Monday, July 11, 2016

The Science of Protecting Your Creativity

Hello everyone!

Travis is forced away from Pokemon Go (aka, "walking off a bridge waiting to happen") to put together a really awesome blog post on creativity! But first, great news! The first three books of my original series, The Legend of Eli Monpress are on sale!

The book that started it all!

So if you can't wait another second for No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished, you can get books 1, 2, and 3 of my *completed* Fantasy series about a charming wizard thief and the poor bastards who have to try and catch him for $5.49 each wherever ebooks are sold! You can also get these books in their omnibus edition (pictured above) for $9.99!

If you've ever wanted to try my older series but never got around it, this is a great chance to do so on the cheap. So get out there and try a book! Eli swears you won't regret it, and in this at least, he's always trustworthy!

Okay, okay, sales pitch done. Take it away, Travis!



Hi Folks,

Today I'm going to talk about the neuroscience and biology of writing. While this isn't a bio-hacking article, we're definitely going to go over how to maximize ideal conditions around the neurology that writing depends on. Also, I get to say that having sex will make you a better writer, so this is a great article!

Where'd this come from? Well, as a programmer looking to cut more and better code I've read lots of articles about how to boost, though conserve is more appropriate, the mental output potential of my biology.  This research has been ongoing in my life for years now and I've used it as just a grunt coder, as a lead developer, and as Rachel's partner.

Everything here has a strong scientific backing and has been tried and tested by us. It's gonna be exciting!

So, let's talk about...

The Science of Protecting Your Creativity

The weird part of this article is that it's less about finding boosts, which would be bio-hacking IMO, and more about avoiding penalties. See, there's a lot of boat-anchors weighing down the creative mind. Some of these are just the normal mental challenges of life. Many, today's topic, are biological and can be reliably avoided with simple habits or life changes.

To start off with, 

How [part] of your brain works

There's been loads of neuroscience research on how our brains work under different conditions. What's really important is how we have basically two different modes focus and not-focus. Yeah, that article I linked was huge and dry, so please let me summarize.



Your brain has one area that we're particularly concerned with and that is the pre-frontal cortex. Other than language, this is one of the most important parts of a writer's brain. It governs a lot of what you'd consider to be your 'conscious thought' and it has two modes or configurations if you will. I'm going to call the mode A and mode B, those aren't technical terms however.



Mode A is for multi-tasking. It's also your fight-or-flight mode. Doing too much too fast, being under stress, juggling tasks, switching focus constantly, being attacked, and other situations requiring you to 'think fast' push your pre-frontal cortex into multi-tasking mode.

This mode is great for these situations, don't think that it isn't valuable. It makes you react first, think second usually. When juggling priorities, it's the best and only way to roll. However, your thinking and decision making is very basic and shallow while doing this, so it has a cost that's highly relevant to our interests.



Err.. lemme rephrase that. Better terms would be heuristically and disconnected. Auto-pilot in other words. Snap decisions made on multiple tasks at once are very much you running on rote skill, habit, and ingrained processes. I'm sure ya'll can see where this is going.

What multi-tasking mode is not is creative, innovative, spontaneous, connected, or deep. Mode B, now that's what the writer needs.

Mode B is for focusing. It's harder to get going than mode A is because mode A is by nature very quick to fire up. Mode B is, by the way, a physically different part of the pre-frontal cortex. It's not just a way of thinking, it's a unique part of your brain entirely. (this have been proved by fMRI imagining studies)

What is mode B good for? It's good for focus. Ever been in 'the zone'? Yeah, this part of the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for that. When it's going full steam on a single task, you get the zone.


Focusing mode is deep, subtle, it makes connections between concepts easily and quickly, it has superior short-term memory, it is spontaneous, creative, innovative, playful, it feels deeply, and so on.

I'm pretty sure by now that it's clear what you want your brain to be doing when you are writing. Mode B! Focus!

Its hard for me to concisely describe how important getting into this mindset is for good writing. This is when your whole story is in your head. It's when the story is carrying you away. As Rachel will tell you, the best writing happens when you are totally into the story and just rolling along.

All the tracking, note taking, beats, and wikis in the world are no match for just having your whole story living in your head at the moment of writing. This is, in fact, the way many famous innovators and geniuses have worked over the years. Go read about Isaac Newton, Einstein, or Nikola Tesla and you'll find that many of their inventions were made entirely in their heads before being written or crafted.

Anyway, I hope that I've properly explained how your brain works on this score and convinced you that getting it to focus is a very valuable thing for a writer. Let's move on to what messes this natural transition up and how to avoid them.

Multi-tasking is the devil

You can write and Netflix at the same time... of course you can
Y'all are smart. Do I need to explain how interruptions and working on things other than writing while writing is bad? I do hope that you are seeing their destructive power in a new light now though. For loads of practical tips on protecting yourself and building a proper 'time to write' mindset, please check out Rachel's Turtle Method post.

The obvious out of the way, there are subtle and insidious issues that abound here. Like context switching. See, it takes, and I've read this in so many places, about 20-30 minutes on average for a person to get into the much desired zone. 

That said, there's easily a good hour after that of loading where more and more information about your story will be part of your present thoughts. Have you had a time when you'd been writing for a while and had not only the current scene in your head but also ideas about all the threads, followups, corrections, and twists you'd thought of while writing it? That's what I'm talking about and it's the best place to be. 
The longer you stay deep in the zone, the better your book will be and the faster you will write in general.
Its also well known, in programming, that the right kind of interruption can blast all of that out of your brain. A single text can ruin a mental state that took an hour to achieve and getting it back is not unlike trying to go back to sleep to resume a dream. 

(There's some funny exceptions to this though, I've heard that people can eat, go to the bathroom, and do other sorts of 'mindless' activities without breaking the zone. Your mileage may vary.)


Haha! No interruptions now!

Again, the tactics to protect your zone are all Turtle Method stuff - no social internet, no email, no phone, no texts, no visitors, no playing a game, no watching TV in the background, and so on. Writing first, last, and only when writing. 


There's also an optimization component, though
If it takes 30 to 90 minutes to get to an ideal mental state for writing, how should you structure your writing time to maximize the amount spent in the best of the zone?


While 'infinite' is the technical right answer here, I'd say 6 hours is the practical one. This is from personal experience, but Rachel, most programmers I've worked with, and myself all seem to have about a 6 hour limit of creative work in their brains per day. After that point, mental fatigue takes its toll on quality rapidly and it's really not a good idea to keep going. 

My advice is to try and block out protected writing times as large as your life will let you, up to 6 hours. Get the best chunks you can as writing at all is better than not writing in the end. ^_^


What about multi-tasking writing tasks? 
For example: what do you do when the scene you are writing suddenly contradicts a previous scene and now you have a problem to smooth out? Or what if you hit a spot that needs more world building? A context switch here is technically writing, but it can definitely knock out a bunch of that forward-looking state information you worked so hard to load in your brain.

My personal method, that worked as a programmer, was just a bug/issue/todo list that sits out of sight but is readily handy. When these things happen, I have found that jotting them down for later processing doesn't break my zone but does get the issue out of my brain and allow me to proceed. I'd recommend this to anyone.

Let's move on, I promised serious biology after all!


Staying in the Zone

Update: Tom Sweeney asked a great question down in the comments. Staying in the zone is pretty darned important, so I really should talk more about it. We'll get to the biology in a minute.

Unfortunately, getting into and staying in the zone, with a well engaged mode B pre-frontal is both simple and damnably hard. Working just on writing, or editing, your novel for a dedicated time will do the trick. As I said above, roughly 20-30 minutes of continuous, focused work should get you in the zone.



The key to staying in the zone is a matter of not switching gears to something else. I wish there was more to it, but there really isn't. Everything I'm talking about today really has to do with two ideas.
1. Eliminate everything that might drag away your attention
2. Eliminate factors that make it harder to get into the zone. (See below)
A certain amount of focusing on your book to start with, for any session, will be willpower and practice. Forcing yourself to focus until you get into the zone is a skill and has to be developed to a certain extent. It'll get easier.

As for what will knock you out of the zone, its all very easy. A single email can do it. This is from personal experience, but the programming industry has a lot to say as well, but thinking about another problem is really what will do it.

I can do lots of mindless activities and still be in the zone. Raise your hand if you've had epic novel development sessions in your head while running, walking, or driving. I can play out extensive dialogues all day when doing housework. This is because vacuuming, dishes, laundry, etc don't require any brain power at all. I could do them in a coma practically.

Hopefully these tips will point you in the right direction for really getting the novel loaded and rolling in your head for maximum awesome. Good Luck! Now, back to the regularly scheduled blog post.



Stress and Cortisol, a writer's enemies

Long and short, Cortisol is the stress hormone. Too much of it, chronically elevated levels, will wreck havoc with your weight, blood pressure, sleep, immune system, and so on. Stress is the primary trigger for cortisol but many other factors can trigger its release (like too much exercise).

Now, please don't go all mainstream news on me, "Cortisol is bad!! Eliminate it all right now!"

Click to gain +100 to your cynicism

When you need to move or have energy no matter what, cortisol is there for you. It's a crucial part of the adrenal system. A certain level of this hormone is totally healthy. In fact, chronic stress can lead to adrenal burnout which causes a cortisol deficiency, which causes lethargy, depression, and all kinds of fun problems.

Health issues will drag you down as a writer, absolutely, but today is brain day and cortisol really messes with a part of the brain we care about for writing.
Cortisol impairs the functions of the pre-frontal cortex. (ref)
Ever fought long and hard for that writing time, only to sit down and feel like your brain is mush and won't work? Well, fatigue is the main culprit, but too much cortisol is a tag-team elbow drop. When this happens to Rachel, she has to stop writing. Sometimes for a day or more if it's super bad (if we've been through the parental grinder, for example).

All that talk above about getting into the zone and proper functioning of the pre-frontal gets run over by cortisol. It's like anti-writer serum. What can you do about this? We've got ya covered.


Managing cortisol levels
 There's a lot of advice out there on the causes and the management of cortisol. We've tried just about everything here at casa de Aaron-Bach and I'd like to distill the countless articles we've gone through. Cause it's not actually that hard to manage.
  1. Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation contributes directly to cortisol production and it aggravates all contributing factors. This needs to be #1 on your list no matter what. We actually have a pretty strict work-day bed time around here because of this.
  2. Get regular exercise. Light exercise is enough. 20-30 minutes a day, three times a week. Heavy exercise, like 5x5 will produce cortisol. If you aren't even getting light exercise, then there's also a host of low-hanging health benefits awaiting you here.
  3. Vitamin C. Around here we call vitamin C "the chill pill" cause, when taken in large 250mg+ doses once a day, it counter-acts a great deal of cortisol and general stress-related biochemical issues. We both thought this was vaguely alternative until we tried it. Read up and see if it's right for you too.
  4. Cut the Caffeine. Did I say easy? Sorry. Caffeine triggers an adrenal response which is how it peps you up. So it directly stimulates the production of cortisol and you can see how this is undesirable. Chronic caffeine abuse leads straight to adrenal burnout, insomnia, nervous leg, and a whole load of health issues. Around here, we try to keep below 30mg a day tops. When life gets really tough, I cut it altogether.
  5. Sex. woo! Yup, sex, preferably regular sex, is one of the few activities that directly counters cortisol and stress in the body. So yeah, getting laid makes you a better writer ^_~ ... ok bawdiness aside, the dopamine released post-orgasm will also impair your short term memory and focus for an hour or so. 'Plan' accordingly hahaha. 
  6. Meditation. A powerful tool in this arsenal, but one that many people aren't familiar with. There's a billion studies that show how regular meditation (like 20 min a day) can combat the effects of stress on the body and reduce elevated cortisol levels to normal. There's loads of other benefits as well, so please take a look around and give it a try.
  7. Relax. There's really no substitute for some R&R. You need time to decompress, try to carve something out for yourself. Even a half hour a day can have a big effect.
  8. Don't work too hard. This is likely impossible, but I have to add it in. If your job is always crazy stressful then there's a bigger problem. I've been around so many over worked programmers. At my last job, someone said to me, "hey, I see you've joined the Pepto-and-Tums-on-your-desk club". Then I realized that everyone around me was fat, sick, with hurt backs, carpel tunnel, high blood pressure, migraines, and working 80 hour weeks non-stop.
So there ya go, seven solid, actionable tips (no I'm not counting #8, tough jobs aren't simple situations) that will help keep your stress and cortisol in check. 

What will you gain from all this? Haha, probably better health, sleep, and general happiness. For writing, a sharper, clearer mind that has fewer and fewer bad days and more and more good days.

I've covered the two biggest areas I wanted to today, but there's a couple minor issues I'd like to tell ya'll about so that this post can be complete.

Background noise is a destructive force

Bad example... but it's hard to find an image of destructive sound!

A lot of studies (like 240+) have shown that background noise of any kind will impair your ability to read, write, and focus. Introverts beware as you are the most vulnerable to this! Extroverts less so, but it's all still a minus.

The wacky thing about our brain is that, whether you are aware of the sound or not, it still receives and processes it. So even if you are in your book and oblivious to the outside world, your brain is still working on that music, the kids outside, or the trash truck bumping along.

Rachel famously worked in a coffee shop for years, so good writing in a noisy environment is clearly possible. For her, it was the best of bad choices as our home was filled with distractions back then. Like I said, writing is better than not writing.

True silence is likely hard for anyone to achieve. I mean, we bought a house with a basement room just so she could have a quiet, isolated place to write. So yeah, it's tough to get.

Just keep this one in mind and do your best!


Check the baggage at the door

Wanna know something funny? When we're RPing and I'm the GM (hence, doing narration for the group if you aren't familiar) you can tell when I'm hungry. It's hilariously subtle but the amount of food and eating that's happening in the game goes up. Why are all the non-player characters greeting us with food or asking for lunch? Travis is hungry, that's why.



Similar influences can be seen when I'm GMing while sad, mad, or tired. It's reflected in every character and scene that goes on, if only subtly.

This happens to Rachel too! I can tell, when reading her work, if she was really mad or stressed out for a long time as those scenes in the book will be more angry than usual. This isn't to say that the characters are out of character or the plot moved around. It's a tone thing, very subtle, but totally there at the same time.

So, in accordance with much of the advice in this article actually, I'd definitely recommend that you try to build yourself in a bit of chill space. A nap time, snack time, or whatever-you-need time. Ideally, it would be just before you write. 

Rachel has a 10-20 minute relaxation period in the morning (after our son goes to school) before she writes. It's just quiet time to read something fun and sip her decaf coffee. Then she goes downstairs to write.


I hope this was educational

Anyway, we really try hard to practice all that we preach here (especially #5 from the list above!).

WINK!
I hope that today showed you at least one "ah ha!" moment that you can walk away with. Putting everything into practice can be pretty daunting so please don't try to implement everything at once. Pick one thing and start there. A lot of tips are life-habits, so they take some easing into.

Lastly, none of this will up your actual writing skill. You still have to do all that hard work. This is just helping make sure you're in the best shape you can be when it's time to lay some words down. Writing is hard, so don't make it harder by having unnecessary albatrosses hanging around.

Thanks for reading today. If there's any topics you'd like me or Rachel to talk about here on the blog, please feel free to leave them below. We're always working hard to find information that is useful to you. You can also just hit me up on Twitter, that works too! (@TravBach) Rachel's social media links are here as well if you want to get live updates! (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+)

Thanks again for reading, and I'll see you all next week!

Sincerely,
-Travis



9 comments:

Tom Sweeney said...

30mg of caffeine a day!?! Well, that sure exemplifies the difference between a simple solution and an easy one. Don’t you get 30mg of caffeine just from walking into a coffee shop and taking a deep breath?

While the Cortisol issue is important, and seems to be the main focus of this article, it appears to me to have less importance than writing in the zone. That is, the purpose of Cortisol management is to facilitate writing in the zone, so that the real goal is to have more zone time. Is that true? If so, do you have much information to share about writing (creating) in the zone? As in a future article?

For instance, I have a question about the zone chart, actually about working in the zone in general. If I sit down and wrote for four hours, for example, I assume that taking a break for ten minutes every hour in effect equates to four one-hour sessions? Or does it matter what I do in those ten minutes (read/answer email vs stretch my legs by walking around the house thinking about what I am writing)?

I liked your example of comparing consistency in writing with bugs in software, and how to stay in the zone, but in general, what does it take to get out of the zone in a long (> one hour) writing session? Or maybe that’s worded backwards—what must I avoid to stay in the zone for a multi-hour writing session?

Meantime, I’ll work on your seven recommendations. I figure if I start with #5, that will give me an immediate assist with #1.

Kessie said...

Excellent tips! As a busy mother of five, I have learned to love the night and it's silence.

About the exercise tip--I read that James Scott Bell likes to exercise right before writing to make sure the blood is flowing to his brain. I've done some easy weight lifting and yoga before writing, and it really helps get into the zone faster. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

Travis Bach said...

@Tom great point Tom! So much so that I updated the post with answers.

Tom Sweeney said...

@Travis, Thanks for the update. I think this in combination with Rachel's 2K to 10K will really help. I'm doing nonfiction right now so I do have to use the internet while writing, but I hope that by sticking to the question at hand and not getting side tracked, I'll be - SQUIRREL!!!!!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSUXXzN26zg

Travis Bach said...

Hahaha! So true.

You'll figure it out I'm sure. I'd hit stack overflow and php.net all the time while programming and never had an issue.

Eileen Glass said...

Thanks so much for writing this! I'm preparing for a big writing day tomorrow, and now I feel like I go in guns blazing. :)

Voni Harris said...

What is the best thing to do during that 20- to 30-minute time of getting into the flow? Write something unrelated? (that doesn't make sense if the goal is to get into the story you're writing) Editing what you wrote the previous day? (that doesn't make sense if the goal is to get into the creative mode, not the editorial mode)

thanks!

Voni Harris said...

And one other question: There is no way to sit for 6 hours straight, even if I have six hours, which I often do. A 10-minute break every hour to ret eyes and stretch body makes total sense, except how do you avoid having to go through another 20- to 30-minute get-in-the-flow time?

Thanks!!!!

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