Why You Don’t Feel Like Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

As Yogi Berra once observed, “90% of the game is half mental.” That’s why I wrote a book called The Mental Game of Writing. We have to master the space between in our ears in order to produce our best work on the page.

I’ve noticed many blog posts over the last five months talking about what a struggle it is to write in Virus World. These writers talk about a lack of energy, spark, interest, creativity. The feeling is described in a post by Peter Olson: “A frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you … journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.”

Every now and then a scribe wonders if there’s something wrong with them. Do they really want to do this anymore? Is the joy gone for good?

Turns out there’s an understandable, biological reason you feel this way. Your brain is experiencing “culture shock.” From the above article:

When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explains how our brains work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Here is a summary:

  1. Your brain is a great decision-making engine.
  2. Your brain has two distinct processes it uses to make decisions.
  3. One of these systems operates quickly and automatically and does not require much energy.
  4. One of these systems operates slowly and deliberately and requires a lot more energy.

Kahneman gave names to the two processes your brain uses. He called one the “fast” system. This kind of thinking has also been called the “subconscious” system. The other he called our “slow” system. “Slow” thinking is what you are doing when you say that you are “thinking” about something.

What’s happening is that our brains have to do a lot more “slow” thinking these days. We used to just run out to the store for groceries with a simple routine: Park the car, get out (without fiddling with a mask), grab a cart, stroll around, thump a cantaloupe, look over the meats, etc. But now we have to think about masks, distance, touching, not touching, hand sanitizing, keeping an eye on that guy coming down the aisle and keeping our feet on the floor stickers in the checkout line. Thus, even this once innocuous little slice of your life drains your brain.

Think of “slow thinking” a bit like ‘turbo’ from the old video games. You need it to power through some parts of life. But use it all and you’ll need to wait for it to come back again. This is why you have perhaps said that your brain feels ‘tired’ after a long meeting, an intense discussion, or after much studying. That ‘tired’ feeling is your brain calling for a break so it can replenish the sugar it just used up.

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Hundreds of times every day we are now facing moments where fast & cheap was handling your decisions for you … but can’t anymore. Last year greeting a friend didn’t require us to use the limited capacity of slow thinking. But now it may. With many of our autopilots disabled, we are facing a world where we are being forced to think in ways we are not accustomed to. And it’s draining your brain of capacity you used to have for other – more meaningful – things.

Meaningful things like writing!

Or maybe somewhere in your tired brain there’s a voice whispering that fiction is really not all that meaningful.

Shut that voice down! People need stories more than ever. We are the ones to lighten the load of our fellow citizens dealing with the stark, often irrational, and sometimes violent nature of current reality.

As Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Share that dram with your readers!

To avoid slow-brain sluggishness, let me suggest the following:

  1. Prioritize morning writing

Awaken, get your morning beverage, then write something. I know some of you claim not be “morning people,” but it’s morning and you’re a person, right? Instead of immediately hopping onto Facebook or Instagram, play with words.

I don’t care what words. Maybe it’s a scene in your WIP, but not always. Try jotting in a journal, or starting a short story based on whatever is in your mind at the moment (the Ray Bradbury Method). Don’t judge the words, just produce them.

I like writing flash fiction (under 1,000 words) and often use early mornings to start stories…some of which I may not finish. But that’s okay. It gets me in the writing mood.

  1. Quarantine the news and social media 

Decide when and for how long you’ll glance at the news and social media. The news can get you sad, mad or both within seconds. Social media is, in the words of Cal Newport, “digital fast food.” The instant Dopamine rush you get leads to a crash later, which may result in a massive case of the blues.

Really. Set a timer. Do anything to limit the input of these two stimuli.

  1. Get together with real people

This is a bit difficult in the California compound, where I often feel like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. In L.A. you can’t have some people over to enjoy a backyard barbecue, but you can have 6 people at your table at a restaurant with outdoor dining. Go figure.

So do what you can under the rules of your locality to get real with real people. We need flesh and blood interactions more than  Zoom and Skype.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for wire cutters and a motorcycle.

So how is your energy to write these days? Any tips on staying motivated?

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Social Media is Eating Your Brain

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In 2007 the lovers were born. Soon they met, and conceived a bastard child. The child looked so beautiful … until …

damienDamien!

What’s this? A riff on The Omen?

Nay, for it really happened. The lovers were the Kindle and Twitter. And their child is that brain-eating spawn, social media marketing.

When the child turned one, writers were just starting to figure out they could profitably self-publish on the Kindle platform.

They also saw Twitter exploding with users. They began to reason: Hey! What an easy way to reach a zillion potential book buyers! All I have to do is tweet out, “My new thriller is not to be missed. Buy it here!” and keep on tweeting that same message. Over and over. A dozen times a day. The money will pour in!

Which it never did, of course. For authors and businesses soon woke up to the harsh reality that Twitter is not great shakes at direct marketing. In fact, it is barely any shakes at all. It is social, and personal … but it is no citadel of commerce.

Still, addicted to hope, authors jumped upon each shiny new social media outlet that appeared. Pinterest! Tumblr! Google Plus! In truth, Instagram may be the only social media platform that has shown signs of longevity in terms of a social media marketing platform. Why do you think that so many people are interested that socialfollow helps you get followers? People are always looking to boost their numbers to appear more attractive to brands.

This addiction was fueled by enablers. Writers hoping to catch the interest of a traditional publishing house were being advised by agents and editors and critique-group chatterboxes that a gigantic social media platform was an absolute necessity for success!

Biggest load of flapdoodle since Fen-Fen, with just as many ruinous side effects.

Here’s the truth: social media madness is eating your brain, affecting your ability to concentrate and work deeply, and sabotaging the quality of your fiction––which is the one thing you cannot afford to have sabotaged if you want a long-term career!

Social media stimuli is actually akin to a drug addiction. Really. Brain scans show that constant internet users have similar brain patterns as drug addicts and alcoholics. And since social media involves another “you,” the social-you, the branded-you, the you you want to present to the world, there’s a dopamine effect. You get a good jolt of pleasure when you post, because it’s easy and it’s all about you. Which in turn makes you crave more of it.

Is Walter White behind social media madness?

The book Deep Work by Dr. Cal Newport is an eye-opener on all this. The gist of the book comes from it’s cover copy:

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

Writing a novel is hard work. So the moment you get to a challenging spot, your brain starts to crave the easy pleasure and fast distraction of hopping onto the internet. The more you follow that impulse, the stronger the impulse center grows.

Thus, you’ll be distracted from your fiction all the time. Your ability to concentrate and stay engaged, and actually work through a writing problem toward a breakthrough, will weaken. You’ll be like a former champion pole vaulter who has started to take frequent breaks from training to snag donuts and coffee. Instead of vaulting to greater heights, the bar is going to have to be set lower and lower. Pretty soon, you’ll be doing The Limbo.

After reading Newport’s book, I saw how much of it applied to me. I’d fallen into some bad habits. Too often as I wrote I’d find an excuse to go check social media, which took me out of “flow” and often kept me distracted far too long.

This, in turn, hurt my concentration in other areas, like reading. I noticed that I’d only get through a few pages in a book before I’d feel like checking Twitter or Feedly or some news sites. I was losing the ability to “get lost” in a book, one of the main pleasures of reading. (Fess up. It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it?)

So I took some steps that have helped enormously, and now pass them on to you:

  1. Schedule your internet time

Do not go on the net at all, ever, without scheduling the time to do so. When you sit down to write or read a book, give yourself a slot––one, two, three hours––during which you will not go net surfing at all. Then jot down the exact time you’ll do some internet, what your objective is (news, email, social media, etc.), and how much time you’ll allow for it.

Do this for the entire day.

At first, you’ll notice as you work that the strong call of the internet is still there. Like the Sirens singing to Odysseus. Fight off that urge every time it arises! Put yourself back into the pages or the books. Slowly, but most certainly, you’ll retrain yourself to concentrate on matters at hand. It’s a great feeling to get that back! And your writing will be stronger, your reading comprehension better.

  1. Mute your phone

And put it somewhere where you can’t see it––pocket, backpack, another room. There used to be a time, youngsters, when we could take a phone “off the hook” so it wouldn’t ring. Learn from your grandparents.

  1. Do memorization exercises

This is something Newport recommends. The concentration required in memory work is good training for when you’re writing or reading or studying.

My two favorite memory books are …. wait a second …

Oh yes! The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas, and Maximize Your Memory by Jonathan Hancock. (You can get a used copy of the latter for a song via sellers on Amazon. This is a very good deal!)

I’ve noticed that when I do memory exercises (one of my faves is memorizing phone numbers), my mind feels more alert and active when I get into my writing.

  1. Read something challenging every day

Choose a book or subject that forces you to concentrate in order to understand it. Then read and make yourself understand it!

I own a set of the Great Books (as collected by Mortimer Adler). The best part is the three-volume Syntopicon, an index of the 102 “great ideas” and the various places they are discussed in the books themselves. Each subject has a long introductory essay by Adler (this guy was an amazing brain! He knew not Twitter or Facebook!). My new goal is to read each essay and pursue the references that interest me, and take copious notes.

Here’s another idea: there are TENS OF THOUSANDS of great books, free and Kindle-ready, at Project Gutenberg. Literature, history, philosophy, memoir. Some starter titles I recommend:

A Manual of the Art of Fiction

The Journal of Henri-Frederic Amiel

Democracy in America

Moonbeams from the Larger Luncay

Now, I don’t advocate you ditch all social media. My own view is that you ought to specialize in one outlet and do it because you enjoy it. I specialize in Twitter, with some Facebook presence, and of course my Sunday posts here at TKZ.

pac-manBut I do, however, counsel that you take a hard look at your social media practices. Are you using it, or is it using you? Are you getting on it first thing in the morning (when you could be writing your Nifty 350 or Furious 500?). Are you haphazard about it during the day? Do you stop randomly as you write to go check something out on YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook? (If so, you could be a YouTwitFace). Do you check your phone several times an hour?

My guess is that for 97.8% of you, there’s brain-eating going on. It’s Pac-Man in the synapses! Time to unplug that game!

Does this ring true? What’s been your long-term experience with social media? Madness or method?

(Here’s the talk by Cal Newport that started me thinking about all this):

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