Thursday, April 1, 2010

What Keeps You From Writing?

Tangent: You know what I hate? Grammar courses. Not just because it's often very simplistic stuff we've all known for ages. Oh no. I hate when teachers bring out the grammar books because I suck at it. Weird, right? I mean, sure, my grammar isn't flawless hereabouts, and even occasionally in my writing I slip up, but usually when writing a book or a paper we're pretty good to go. But in all honesty, last year a teacher made us do grammar and one of the exercises involved identifying adverbs. Simple, simple stuff. I got every answer wrong. I'm like that with defining words, too. I can't define things for crap, even the most advanced words that have more common synonyms, because they are all as common as "the" to me once they're a part of my vocabulary. And yet give me grammar problems or ask me to define something in Latin and I am stellar. Moral of the story: Everybody start speaking Latin and maybe I'll start making sense.

Warning: Contents May Contain Angst

~ahem~ Now, we all hit times when our real lives are perking up and it seems like we just don't have the time to write, or if we do have the time we're too damn tired to write, or the only time to write is also our only time to sleep and maintaining a healthy brain is kind of more important than writing (pretty sure 5 years of sleep deprivation is responsible for a lot of my me-ness). But then there are the times when we want to write, but can't bring ourselves to do it, or have just wholly given up on writing.

I'm very much in both of those spells right now. There are moments when I feel like writing, but I just can't. Some days the ideas don't come. Other days the ideas come and as soon as my fingers touch the keyboard, poof! Brain has gone more blank than a fresh canvas. Most of the time, however, I'm feeling like I just want to never write a damn word of fiction again. And it bugs me. A lot. Writing is one of the few areas where I have vaguely any talent and I'm currently experiencing the hell of the old employment catch-22 (can't get a job without experience, can't get experience without a job) coupled with the employment hell of a not-so-great economy, and if I don't become a published novelist...nothing. I have zilch back-up planned. The only other area where I have any talent is even harder to break into than writing, and would actually cost me a lot of money along the way. It would also require moving to Texas or Los Angeles. No offence, but I just don't dig Texas that much, and, well, the west coast is the Enemy.

And see, this right here is exactly what is keeping me from writing. Fear. For one thing, it's now April of my senior year. It's just kind of weird to keep thinking that in a few months it's over. Don't get me wrong, I'm excited to be graduating and all, but for thirteen years of my life I have spent the better part of my day, five days a week, for nine and a half months, in school. And eventually I'll have to go and find a job and get a flat and everything. I'm sure everything's going to pan out just fine, and most of the time I'm damn excited for it, but it's still just weird to think that I'll be spending considerably less time in school after that pretty much defined my life for thirteen years, and will have to actually work and pay bills when I've gotten off with doing nothing for eighteen years. And it is exactly this same kind of fear that keeps me from writing. A plain old simple, "But what if I fail?"

This, friends, is the fault of something commonly called the lizard brain, actually known as amygdalae, two tiny little pieces of your limbic system. Your amygdala accounts for the basics of survival. It only wants to eat, sleep, shit, and get fucked. It's responsible for that most basic of survival instincts -- fight or flight; and nine times out of ten it will choose flight. And it is from this exactly that this fear comes.

The amygdala is a tricky beast. Say you have a job interview coming up for a high-ranking position in a multi-million dollar corporation. You want to do well so you can land the job and bring in the dough. You want to be successful. But old Mr Almond decides to kick it up into the 90% and there go your chances. That example is a bit extreme, but very true. The amygdala is our self-doubt. As said above, the amygdala is responsible for the basics of survival. It is the most primordial piece of our brain. It's sole function is to keep our bodies ticking. If that means running away, that means running away. This, unfortunately, also sabotages us now that we live in a time where life isn't solely about living to the next meal, or the next sunrise.

Making matters worse: It remembers. Had to make a speech in front of the class way back in elementary school, fumbled over your words, and had everyone laugh at you? Your amygdala is suddenly going to put a big red flag on public speaking and tell you to run the next time you have to make a speech. Sent a dozen queries to agents and had them all form rejected? Your amygdala is going to put a big ol' red flag on it and tell you to not even think about sending another query.

Now remember, this is the "But what if I fail?" piece of our brain. Humans dislike change, for the most part. The amygdala is largely responsible for this. It knows taking a shower in hot water works. For all it knows, taking a shower in cold water could be one of the most dangerous things on the planet. (Again, a somewhat ludicrous example, but you get the point.) It is hard-wired to steer us clear of danger at any cost. I'd wager that a writer like Stephenie Meyer or Ian Rankin still doubt their books from time to time, but their successes have probably taught their amygdala that hey, it's okay to write novels, because you won't fail. But we haven't had successes yet. Or haven't had enough. Our amygdalae are still trying to steer us clear of writing that book, because it doesn't know the territory, and it's afraid we're going to fail, and, well, die.

I'm sure none of this is news to you. The amygdala is something we've known about for ages, and it's something often mentioned in self-help kind of things. In fact, I've known about it for so long it almost feels pointless to be writing this post. But right now, my lizard brain is in overdrive. With transitioning from the old, familiar form of school to college and making plans to move out in a year or two and everything, my amygdalae are going haywire. They just can't keep up with all the horrible, potentially failure-fraught changes, and are fighting like a bitch. One section to be taken offline in the amygdalae's battle is my writing.

At the end of the day, our amygdalae aren't going away. I would like to say unfortunately, but in a way, it's fortunate. True, the amygdalae tend to sabotage us, and that's very, very bad. But they're also responsible for survival. If you were to have your amygdalae surgically removed, I don't think you'd live much longer. The trick is learning to ignore the amygdalae, to suspend our judgments, to put the ice on the "Am I Crazies". It's a trick I haven't mastered yet. If you have, great for you.

Anyway, that's what's keeping me from writing. What about you?


  1. Time...

    I really love this post by the way. Really hit home in some aspects.


  2. Blogging ... just kidding. Actually I can't write these days because I wrote too much in the first place on my current WIP. It's still nearly 300,000 words and it needs to be at most half that. Less would be better.

    "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." - FDR.