My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Five Things That You Might Not Think Would Make You A Better Writer (But Totally Will)

This shit is connected to your body, yo. 
In "Western" cultures there's a tendency to consider certain human dynamics as divorced from each other.  While we know our brains sit in a goop of cerebrosipinal fluid, and that they are a huge clump of specialized nerve cells that, while unbelievably powerful, still require potassium, sodium, calcium and stuff to fire, we still tend to think of our brains and our bodies as separate.  If you ask someone straight out about the brain/body relationship they'll probably acknowledge that the two are connected and maybe even that there is no actual difference, but if you look around there are deep seated clues that our culture views the relationship very differently, even among those that accept the science of biochemistry and neuroscience.

You don't have to go far to find the undercurrents of this philosophy.  Ever notice how functional people can be when they "step out" of their body in western media.  Man if they don't need to pick up an axe or something, they are downright unhindered by the lack of corporeality.  Whether they are astrally projecting or are a ghost, or whatever their mental faculties seem unhindered.  But there are more subtle clues too.

I'll make a short list:  1) Outside of a few medical specialties there is still a sharp delineation between mental and physical illness.  2) We think "all in your head" means "not real" when it comes to pain, illness or injury.  3) Any link between diet, exercise, and mental health is vigorously opposed--often with the same kind of evidence that causes people to want to murder the antivax crowd.  4) You can observe a general sort of contempt for education among highly physical people, and the same general sort of contempt for physicality among the mentally inclined. 5) The "smart jock" and the "in-shape nerd" are still sort of anti-tropes in most media.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So keeping that in mind, here are some things that might not seem like they have anything to do with writing, but they totally do.

1- Disable Your Connectivity

I'll go ahead and start with a slow ball right over the plate.  Most of you probably know that the internet can distract you from writing, so this isn't actually anything new.  Farmville is probably the single most creativity-nuking activity ever conceived by the hand of man. What most of you probably DON'T know is exactly why, exactly how powerful it can be, and exactly how epically it is fucking you up.

Neurons are really fast.  They're so fast you could not outrun them without being in some pretty fly modern technology.  But...they do not travel at the speed of light, and they don't even travel at the speed of electricity through a wire.  In fact, they are roughly a MILLION times slower than that.  Still fast as hell, but let's keep it in perspective.

But your brain has this fatty stuff called Myelin, and it can put down sheaths of the crap on certain neural pathways you use often in order to speed up those thoughts.  You know how sometimes you always have the same cascade of thoughts?  A song from 1983 comes on the radio, you think of when you heard it, that makes you think of your boyfriend, you think of his beard, and that makes you think of how long it's been since you bought razors.  So every time you hear that song, you end up checking to see if you need to get razors on your next shopping trip.  You can thank Myelin sheaths for that.

Little fuckers.

Well these little bastards are also working against you in the "check your e-mail/Facebook/whatever" department.  Sure they help you recall more quickly the process involved in jobs you do daily or the answers to things that are relevant for you.  One of the reasons your SO good at what you're good at is that you have Myelin sheaths all over the neurons that are involved in those jobs, so you can do them better and faster than anyone else.  Zillions of gamer geeks can thank Myelin for the fact that it takes them .523 seconds less to think of the armor class of an umber hulk.  But Myelin sheaths also hate you.  The fact that every time you scratch your nose, you wonder about your e-mail, and every time you finish a paragraph your brain goes "Is anything new on Facebook?" is the downside of Myelin..

You also might not realize that it takes you almost two minutes to get your concentration back to what you were doing when you "step out."  It's just part of how our brain shifts focus.  As we click down the "MS Word screen with "The Great American Novel" on it, check Facebook and E-mail, and then click back, it takes about two minutes for us to get back into the groove we were in before. And that's if there were no e-mails to reply to or cute pictures of kittens to "Like."

Add even more time if something online upsets us.  A pissy e-mail from someone?  A political Facebook post we don't agree with?   That's going to distract us for much more than just two minutes. We get all emotionally tangled up.

Oh you actually want to RESPOND to the pissy e-mail or political post?  Add even more time.

And since you know that you probably won't ever get in the final word no matter how much your "words are your weapon," you will almost certainly get more pissy e-mails or political arguments or whatever distracted you in the first place.

Suddenly, the fact that you are online has cost you hours and hours of productivity.  All because you think you can handle having your e-mail open while you write, or you just check Facebook "a few times."

Writers in the 21st century have a problem.  When they sit down to write, they usually do so on the same machine that brings them so many distractions.  If every time they finish a paragraph they get a compulsion to check Facebook, and every time that happens they lose a few minutes....well, you can do the math.  Disabling your internet, unscrewing your wireless antenna, using a dedicated writing computer with no wireless, or (if you've got it in you) just the discipline not to go online while you're writing, will be the best thing you can do over time.

And not over lifetime time either.  You'll probably notice the difference after only a day.  Every time that fucking Myelin tells you to check your e-mail, but you can't, you'll realize how often you actually used to do it.  And you will notice your productivity going up almost instantly.

2- Write at the Same Time Everyday

Those Myelin sheaths that hate you so bad?  They're also your best friends.  Sorry about that.  It's a real Magneto/Dr. Xavier relationship.  You need those little backstabbing bastards to help you be creative.   If you can get them to stop saying "I detect nitrogen in the atmosphere--CHECK FACEBOOK NOW!!!" they can become your most powerful ally.

Chris talks a lot about his muse like it's a thing that lives outside of him.  Sometimes he even blames it for the scorch marks on the lobby walls and carpet.  The fact is that your muse is your brain, and your brain will drop Myelin over any thought process if you do it enough times.  They're called habits.  They're tough to form and tougher to break.  So if you sit down to be creative at the same time every day, it won't be long before your brain starts feeling creative around that time by sheer force of habit.  If you sit around waiting for inspiration, you will be at your brain's mercy...and the workings of your unconscious are mercurial at best.  But if you schedule an appointment every day with creativity, your brain quickly learns when to stop by to drop off the stuff it's accumulated.

There are a lot of metaphors for this.  The point is sit down to write like it IS a habit, and it won't take long before it becomes one.

3- Get Plenty of Sleep

I know this culture likes to boast about lack of sleep.  I listen daily to people talk about how much sleep they didn't get like it's a dick measuring contest in a high school gym, or like it's that Monty Python sketch about terrible childhoods.  ("We used to dream of getting two hours of sleep!")  The amount of caffeine one has ingested in the last 24 hours seems to be a point of particular pride.  ("Dude!  I just had six 5hr energy drinks, two no doze, a quadruple shot expresso, four Red Bulls, and I'm downing it all with this 2 liter of Mt. Dew!  HARDCORE!!!!!")

It is ironic that we turn around and have a zillion products and services designed to prevent us from aging or showing the signs of aging.  One of sleep's main functions is producing antioxidants that keep us from aging prematurely.  You literally age faster if you don't get enough sleep. So while people are dropping money on caffeine deployment devices and then dropping money skin tightening lotion pore megacream, they might consider the fact that going to bed would eliminate the need for both products.  However, we're not talking about aging.

We're talking about creativity.

Think of your brain like a computer.  This shouldn't be too hard since that's the metaphor we've been using primarily for about fifty years.  Now here's where it'll get funny: think of the sorts of mental functions that spark creativity as your graphics card.  (Things like complex visualization, chasing those flitting ideas, concentration, mood stabilization, higher cognitive function, and the ability to learn on the fly.)  Your graphics card is the primary suspect if your computer overheats, and it needs its own heat sinks if it's worth its salt.  You can run programs with lower graphics, but if you really want to turn them up, you have PHYSICALLY baby your card a little bit.

Sleep is your air conditioner.

See, you can function without sleep.  Just like you can turn your computer on in a sweltering hot room.  Your computer will come on, and so will your brain.  You might even be able to play a few games on low graphics settings--or do some mildly creative stuff.  But the more you push your brain to be creative without sleep, the more you risk freezing the whole system up.  Anyone who's ever pushed past their brain's ability to be creative, because they were trying to concentrate on something non-routine, and had a total, massive, systems-wide brain fart knows exactly what this looks like.  Suddenly you just can't think of anything at ALL for about ten seconds.  You probably wouldn't even know your name if someone asked right then.

Caffeine keeps your metabolic functions up, but it's not so good with hormonal ones (like sleep).  Anyone who's ever been "wired but tired" knows this.  If you need sleep, you need sleep, and having drifted off during graveyard shifts with my heart pounding from the 5 No-Doz I just took, I can tell you that caffeine is no substitute for sleep.  It's a little like waiting just a minute after your computer overheats and just turning it back on again.  Temporarily it will work.  In the long run, your computer (or your brain for the metaphor) will just crash again.  And if you keep it up, you do long term damage.

Caffeine is less damaging to brains than perpetually overheating CPU's is to computers, so this metaphor might break down at that point.  But caffeine addiction can be a pain in the ass to be sure, and it doesn't take more than a decade or two for the effects of caffeine abuse in lieu of good, honest sleep to start to take a fairly serious toll.

When you've had enough sleep you are, simply put, more creative.  You have more neurotransmitters.  You have more ability to concentrate.  You have fewer hormonal imbalances.  And you have more thoughts that are whimsical and playful and not simply functionality-driven--the thoughts that are the bread and butter of creativity.

And....should I even bother mentioning how many good ideas can come from dreaming?  A process which we remember far less of when we are not getting enough sleep.

Let the non-creative astound themselves with how functional they can be on a couple of hours.  Artists need different parts of their brains, and need them in tip top shape.  Artists need their "graphics cards" to go up to kick ass settings, to do it for more than a few seconds at a time, and not to freeze their whole computer.

But Ima!  All those writer cliches about staying up late sucking back coffee.....  Yeah, those cliches are during the writing part.  That's when the creativity has shaken out and the writer is just driving to get it out on the page. That stuff does happen, and it is frequent enough that we deserve a lot of those stereotypes, but without enough fucking sleep we would never get to those moments of driving inspiration.

4- Stop Eating Crap (At Least All the Time)

Look no one is saying you can't have a pizza and write a book. Lots of great writers don't eat very well. This isn't about can-you-ever-do-it-at-all.  This is about maximum efficiency.

Your brain is an organ in your body, not on the other side of some shield that keeps out your physical existence.  Aside from structure or disease (chronic or otherwise), food is the single most fundamental factor in our mental state.  Watch a kid eat a pound of candy if you ever want to test this. Or cut out carbs and see how quickly your ability to think starts feeling muddy (because our brain can't metabolize other energy sources, like fats). Or watch the mood crash that can come a couple of hours after eating a huge meal of fats, salts and sugars. What you stick in your mouth is all your body (and brain) have to work with when it comes to making you. Every thought you ever have is a chemical reaction consisting mostly of yesterday's dinner.

Think about that.

(And then, what will really bake your noodle is if you think about THAT being a thought that consisted mostly of yesterday's dinner.)

Look, it's not like you won't be able to finish your short story unless you have an organic alfalfa sprout sandwich with fifty-seven grain bread and a no cal mayo. But sometimes not being able to think of what to write is not some failing of your psychic self or psychological block. Your brain is a physical entity with physical needs and physical limitations. Sometimes blocks can be as simple as the fact that you had canned chili with WAY too much sodium, and your neurons need some potassium to be able to fire. I know it sounds flip to suggest that a banana might cure writer's block, but....a banana might just cure your writer's block.

Treat your body like a temple if you want. You'll probably be able to find a point of limited returns when it comes to creativity. I found mine a few years ago and it's right about at the healthy but not athletic point. But the thing you can't get around is how fast mood, creativity, motivation, and brain function can crash when you're treating your body like a fucking garbage disposal. So stop putting absolute crap in there all the time, and give it some respect. If our bodies were just bipedal locomotion suits that got our brains from place to place--biosuits that needed any sort of calories for fuel--it wouldn't matter what we ate. But our brains are part of that whole system, so paying attention can affect how well we're writing.


5- Get Aerobic Exercise (if that's a thing you can do)

You do not have to go to the gym and do Circuit Training in order to "exercise."  In fact, there is evidence that if you are focusing on your routine, you're not getting the full benefit of exercises potential benefits on creativity. You probably are getting a better workout, and will be cut and ripped and whatever other kind of asunder state you wish to be.  But this isn't about "The Best Workout™". This is about creativity.

General benefits of exercise are all touched on above. Blood pressure and muscle oxygenation greatly affect mood. (And if you've ever not been in the mood to write, you know how nice it is not to have to fight yourself when you sit down.) Circulation stimulates brain function. Exercise helps to balance out buildups of neurotransmitters that can cause distracting neuron firings and helps with concentration. (If you have mild A.D.D., they recommend a mid-day walk to deal with it rather than medication.) Endorphins released can powerfully affect mood, most especially the kinds of moods that affect our sense of motivation.

Without external motivation to write--when we are only beholden to ourselves to get anything done--endorphins that give us that I-can-do-this! feeling are our best friends in the world.

There's also the fact that we zone out during aerobics. It's almost a meditative state. Now for most people that means it's time to listen to a book on tape or grab a friend to talk to. But for creative types....zoning out is like sweet ambrosia. We need those moments to fuel our dark artistic energies like warlocks need babies.

This needn't be vigorous exercise. You'd be surprised at how many writers don't even walk if they can help it. But an uncanny number of successful writers, you will find, swear by an hour of walking every day (or an hour on the treadmill maybe).  Cathy Lamb, Anne Lamott, Thoreau, Asimov, tons others and of course King got plowed into by a car during his daily constitutional. (I don't recommend this for general creativity, however.) Walking turns out to be pretty damned common among artists and creative types. And while they might not understand the biology of it, and call it things like "cleaning out the cobwebs" or "getting the blood flowing," it has some benefits that writers would do well to consider.

Once we realize that our brain is an organ inside our body that can be ravaged or cared for just like a liver or heart and not some psychic entity living across the body/mind Rubicon that is immune to our body's circumstances, we open up a lot of new ways to talk about creativity that aren't so mysterious and mercurial.  The fact of the matter is that solving your childhood issues with your mother or meditating on the infinity of the cosmos before a writing session might not effect your abilities as a writer nearly as much as having a banana and a nap.  So remember that your brain IS your body (or at least a part of it) and physical realities and limitations shape you as a writer as much as anything mysterious, untouchable, unteachable, and unknowable.

Probably more.


  1. I find it ironic that I read this post as a way to feed the check-online-for-interesting-things demon. But I did so after taking a 20-minute walk to clear the cobwebs so I could write, so... I guess it balances out?

    1. I can't even wrap my head around the layers of awesome in this comment.

  2. Glad you mentioned this. It needs to be said.

  3. Tell me about physical types looking down on creativity and vice versa... I love sports, have a fairly physical job in logistics, and LOVE books. So I get both if I don't manage to keep the two well apart. It's stupid and really gets on my nerves at times...

    I've also witnessed the exercise and creativity thing. Worst NaNo ever was the one where I was banned from exercising due to a sporting injury for the first week or so. I had lots of time since I was home sick, but it was just so hard to focus and I was in a bad mood all the time etc... Just horrible. So the one thing I don't give up for maximum NaNo output is sports. Series, definitely, games, yes, social commitments whenever I can manage it... reading, partially... but never sports. I suspect I might have mild ADHD (never been diagnosed but a couple of things would fit) or maybe that's just how I roll, but anyway, I know what works for me and this is dead-on...

    1. Clarification: I meant "I get both" as in "I'm subjected to both types of stereotypes and negative comments"