How I Trick My Brain Into Letting Me Write

You know the feeling, right: you carve out time to write, you have all your favorite pens, pencils and gadgets handy…and you just can’t get started.

The more the clock ticks down on your precious writing time, the harder it gets to write anything.

Yesterday I talked about the power of being around other writers, either online or in person, to give you accountability and make writing seem possible. But the fact is, when you’re sitting alone at your desk, it can be really hard to get started. I have lots of theories about why that is (and so do John Cleese and Steven Pressfield and lots of other creativity gurus), but understanding why it’s happening only takes us so far.

Sometimes you just want a solution.

I’ve taken a lot of courses. Maybe you have to. Someone promises you a solution and then they bombard you with worksheets and theory and lectures, and then they disappear, leaving you with a sense of being even further in debt to your workload than before! And even if you do manage to complete some character sketches and descriptive exercises, you still have no completed work to send to publishers or show to friends.

I’ve always tried to avoid that with StoryADay. The idea has always been to blast through first drafts together, day by day, finishing them and putting them aside to revise later.

But even with the prompts and the blog comments and the community, it can be hard to get started on your writing every day. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself staying up too late, waiting for that deadline of 12 midnight, the clarity of crisis, to help you get started.

Then I discovered a better way.

It started with podcasts. I’d listen to an episode of “Writing Excuses” or “I Should Be Writing” or even “Selected Shorts”, and all of a sudden I’d be raring to go. Full of ideas. Even if the topic of the podcast or story was completely outwith my areas of interest.

Then I took a course from a writing teacher, who provided short videos every day, either inspirational or on an aspect of the writing craft, almost all the way through his course. Every day when I sat down to write, my first 5–10 minutes was spent NOT listening to my own insecurities, but watching a friendly face tell me I could do this.

And so I did.

That was one of the most productive periods for my writing in recent memory!

When mentors and teachers take us through our practice step by step, day by day, they help us break down our resistance to starting. They build up our belief that we can do it. And, all of a sudden, you’ve been doing The Thing for two weeks, a month, two months. And now you find you can write regularly, and produce completed works. You become better at shutting down that voice of doubt, because you brain knows that you are capable of doing the work. You’ve done it before.

Since I was having such success with it, I started applying these principals at StoryADay.

in May 2018 I introduced a new program at StoryADay, where participants watched daily pep talks and in-depth explainers on the writing prompts, by me. I spent 5–10 minutes talking to a camera for every prompt, and encourage writers like you to think their way into today’s story, so that, by the time I stop talking, they already had some ideas—starting didn’t seem so scary. I encouraged participants to think about different aspects of the craft, story structure, characterization, conflict….but not all at once. Only in bite-sized daily doses designed to help them get to the end of every story.

And I have to tell you, people really liked it.

Better than that, the people in the Superstars group were all still writing at the end of the month, celebrating meeting their goals, and enjoying having a new cohort of fellow writers to lean on.

StoryADay is coming, and in a couple of days I’ll be inviting you to join the September Superstars group. It’s optional (there will still be prompts on the site and blog comments to hang out in, if it’s not for you), but stay tuned for more information in case it sounds like the kind of thing that could help you meet your writing goals next month.

In the meantime, I’m interested in hearing what you do to get yourself into the writing zone. Do you read? Do you listen to podcasts? Do you use mentors or teachers in another way? Or do you just sit down and write? Leave a comment, below.

Keep writing,

Julie

22 thoughts on “How I Trick My Brain Into Letting Me Write”

  1. There is something about a magazine called Bella Grace. I think it’s the combination of the smell, the feeling of the type of paper they use, the soft hues of the photography, and the content of the writers that, combined, all make me slow down, breathe deeper, and reflect deeper. It’s expensive for a magazine, but it’s the one that motivates me and puts my mind in the right place. Watching a writing video or listening to writing or the Moth podcasts also motivates me, depending on the topic. They help me push everything else away and make me want to tell a story. Now.

  2. I make an inspirational “soundtrack” for whatever my WIP is. It gets my mind in tune with my characters and the world(s) they live in.
    Mostly I prefer instrumental as opposed to songs with lyrics, (some exceptions apply), so my thoughts don’t become overrun by the words and get stuck on repeat and block my own.
    Give it a try, it works well for me.

    -BK

    1. Oh I love this one. I did the same for a novel set in the 80s and I was able to incorporate some songs with lyrics because I knew them so well they sort of became background music. But yeah, mostly I have film soundtracks or other “mood” music playing, I find I t helps to play the same piece for each project.

  3. Hi,
    I’m usually in a writing group, or workshop that forces me to show up with pages. I also love to watch foreign films, listen to music, or open to a random page of Raymond Carver or Sam Shepard book and see where that takes me. I’m great at beginning stories! Really would love to get that muscle that trusts the process to finish and refine them. I get impatient.

    1. Well, going through a month of committing to finishing your stories (no matter what!) is a great way to start.
      Even if you have to write “more intersting stuff happens here” and then skip to the conclusion, I find that works. You can go back and revise or fill in the complications in the middle, so much more easily once you know where the story is going.

      And when I say “more easily” i don’t mean it’s ever ‘easy’. Not reproducibly, anyway 🙂

  4. I often start writing when I’m bored, which frees me from having to be too good, just entertain myself. When I’m writing on something serious or for a deadline, I always try to come up with an outline first, even if it’s just sparse notes on where I want the story to end up. I find that helps me get started.

  5. I sit at my keyboard, close my eyes and try to connect with the main emotion I am feeling. The one that bubbles to the top is the one I hold on to as I start to write. I don’t care about the words exactly, just the feeling and if I have a vague idea of characters, setting I pull those into the piece as well. It is rather like a pianist cracking his knuckles before his fingers hit the first key. I let the emotions flow to the keyboard and the screen. Then comes the really hard part… the editing, revising, clarifying, restructuring, cutting and adding that will yield something I am happy with.

  6. I don’t want to diminish the efficacy of podcasts, yet in this complex, input-heavy world, what jump starts and keeps me in motion with my writing is quiet (no talking sounds and limited visual input) and reasonable deadlines. Both conditions encourage the sort of focus that keeps me vigilant and true to my intent. Neither condition needs to do anything but encourage the dedicated outflow of responses to prompts from the natural, created, and internal worlds, as well as the excellent ones your StoryADay site provides. Regularly scheduled in-person meetings with my poetry and writing groups, as well as attendance at and participation in readings throughout my region, keep me in the loop of human contact with other writing souls. What I’m talking about, of course, is balance. It’s less confining and more productive than most people imagine!

  7. So, it depends on the day. This week I’m on break between semesters, and so this morning I’m taking time to get rid of some tasks taking up mental space. And when I finish replying to a limited number of emails (never all of them because that would take the rest of my life), the itch to get to work will be strong and I’ll get started. But today is a luxurious day since I have hours to myself. HOURS! That is rare.

    So what I usually do is just sit down and try to start. Most days I have maybe an hour or two and they won’t be uninterrupted hours either. I dive in and sometimes I get something done and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I carry my notebook around and sit with it elsewhere in the house…and fall asleep.

    What is disappointing is when I do manage to have the time, I feel like I’m writing a lot, but at the end, it’s all terrible and I feel like I haven’t done anything.

    Okay. Time for me to go write!

    1. But ‘terrible’ can be revised.

      Actually, revising yesterday’s terrible writing is another way I propel myself into today’s writing, especially if I’m working on a longer project. There’s usually something in there that I like (even a sentence or phrase) and it reminds me of all the things I wanted to do, before I burned out the day before.

  8. This makes a lot of sense! I think I’ve experienced it myself. I like to listen to writing videos and podcasts while I cook dinner or audiobooks as I drive in the car and I often feel highly motivated to write after hearing them. But there’s usually a time lag between that and when I sit down to write. I can see how listening to a short pep talk right before I write would be motivating and a good jump start. Worth a try!

  9. Before I became ill, I took care of patients. I am a people watcher and a full-time thinker. If I run out of ideas; I read the news on Yahoo or watch it on news. This always gives me something to talk about.

  10. Hi. Currently I write Morning Pages, one of Julia Cameron’s Artist Way tools (http://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/morning-pages/)- 3 pages without stopping, every morning as soon as I wake up.
    I’m not writing anything specific but I am writing everyday.
    Sometimes I feel inspired to write at other times of the day against a prompt, sometimes I write after I’ve been sitting quietly doing nothing.
    All approaches I suppose, but the Morning Pages are my most productive and seem to open me up to writing.

    Julia’s blog says: “Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”

  11. I read a few pages of a book and use the words and emotions as prompts to get me going on my own work.
    It’s fun and propels me into action!

  12. Sometimes I set a timer and hope I will get out of my own way by applying pressure to the act. It doesn’t always work, but occasionally is Jumpstarts me.

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