog. Thank you to Jane for posting it!)

I love learning how the brain works during the writing process. I’ve mostly been interested in how to “turn on” the brain’s right, creative hemisphere through exercises like free writing. A book I recently read gave me insight into a different aspect of the writing process: the value of not writing—of setting aside an unfinished draft.

How We Learn by Benedict Carey (Random House, 2014) explains scientific research on how the brain learns. While much of the book concerns rote memorization, I was drawn to chapter 7, which details how the brain approaches long-term projects (such as writing a novel).

Most writers have heard this advice: set aside your draft to revise later. And most of us have experienced new insights when coming back to a manuscript. Why is it helpful to set aside a draft? Why do we sometimes get insights about our writing when we are not working on it? Carey calls this process “percolation.”

The first element of percolation: interruption

When a project is interrupted at an important or difficult moment, that keeps the project at the top of our brain’s to-do list. Most of us have limited time to write, and some of us believe we should not start a story or novel unless we’ll have time to finish. But interruption is actually good for a long project and means that you can start a book whenever you want.

When my children were small, I used to wake up at 5 am and spend one hour working on my fiction before I went to work. That’s all the time I had: one hour per day. I had no idea if my writing would come together in anything publishable, but I treasured that quiet hour when no one was demanding my attention, and I could focus on something I craved. Because I interrupted my writing every morning, I was still thinking about it (consciously and I’m sure subconsciously as well) during the day, and when I sat down the next morning, I often had some new ideas. Although it took years, I was able to write my novel And Laughter Fell from the Sky in one hour per day (as well as some occasional longer stretches when my husband would take the kids away for a weekend).

As my children grew older, and once I started working as a teacher, I had longer stretches of time to write during school breaks. When in the midst of a project, I would often lose track of time. I’d work throughout the day, and as much as I enjoyed the process, I wondered: was I really being productive, or was I spinning my wheels re-reading, tinkering, or heading down the wrong path?

A few years ago, I found out about a practice called the “Pomodoro Technique,” which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and working steadily during that time. Each “pomodoro” session is separated by a short break of up to 5 minutes. I set a timer on my phone and purposely put the phone in a different room, so I am forced to stand up from my computer and walk at least a short distance to turn off the pomodoro. If I’m in the flow of writing, sometimes I head right back to my computer after setting another pomodoro. At other times, I take a few minutes to wash some dishes or fold a few clothes. Even a short interruption can help, due to something Carey refers to as “selective forgetting.” A short break helps us forget about any blind paths or misleading avenues we were heading down. Even a tiny interruption helps my brain re-set. Sometimes, as I’m washing the dishes, I’ll get an idea about a line of dialogue to try, or an insight into a character.

The second element of percolation: the tuned, scavenging mind

When you have a project in mind, you are subconsciously attuned to any clues or information in your environment that might be relevant. “Having a goal foremost in mind . . . tunes our perceptions to fulfilling it,” says Carey.

It is important, therefore, when setting aside unfinished work, to keep your mind open to solutions. In the past, when I did not have a solution to a problem in my writing, I felt uncomfortable. I would try to argue the problem out of existence, try to convince myself that everything was fine. The problem was still there, though. Inevitably, critiques would point out the flaw I was trying to ignore. But because my mind had been closed—because I had been telling myself there was no problem—I had not come up with any solutions yet. Finally, I realized it was better to accept that nagging, uncomfortable feeling that said “something’s wrong here,” even when I didn’t know how to solve the problem. Being open to solutions often allowed solutions to suggest themselves later on.

Recently, I was pulling together a short story from segments of an unpublished novel that I’d worked on years ago and then abandoned. This short story has three sections, and I didn’t like the way the first section ended. The last line seemed too final for the first section of a story. I had the urge to argue away the problem, but fortunately I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable with having a problem and not knowing how to fix it. Some days later, I hit upon a possible solution: make the last sentence of the section into a line of dialogue, and have the other character react to it. I tried it, and liked the way it worked.

The third element of percolation: conscious reflection

Once we come up with a possible solution, we must try it and reflect on whether it works.  Maybe that idea that seemed so brilliant in the shower is a dud when applied to the page. Or maybe it’s just right.

The process of percolation, over years, helped me write the novella that ends my new collection These Americans. The novella originally started out life as a novel that I was actively working on several years ago. It involved an elderly woman immigrant doctor from India and her semi-estranged daughter. It also involved an Indian-American woman whom the doctor hired to help her ghostwrite her life story, as well as the ghostwriter’s overbearing husband and three children. The novel was not bad (it ended up being a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether prize), but despite numerous attempts at revision, neither I nor my agent was satisfied with it. I set it aside.

Years later, while grappling with some unexpected life experiences, I mined them for fictional possibilities. Maybe I could use these experiences in that novel about the immigrant woman doctor. And, inspired by my fascination with novellas, I decided to tighten the whole thing into a novella. I collapsed the daughter and the ghostwriter into one character. And I added a story line inspired by my own recent experiences. The result was a novella I renamed “Hawk,” and many readers have told me it is their favorite part of my book. I believe one reason the novella works is because I was forced to allow time for percolation. 

Understanding the process and value of percolation can help you get started on a project that may still be vague in your mind. For example, one day recently I made some notes about my mother and her messages to me (when I was a child) about my appearance, as well as what she had told me about how my grandmother had tried to control my mother’s looks when she was growing up. I had no idea what I’d do with these notes. I thought maybe I’d write an essay. Then, two weeks later, I woke up with the urge to write a story about a mother’s gift of a mysterious, deceptive mirror to her daughter. When I originally made the notes, I had no idea they would end up as a magical realism flash fiction piece.

Inspired by my new insights into the process of percolation, I even used it to write this essay. When I finished reading Benedict Carey’s book, I was excited by what I’d learned about percolation. But busy with work and other writing projects, I knew I didn’t have time to craft a full essay. Instead, I took 20 minutes to jot some jumbled notes. I set aside those notes on the top of a low bookshelf, where I saw them every day. I knew I would come back to them when I had time. And several weeks later, that time materialized when the school where I teach was closed for two days because of snow. Since I already had those notes, I could jump right in and draft this essay without wasting time wondering what to work on.

Percolation allows the brain’s subconscious to work while we’re busy with something else. Now that I know the value of percolation, I understand that any writing is useful, even if unfinished or abandoned. The time we spend writing is never a waste. Our brain is still working on those ideas, and we never know when that story, essay, poem, or novel will spring to life again.