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how to be a writer who writes
Hi! Chris and I have been talking about writing for as long as we’ve known each other. A decade? Longer? Probably longer. Anyway lately the topic has been focused more on Not Writing, which is pretty grim. But then … well, I’ll let Chris tell you.
You took a class that you said was instrumental in changing how you look at writing, and your own process and habits. Who taught it and what was it called?
My attention was captured by an Instagram ad for the Overcome Writer's Resistance Bootcamp by Monica Hay. Monica calls herself a "resistance coach." With her background in publishing and social work, as well as an ADHD diagnosis that caused her to learn about how our brains process tasks, Monica has created a coaching service for writers who find themselves feeling stuck in their creative process. The bootcamp consisted of live, interactive sessions on Zoom every day for a full week, with a year's access to the recordings and materials. It was the best $37 I've spent in a long time. (I have no affiliation with Monica other than participating in a bootcamp.)
I’ll add I have no affiliation with Monica either, and this isn’t a recommendation for or against the class post. It just spurred interesting discussions between Chris and me.
Monica also mentioned a couple of books that were instrumental in growing her understanding of how creative brains work: Around the Writer's Block by Roseanne Bane and The Science of Stuck by Britt Frank.
Those sound like worthwhile reads. Can you tell us a little about the brain science part of procrastination and feeling stuck creatively?
Monica talked about all the pressure we put on our art and how that can cause us to shut down creatively. The pressure to fulfill us, to create income, to earn recognition, to be perfect. Perfectionism is a big one for writers, as we all know. There’s also the pressure that comes with having people read our work and, if we’re published, to be held up to public scrutiny. The work of publishing and marketing can also be a deterrent to finishing our books.
This reminds me how people often ask why don’t I self-publish. After doing a magazine for so many years I know the pressure of publishing all by myself would consume all the energy I use for my creative process. But that’s just a specific thing to me that actually is part of a larger, universal issue many of us suffer from.
Right. All of this pressure creates trauma for our brains, which are wired for survival. Brains don’t care about your goals. They only care about protecting your energy so you can survive. So when we feel trauma and stress around our writing, our nervous systems automatically redirect us. When we feel the urge to do absolutely anything but write, it’s not laziness but an involuntary bodily defense mechanism. We don’t want to put effort into something that might not turn out well, either in terms of the final product or in terms of being rejected (i.e. “thrown out of the tribe”).
Additionally, trauma can cause the language processing section of our brains to shut down. This is why you can stare at a blank screen for an hour and not be able to think of anything to write. It happens to people in other situations, too, but is particularly hard for those of us who work with words. “I can’t word today!” is the slang phrase for this feeling.
I was really emotional for about a week after hearing this. It was such a relief to realize I’m not lazy or too old or a bad writer. My body and nervous system were trying to protect me from this giant saber-toothed tiger I had made of my art. I started to realize how much trauma had occurred around my writing in my relationships as well, and I am processing that.
It also blew my mind that trauma, from a neuroscience perspective, isn’t just the things we typically think of. Trauma also can be any change in body or environment that requires us to move out of our comfort zone and adapt. Even positive changes like a marriage, a new house, a new job, or losing weight. Yes, losing weight is brain trauma! None of this is our fault. It’s an automatic response of the survival mechanisms that have evolved over thousands of years to keep us safe and functioning.
So it sounds like the trauma doesn’t have to be intense, but could be mild or ongoing. For instance, I’ve suffered for a lot of years from what I call interruptions. This isn’t to say they weren’t important, but I’ve realized I hesitate to start writing because something generally comes along to stop me writing. I’ve just had a week alone successfully writing and have realized how impactful those interruptions have been.
I’ve noticed the same thing in my day job, as well as writing. Plus, having gone through some pretty big life changes in the past few years, not to mention starting a strict diet, the idea that trauma is blocking my creativity makes a ton of sense. Let’s not forget the social and economic changes brought on by the pandemic, or the effects of Long COVID on many people, including both you and me. Instead of beating ourselves up, we need to practice radical compassion for our minds and bodies.
I like radical compassion but I’m not sure what that always looks like besides not writing, which isn’t really achieving the goal of doing the creative thing that makes most of us feel better. What were some strategies, including different ways to look at the creative process?
Monica encouraged us to make messy art. I can’t believe I got this far in my writing journey (15 years now) without knowing that a first draft is supposed to be messy. I have been agonizing how to do this huge, complex thing that is creating a novel. I thought the first draft was what you polished up a bit and sent beta readers for feedback. No wonder I felt overwhelmed and have only finished one novel manuscript in all that time! First drafts are supposed to be messy.
So, how do you move past procrastination and embrace the mess? We need to retrain our brains to get back to the freely creative mode we experienced when writing was still fun and magical. The good news is that training your brain is absolutely possible because of neuroplasticity. I know you and I have talked about this in other contexts besides writing, too.
Definitely. I find it fascinating that you can change your brain via habits, or even just putting yourself out there a bit, taking risks, all that good, sometimes terrifying stuff. It sounds like it can work both ways though. Some of us have been trained to not write.
That’s a really good point. I think I’ve been training myself to not write for years. Then, if you don’t use certain skills, your brain re-routes its neuropathways to other tasks. So re-creating those pathways can feel hard at first. Monica compares it to clearing an overgrown path in the jungle. But if you keep doing it with daily practice, it gets easier and easier. This is why some people who have been writing regularly for a long time can seemingly switch their creativity on at a moment’s notice. (It’s also probably why those same people have so little empathy for those of us who struggle.)
Fast drafting is one technique, popularized annually in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where you shut off your internal editor and just write as much and as fast as you can without going back to “fix” it. Set a timer and do this for just five or ten minutes to get ideas flowing.
Another common approach is to make a note for things that you get stuck on in your manuscript, write past them, and fix later. This feels so counter-intuitive, but it’s probably the most effective way to move past “stuck-ness”.
Ha! Like my tool, XXX, which I use to note down missing names. I’m terrible with names, even with my own characters! And there’s always the infamous <insert cool battle here>!
Track everything you do, not just word count. Your brain needs to feel like it accomplished something in order to be motivated to write again, which is partly why writers often get hung up on word count. Everything you do that contributes to your writing or your brand is worth recording: sending emails, researching, revising, building your online presence, backing up your files, learning craft, all of it.
Here’s one I think wouldn’t work for me. But I’ve never been good at tracking word count or satisfied by that. Numbers don’t resonate with me as much. I know A LOT of people this would work for though!
Creative self-care. We all need “fuck around time.” It’s important that it be truly restful, so not scrolling BookTok or doing chores or family stuff. This is pure creative downtime: taking walks, bubble baths, naps, coloring, staring out the window, etc. That time that lets us stew in our creative juices. Since I started intentionally doing this for myself, it’s really helped my story development. Honestly, just not listening to anything while I’m driving to work has been helpful.
One of your old blog posts on the care and feeding of writers talks about how even when we appear to be doing nothing, we’re still working. That’s so true.
Quiet time is so important. There is so much noise all the time. My quiet time is walking my dog. I rarely take my phone on these excursions and the other day the dog and I spent a lot of time just watching ducks and a loon fuss with each other in a pond. I returned really ready to write.
The most important tactic, I think, is to figure out what your absolute minimum is and then show up for your writing every day. Even if it’s just one minute of writing time or researching, show up and it will be easier to do more as you rebuild that path in the jungle. Do it for yourself. Do it for the story inside you that deserves to be told.
Do it for the story inside you that deserves to be told. That should be The Writers’ Mantra.
Thanks for letting me share this with your readers. I really hope it’s been as helpful for them as it was for me.
If you want to read some of Chris’s fiction, here are a couple of stories.
"The Beach House" is featured in Reading Glasses: Stories Through An Unpredictable Lens and is a South Jersey Writer's Group contest winner.
"The Gargoyle Cat" is featured in Tall Tales and Short Stories from South Jersey
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