Your Brain on Words

When you tell yourself you don’t have time to write, your brain believes you. When you tell yourself over and over you don’t have time to write, you never find time to write. Even when you have four hours set aside to write, something always comes up. Because you don’t have time to write!

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

But if you tell yourself you have time to write, time appears. I wanted to write “time magically appears,” but in my experience, that’s not true. 

The brain is an organ that produces thoughts. It also believes thoughts—without question. Thoughts appear. We believe them.

Unless we make the effort to question them. 

“I don’t have time to write.”

Is that true?

“Well, no. I wrote for two hours yesterday morning and I’m writing right now.” 

What’s actually true is: I have time to write. 

Because our brains have evolved to expend minimal energy, our brains prefer not to have to make decisions. That’s why it’s easier to go to work the same way every day, even if you could have avoided that traffic by taking the back roads. Your brain, all our human brains, would rather be on auto-pilot, conserving energy for when we have to run from that saber toothed tiger. 

But there isn’t a saber-toothed tiger anymore. All that physical danger we’ve evolved to save our energy for doesn’t exist, at least not here in North America. We are very fortunate.

But our brains still operate the way they evolved to millions of years ago. So if we think a thought, it’s easier to just believe it and keep going because it takes less energy, which our brains equate to a better chance of survival. 

But some of the thoughts we “just believe” are harmful to us. “I don’t have time to write,” for example, is a poisonous thought to a writer, or to someone who wants to be a writer. 

So what can we do about these thoughts that appear and stop us in our tracks?

Take the time to question that thought every single time you think it and you will soon break yourself of the habit of thinking it. 

Questioning a thought takes energy. So your brain (and mine!) will resist. It will give you evidence (excuses!) showing why you don’t have time to write.

Keep presenting the evidence showing when you had time to write. Give concrete, specific examples:

  • I wrote for an hour right after I dropped the kids off at school yesterday.
  • I wrote every day for at least 30 minutes last summer when I did that journal challenge.
  • I wrote for 2 hours last Sunday morning.

Catch yourself thinking “I don’t have time to write,” and challenge it. If you do, you will soon be thinking “I have time to write,” just as often. You will also, I believe, be writing!

**********

Diane MacKinnon, MD, is a Master Certified Life Coach who used to work as a Family Physician. She’s passionate about writing and journaling and is (still!) working on her first book, a self-help book for medical peeps. You can find her at her website, www.dianemackinnon.com.

Start with One Step Forward…How Else Will You Get There?

sign post with arrows pointing in various directionsWhether you call them resolutions or goals or plans or dreams, in order to succeed at achieving them you need to move toward them. They won’t come to you on their own.

While I was out on a brisk icy morning to complete my 1-mile-per-day-outside-for-the-month-of-January challenge, I thought of this one-step-forward concept (I know it is not original, it struck me in the moment though). I took deliberate steps that morning because it was slippery, and with each step, I was one step closer to the 1-mile goal.

It was slow progress, but it was forward progress.

And as with any goal, resolution, etc. you set for yourself, as long as you’re moving toward it — full speed, half-speed, slowly — you have a much better chance of reaching that finish line than if you sit still and don’t do anything.

Am I right?

This isn’t anything new. We all know we have to take steps to reach a goal, yet, time and time again, it’s easy to slip back into the not doing it or thinking we’ll do it later. However, the truth is that tomorrow’s success is based on today’s actions.

Keep saying you want to write a book but haven’t started it yet? Write 1 word today (sounds silly, but it’s 1 word more than you had yesterday), then write another tomorrow… before you know it you’ll be writing a paragraph a day, then a page a day, then a chapter a day — or simply a sentence a day. Whatever it turns out to be, you’re writing that book! Finally!

Want to walk a mile a day? Start with a walk to the end of the hallway and back, to the end of the driveway and back, to the start of the neighbor’s driveway and back. Figure out ways to get some steps in and the do at least the same amount of steps or more the next day and the next, and the next and eventually you will hit a mile-a-day (or whatever your goal is).

Want to build your business network? Connect to someone new on social media. Give a sincere reply or comment to a post you liked reading. Make a phone call to a past client. Reply to a request for assistance. Join an online group. RSVP ‘yes’ to an upcoming event. Do one thing today that can start you forward on building your business network. Then do another tomorrow.

Doing one thing may not sound like enough – but if you’ve had the same dream, goal, resolution, etc. for a while now, doing nothing hasn’t worked, has it?

Maybe it seemed too overwhelming.

So, stop and take a serious look at the goal/resolution/etc. Is it something you truly want to accomplish?

If no. Toss it. Get it off your list once and for all. If yes, if you still want to see that end result, then I challenge you to take one step toward it today.

And then another step tomorrow.

And so on.

Promise yourself you’ll to do at least one thing and I bet you’ll end up doing more.

By taking at least one step forward, you’ll feel good about making positive strides. I know, because it’s what I’m doing now in a couple of areas.

What will be your one thing to get you moving forward?

Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies and individuals tell their stories. You can connect with her on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.

For the Writer Who Hasn’t Been Writing

 

In her smart and inspiring book, Lab Girl, geobiologist and author Hope Jahren writes, “A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed.” One of many gentle insights on the dogged perseverance of both budding scientists and plant life, this passage invites personal musings on dormancy, both literal and figurative.

Dormancy is a regular part of nature. At this time of year, we think of the world as “coming back to life,” but the innumerable seedlings and buds that finally emerge in spring have, in fact, been very much alive during the long, enchanted sleep of winter. They were never dead; they were just biding their time until the moment was right.

Even houseplants, which live in artificial conditions and are sometimes subject to neglect, have the ability to seemingly resurrect themselves. I have a small cyclamen plant that I saved from a holiday arrangement a few years ago. I did a passing fair job of caring for it until this winter when a severe cold trapped me on the couch for a week. By the time I remembered to water the poor thing, there was nothing left of the cyclamen except two dried leaves and one straggling bud that never had the chance to bloom.

Despite the sorry state of the little plant, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Not expecting any miracles, I gave it some water and a sunny spot on the windowsill. For months, nothing happened. It looked as if I was caring for a pot of dirt. And then one day there were signs of life.

Like the undulating arms of a tiny terrestrial octopus, several delicate, fuzz-covered shoots arched gracefully out from a tangle of dead stems and partially exposed roots. A few days later, the tips of several shoots had unfurled into beautiful variegated leaves that spread wide and began, imperceptibly, tracking the movements of the sun like an array of miniature radar dishes tuned into the songs of the stars.

There are parts of ourselves—dreams, hopes, beliefs—that are like seeds waiting to germinate or like neglected houseplants that seem half dead, but have really just drawn their life force back into themselves for safe keeping.

Maybe you grew up wishing you could be an explorer or an artist, but life led you down a different path, and now you can hardly recognize yourself as the child who dreamed of sailing the seven seas, writing poetry, or capturing visions in paint. That piece of yourself is not dead and gone; it is just dormant, waiting for the right time to stretch into the light.

You can often coax new growth simply by providing a little sustenance. Just like my cyclamen needed water and sunlight, your sleeping dreams need time and attention. For now, they may be curled up in the quiet dark, but there is no expiration date on their potential.

Our dreams can even benefit from time in stasis. Like a seed that must hold itself in limbo until there is enough space, sunshine, water, and nutrients to sustain it, sometimes our dreams have to wait until we have the right life experience, confidence, or motivation. While our Western sensibilities tend to encourage a state of constant striving, sometimes we would be wiser to practice a more organic way of becoming.

Jahren tells a story in Lab Girl about a lotus seed that scientists dug out of a peat bog in China. After the seed sprouted in the lab, the researchers radiocarbon-dated the discarded shell and found that the seed had been dormant for two thousand years. Truly, you can never say never.

.

Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
.

Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2)

Last night, a plot point that had been nagging me for days dropped into my head while I was dicing onions. Last week, a perfect turn of phrase for an essay sauntered through my head while I was on the train. I am grateful for these breakthrough moments, and also started to wonder, why couldn’t I think of these while at my desk?

Why is it that I am least creative when I am working hardest?

In my last post, I my advice was: If you want to write, write (more).

Today, my advice is: take a break!

And yes. That advice is contradictory. Here is why.

There is an emerging interest in the science of creativity, and researchers recently tackled the question: why do people get their best ideas in the showers? The answer is straightforward.

You have better ideas when you are relaxed.

image of a busy brain

A busy brain can be a writer’s enemy

Decision-making, e-mail-writing, and schedule-juggling is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex controls association and emotional response. Some studies suggest that when artists are improvising and most creative, there is almost no activity in the prefrontal cortex. The part of your brain that balances your checkbook does not write poetry. Not only does creativity need a quite prefrontal cortex, it also thrives on dopamine. What’s dopamine? The neurotransmitter that relaxes the body.

In other words, your writer’s block is not because you are not focused, but because you are not relaxed.

Image of a brain at rest

When your frontal cortex is resting, your subconscious is at work.

Thinking about a problem can keep you from creating a solution. Dopamine quiets the chatter, and lets your subconscious get to work. When I was dicing onions, I was relaxed, which let my subconscious knit together the ideas that been slowly forming.

So how do you access this magic drug? Take a break. Bake a cake. Take a bath. Walk around the block. Draw a picture of your brain.

It can be hard to follow this advice. After all, my writing time is precious to me, often squeezed between other jobs, or carved out at the end of the day. When I find myself staring at the screen, faced with a plot problem I can not untie, I remind myself that creativity does not have a time-clock.

I find that by writing more frequently and taking breaks when I get frustrated, I am able to make daily progress.

Do you ever feel like your best – or only – ideas happen when you’re away from your desk?


Small_headshot

Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting. You can learn more about her work here.

 

If you want to write, write! And other infuriating advice

If you want to write: write!

We’ve all heard some form of this advice, and its more crass counterpart, “put your ass in the chair.”

What I hate most about this advice is its simplicity. I know that the only way to write is to sit down and do it.

Easier said than done.

When I sit down to write, I often sit down surrounded by my ambition, my hopes, and a running to-do list of other tasks I should be doing. I developed my Spell Against Self Doubt – the actions I take to prepare for writing – to build my confidence as a writer. I needed something other than a page number to measure success, and so it was surprising that one of the most useful tools is completing three pages of automatic writing before opening my computer. It made me wonder:

Is the secret to unlocking better writing as simple as writing more?

Time @ Desk (Time + Wordcount) / Hours Procrastinating = Quality

Is there an equation to better writing?

According to Julie Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Understanding, writing more is the way not only to get better at writing, but also better any creative pursuit. The task is simple: write for three pages without a plan. Just keep writing.

For the first few weeks, I remained dubious. My morning pages were painfully mundane. I scribbled to-do lists, petty anxieties, and physical descriptions of my surroundings. While I had succeeded in getting my ass in the chair, it seemed to only confirm the fear that I had nothing interesting to write.

And then something shifted. One morning some of the smog lifted. I started writing about a dream I’d had. The daily practice of unplanned writing led me to unplanned ideas. Unexpected details crawled through my still-foggy brain. I accessed the joy I’ve observed in a marker-wielding three year old: fierce commitment to coloring page after page, followed by total abandonment when snack time rolls around.

So is the secret to writing better, writing more?

My morning pages have not manifested into a manuscript. They have become a beloved junk drawer of detail, observation, and memory. Though I write my morning pages when I am still half asleep, they have woken up my delight in writing. I no longer sit at my desk wondering if I have a story to tell, but which story I will share with this audience.

Writing more has improved my writing, because I now approach my writing like a three year old — content to be completely absorbed in the act of creating! I write from a place of trust and delight. Of course, I’m not saying that quantity equals quantity. Word count is not a panacea for a poorly formed argument, but it may be a cure for doubt.

Art by my favorite three year old - one of 13 pieces made that day!

Art by my favorite three year old – one of 13 pieces made that day!

If you want to write – write! Write when you are half asleep, write when you are annoyed that your friend is late to meet you (again), write when you see something that delights you.

So what do you think? Is writing more a path towards better writing?


Small_headshotNaomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

Spell Against Self Doubt

This summer, I almost turned down a writing residency.

Before fully considering the offer, doubt crept in. A friend pointed out that I was more focused on my self-doubt than the opportunity in front of me. And so, I cast a spell against self-doubt.

The spell was quite simple; it was to complete four actions before starting work.

Those actions were:

  • An act of kindness
  • An act of strength
  • An act of creation
  • An act of bravery
FLATspellagainstselfdoubt

My Spell Against Self-Doubt

In the weeks leading up to the residency, and during the residency itself, my spell against self-doubt became a daily practice. Each action was an antidote to my most frequent doubts.

The manifestation of my casual witchcraft was to:

  • Make coffee for my partner  (Act of Kindness)
  • Bust out 30-50 Pushups (Act of Strength)
  • Sketch a quick cartoon (Act of Creation)
  • Scribble three pages of automatic writing (Act of Bravery)

The culmination of this practical magic was that when I started work on my play I was energized, centered, and eager to tap into the fictional world I was creating. Whenever doubt started to murmur, I refuted it, with my proof of kindness, strength, creation, and bravery

Centering my writing practice on acts of kindness towards others (and myself) let me shed my fear that writing is a selfish pursuit. The adrenaline rush from my act of strength let me draw with energy and abandon. I started sketching because it was a form that had no repercussions on my sense of self as a creative.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction: holding a grudge / letting it go

I gave up on “learning to draw” in seventh grade when I was unable to render a realistic bouquet of flowers. Last July, when I decided to start drawing, I was unencumbered from any pressure to be good. Unlike writing, it’s not something I’ve practiced.Surprisingly, I fell in love.

Armed with paints, I was full of stories. Freed from any understanding of technique, I was able to let go of my bias that realistic is good. Drawing in my own perspective, freed me to write in my own voice.

After the joy of splashing my thoughts into colorful cartoons, I was able to face myself on the page and write.

By the time the residency started, the spell had taken hold. Instead of bringing my toolbox of doubt, I brought my watercolors and a play I was excited to share.

ToolsFlat

Ready, Set, Draw!

Over the past six months, the spell has stuck. I continue to count acts of kindness, feats of strength, and drawing as an essential to my writing. What started as an act of desperation has become a source of inspiration.

Do you have your own version of the spell against self-doubt?

Have you ever tried drawing/dancing/singing as a way to warm-up before writing?


Small_headshot

Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

 

Reply to Readers’ Comments

I no longer remember which of my colleagues at Live to Write – Write to Live first advised me to reply to readers’ comments, but it’s been great advice, so I’m passing it on.

Here’s why:

  1. It’s easy to send stories out into the world; it’s harder to know if they ever get read, and harder still to know if they hit home. When a reader comments, it’s like an out-of-the-park homer. Replying is simply cheering for the home team.
  2. When a reader’s comments offer me a new perspective, I thank them for widening my world-view. I live a somewhat solitary life, and I appreciate other’s opinions, life experiences and wisdom.
  3. When a reader reveals uncertainty about their writing, I reply with encouragement. I know both how easy it is to become discouraged and how important kinds words can be. Everyone has stories to tell; not everyone has the courage or wherewithal to write them down, let alone send them out into the world. Everyone benefits from kindness.
  4. Humans are a narrative species. We need stories. Stories are a way to build empathy, trade information, and resolve conflict. I want to do what I can to promote such peaceful behavior.
  5. Sometimes, this somewhat solitary writing life gets lonely, and hearing from readers has led to some on-line friendships. I’ve been in love with letters and intrigued by letter writing since I was a kid, and I like epistolary relationships. I still love snail mail, but email is easier and faster.
  6. Recently, an acquaintance I made through my blog turned into a face-to-face visit. Last week, this reader from England stopped by for coffee. (Read about it here.)

The chance to comment on a blog and reply to a reader’s comment is a gift of the internet. Yes, I received fan mail when my novel, Into the Wilderness, came out. No question, it was terrific. But I write novels slowly; I post blogs about six times a month. The frequency allows me to reach more readers between books, and these readers’ comments sustain me. So replying to comments only makes sense.

Thanks to all who read my posts both here and on Living in Place. This post is a special shout-out to those who respond with a comment.Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, public speaker and educator who lives in southern Vermont. There are still a few spaces left for the WOMEN WALKING AND WRITING TO WISDOM WALKshop on November 4th. Learn more here.