Why the 2 Types of Thinking Required for Writing Are Often at War

(And how to balance them)

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

An imaginary cowboy taught me this. I know that sounds bizarre, but try to be open-minded for a minute.

John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner on the show “Yellowstone,” is not a writer. He’s a wealthy rancher. By day he rides horses and yells at his poor children. By night, he drinks whisky by the fire and goes to bed with public officials. Basically, he’s Tony Soprano, but out West.

I never considered his actions as separate modes of operation. They were all just things John Dutton did. But in season three, the fictional governor of Montana asked him a question that prepared my mind to be changed.

“John, how is it that you’re always three steps ahead of everyone?” she asked.

“To tell you the truth,” John answered, “It’s just a lot of sitting and thinking. Sitting and thinking.”

That line stuck with me. I’ve been writing professionally for 10 years. If I understand anything, it’s sitting and thinking. That alone isn’t what makes John great, though. It’s only half of it. The other half is hard-driving, horse-whipping, cattle-prodding, shot-calling, back-breaking action. This, too, is mirrored in writing (but with less manure).

Writing often fills in the cracks of life. You have a job and kids and a life, and then you have writing. Maybe, somehow, through a mysterious haze of coffee and Cheetos and late nights, you’ll actually finish a piece of work. But consistent writing output is the exception for most people, not the rule.

Typically the writer faces one of two problems:

  • The inability to come up with good ideas consistently
  • The inability to finish writing about those ideas

These problems occur because the writer’s life — just like the life of our imaginary rancher friend — requires two different types of thinking.

  • Lateral thinking
  • Linear thinking

Luckily for you, these two types of thinking conquer most problems for a writer. Unluckily for you, they are needed at different moments of the writing process.

Lateral Thinking Is for Coming Up With Ideas

Lateral thinking is “relaxed thinking.” It’s what happens when your mind starts to drift. Lateral thinking helps you find things that aren’t obvious. Bad lateral thinkers are easy to spot. They are the ones writing the 74th version of “What Billionaires Eat for Breakfast.”

Pay careful attention to the words “things that aren’t obvious.” That doesn’t mean you have to write about the mating habits of chickens or the speckle patterns on poisonous tree frogs. It means you see things differently.

Malcolm Gladwell is a prime example here. He didn’t introduce hockey. He didn’t do the “10,000 hours” study. He didn’t invent all those plane crashes. What he did do was spot similarities among those things, put them in a book called “Outliers,” and secure a spot in the writer’s hall of fame.

Linear Thinking Is for Finishing the Job

As good as Malcolm Gladwell’s idea for “Outliers” was, the lateral thinking is wasted if he never sits down to write the book. This is where linear thinking comes in handy.

Linear thinking is often called “stress thinking.” It’s that focused drive inside that compels you to do things like pay the bills, drive to work, or edit that god awful press release your boss dashed off. Linear thinking doesn’t necessarily care about what is interesting. There is no time for that.

By definition, this type of thinking requires a bit of tunnel vision. You need to “block out” the rest of the world in order to complete the task at hand.

Once you have an idea, linear thinking puts your butt in a chair and forces those ideas to come to the page. Without linear thinking, nothing gets done.

Finding a Balance

In your dream world, you think laterally for a while, come up with a good idea, and then sit down for your linear thinking session to write that masterpiece all in one go.

In reality, that’s laughable. No writer in history has ever been able to daydream for a while and then sit down and write down an entire idea from start to finish. Writing, like all creative processes, is bumpier than that.

Examples of how lateral thinking should go and how it actually goes
Examples of how lateral thinking should go and how it actually goes
Drawing by the author

You will switch modes often. Don’t panic. It’s normal. Amateur writers believe they can force good writing. Professionals know every idea needs to stew before it becomes interesting. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Taika Waititi says he only writes three hours per day. He spends the rest of the day daydreaming about what should happen next.

Consistent writing is about finding your balance.

When you feel those daydreams running a little short, shift into linear thinking mode. Turn off distractions. Turn on epic music. Throw your phone into the ocean (or at least a drawer).

When your back and fingers start aching, go get bored. Put down the phone. Go for a long walk. Maybe take a page out of John Dutton’s book: Grab a glass of whisky, sit, and think for a while.

Or, heck. Maybe just go watch another five episodes of “Yellowstone.”

That’s what I’m about to do.

A special thanks to my father-in-law, who both recommended the show “Yellowstone” to me and described it as “The Sopranos but with cowboys”

Written by

An optimist who writes. www.toddbrison.com/infinite-ideas

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