How To Think Like a Writer

Are you a "within the lines" kind of thinker? Are you afraid to let your thoughts wander outside the perimeter?

Imagine what life could be like if your thoughts had no boundaries -- if you could transform a dull moment into an adventurous romp in your head -- and think like a writer, like I do.

While driving to work in the morning, I don't think about how to fold a napkin like Martha Stewart, or how to remove ugly wax buildup from my kitchen floor. I think about the tarp in the pickup truck in front of me and how there might be a body underneath it.

Should I take a picture of the license plate and send it to "America's Most Wanted?"

Then I remember the '80s and my mistaken sighting of the Son of Sam on a Metro-North train and the bemused look on the cop's face as he filed the report.

Back then, my thoughts often got away from me, though I was young enough to be excused for mistaking a bedraggled salesman for the Son of Sam.

Now, I have better control of my thoughts and tell them not to venture into the dark place beneath the tarp. "Stand down," I say aloud, knowing that anyone who sees me won't think I'm crazy because of the Bluetooth defense.

I instruct my thoughts to move on to something less sinister, like the frozen food section at the Stop & Shop where the elderly stop to talk to me. But my thoughts veer down another aisle instead. And I think about how the people who cut me off with their cars in the parking lot are the same people who cut me off with their carts at the produce stand.

"How come my brain doesn't work like yours?" you ask. "Why isn't my brain equipped to think in psycho-writer mode?"

Well, you're wrong, my "within the lines" thinking friend. Your brain is also psycho-writer equipped. Remember what Glinda the Good Witch told Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz? -- "You had the ability to get home all along."

Well, you had the ability to think in psycho-writer mode all along.

Turn off the practical humdrum switch in your brain, comforted by numbers and lists and repetitive functions that can cause carpal tunnel brain syndrome. And let your thoughts stretch your imagination.

While driving to work, think about that weird clerk at the pharmacy with the crooked nose and pink-framed glasses. Was she human or goblin?

Start to play the "what if" game that writers love to play. What if the clerk got zapped by a gamma ray before handing you your prescription, and turned into a goblin?

What if aliens captured your husband while he was in the shower and that's really a doppelganger husband tucking his shirt into his pants?

Yes, you, too, can be as weird as I am.

But use your psycho-writer powers sparingly at first. Some "within the lines" thinkers have been known to overuse their psycho-writer powers before becoming familiar with them -- and end up in a white padded room obsessing over that word problem they got wrong in sixth grade math:

"What time will a train arrive in Los Angeles if it leaves New York City at 3 a.m., stops in Chicago for one hour, where you spend thirty minutes at a pizzeria trapped in an avalanche of extra cheese..."

Blurg! Spurt! Gurgle! Numbers -- They're so calculating; they try to disguise themselves as words, but they can't hide their stubby little digits.

That's why on days when things don't add up, I stop trying to figure them out and start to play the "what if" game, a momentary getaway from the complexities of life.

This is a revision of the blog post "How To Think Like A Writer" that previously appeared at