Monday, November 2, 2009

Training the Mind

Meet Susie. Susie is a smart, motivated, talented woman. She has everything she needs in order to accomplish great things in her chosen profession. She's a trained chef with her own catering business. People love her tasty treats. Yummy stuff.

But Susie has a strange affliction. Every time she takes a kitchen tool in her hand, whether knife or spatula or spoon, her body starts to dance. She doesn't even need music. It just happens, and she can't do anything to stop it.

In fact, she's given up trying to stop it, and instead she's trying to control it. She's tried forcing her feet to waltz very slowly when she needs to use a sharp knife for detail work. She's tried giving in to the dance for a set time period in the hopes that getting it out of the way will make it easier to ice her cupcakes. She's tried leaving one foot free for dancing while the rest of her body cooks. None of these tricks have helped. She still dances whenever her hand holds a kitchen tool.

Sound crazy? But isn't this exactly what writers do all the time?

"I want to be a writer. The first task of every writer is to write. But every time I sit down to write, I have to check my email, read my blogs, google my name, check my amazon rankings, and, well, you know. And then when I finally get around to opening my manuscript, I remember that I can't possibly write this scene with the high-speed car chase until I research the cars. I have to pick make and model, learn how fast they can go, check their acceleration rates, and heck, maybe for true authenticity I should go for some test drives this afternoon. I wonder if there's a Lamborghini dealership within a day's drive. Or maybe I could go with some really cool vintage car. There's got to be an auto show around here somewhere. I should google it."

Sigh. Right? You're dancing when you should be dicing. Sit at the computer, and watch your feet start to waltz. Writers are brilliant procrastinators. We go to great lengths to avoid putting words on paper.

But here's the cool thing. Unlike Susie the dancing chef, we have a solution, and it's one that takes only a little time and effort but yields big payoffs in the end. We can train our minds to perform writing on command.

You use different parts of your brain to accomplish different tasks. We all understand this, right? Critical thinking and creative thinking are done differently. It's brain biology. We're hardwired this way.

For must of us, the critical thinking brain function is well developed. So well developed, in fact, that it can easily swamp other kinds of thinking. But the creative mind is very pliable and eager. If we create conditions that let our creative center perform, then much like Pavlov's dog, repeating those conditions can also trigger performance. (Remember from yesterday -- your only goal when writing is to generate words. The "performance" is not measured by quality indexes, but by continuity -- did your hands keep moving -- and by time and word count. Time is a set measure, and word count will fluctuate.)

This is part of the theory behind timed speed writing: by deliberately using the creative center (and stemming the criticial thinking center), we strengthen that part of our brains and make it easier to switch on command.

The command we used yesterday was the kitchen timer. Set it for ten minutes and write while the timer ticks. When the bell dings, stop. Very simple training exercise. We used a simple tool -- stars in the margin -- to mark the places where the creative process had a bit of hangtime.

Why did we do that? Because the critical thinking center, by nature and purpose, is trained to dominate other parts of our minds. Imagine what the human survival rate would be if it didn't act in this exact fashion. "Hmm, I'm a little cold. Think I'll toss myself like a log onto that there fire. That'll warm me up." Critical thinking allows us not only to see the flaw in that idea, but it takes control so that we avoid an extra crispy death. If it merely makes a suggestion and then pipes down while the "I'm cold" part of our brain throws us on the fire, it hasn't exactly done it's job, has it? No. So if it recognizes a problem and announces the problem, and we don't acknowledge the problem, it will get louder. And louder. Until eventually it swamps the whole of our mind with danger warnings.

The star in the margin is our way of tangibly acknowledging the critical thought that stalled us. "Hello, critical brain. I see your concern, and I validate it. We won't die if we keep writing for a bit, and we'll pay close attention to your concern later. See, my star is my promise. So you can be quiet now. It's safe."

You can train your mind to generate creative concepts on command. The first step is providing a safe zone where your creative mind can operate, and the second step is learning to satisfy the needs of the critical mind when it snaps into warning mode.

Stars in the margin. Try them. See if it helps. There are other techniques that can help, too, if this one doesn't. So don't stress about it. (That will only give control to the critical mind.) Have fun, play with it, and treat your ten minutes like a special safe zone. Because that's what it is.



Leona said...

My husband taught me how to use the dang comment section in word yesterday (his college class paying off for me LOL)

He told me to quit stressing and skip looking up Nordic names, etc, and just write. I could do the rest later. When I mentioned my memory problems he gave me a sideways smiled and said, here let me show you...

I was so happy to learn it. I am exactly that person. I need to know cars, I better stop and learn, etc. is me to a T. So now no excuses. Hit the comment button (my star:), start the timer, and write!

Joan Mora said...

I needed to read this today. Thank you!

Leona said...

I am at 3530 words for the two days. I only had 1270 to start the day with. the system is working :)I work in short bursts in between things "I have to do" (like bathe the baby) then go back to the concentrated writing that isn't timed.I'm nearly to 1800 words now:)

Genella deGrey said...

I love this -