Brooding is an important part of the writing process
Thinking too much has a bad rep, but for a writer it’s as useful as reading
Brooding is one of the unhealthiest things we humans do. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement, considering war, rape, Viktor Orbán and chain smoking — but it certainly isn’t good for you. It’s not only a symptom but also a cause of both depression and anxiety. It can lead people to self-medicate with, for example, alcohol, or to binge-eat to deal with negative thoughts. It’s one of six things Steve Ilardi’s TLC programme recommends needs to be overcome in order to beat depression, and his is perhaps the most successful programme of its kind. And any of us who has spent five minutes brooding about brooding knows that it just makes you feel unhappy.
It isn’t as if any of us are unaware of our brooding, either, although admittedly, while it’s happening it’s hard to catch. Apps like Headspace shove our predisposition to ruminate rather forcefully in our faces, telling us our thoughts are disordered and dangerous to our mental health. Famous thinkers like (love him or hate him) Sam Harris has his own meditation app and has spoken at length on the dangers of being lost in thought. And meditation itself has been extensively studied with results suggesting it can make us not only psychologically but also physically healthier.
But god damn, is brooding helpful to the writing process. Borges said something along these lines: a writer should spend 80% of their time reading and 20% writing. And yet an important step in the creative journey is missed from this analysis: thinking. As I wrote to my writer friend recently, if we’re talking about writing as a process, I spend roughly 40% of my time reading, 55% brooding, and 5% actually putting words in order one after another. But I was saving face: if I’m honest, it’s probably more like 25% reading and 70% brooding. It’s an activity with which I have much experience. Our admitting how much time we spend thinking came about through discussion of Martin Amis’s habitual solitary brooding, which led to excellent passages like ‘As the horses now nobly loomed’. (This in comparison to his late good friend Christopher Hitchens’ penchant for getting blotto and smashing out 3,000 words of utter poetry which then immediately got published in Vanity Fair, or wherever.) ‘Actual Writing’, my friend continued, employing the Millennial generation’s habitual ironic capitalisation, is a ‘pretty mindless activity’, typing itself being a mere vehicle, and all of his ‘writing’ is done while walking.
And mine? Inspiration comes from the most unexpected of places, they say, but entire scenes are written, if skeletally, in my head, while I sit around pondering. When at home, I lean back in my office roller with my feet up on the desk, or plonk myself lazily down on my IKEA comfy-chair, and just — consider. When I’m out, I try and make my goals as mindlessly achievable as possible, so I can spend as much time musing as possible without getting hit by a car. Currently, being in sunny Stuttgart, I spend my time brooding by the pool, dipping in and out of a particularly trashy German crime thriller I picked up for a euro fifty at a charity shop (which is perhaps why I brood so much on the possibility of writing a Krimi these days — they’re all I seem to read). Inspiration for this piece came while I brooded on how lonely I have been during the COVID-19 madness, despite having a housemate and a girlfriend who has lived with me for most of the pandemic.
I may be a victim of the lonely young white man epidemic (and boo-hoo for me), but my brooding has done a world of good for my writing. Or at least, it would have, if I were to ever actually sit down and write. Although we don’t control our thoughts, those which may come when we allow ourselves to be held hostage by our subconscious are, while sometimes depressing and unhelpful, often fun and funny. Consider ruminating on old memories. One may be left in a state of perpetual nostalgia, trapped behind the rose-tinted lenses with which the past bestows us, but one may also be pushed a little further along the path to joy in the knowledge that it wasn’t all bad.
Of course, brooding too much over our work can convince us that our entire output is nonsensical rubbish, a feeling with which I am intimate. But is writing meant to be a joyous activity? Orwell compared it to being sick, and sometimes it can indeed feel like that; while the end result of a piece of work one is at least halfway happy with is one of the best feelings a creative type can enjoy, relishing the process is harder. If an integral part of that process is sitting around and just bloody thinking, then to some extent I need to be lost in thought and inhabit the aforementioned hostage to get anything done at all. Imagine I were happy, and spent my time playing sports, meeting up with friends, and walking around with a smile on my face. Nothing would get written!
And so, I make the argument for brooding. Brood on your scenes, on your characters, on the next blog post you’re going to write. Brood like Amis did when he wrote in Lionel Asbo not that the cars were parked but ‘cravenly slumped’, like Vidal did when he grumbled ‘every time a friend succeeds something inside of me dies’, like Nabokov did for five years about pedophilia while he wrote Lolita. Just maybe you’ll brood up something incredible — but just don’t brood too much on if it’s good, or you’ll inevitably brood to the conclusion that it’s not.