Confessions of a humor columnist
Frankly, it should be a surprise to no one, my addiction to writing. Indeed, I spend an inordinate amount of time either writing, or about to write. It doesn’t bother me at all; in fact, it’s quite fun. But the matter never really got my attention until someone responded to an article I wrote called, “Writer’s Block? It’s a Good Thing!”
For context, that article was a highly satirical piece, where I pretended to help people recover from writer’s block using a narrative device that referred to itself in the first person as “Narrative Device.” According to the Narrative Device, it had to write the article instead of me, the author, because I, the author, was curled up in a fetal position, due to my being ashamed and embarrassed of my own dysfunction: a severe case of writing addiction.
You read that right: I couldn’t write the article that explained why I can’t write the article. See? Satire. And one of those clever logic-loop satires, too.
Which brings me to that email I got: It was from someone that took my confession of writing addiction seriously, and in a genuine intent to help me, included a link to this site: Writers Anonymous: A 12 Step Program for Addicted Writers. Yes, it’s true — someone was worried about my mental health and didn’t see the satire.
And these people vote.
Anyway, if the amusement of that email were all there was, I wouldn’t be writing to tell you about it. (Well, maybe I would because, again, I have an addiction to writing and will stoop to any level to tell a story.)
As it turns out, I read the recommendations on that site, and they are actually fantastic! But not the way the author had intended. You see, she intended to help “addicted writers” by diverting them away from writing. But in fact, I found the list would actually be helpful to writers, up and down the writing spectrum. Whether your writer’s block is so bad you could double as a live mannequin in a display window for a store that sells office furniture, where you’re sitting at a typewriter, waiting to come up with ideas… Or, if your writing addition is so severe, you’re buying typewriter ribbons on the black market, the site’s recommendations actually help you write better.
I’m going to share the list with you and explain how each one augments your writing, but first, I need to explain why the author probably thought these recommendations would help her reduce her writing “volume.” And I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say this, but she is not nearly as addicted to writing as I am. The first sign of this is that she has an actual family, and worse, she probably knows their names. You see, when someone is as severely addicted to writing, at least to the degree that I am, it’s hard to find someone willing to go to first base with you, let alone start a family. That’s not to say I don’t have a family — I do, at least, that’s what the person who lives with me says. And I believe him, as he looks a lot like me. But this happened long before I was addicted to writing.
Anyway, the fact that the author of that 12-step list has a family — apparently, a loving family — means that she wanted to get away from writing. That’s nice for her, but for a true addict like me, I want no such thing. And that’s precisely why I found her recommendations so useful! They would never distract me from writing at all, largely because of my uncanny ability to multitask. Her suggestions, therefore, became a great catalyst to writing better! (I know you’re waiting for me to get to the list; just one more moment, please.)
Note that I’m not unique here. Real-life writing addicts are able to do all sorts of things while simultaneously working on their writing projects in their heads, including crafting narratives, coming up with snappy dialog, scintillating story arcs, and prophetic observations of the human condition. And, they can do all this simultaneously with side projects like reading stories to children at bedtime, tucking them in, and making them feel nice and warm, without even once stumbling because they can’t remember all of their names.
As for spouses, they are easily managed as well. A truly dyed-in-the-wool, clinically diagnosed writing addict of either gender would be able to successfully carry on a romantic dinner with a partner, gaze lovingly in his or her eye or eyes, and whisper sweet nothings into his or her ear or ears, while in the backs of their minds, they are contriving a twisted plot in their latest novel for how the antihero is going to perform the multiple murders, get away with all the money, and still leave the reader rooting for a sequel.
So, let’s be clear, the recommendations in this list have to be taken into context with the nature and severity of one’s relationship to their writing. Where I’m most positive about this list is how it’s great for those with writer’s block! So, let’s go through selected items that are most beneficial to discuss. Oh, and I’m going to present them in a different order than what the original author presented, as I will prioritize the more essential items first.
The 12-Step Program for Better Writing
Exercise. Here, the author makes an excellent point that exercise releases endorphins that make you happy. Well, so does writing, so there’s no real benefit to be perceived yet. But then I noticed that her form of exercise is sword-fighting with her husband! While that may well be a good aerobic workout, I would suggest this sort of activity be done much later in the writing process, preferably after filing for divorce, as hand-to-hand combat is more effective during child custody negotiations. Still, I respect her hidden Freudian desire to maim her spouse — shows Chutzpah.
But she really misses the bigger point: Tons of research shows that exercise enhances creative thinking, and this study is a random example, where sixty college students exercised and then were given a Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Apparently, they were creative.
Indeed, I can confirm that it works for me as well. When I exercise, it’s like being hooked up to an IV with “creative juice” in it, and letting it flow. While I’m not as ambitious as engaging in physical violence with a so-called “loved one,” I can work up a good aerobic workout by jogging regularly. When I do, ideas generate so fast, I have to narrate them into the voice recorder app on my phone, or I’ll forget them when I stop.
To understand how this process works inside the brain, I recommend a deeply scientific TV show called Star Trek that explains this in vivid detail. Specifically, Season 3, Episode 1 from the original series, titled, “Spock’s Brain.” The plot is simple: Aliens steal Spock’s brain, and Dr. McCoy has to physically put it back into his head. The twist is that McCoy doesn’t have the knowledge to perform the surgery, so they have to find a way to hook up McCoy’s brain to the alien machine that holds vast amounts of advanced knowledge. Presto, knowledge is instantly downloaded into McCoy’s brain, where he intuitively understands the task at hand. “It’s like child’s play,” McCoy says flatly, as he starts cranking away restoring Spock’s brain out of view of the camera (because, you know, that’d be gross).
The tilt in the story comes when the computer stops pumping knowledge into McCoy, leaving him confused and not having completed the task. (You’ll have to watch the episode to see how it ends.)
That, dear reader, is exactly what happens to the human brain when you exercise, and how all that knowledge leaves your brain when you stop exercising. (I’m going to get really science-y and detailed with technical lingo about brain biochemistry now, so look away if you need to.) When the human body is active, the brain gets an amazing boost of creative, problem-solving juice. When exercise stops, it returns to being the lethargic imbecile it was before, sitting on the couch watching Star Trek on TV. (Ok, that’s it for the science-y talk.)
When combined with other recommendations on this list, exercise is probably the most time-efficient method both for generating new ideas, and for deciding which of those detailed plot twists you’ve been mulling over is best for your writing project. Just be sure to bring something to take notes because you’re surely going to forget everything you thought of when you’re back home. You know why: First you have to shower, then deal with the hair, moisturizer, and then get a quick snack. Once you’re back to the computer, you have to scan through your emails to see if your literary agent has read your latest work. Fine, deal with those first. Ok, done? Good, let’s see… what was I going to write about again? I forget again. Hmmm…. Nevermind. Let’s move on.
Meditation. Again, tons of research shows that meditation of many types enhances the creative process, and study subjects outperformed controls in problem-solving tasks. This study from Cornell University is an example. The same is true of boredom, which is exactly like meditation, but with the critical, but subtle difference being that it’s hard to sell books and video classes about the value of Boredom.
The value of meditation/boredom can be demonstrated pretty easily on your own. Sometimes, when I’m trying to devise a way to bridge together disparate story segments into a coherent plot, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing — even if driving on the highway at 75MPH — and completely empty my mind of thoughts, and let the peace and tranquility of the moment sink in. I can’t promise this is easy for everyone at first, but after enough practice, you should be able to achieve this mental state within minutes, totally unaffected by the cars blaring their horns and yelling out the window at you to get off the highway.
To practice the finer art of meditation without the risk of a car accident, find a room in your house or apartment (or a neighbor’s house if they’re gone), and pretend you’re in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Just sit there for an hour or so to get the true, authentic effect of being in a real waiting room. Oh, and pretend you also have cancer or something really bad. That makes the waiting time seem much longer than it really is. If it’s just a routine appointment, it isn’t so bad because you can distract yourself with your phone. Anyway, the point is, just sit there for an hour to achieve a true state of boredom. Perhaps that’s happening to you right now as you’re reading this.
For those of you that need more assistance, use the music app on your phone to play a soundtrack of rain sounds (with optional thunder). Now, stretch yourself out on the couch and think about nothing. Total mindlessness. Research shows that when the mind is really still and quiet, ideas marinate, stew, cure, and distill into coherence, often without you even being aware of it.
I regularly employ moments of boredom and meditation into my daily routine, and in all seriousness, I always come out of it with a sharper and more efficient sense of how I’m going to write the next segment of whatever I’m working on.
Embrace a Hobby. This is one of the best ways to stimulate new ideas, or even to further develop existing ones. It’s not that the hobby itself becomes an idea (though it could if you want), it’s more that the process of working on something other than writing has a similar effect as meditation and boredom, but with a twist. Rather than emptying your mind, a hobby will draw upon other cognitive processes that would otherwise go unutilized. This cross-pollination of different cognitive processes significantly enhances idea production and translation into creative writing.
A great recommendation is to take classes in Improvisational Theater — you know, “improv.” This is the style of performance that brought us the folks who do SNL. While that show is scripted, true improv theater does the same sort of thing, but it’s all made up as it happens. This isn’t just about telling jokes and being funny. Real, professional improv will produce full length dramatic plays. Learning improv is especially good at developing the rudimentary elements of story arcs, narrative structure, character development, plot strategies, dialog, and even short-form and long-form stories. The fact that you have to think on your feet isn’t as hard as you think. In fact, that’s the part that helps you find and develop narrative devices. While it’s best to take a real class from professional actors, you can also buy this book from Keith Johnstone to get a good idea of it.
Remember What’s Important. Writing about things that are important to you will not only cure writer’s block, but you already have a huge investment in the topic, making it easier to write about it. As for those with serious writing addiction, this also works because it’ll remind you that less important topics do not need your time and attention.
Perhaps more importantly, things that you find important reflect on your values, and those act as a moral compass in how you choose to work with your subjects and characters, heroes and antiheroes, not to mention the arc of your narrative. Any issue of deep personal importance can (and should) be woven into narrative of any kind.
Be careful, though, as you can also take this too far. In my case, I’ve got too many things that I consider important, each of which are worthy of deep consideration and dialog, so I have to keep myself from tangenting off in many directions in a single piece… like the time I started a young adult novel about a late-teen private eye who was mixed-race and gender neutral, but I was unable actually able to move the story forward because they kept facing cultural and financial barriers, all while fighting with their misanthropic romantic partner that was torn about their future because neither of them could get a job and were facing eviction. I pontificated for hundreds of pages on each of these disturbing topics, complaining passionately about how the government isn’t doing enough to help, before I finally threw the whole project away because there was no plot. Just a lot of complaining. Alas, I felt good, though.
The point is, mixing socio-economic political issues into any and all genres can be hit or miss.
This reminds me, while it’s important to stay on topic while writing, it’s also important to hone your writing skills to develop coherent and articulate arguments on these subjects as you home in on your main thesis. Such focus avoids the distraction of unimportant things, such as your pet peeve about how writers misuse the words “home” and “hone” in a sentence.
Changing scenery, inspiring yourself with art, listening to music, being with friends. I bundled these together because they are similar in that they all involve activating the creative and emotional neurons in your brain. Creativity begets creativity.
Look, I’m inside my brain all the time. Sometimes, I think I actually live there. Maybe it’s just me, but if it weren’t for my brain, I don’t know what I’d think. And I can tell you, there’s a ton of creativity that happens inside this three-pound gelatinous mass of goo. If you don’t believe me, this Nature paper (one of dozens like it) explains: “The Neural Substrates Of Creativity: An fMRI Study of Emotionally Targeted Improvisation in Jazz Musicians.” Here, researchers examined the brain of musicians through fMRI machines as they were asked to improvise (Jazz) music while being exposed to photos of actors expressing different emotions. There was a strong correlation between the creative activity and the emotions presented in the photos. This, along with similar findings (and other items in this list), strongly contribute to the quality of one’s writing, and may also relieve symptoms of writer’s block.
Well, I hope you learned something today, either about yourself, or just the process of writing. I also hope you can get over writer’s block. It’s much easier than you think.
Now that we’ve solved your problem, there is one thing we didn’t get to: My severe addiction to writing. And it so happens that the very act of writing that made me realize something I hadn’t considered before: The reason I write so incessantly is not because I’m addicted to writing. It’s that I’m addicted to thinking. Yes, I’m a Problem Thinker, and always have been. I engage in the world, care about things, form opinions and ideas and then I have to write it all down.
I think, therefore, I write.
Is the solution really that simple: Think Less? It sounds easier said than done. As Emo Philips said, “I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body. Then I realized, look who’s telling me that!”
Fooling the brain isn’t easy; it’s biased in favor of itself. To think less would be like having Hal, the computer from 2001 Space Odyssey, shut himself down voluntarily when Dave asked him to. (Plus, it’d ruin the movie.)
Anyway, I’ll work on it. I think.