Lightbox for Jan 16 - De-Stressing

Notes to Self

  • Watching people walk around … For a writer, that isn’t as relaxing and mindless as it is for “normal” folk. It’s work.
  • A writing colleague on Facebook says he’s taking a “break from writing” to work on a character’s background … That’s not a break. That’s work.
  • Learn not to feel guilty about doing “different” work. Like writing a poem instead of keeping on with that story, or drawing or colouring instead of writing at all.
  • I think writers are always “on” — even in our sleep! I most certainly am. That’s work.
  • When I get a brainstorm in the middle of the night, I e-mail myself rather than turn on the lights hunting for paper and pencil. Even the light from the cell phone is not a really good thing but it doesn’t wake me up as much as full-blown lights do. Sleep [read, dream] time is valuable. (btw, I set my BlackBerry to All Alerts Off from 9 PM to 9 AM. I strongly recommend it.)

Excerpt from Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them

The Lizard Brain

The amygdalae (singular, amygdala) are two little guard dogs deep in our brain. When any semblance of a threat — real or imagined — appears, they react to protect us. But they are lazy guards and have convinced themselves that they must never, ever learn anything new, nor un-learn anything they already know, just in case. Well, bless their li’l ol’ hearts for caring about us that much, but sometimes they can destroy us with their caring.

This part of the brain is not called The Lizard Brain for nothing, it’s the remnant of our evolutionary switch from ocean to land, and deals, pretty much, with instinct and biochemistry, not logic. Would you trust a primitive fish to tell you how to run your life? Of course not, yet to argue with The Lizard Brain is extremely difficult, it is what tells us not to put our hand into the fire. It also tells us that we’d better not let anybody in on that controversial idea of ours or they might not like it — they might not like us. One negative experience in our past can inform our “guard dogs” that we dare not take a chance even if our idea might be the best thing that ever happened since the self-parking car. Just in case? Just in case we become rich and famous? Just in case our idea gets read in schools for years and years into the future? One single experience that is perceived by the amygdalae as a negative or frightening one, can do us in as far as ever writing anything of our own goes. But it’s possible to get over it. Not easy, but possible.

The Lizard Brain has come under more intense study recently because it seems the amygdalae are involved in the fear response that triggers a type of emotional learning. Scientists have found that it’s also involved in aggression and in pleasure (the twisted pleasure that aggression can arouse in some individuals), in depression, and also (possibly) in autism, sociopathy, and psychopathy.

My genre is horror, my medium screenwriting, so obviously, I love this stuff — have been fascinated by aberrant psychology since childhood — but I’m not introducing The Lizard Brain to you because I find it a cool concept. The Lizard Brain is where Fear of Failure and Fear of Success can root in irretrievably deep. We writers tend to be a sensitive lot, and we also tend to be somewhat solitary, so the only place we’re going to get any toughness and determination, not to mention support, is from nobody else but our own selves.

For information on The Lizard Brain start with these sample links:

Breaking our programming isn’t easy, but it’s doable.

Breaking Our Programming

Back in the early seventies, I joined a New Age group that saved my sanity. I won’t go into any of the reasons for that — you’ll need to wait for my down-near-the-bottom-of-my-pile autobiography to get the titillating details of my life. But I will share that the most important thing I learned (besides the discipline of vomiting my guts onto paper daily) was the game of Breaking My Programming. It wasn’t ever a real game at all but in order to get it by the “guard dogs”, we had to look at it as though it were actually fun to do. (Trust me, it wasn’t any fun at all once I got into the down and dirty of it, but it ended up being liberating to the point of euphoria because it put a pinch collar around the necks of those amygdalae puppies of mine.)

We all have things we cannot do, or that we must do. It’s those damned “guard dogs”, I’m telling you! Speaking of dogs, many years ago I took one of my Rottweilers to an obedience course taught by a canine behavioural specialist. For our first lesson, we all stood in a large circle in the gymnasium while the instructor gave us some basics. The first basic she mentioned was that we would be repeating a command to a dog about 1000 times before he would learn it. He would need to be told “Sit” over and over until it connected that “Sit” meant to put his butt on the floor.

“Wow,” we all oohed. “Imagine that. One thousand times, eh?”

So I was resolved to be patient with my Phedra as she learned her obedience commands, one by one, day by day, week by week.

However . . . One day it dawned on me that even though I had only said it once, and had even whispered it, she had responded to the word “cookie” immediately. She even picked up the concept of spelling. Imagine that! (Another of my dogs knew cheese in three different languages, and spelled. He was even starting to catch onto the differences between Cheddar and Brie.)

Isn’t it interesting how all Nature’s creatures learn through something they like? Through fun? That’s the only way to break our programming: If you pretend it’s fun, it’s easier.

I used to smoke cigarettes and I always removed the foil bit from the right inside of the cigarette package first. No idea why. Maybe the “guard dogs” at work? Maybe it’s because I’m right handed. Who knows? I thought it didn’t matter, so for my first attempt at breaking my programming, I decided I would start by removing the foil bit from the left side of the cigarette package first for a change.

I had no idea how difficult doing that was going to be! The first couple of times, it was excruciating. I even beaded up a bit of the old perspiration on the brow there, silly me. But it got easier, and easier, and easier to do until it didn’t matter which side I removed first. It wasn’t one of those step-on-a-butterfly-disturb-a-star things after all. The sky didn’t fall on my head! What a relief for this Chicken Little.

So onward I went looking for things that I could change about my habits that didn’t really matter a lick. I think it was some of the most fun I’ve had in my life. The relief of being able to do something I had thought myself incapable of doing was enormous. Serotonin-producing relief. It was a high!

Try it yourself. Of course you’ll need to maintain a sense of intelligent choice here. It’s not a habit that we drive on the right hand side of the road in this country, it’s so nobody gets maimed or killed. If you really want to test out driving on the left, go to England, rent a car, and play with it where it’s legal. If you’ve never eaten broccoli, force yourself to eat a bite of it just for the hell of it. But use your head! Allergies have nothing to do with programming. Allergies are real and life-threatening. What I’m talking about here is doing things just because they aren’t cookies.

The benefits of breaking one’s programming are several. One of them is that we end up looking at things from another point of view — quite the necessity for writers, yes? You will now know for certain what broccoli tastes like. By breaking our programming, we also change the pathways between brain circuits, plowing new ones, perhaps staving off dementia. Once our brain starts to build new roadways, it seems to like doing it. And never fear, we have lots of room in there.

As writers, we need to have the ability to look at things from several angles. Thinking of the disco ball* again, it’s like being able to change places with each other. From my facet in the disco ball, and from my experience, I see that we need only wish it. Never stop learning. Never stop researching. Never stop listening. A lot of what I knew for sure when I was growing up is no longer valid. Some of it isn’t even close.


* “Life is a big disco ball (and yes, I’m that old) illuminating the dance floor of the universe with billions of facets, each of which looks out from the central whole from a slightly different angle and onto a slightly different scene. No one looks at anything exactly the same way as anyone else even though we are all made of the same stuff, are all connected, and our core common. The writers among us have this obsession to report back everything we see from our unique vantage point. Why? That’s what we do. It comes from outside us and inside us and drives us to write.”


Next Post — My Boss is a Tyrant 1

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):



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