Punch the Keys: The Importance of Judgement-free Work

“Write drunk, edit sober.”

Hemingway didn’t say it, though this quote is often attributed to him. And, to be sure, it’s bad advice. Have you ever tried to write while drunk? I have and, I’ll tell you, the output was no bueno. It was a jumbled mess of half-thoughts and homonyms which no amount of editing could salvage.

But, like many quotes real or fake, there is a lot of truth in this brief, four-word sentiment. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with intoxication. It’s about the merits of uninhibited creativity. Writing drunk, to me, means letting your mind wander, letting your thoughts be your thoughts and getting them out without judging them. Writing drunk means writing freely and not worrying about getting anything right. 

If you have a career and a family, time is a limited and precious commodity. There are always more meetings, more family obligations, more practices, rehearsals, performances and games. Your life is in constant motion and is defined by commitments, both yours and those of the people around you. Even if you are hyper-organized and on top of your game, it puts pressure on you. More commitments means less time for experimentation and play.

For me, this leads to a kind of anxious depression, a feeling of ennui that results in stagnation and a loss of enthusiasm – for work, for ideas, for projects, for my family. It used to almost paralyze me. I would be so overwhelmed with all the things I had to do that I would end up doing almost nothing. Then I would hate myself for not getting anything done and try to focus on a project and be so concerned about getting it right that I would over-analyze and judge before it went anywhere.

The cycle continues.

Over the years, I’ve discovered a few tricks to breaking the overwhelm-stagnation-paralysis-analysis-overwhelm cycle. For temporary relief, I take a walk. Around the block, through the aisles of the grocery store, on a trail in a park. Anywhere to get me away from a screen and get me out of my usual environment. Physical movement can be a plunger for a clogged brain and getting away from the computer forces a different perspective.

But movement and remove are usually responses to being stuck. How do you prevent from getting stuck in the first place?

Proactive play.

For me, this is writing for the sake of writing. It’s standing in front of a blank whiteboard and asking and answering questions that have nothing to do with what I know I have coming up. How many baseballs are used in a Major League Baseball season? How would I spend $1 million today without buying anything for myself? If I were to rob a bank, how would I do it and not get caught?

I call it Punching the Keys, a line I borrowed from the movie “Finding Forrester,” in which a young writer tries to learn from a JD Salinger-esque character played by Sean Connery. There’s a scene where Connery sets the young writer, played by Rob Brown, in front of a typewriter with a blank piece of paper and tells him to write. Brown stares at the page with nothing to write and Connery shouts from the other room “Punch the keys!”

He’s telling the young man to write and that it doesn’t matter what he writes. The simple act of punching the keys will prepare his mind to write what he wants to write. Don’t judge, just write. Don’t think about it, just write. Don’t stare at the screen hoping that the perfect words or presentation or idea will magically appear – just punch the keys.

We live in a mentally exhausting, emotionally draining, time demanding world; a world full of stimulus and expectation; a world where the pressure to be perfect, to seem perfect, to create breakthroughs and the next big thing is omni-present, a sinister force staring over our shoulder. Add in the constant movement of family life and it’s easy to crack under the weight of it all. The only way to prevent fracture and breakage is to build up your muscles while no one is watching.

Punching the Keys, writing drunk, taking time to ‘play’ mentally is crucial to actual productivity. Do it once a week. Schedule 30 minutes alone with a white board or a big blank piece of paper, then pick something to figure out.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • You’re hired to write a new movie in the Star Wars franchise, but your deal stipulates that two major characters have to die – who would it be? Why? How?
  • You’re a contestant on a new game show that combines the Amazing Race and altruism. You are dropped into a city you have never been to with $10,000 and told to make the biggest charitable impact possible in a single day. What do you do? How does it work?
  • You wake up tomorrow without the senses of hearing or site. Close your eyes and draw a map of your house to prove you’d be able to get around.
  • Make a list of every restaurant you’ve ever eaten at and what you had. See if you can get to 50 or 100.
  • Write a story about a school teacher with a secret identity who is called upon by the government to solve a world crisis.
  • Write down the lyrics to every song on your favorite album in order.
  • Design a machine that ties bowties.
  • Figure out how many miles you’ve driven in your lifetime and break it down by the vehicle you were driving. Now, figure out how many times you’ve driven the equivalent of a round-trip to the moon.
  • List every Disney movie by Title, Protagonist and Antagonist.
  • Draw a map of the town you grew up in and label your house, your best friend’s house, the schools you attended and the places where you had a memorable first.
  • Create a plan to run your entire life on renewable energy. How would you power your house? Your car? All your devices?
  • Imagine you woke up tomorrow and discover your town has been attacked by a foreign army. All utilities are out and the army is approaching. You have to survive and escape. Where do you go first? What do you bring? Who do you turn to? What do you do?

You can do just about anything, just be sure that it has nothing to do with what you do for a living, the work you have to do or the actual problems in your life. Punching the Keys is how we find perspective and meaning in lives full of obligations and deadlines. It can lead to breakthroughs in unexpected ways and sharpen your mind for the tasks at hand. Take the time to do it.

The past is written in ink and the future is written in pencil. Punch the Keys and write well.



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