The straw-brained ScarecrowI admit it.  My head is filled with straw.

I simply don’t know enough to write anything informative or insightful.

How am I supposed to educate and inspire without the wisdom of a sage?  How can I write believable characters without a thorough grasp of psychology?  When my research geologists drilled into a frozen Antarctic lake, were their machine malfunctions plausible?  What if a freelance client needs an article exploring the ecological impact of biodiesel?

By some cruel twist of fate, I didn’t spring forth into the world knowing all there is to know.  I’m going to go out a limb and guess that the universe played the same trick on you.

Fortunately, we have an ace up our sleeves.

We’re writers.

And writers love to learn.

Scarecrow Zen

The Scarecrow’s Secret Gift

“My life has been so short that I really know nothing whatever. I was only made day before yesterday.”

Little did the Scarecrow know, he was quite a lucky fellow.

Zen master Shunryu Suziki stresses the importance of approaching life with a beginner’s mind.  By adopting “Scarecrow Mind”, you open yourself up to the possibility of discovery.  The entire world seems fresh and full of mystery; there’s always something new to explore.

The beginner’s mind sidesteps our preconceptions about the “right” way to approach a problem. It promotes insightful writing from an unconventional perspective.  And it acknowledges that there’s always more to learn.

If we allow ourselves the arrogance of thinking we’re experts, we close ourselves off to new information.  And the world is changing too fast to allow ourselves that luxury.

The rate of scientific discovery is snowballing as Moore’s Law propels us toward the singularity.  But until we’ve all merged with cyborg supercomputers, we need to concede our incomplete understanding of the world and keep learning the old-fashioned way.

If you’ve ever made a mistake (which I’m absolutely certain has never happened), you’re familiar with the danger of assuming you know everything.

The three most powerful words in the English language are “I don’t know”.

By acknowledge that you don’t know something, you’ve given yourself a valuable gift:  the opportunity to find out.

Childlike Curiosity

“Luckily, when the farmer made my head, one of the first things he did was to paint my ears, so that I heard what was going on. … he painted my right eye, and as soon as it was finished I found myself looking at him and at everything around me with a great deal of curiosity, for this was my first glimpse of the world.”

Do you remember when you were young, and even the most mundane objects commanded your fascinated attention?

There was so much to see, to hear, to learn.  Every new experience taught us something about the world, so we opened our eyes and took it all in.  We made keen observations.  We asked endless streams of questions.  We yearned to make sense of the world around us.

Then, we stopped.

What happened?

As we’re socialized into adulthood, we internalize the misguided notion that questions make us look stupid.  And no one wants to look stupid, so we stop asking questions.

Big mistake.

Especially for a writer.

Great writers are inherently curious.  They’re not afraid to ask “stupid” questions, and they scour the world for answers.  They repeat the incessant “why?” of a child. They want to know how everything works, and by golly they’re going to find out.

So get curious, and keep asking questions.

Want to know why?  Glad you asked.

You Know More than You Think

(and You Think More than You Know)

“Can’t you give me brains?” asked the Scarecrow.
“You don’t need them. You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

Young or old, innocent or experienced, writers are some of the most well-read people on the planet.

We ponder literary masterpieces and devour dog-eared paperbacks.  We analyze magazines and scrutinize blogs.  We used to read newspapers.  We study history, and science, and philosophy.  We’re in love with danger, adventure, and romance.

We’re hopelessly obsessed with storytelling.

“You mean, you actually read for fun?”  Pretty strange, I know.  But if you’re a writer then I’ll bet you’re an avid reader, too.  We can’t help it. We’re under the Imperius Curse compelled to do so.

With our noses buried in books we’ve lived a thousand lifetimes, inherited the insights of vivid imaginations, and had experiences others could only dream of.

We’ve absorbed a wealth of information from well-researched content.  The internet connects us to the sum total of human knowledge.  Anything we need to know is available at the touch of a button.

And when we’re learning something new?  There’s always someone one step behind, eager to benefit from our recent experience.  Why not share the journey, and find out where it leads?

“If this road goes in, it must come out,” said the Scarecrow, “and as the Emerald City is at the other end of the road, we must go wherever it leads us.”

Next time you feel like your head is stuffed with straw, and writing would be easy if you only had a brain, consider yourself lucky.  You know exactly what to do:

  • Adopt a “Scarecrow Mind”, and open yourself to the possibility of discovery.
  • Practice childlike insatiable curiosity.  Don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions.
  • Realize that you know more than you think.  You’re a writer, after all.

*All quotations from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (Free Project Gutenberg version available here)

Do Tell…

Have you ever felt like your head was full of straw? How did you get through it? Share your experience in the comments.

About the author

Douglas Prater Douglas Prater is the wordsmith-in-chief at Freedomlance Writer. To get the latest Epic Freelance Writing Tips grab the RSS feed, get your free email updates and follow me on twitter. You'll be glad you did.

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11 Responses to (Writing would be Easy) If I Only had a Brain

  1. Dave says:

    Wow man, you certainly have a knack for writing. I’m glad you’re embracing your calling.

    Very inspirational. this post provides direction and clarity for the times writing becomes more difficult than it should be.

    Nice work!

    • Douglas Prater says:

      Thanks, Dave. It feels great to break out of my shell and actually attach a byline to my writing.

      I still struggle with perfectionism and overcoming my inner critic, but remembering those strategies helps me put words on the page.

      Thanks for the compliment and for sharing your thoughts.

    • Ronalee says:

      If my problem was a Death Star, this article is a photon tropedo.

  2. Walter says:

    Anything can be learned once we open our minds. Back then I dream of being a writer but when I made an attempt I was always disappointed. Later did I learn that to be a writer, one must also be a reader. thank God that by reading and reading I have learned a lot, and learning how to write was just a consolation. :-)

    • Douglas Prater says:

      Hi Walter,

      When I was growing up I always wanted to be a writer, too. I took plenty of wrong turns before I got here, but the thing that never left was my love of reading and learning. Love of reading and learning helped me more than anything else when I finally decided to pick up the “pen” again.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Daniel says:

    Some good points there, Douglas.

    In Screenwriting it is said that, writing is rewriting.

    Many Screenwriters would hit a wall(Writers Block) whereby, they could go for days or weeks, without getting pen to paper. They were so caught up with coming up with “The next great script” they forgot all about actually doing what Writers are meant to do(Just write).

    The expression that was used was ” Waiting for the spirit to move them to write” . Of course, this often just did not occur.

    Also, many writers have their own unique way of getting into “The(Or their) zone” This is where you are moved by the spirit and your creativity takes over.

    A great way is to just relax, get your creative juices flowing, you will start to get loose visuals and concepts coming to you, then go write it down!

    You can edit and polish afterwards(If desired or required).

    If you linger with those great ideas for too long without getting them written down, many of those ideas will pass into the ether.

    When you return to that place(within your creative imagination) your perceptions may have altered from your previous visit.

    In time you will actually learn how to return to that place(That’s how writers can keep working on long detailed stories).

    You will literally be back where you left off, with all sense information intact.

    Daniel.

    • Douglas Prater says:

      Daniel,

      I appreciate the thoughtful comment. I understand the urge to “wait for the spirit to strike”, I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself. What’s worse, the more emotionally invested I am in succeeding with a piece, the more hesitant I am to commit words to the page. It’s a tough hurdle to get over.

      One of the main things separating a professional writer from a hobbyist is the realization that writing is a craft. Coming from a background in music production, I’ve learned that professional songwriters, too, are most successful when they treat it as a job and write every day, whether they’re “in the mood” or not.

      As you pointed out, getting yourself in the zone is something that can be learned, practiced, and mastered. That’s an incredibly valuable skill for all writers to develop.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your insights.

      -Douglas

  4. This was really fantastic. I found it very insightful. I think a lot of writers would do well to read this one (so I tweeted it, lol).

    • Douglas Prater says:

      Thanks for the comment and the tweet Stephen. Writers could certainly benefit from your thoughtful style, too.

  5. Stuart says:

    Douglas, thought I’d stop by your site and check the place out! Gotta say, I like what I’m reading!

    I hadn’t thought of the Scarecrow being an expert in Zen, but that’s what Zen is about in a way – we can all practice it. We can all ask questions, reduce assumptions and beliefs, and keep an open mind to the world and all that’s in it. Zen is for everyone, whether we’re humans or scarecrows.

    Take care Douglas :-)

    • Douglas Prater says:

      Stuart,

      Glad you liked the Scarecrow Zen idea – the metaphor can actually be developed even further: “If I only had a brain” is his desire/attachment, which he sees as enlightenment, he follows the Yellow brick road (eightfold path) to seek it, he gets to the Emerald City to find he had it all along…

      All that would have been a bit off topic for the post, but it’s an interesting parallel to explore.

      As it applies to writing, though, I love the way you summed it up:

      “We can all ask questions, reduce assumptions and beliefs, and keep an open mind to the world and all that’s in it.”

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      -Douglas

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