How I Write: First Take Care of Head

“But then one day I met a man who came up to me and said
“Hard work good and hard work fine but first take care of head.”

-“Smoke Two Joints” by the Toyes, played for many years at exactly 5 PM every Friday by radio station KFOG, in San Francisco.

I just got off the phone with a client, who I’ve interviewed in preparation for a piece. And now, as usual, I’m sitting here watching a concert video – this, if you’re curious. Why, at 9:14 on a workday, am I sitting here watching the Foo Fighters scream through a show in front of 86,000 Brits?

Well, if you’ve ever worked with a writer, and wondered how to get great work out of them, this may help.

First of all, it’s important to note something: clients pay me for great work. They can all, without exception, generate halfway decent work themselves. They don’t need me for that. What they need is stuff that’s noticeably better, that really, seriously resonates. They need, want and are paying for the experience of reading something and at the end, thinking “That was really, really good!” I have to deliver work at that level every single time, or I ain’t got no job.

Now, let’s note something else. I am sitting here with a blank page, and I have to generate a three-minute video script. And I have absolutely no idea what it’s going to say.

Think about that for a minute. This is exactly what every writer deals with. This isn’t fixing a car or removing an appendix or teaching a class. There’s a procedure for all of that. Besides having a few facts and a very rough idea of what I want, I have absolutely zero idea what I’m going to say. It just has to be really good.

No pressure, though. Nah.

What I have to do, then, is open up the proverbial blank page, start to write, and have the words and the ideas appear exactly when I want them. I don’t know how this happens – I’ve spent most of my professional life doing this, and I still don’t know how it works. It just does. Imagine that – your career depends on your ability to do something, but you don’t know how you do it. And you can’t tell anyone else how to do it.

But what I do know is that certain things make it easier. Again, I don’t know why this happens. But there’s a correlation between a certain state of mind and having the words come out and click together like Legos. And that state of mind is what I’m trying to generate, and protect. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and so I know what I’m looking for. A certain combination of energy, and mental openness if you will. You can’t will the words into coming – you have to, instead, be in the right state to receive and recognize them.

My job, in other words, includes creating the conditions that allow me to do what I do. And in this case, that means ending the interview as fast as possible because in this case I don’t need any more information. And then it means clearing my head completely, and inserting into it something energetic, creative and a little bit aggressive. Thanks, Foo Fighters. And while I’m listening to this stuff, in the back of my brain, the piece I’m about to write is kind of percolating. But my first job is always getting myself into the right mood/state/mental framework to let the Idea Fairy show up. First, I have to take care of my head.

And then I start to write.