Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Train Your Brain to Write Better, Faster, Smarter!

For today's blog, I sat down with my pal and client, Susan Reynolds, to pick her brain about her new book, Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. It's a classic every writer should have on his/her shelf: What writer doesn't want to write better, faster, smarter?

     1)  What inspired you to write this book?

I had written two previous books on neuroscience and found the breakthroughs happening in the field intriguing. Because I also love writing with a passion, I wanted to explore the ways writers could use these breakthroughs in neuroscience to become more creative, productive, and successful at their craft. We’ve learned, for example, that your brain has the capacity to develop new neurons throughout your lifetime, and it’s the connectivity—how your neuronal connections communicate—that matters most. Those are two things you can do to grow as a writer: develop new neurons related to writing (and whatever you’re writing about) and bolster connectivity by studying your craft and reading widely on the topic you’re writing about. What you want is to create a vast “small world network” of neurons that are specifically related to writing.

2) You say multitasking is bad for your writing brain. Why is that, and how do you recommend writers kick this habit in today's 24/7 world?

Multitaskers tend to be the staunchest defenders of this practice, proclaiming that they have no problem doing so; but, in reality, your brain can only focus on one task at a time. Even if you think you’re handling two at once, your brain is microscopically shifting from one task to the other, dividing its resources. It is a challenge to single-task in today’s hyper-connected world, but if you want your brain to bring all of its resources to the task of writing, then developing the discipline to turn off your phone, silence the ping that announces emails, and drastically limit distractions will provide your brain the ability to focus at the level needed to do your best work. I have an exercise for increasing concentration, which is done in stages, as research has shown that the more you focus and concentrate on one task (solving the plot puzzle, how best to portray your protagonist’s breakdown), the more your brain will shift into overdrive and deliver even more brainpower. Practicing mindfulness can also be very helpful, as increasing your brain’s ability to ignore distractions and focus solely on what’s happening in the moment bolsters your ability to concentrate while writing.

3) They say sitting is the new smoking--and you tell us in your book that exercise is good for your writing brain. What should writers do to enhance this body/brain connection?

Exercise is crucial to brain functioning and long-term brain health. Both your heart and your brain rely on blood flow and oxygen to function and studies have shown that regular exercise and remaining socially active are the two best salvos against developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If you want your brain to function at peak capacity (and you do!), gift your brain at least ½ hour of exercise each day. Simple walking will make a difference. I also encourage “active sitting,” and provide ways you can combine writing with simple movements, like rolling a ball with your feet while you write. It’s also very wise to get up every hour and move around (throw in a load of laundry, wash your dishes, vacuum the floor, do a few yoga poses), and get plenty of sleep each night. Sleep is also crucial to brain health. Writing is a solitary, sitting-intensive profession, so you have to consciously counteract the negative effects of sitting.

4) You talk about rewarding your writing brain. How does that work?

Two things neuroscientists have discovered are that your brain actively seeks to please you and it responds to rewards. When you feel good, your brain releases and bathes itself in what are called the feel-good chemicals—dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, and others—which is so pleasurable for your brain that it eagerly awaits new opportunities to repeat this experience. Thus, if you cue up reasonable expectations around writing and then reward your brain after each writing session—by pausing to feel good about what you’ve accomplished, and/or by doing something that will awaken your brain’s reward center (going for a walk, savoring a chocolate, enjoying a glass of wine with your beloved, ordering a pair of earrings you’ve been coveting, or something that creates pleasure for you)—your brain will release the feel-good chemicals. It will then seek, anticipate, and enjoy opportunities to repeat that experience. The goal is to “hard-wire” pleasure with writing, which will make writing sessions something both your mind and your brain desire and enjoy.

5) After writing this book, what did you change about your own writing life?

Meditation provides remarkable advantages in prepping your brain for writing sessions, as does brainstorming, and journaling about what you want to write the next day before going to sleep, so I’ve begun doing all of those activities far more often. I’m also far more vigilant about moving around once an hour, and deep breathing to increase circulation and focus. The one major change, however, has been in valuing my own work. Instead of berating myself or feeling frustrated for not accomplishing what I’d hoped to accomplish in a daily writing session, I have replaced those thoughts with positive thoughts and reward my brain by creating positive affirmations (and buying that pair of gold earrings I wanted when I completed edits on the book). It’s a simple perspective tweak that really helps hardwire pleasure to writing, which should be every writer’s goal. 

Amen to that!

For more on Susan, follow her blog on http://fireupyourwritingbrain.com.

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