Category Archives: writing & the brain

Submit that writing!

(otherwise you’ll never get published)

large button reading Submit mounted on the wall

CC image Submit Button courtesy of johannes p osterhoff on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Has anyone else noticed that submitting work for publication involves a lot of decision-making?

You need to figure out which piece you want to submit. Which means you have to figure out if it’s ready to submit. Which means you need to make a lot of editing decisions, and before you know it, you might be sucked into a total re-write.

You need to figure out where you’re going to submit it. This involves the monumental task of finding places that publish. Do I want to publish online or in print or both? What genre am I looking at — or more than one? Am I willing to pay a reading fee? How much? Do I want to consider contests?

What are the deadlines? What are the guidelines? Do I need to trim words? Add words? What font and spacing do I need to use? Have I put the appropriate contact and identifying information in my piece (or refrained from using it if asked)? Dammit when was that deadline again? OK, next market!

Then there is the actual packaging. Find the submission website. Click through the options, enter the information, upload the file (this stage involves a revisiting of all the previous questions, as to whether the manuscript is ready, whether this is the best work, if I should edit it some more, if this is really the venue for me, whether I’ve formatted everything according to their guidelines, etc etc etc), SUBMIT.

This spring, I began the process of submitting in earnest. I’ve got all sorts of flotsam and jetsam pieces floating around, and I need to actually send them on their way. Along with a group of other people who were using each other for mutual support, I gathered to talk about places to submit what types of writing, and pulling together my choices for what I wanted to submit and where. The idea was to get at least six submissions out that day.

To be honest, I haven’t gotten to that last button yet [SUBMIT!], because I’ve been waylaid by all the other stages.

Dilemmas, dilemmas

First, I thought I had all these pieces ready. Turns out, I didn’t, because I rejected them for one reason or another. Only two or three were close enough to send-worthy, and even these, I wanted to edit.

Then I looked up a number of promising venues to submit these two pieces. That one sentence describes more than an hour’s worth of research — see paragraphs 3 and 4, above. Finally, I got my targets organized, and went back to my chosen pieces to make a few — only minor, really — fine-tuning changes.

The time for our group to meet ended, and I still hadn’t submitted a thing. That’s fine, I told myself. I can go home, have lunch, refuel the brain, and finish up the task from there.

You know what happened to that.

The death of good intentions in the fires of creative flip-flopping

My good intentions DID carry over, at least for a little while. I sat down to make the final polishing-edits on the one piece. The more I pulled it together, the better I felt about the prose, and I lost track of the time going by. When I got up for a drink of water, the afternoon was gone.

Damn. I had had other plans for the rest of my day. After all, I was going to submit in the morning, so all the rest of the hours could be allocated for other things.

That’s fine, I told myself, as I had to make a few phone calls and buy food for dinner. I have the rest of the weekend. I have the rest of the week — by next weekend, this will all be taken care of.

I could write you a list of all the other things I had to do during that week, but I won’t. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

Research shows that we have a finite amount of energy for decision-making processes. Making a decision is a lot of work for the brain. We may start out fresh in the morning (or not, if you’re me, and the alarm goes off way too early), but throughout the day we deplete our stores of mental energy through use. Come mid-afternoon, I’m tapped out. Which is sort of sad, since I’m doing work for other people for most of the day, and my own time in the evening is then relegated to a period of vegetation on the couch, with a restorative book in hand or Netflix queued up on the computer… ah brainlessness… Pending the decision on what I’m going to watch or read, of course.

It seems to me that I’m just too stubborn.  My will will not submit.

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What about you? Do you submit?

Organization vs Passion: List the benefits

hamster in a metal hamster wheel

CC image “Hamster wheel” courtesy of sualk61 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking a lot about lists lately, because my life seems to be filled with them.

I have to-do lists for the day, the week, the month. Shopping lists, story brainstorming lists, lists of essay ideas, speech ideas, blog post ideas, blog improvements, lists of birthdays, of appointments, packing lists, lists of items I need to repair on my car, lists of my student loans, and so on.

Sometimes I think the lists are a blessing. The most obvious benefit is an increased level of organization, coupled with a sense of control over my life. Often, though, I feel trapped by my lists. Like a hamster on a wheel, I am running, running… and seem never to be getting anywhere. My life has become a list — a list which taunts me like Sisyphus’s stone.

Let’s get organized!

The number one advantage to creating a list is organization. Organization is a big watchword nowadays. We all lead such busy lives, there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. From pundits to parents, advice columns to job postings, organization is acknowledged as a universal good.

Consider the daily to-do list. A simple and effective maneuver, scribbling a to-do list takes only a few minutes, and serves as a reminder throughout the day. When we get side-tracked by unexpected events or need to prioritize, the to-do list is our friend. Groceries versus Pilates class? Vision statement or agenda prep for afternoon teleconference? Following up with Sue or Sam? Remembering what the heck was that important deadline this week?

Did you know that lists are good news for our health, too? Creating lists can help:

  • reduce anxiety by giving us a sense of control over what we need to get done
  • boost our brain power by using parts of our brain we otherwise may neglect
  • improve focus by keeping our immediate goal in front of us
  • increase self-esteem through the sense of accomplishment we get by crossing items off our list
  • organize our thoughts, such as when we are faced with a tough or complex decision

Health, stress reduction, meeting deadlines, and getting all the items we need from the grocery store. Who could possibly object to the clear beneficence of the lowly and workmanlike list!

Where’s the fire?

To-do lists, grocery lists, packing lists — all of these have immediate, obvious utility. They’re not very romantic, though. Then there is our least favorite list ever (at least according to pop culture): the New Year’s Resolutions (if you’re feeling adventurous enough that you have more than one resolution, of course. I am guilty of this. I am an overachiever. Scorn me). We start this list with grand plans and fanfare. We feel bigger than life. Bring on the world!

Yet how often do we actually complete that list? Maybe we’d be more accurate calling New Year’s Resolutions our “New Year’s Ideas & Suggestions Box.” Drop in the slip of paper with your idea. As time goes by, those little slips of paper become less interesting, even, perhaps, accusatory.

Making a list — for New Year’s or otherwise — can become a stand-in for doing what’s on the list. Too often, we start with a good intention, fall into a habit, and then just continue with it brainlessly. Making lists over and over can slowly drain us of our initial passion. When we began, we were excited by the subject, the work, the company, the project… One sheet of paper couldn’t contain all our ideas. Gradually, however, our vision has narrowed until we can’t see the horizon anymore for the slip of paper.

We’ve forgotten what got us started in the first place.

Regaining Control

Like any strategy designed to help us out, keeping a list can become a self-perpetuating monster. Whether our list is a fluffy Shih Tzu or a Great Dane, we need to remember who’s in charge. I’ll give you a hint: the boss should be the one holding the leash.

Lists are a tool. Like the alphabet. In order to write effectively, we need to know how to form the letters, how they sound, and the ways to arrange them to convey meaning. But the letters themselves aren’t the meaning — they are the vessel by which meaning is made clear. We write the letters, the letters don’t write us.

Don’t get trapped on the hamster wheel. Eventually, you will need to actually write that story, shoot those pictures, finish that telephone follow-up, pack that suitcase. If you find that you’re spending a lot more time on your list than your life, remember that the brain needs playtime, too. Play hooky. You may be surprised how inspired and enlivened you become as a result.

You might even have plenty more fodder to add to your lists!

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Do you keep track of aspects of your life using lists? Do any of your lists pertain to your creative projects? Let us know here!

An easy trick to help you think outside of the box

Perspective.

Looking up through opaque floor at feet walking

The world looks different from down here… CC image “Perspective” courtesy of denzlenz. Some rights reserved.

We all think we have it, but often we’ve been gazing at the view from the same perch for so long, we think that’s the only way the world looks.

We do this with big things — like family relationships, geopolitical opinions, and music. We think about perspective metaphorically (unless we are a visual artist such as a photographer or a painter). But like many metaphorical turns of language, “perspective” started out as a literal condition, first. And sometimes a literal interpretation is the most effective way to achieve results.

My goal with this blog — as conservative as it might be — is to have a new article published every 2 weeks. I try to find a mental place where I am drafting at least one idea for future development, every week. I’m trying to stay ahead of the curve, because I don’t want to find myself up against a deadline with nothing to deliver. Some weeks I am more successful than others. I simmer with ideas and connections for days in a row. During these windows of inspiration my folder of scribbled notes swells awkwardly with all different sizes of paper. Post-it notes, the corners of notepad pages, the backs of leaflets, slips strewn with arrows and adorned with marginalia. I’ll save countless drafts and outlines to my online folders. Looking at what I’m producing, I’ll feel like I have more material than I need for the next six months.

But not all the time. Other weeks, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Nothing is there. I can blame this on not doing what Julia Cameron calls filling the well or what I’ve called composting. This would be part of the truth. But if I’m being honest, a lot of the time my lack of creativity stems from laziness. And strangely, if I’m not writing, then I’m not writing anything insightful or brilliant, either.

I like to deal with my un-creative funk by shaking my habits until pieces come loose. For example, by changing where my body is.

Perspective.

This week, I spent a morning writing from the cozy nest of my bed. Yes, in my PJs. I got up at the appropriate time, and had breakfast. I even brushed my teeth and combed my hair. And then — because I work from home and have this much control over my schedule — I took off my shoes and climbed back into bed. It was snowing and sleeting outside, the perfect weather to be a hibernating bear. Yet while the bear would have only slept, I brought my laptop into the den with me. And began to write.

We’ve all developed daily routines. What we like to eat for breakfast, where we put our toothbrush, how often we check our email. I know I have a favorite place to sit at the table, and I bet you do, too. Also, your desk probably faces the same way every day. Am I right?

I tend to sit in the same work space most days. Until I notice that I’m sinking in gurgling mud, unable to extricate myself. Occasionally, I pack up, take my work to the library, or to a coffee shop. When the weather is nice (not this week), I sometimes go to a public park.

Not always, though. Sometimes I literally get up, walk around the table, and sit across from my habitual spot.

That’s it.

The new seat feels really weird at first. I notice absurd details, like the speck on the wall, or the dumpster-diver out in the alley with a bicycle trailer piled high with rubbish. The light is different. My body feels different in space.

That can be all I need. With no conscious effort, I am thinking off the beat, and my work is an altered creature.

One of my favorite nerd-destinations online is the Etymological Dictionary. Etymonline describes the history of “perspective” as follows:

perspective shot of tarnished copper doorhandles

… and beautiful in places we may have never cared to look. CC image “Perspective” courtesy of V_I_M_A_L. Some rights reserved.

“(n.) late 14c., ‘science of optics,’ from Old French perspective and directly from Medieval Latin; from Latin past participle of perspicere ‘inspect, look through, look closely at.’ Sense of ‘art of drawing objects so as to give appearance of distance or depth’ is first found 1590s, influenced by Italian prospettiva, an artists’ term. The figurative meaning ‘mental outlook over time” is first recorded 1762.’ [emphasis added]”

Perspective is, at root, seeing with our eyes. Looking through. Everything else is literary decoration.

The next time you feel like you’re in a rut, try shaking things up by physically exploring the world from another angle. You could discover galaxies… and all you had to do was move your chair.

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What do you do when you’re stuck in a rut?

Words like to hang out together

using language chunks to our advantage in speaking and writing

statue of a jester in avon England

Listen to my words! CC image “Stratford Upon Avon” courtesy of Jig O’Dance on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A couple of months ago, at Voice & Speech class, I asked about a tricky thing regarding my first speech as a Toastmaster: The Icebreaker Speech.

I was trying to figure out how to balance the need to practice my speech and know it well, with the desire to maintain spontaneity and engagement, and fluidity while I was presenting it — in other words, I wanted it to sound effortless, but not rehearsed.

My teacher pointed out that that was very much acting… what an actor would do. She encouraged me to keep the following in mind in working with this situation:

At first read-through, we know a piece pretty well.  As we continue to memorize it, she said, we all go through a patch of badness, where we just tank. She referenced the experience of voice-over artists, who usually hit badness when they’re asked to do too many takes of the same piece. There is a line where repetition becomes too much… but, she insisted, if we persist through the badness and continue working with the material, we will come out the other side, knowing the text much better and having left the badness behind.

So, number one, persist through the badness.

On a mechanical level, for practice, my teacher suggested breaking down the speech by taking the whole thing, if I’d written the presentation out in full sentences, and:

  • breaking the sentences into phrases
  • breaking the phrases down into bullets

Then practicing the speech using the bullets only.  As a species of mile marker. Until (theoretically) I could discard the bullets (I haven’t gotten that comfortable yet).

We all think that we speak in full sentences, she said, but in fact, no one does. We speak in chunks.

Linguists call this “lexical chunking” and you can read an interesting article about it here. (If you’re a real linguistic nerd, like me, you might enjoy the video discussion between McWhorter and Zimmer, here.) Lexical chunking has become a big part of the discussion in language learning and teaching, because harnessing the way our brains naturally process language should provide advantages over memorizing vocabulary lists (remember that, anyone? those pop quizzes were the best).

A lot of what the casually interested reader can find when googling “lexical chunks” pertains to language learning, specifically learning English as a second language. This deals mostly with spoken language. A lot of the rest of what the reader will find has to do with reading, or processing written language. We don’t read word for word, either. In both cases the argument is that “chunking” enhances the ease of our understanding. The theoretical underpinning to this argument rests on the role and limitations of short-term memory. At its most basic: we don’t have much room in short-term memory, so multi-word language units that come as a prepackaged whole mean less work for the brain.

Hooray, less work! As far as my speech was concerned, chunking should provide advantages both for me, who was trying to remember everything I wanted to say, as well as for my audience, who I hoped would understand and remember my speech!

The other good news about my Toastmasters presentations is that I have leeway with my choice of words. Unlike actors working with a script, I don’t have to hit the same exact lines every time, as long as I keep the sense of the talk where it should be. Instead, I can focus on persisting through the badness, keeping my eyes on the mile markers.

Language chunks at work.

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What are your tricks for remembering what you want to say? Does writing your ideas down hurt or help you?

The science of imagination

image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recently, I received further confirmation of the power of the imagination, scientifically established.

A NY Times article in April outlined some neuroscientific research which demonstrated a greater stimulation of the reader’s brain than the act of reading itself would require.  Reading about walking, for example, stimulated the motor cortex; and it stimulated a different part of the motor cortex than reading about swinging one’s arms did.  Reading about smells stimulated the part of the brain responsible for the perception of smell.  There was no actual walking going on, and there was no perceptible smell in the room of the reader, but the brain sprang to life, accepting input from a non-tangible source.

The mind created a physical experience.

It makes me think the fMRI images produced during these studies were visual representations of the imagination at work.

I have always related strongly to any well-written story, and to the characters that live there.  Some of the best books have been physically nearly impossible for me to put down, because of my involvement in what was happening.  I have felt literally as though I entered an entirely different world.  Now, it appears as if science is suggesting that, from the perspective of my brain, at least, I have been brought into a different world.

It’s not just a figment of my imagination.

On top of this, studies have shown that readers of fiction developed better empathy, understanding of inter-personal relationships, and an increased ability to perceive the world from different points of view.

This as the result of something which is supposedly not real. Something which is invented.

Maybe reading novels and short stories should be a prerequisite for work in the diplomatic corps.  I like that idea.  World peace through prose.

The most amazing part of the Times article, for me, was the fact that these effects of reading also applied to children who were not reading themselves, but who were read to.  Listeners to these stories experienced the same enhanced empathy and relational intelligence as readers did.

To me, this is compelling outside evidence of something inherent in the story itself, and in the participation of the storytelling experience, which is special and incomparable.

Something essential.

It’s the central fact of art: what is not real is, sometimes, the most real of all.