Unleash Your Madman

Aug. 23, 2019


Having been raised Catholic, confessions seem to come easy to me. Well, here’s one for you: I used to be a real Last-Minute Lottie.

I’m sure you know the type. You might even be the type. Last-Minute Lottie maintains that her best work is done under pressure. That inspiration only strikes at the 11th hour. That nothing short of a big, bad deadline will force the creative juices to flow.

The number of midnight candles I burned – churning out an essay, drafting affidavits, or prepping for a big meeting? Far too many to count. I guess it worked (kinda, sorta), but there’s no denying that it was also stressful and exhausting and left zero margin for error.

I can’t recall exactly how or when it finally dawned on me that constantly making a mad dash for the finish line was not in fact the best way to work. (Richard, my long-suffering partner, claims it was his steady influence.) Maybe he's right. All I know is that somehow, somewhere, I managed to bid a not-so-fond farewell to Last-Minute Lottie and instead welcomed Calm Cool Charlotte into my life.

Calm Cool Charlotte doesn’t wait until the last minute to get started. Calm Cool Charlotte gives herself lots of time to get things done. Last-Minute Lottie may have had more thrills, but Calm Cool Charlotte actually does better work. More enjoyable work.

As professionals, we all strive for excellence. We all want to create something special. Something that will stand the test of time. This is true for the lawyer writing a factum, the architect designing a building, or the engineer devising a solution to a tricky structural problem.

That wise guy Aristotle once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave knows this. Apart from being a huge talent, Cave is famous for treating his craft like a job. Every morning, he dresses in a suit, goes out the front door of his Brighton house, and repairs to his office, which happens to be right next door. Then he sits his skinny ass down and writes. Every day. 9 to 5. Cave explains: “I found that if I wanted to continue what I was doing, I had to pretty much turn up each day and work at it ... I had to really apply myself and do it like a job." 

You may not be writing songs, but the principle still applies. Writing is a process, and the only way to get started is to … well, get started.

I recommend the Betty Sue Flowers approach: at each stage of the writing process you channel a different kind of energy, starting with the “madman.”

The madman stage is all about unleashing your imagination. As Flowers, poet and Professor Emeritus at University of Texas at Austin, explains in her essay, “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process”, the madman is: “full of ideas, writes crazily and perhaps rather sloppily, gets carried away by enthusiasm or anger, and if really let loose, could turn out ten pages an hour.”

So, the next time you have to write something – anything – don’t start by drafting a single actual sentence or paragraph. Instead spend your first session simply generating ideas.

To capture your ideas, use any method that works for you. It could be a Word document, a pen and paper, a pad of sticky notes, or a stack of recipe cards. If you’re a visual or a non-linear thinker, you could use a whiteboard and create a mind map, or a “whirlybird”, a hand-drawn diagram with the name of your project in the centre and your possible ideas and sub-ideas branching out in different directions. (See Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English, pp. 12-13).  

Once you have all your ideas down, you say goodbye to the madman and hello to the “architect.” The architect’s job is to weed out the irrelevant or uninteresting bits and give your piece some organization and overall structure. Next, the “carpenter” comes along to, as Flowers says, “nail these ideas together in a logical sequence.” Finally, the “judge” steps in to inspect, ensuring that all the details of spelling, punctuation, grammar and tone are pitch-perfect.

Whether or not he knew it, Rick Mercer seemed to follow this very process when creating his weekly rant for the Rick Mercer Report. In Final Report, Mercer has collected the greatest rants from all 15 seasons of his popular Monday night CBC show. Each rant runs a page, page and half tops. And yet, (surprise, surprise) none of them started out that way. As Mercer says in the book’s introduction:

Every Thursday night in my office for fifteen seasons, I would write. I would free-associate on my subject until I had everything I wanted to say down on paper. The initial draft would inevitably be ten to 12 pages long. I would then review the stack of pages and think the same thing: “How the hell am I going to get this one down to ninety seconds?” Then I would start the process: cut the fat, put it on simmer, and repeat.

Of course, all this takes time, doesn’t it? Last-Minute Lottie wouldn’t stand a chance.

Remember this:
Writing is a process; start by putting on your “madman” hat and letting your imagination loose.

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