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Book Review: Accidental Genius: Using Writing To Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, And Content by Mark Levy

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I have to be honest, I’m a huge fan of a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and in particular her ‘Morning Pages’ technique. When I read about Accidental Genius I wondered if it would be a very similar book.

I needn’t have worried. Mark Levy’s book, Accidental Genius stood on its own for me as a book that I am so pleased to have read, particularly at this point in time, and I will be keeping it with me on my personal writing journey.

Levy introduces the concept of ‘Free-writing’ that Cameron readers will be familiar with, but then goes on to explore and extend this concept much further, into a veritable suitcase of bite-size practical techniques that I will definitely be keeping next to my computer.

The book is organised into three parts and 28 chapters, with the core of the book centred on techniques for helping you to write freely and creatively, in the true meaning of that word. Levy’s book will coax you towards ideas you didn’t think you had if you follow some of the exercises.

The outline structure of Accidental Genius is as follows:-
Part One: Six Secrets to Free-writing.
Part Two: Powerful Refinements
Part Three: Going Public

The chapters I found most useful myself were Chapters 1—3, 15, and 24. The titles of these Chapters:
‘Try Easy’, ‘Write Fast and Continuously’, ‘Work Against a limit’, ‘Hold a paper conversation’, and ‘Notice stories everywhere’.

Chapters 12—14 were the least useful for me at this point in time, but like other process books I have found that the parts I’ve dismissed at first were often useful to me at a later stage. Sometimes the time is not right to ‘hear’ certain words.

I wondered if Chapter 10 ‘Escape Your Own Intelligence’ and Chapter 18 ‘Doubt Yourself’ could have been blended together as chapters as they seemed to talk about a similar overall concept. Also Chapter 5 ‘Go with the thought’ seemed to slightly contradict Chapter 11, ‘The Value in Disconnecting’. But I do think that both could be used at different points in time. This book is a bumper pack of techniques from which you can pick and choose according to your own particular needs at a certain point in time.

Chapter 14, ‘Learn To Love Lying’, was intriguing and it made me think that it could also have been described as ‘embracing the surreal’, or ‘playing with perspective’.

Overall, the single most important technique that I have been using throughout this weekend is the ‘timer’ technique from Chapter 3. I have been using the timer on my mobile phone rather than a kitchen timer, but still this little technique has done more for my flow rate, word rate and feeling of accomplishment than any other writing rule I’ve been using recently. I’ll tell you why I think this small exercise has made such a difference.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and when I sit down to write I usually find myself trying to write and edit at the same time. This means I’m critiquing while creating which of course slows down the creative process. I’ve evolved this way as a consequence of trying to be efficient and also as a result of writing so many academic essays! But trying to write and edit is quite an overload for my brain, and I do find that it is not long before the words – along with my motivation – dry up under the weight of the inner critic.

The timer exercise makes me forget about editing and focus solely on getting words down on paper as quickly as my thoughts allow. This speed element is important because it means writing at a pace that is more compatible with the speed of my thoughts and ideas. This feels refreshingly effortless in comparison to how I sometimes feel when writing. Sometimes my ideas and thoughts slow down to match the pace of my writing and this can lead to creativity and motivation coming to something of a standstill as well.

Ray Bradbury has said “In quickness there is truth”. I think if you write fast within the limits of a timer, you can bypass the censor inside which means that you are writing freely and truthfully.

The other technique I kept in mind whilst writing this weekend was to ‘Try Easy’. Levy states that we can have a tendency to try too hard which can lead to a poor performance because we worry about doing our best and this can interfere with the actual practice or ‘getting on with it’. To ‘Try Easy’ means to try 90% rather than 110%. For a perfectionist like me it translates into “I’ll just put some words down on paper as fast as I can, and then see what I have”.

My usual writing process can be much more convoluted than this. For a big piece, I will usually ‘have a think’ about what to write, my mind will wander off into all sorts of avenues, I may manage to capture some of these thoughts but will usually think I need to do some research first. This is useful but can be a huge distraction to actual writing! Hours can pass when researching online and sometimes I won’t have gotten anything down on paper, then I’ll feel irritated with myself because I’ll have to start all over again at a later point. Tasks that were initially exciting can become an albatross hanging over my head if I start out in the wrong way. But they needn’t be that hard at all. I suspect that the ones I agonise over are the ones that feel the more important to me.

“Just get some words down” is a phrase I’ve heard before, but it is only with the timer that I’ve actually been able to do it. The timer helps me to get out of my own way.

I will certainly be using these techniques with the majority of my writing at the moment and would thoroughly recommend Accidental Genius because the single most important thing about it for me has been that it has produced tangible results.

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