As a ‘temporary’ Calgary casualty of the oil & gas crunch, I’ve been given – by the grace of God and OPEC (not necessary in that order) – two months to live truly, purely, as a novelist.
“I’m livin’ the dream, baby. Livin’ the dream!”
Even with his summer on the links bleaching out before his eyes, my man – just as much of a gambling dreamer as his wife – has been unflinchingly supportive. But while he’s stuck holding down our fort with his grueling 9-5 (and one heck of a commute), the cruelty of my complaining would be audacity itself. Write without complaint? Surely an impossibility! I grew up the child of an artist and a poet; to create is to bleed…
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway
“…sit staring at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” – Gene Fowler
I know I’m going to blow some minds here, but astonishingly, turns out 90% of this world sees writing fiction as some fantastically indulgent wank-fest through fairyland. Scarier still, it turns out they’re right! What? No sacred nobility to our art? No cosmic prophecy of our crucifixion for the cause? But then why does all our own biofeedback reinforce the story of the writer’s suffering?
Writing is hard because, quite simply, it is cognitively costly. And if our brains can be counted on for anything, it’s efficiency. It conserves its resources by taking the path of least resistance. Your brain will always (except for when… but we’ll get to that) take the elevator, even if it’s just to the second floor. But planning, working memory, and advanced problem solving are high cost executive functions, located in the prefrontal cortex – Gene Fowler’s quote is no mere metaphor! Keeping the continuity of an entire novel open for constant reference is wildly taxing, even without adding in the layered themes, emotions, and symbolism. The more linkages you can keep ‘lit’ while writing, the more associations your words will activate in your reader’s brain, thereby deepening their engagement and enriching the emotional impact of your words.
Writing loads our working memories to peak capacity. It’s no surprise that a recent study has linked high verbal intelligence to excessive worry and rumination. What shuts down the mechanism? Drugs, alcohol, drama, stress, depression – see the pattern here? And words aren’t like phone numbers or sudoku patterns, words tie back into emotion. A working memory loaded with story is a limbic nightmare! Notes and outlines can help relieve this pressure and also minimize the cognitive uncertainty of loose ends and false starts. But for those of us brave/foolish souls whose stories (and selves!) are sustained by surprise, we have no choice but to throw everything into the mix and hope for the best. Best being relative, of course, because perfectionism is the most grandiose of booby traps.
I discovered a trick by accident back (way way waaaay back if you’re talking to my mother) when I smoked copious amounts of green.. um… er… Hey Newton shoved probes behind his eyeballs, so riding the ganga bus is but a small sacrifice for science. I noticed that whenever I quit, my working memory would be significantly compromised for about a week. During that time ruminations would collect and intensify, but then the root thought would be lost and all subsequent loading would float free, having chemical permission to dissolve back into the brain.
Our stories and sentences collect and overwhelm, but experiencing the automatic permission to release a glutted system has allowed me to manually grant my brain the same permission. I approach the word clusters (sets) as objects unto themselves (shapes can be a helpful visualization), thereby untethering any root limbic (emotional) linkages. Think of a drowning swimmer being cut free of a tangle of seaweed. Then, we can reset our working memory by refocusing our attentions. I find a quick sense scroll to be the most effective, fast-acting, strategy. This is why surroundings are key to comfortable writing – environmental cues can be invaluable supports.
But how can we tackle ‘the fear’, the cause of so much of our pain and procrastination? Our stomachs twist, our palms sweat… Oh Gawd Sam can’t suspect Kathy until chapter 6! I’m holding an entire world in my head! Help!! Know that what you’re feeling is simply an uncomfortable accumulation of active linkages, an overloaded working memory, and bunches of tiny (yet urgent) warning alerts from loose ends and/or unresolved conflicts being processed below your attention. Your brain/body quickly goes into panic mode when it discovers it might be wasting its precious resources on an unsolvable problem.
It’s time for unrelenting compassion.
Writing is hard. So is everything we do, if we want to do it well – not perfect, let’s just be clear here. Time to switch gears and reengage with the act of writing, not as proof of logic, but as an act of love. Because love is the only tool we have that can convince our brains to take the stairs. To our most primitive limbic selves, connection is worth any amount of calorie expenditure. It recalibrates and re-prioritizes our efficiency calculator.
When you hit ‘the fear’, stop, reset your working memory, and come back with an attitude of unrelenting compassion. You’re writing for love, not of the characters or the fleeting glory of publication, but for your own passage through time. Don’t let your mind’s complaints fool you, writing fiction is a delightfully selfish act. Embrace this truth! For a couple of hours, you are the only person in the world who matters. You are living your viable world in its purest, most honest form. The words you’re stressing about are only marks on a page. Time will move them forward. Maybe they’ll connect with readers, maybe they won’t. The only thing that matters is that sweet neurotransmitter rush when concepts align and conflicts resolve. This is a creative brain’s naturally coded high. Stop bitching and own it! Breathe each breath and trust your subconscious to do the dirty work – Sam and Kathy will sort themselves out. All you have to do is keep your bum on the chair.
In our age of value through production, give yourself permission to savour the simple act of existing for and about your story. In terms of the brain, compassion quiets the prefrontal verbal rush long enough to allow the flow up of subconscious linkages that will actually strengthen your writing. And speaking of the subconscious…
Since most of your novel/story will be processed below the level of conscious awareness, (think of Virginia Woolf walking the moors) the biggest favour you can do for yourself is to make the transition from subconscious to conscious to page as efficient as possible. And here’s where we get unorthodox. I’ll have to leave the extensive brain structure/chemistry evidence for another post, but in summary: our most efficient writing mimics the architecture of our dreams. When using our brains’ organic framework, all we have to do is then ‘simply’ clean up the continuity and refine the language of communication. This is how your brain stories the world. Try exploring your novel/story when you’re in theta state just dozing off or drifting in and out between snooze alarms.
For example: if you dream vivid life and death adventures with exaggerated geography and humanity, give your plots/settings/characters those same freedoms and extremes. If you usually dream on a more intimate, local scale that’s rich in references and symbols from the past, don’t be afraid to use flashbacks, more local settings, and strong symbolism in your writing.
Accept that you have to write. This is not a choice, but the most deeply encoded expression of your humanity. With practice, releasing and refocusing your working memory, reengaging with unrelenting compassion, and writing around your organic dream framework will help to lessen the cognitive cost of writing and thereby reduce the associated ‘AGONIEEES’.
To summarize… “clear your mind and come back with love to write what comes naturally.” I sit before you, screen to screen, and say, with no shame or doubt, “It’s possible.”
“I’m livin’ the dream, baby. Livin’ the dream!!!”