Saturday, March 31, 2012

Day 19: Avoid Shame-based De-motivation

I have a 15-year-old son who is brilliantly creative, has the ability to write and the humor to make it relevant to his generation. But he hates writing and school. For most of his school life, he has been told that the unique way he learns and reports back is wrong. The administrators and teachers who believe that every child should learn and test the same have shamed him, told him he was broken and unwilling to learn, when all he wants to do is excel.  Schools lean on shame as a motivational tool. And they lean even harder when it's high school.

Too many writers believe deep down that authors who have made it big, or even self-published at this point, must have a magic formula for understanding the structure, the conventions and the right words in the right order to use. They don't. Many just didn't listen to those voices, or weren't subjected to the talk about laziness or an inability to "play the game."

Because it's seldom possible to get away from that one-size-fits-all school-yard thinking, even in business, as writers it can be difficult to "self motivate."

Philip Stiles points out that "Shame has been called the 'negative side of an individual's motivational scheme," by Giddens. (Stile's paper titled "The Negative Side of Motivation: The Role of Shame," can be found at

Institutions reinforce one viewpoint, corporate or administrative, through setting goals for the employee or student. In turn, this push for normalization and the student's or employee's: "Adherence to the norm or standard of the goal is a process of normalization of the employee and, importantly, deviation or failure to meet the standard invokes a judgment of abnormality...."

Years of having goals pressed on us have led many writers to attempt the same "discipline" in shaping the writing process. Although this may work for some, the restrictive nature of this practice can choke off creative expression.

Hope lives, thrives and trumps every voice that is not ours. Motivation is internal, and the infernal aspect of this blog. The one thing that each of us carries throughout life is an individuality that can drown out the codified voices of shame we internalized long before we could filter out their repetitive mantras.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 18: Confidence in the Process

One thing I know for sure as a writer is that no one else sees the world just like me. No else puts together the ideas, the blooming words and visions that spur my muse. My writing is unique because it's my inner voice that speaks out through everything from poetry to articles on radiation therapy and cancer.

Even in researching ADD, the IDEA and creativity spurs (for anyone who has ever been through an IEP, you will understand this), what catches my attention and lives on in the writing gives a different flavor to the way characters view the world around them. Everything adds to the process; nothing detracts.

It has taken a lifetime to reach this confidence in the day-to-day surety of words and the meanings upon meanings derived from experience. The journey has also led to a rock-solid faith in a vision that evolves along with each discovery.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Day 17: Stress and Release

The stress we experience day by day builds and wanes based on our responsibilities at the time. It's different if you are single, the mother or father of a toddler versus a teenager and whether we hold a day, night or midnight job and write around the edges of these experiences.

At, the society states that stress is not always bad: "Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price."

Yet, as anyone who has tried to sit still long enough to even write a thank you note when life is pushing you into action knows, rational thought may be the first thing to go. Creativity may be the next. The brain, as part of a physiological system that depends on a steady heart and blood flow reacts to an overdose of stress by temporarily shutting down. According to, the cognitive systems of an overload include memory problems, an inability to concentrate, poor judgment, negativity and constant worrying.

As we have been told as a society, the way around stress is to learn how to relax, which is an exercise only the person under stress can determine. However, the one thing a writer should never do when stressed is put that stress on the writing itself. (Map out a project instead of beating your head against a wall trying to come up with a lead. Daydream your way through a passage, breathing deep. Or just imagine floating on an ocean of possibilities that will never let you down.)

But never let writing become less than the joy it can be by trying to beat it into submission as another stressor.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 16: Tap Your Emotions

One essential "tool" in the writer's arsenal is the way we process and present our emotions to the world. We even get to play with our characters' reactions to emotional stimuli.

Then it follows that accepting the major emotions of love, hate, joy and despair, instead of judging them as good or bad, helps writers explore the reasons why people act and react. If you can stand back far enough to see the other side of these strong pulls to start and continue writing, then you are ahead of the game. If, as a writer, you hide from them instead, making everything sunny and bright or midnight gloomy, it's time to look at why humans live and die either fulfilled or frustrated.

One take on the emotional connection to creativity comes from a 2009 research paper titled "Emotions and Creativity, East and West."
"In popular conception --  not to mention psychological theory -- emotions are often viewed as biologically primitive responses that interfere with deliberate, rational thought; creativity, on the other hand, is typically ranked among the highest of the "higher" (uniquely human) thought processes," state James R. Averill, with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Kyum Koo Chon, with Taegu University, and Doug Woong Hahn, with Sungkyunkwan University. (
The authors argue that "emotions not only interact...but that emotions themselves can be products of creative change."

To me, creativity and emotions are both harmed by any push to control and organize them. In turn, if we trust our "instincts" and accept the wide range of emotions in being human, we free ourselves to speak and follow our own truths.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Day 15: Scenting Creativity

One thing computers don't enhance or distract from is the way we incorporate scents and our sense of smell into our writing. The best part of these sensory "gifts" is that the smell of cookies baking can mean vastly different things depending on the character, plot and scene.

But this post has more to do with how scents work on us to aid in creativity, and how they influence our beliefs. An article by Sally Augustin, Ph.D. on the Psychology Today website (at points out how any of the following scents can be perceived differently depending on life experiences. However, more common reactions to familiar scents include:

  1. Orange, lavender and cedar are calming influences. (For anyone who has asthma or allergies to any of these scents, don't test this.)
  2. Vanilla also helps calm even others, with vanilla-scented perfumes (used lightly) sometimes effective in job interviews, according to Augustin.
  3. Specifically for the writing process: Lemon and jasmine scents aid cognitive work. Augustin suggested sucking on lemon drops during tests.

If you can, and do, try any of these scents, try working them into your writing. One way to see it from the other side is to write a character reacting to the orange scent with terror due to putting thousands of cloves into oranges in his or her youth.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Day 14: Our Dreams and a More Immediate "Fix"

To sleep, perchance to dream...then create.

It's interesting to consider that we chase our dreams while awake. Yet many people also somehow lose a dream in embracing reality, even though it's possible to live our dreams through writing.

On a more practical note: Researchers often tout dreaming as a boost for creativity. So, let's talk about rapid eye movement (REM). Specifically, consider the findings of a 2009 study on REM sleep and its ability to help with new creative problems, from a press release at health/06-09Mednick.asp. The study by Sara Mednick, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System, and first author Denise Cai, a graduate student (at that time) in the UC-San Diego psychology department, found that REM directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleeping or wake state.

Although time helps in solving ongoing problems, REM dreaming forms new connections from unrelated associations for a more immediate fix.
"Mednick said that it appears REM sleep helps achieve such solutions by stimulating associative networks, allowing the brain to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas. Importantly, the study showed that these improvements are not due to selective memory enhancements."
This differs from the daydreaming mentioned in Day 14's post. For instance, if you are contemplating how to move a plot forward, get a good night's sleep. If you are tempted to completely overhaul a book, a poem or a research paper, start with a little daydreaming and then map out your solution. Or, once again, determine a system that works best for you.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 13: Day or Night Tripping

Part of the creative process is knowing when you work the best, whether night or day, colder or warmer, and if daydreaming is better at midnight than 8 a.m.

Although daydreaming is considered an important aspect of creativity, its popularity doesn't hold up in the corporate world. If you have ever "phased out" in a meeting just to be called out in front of the 15 others in the room for missing a cue to talk, you know it can be complicated.

In the writing process, daydreaming is necessary just to get around the blocks we set up in attempting to fill a word or page quota each day. Giving ourselves permission to sit back and think of every possibility for a scene or character takes confidence that the pause will add to the story.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 12: Bring on the Distractions

In researching how everything in a writer's environment can affect both short-term and long-term creativity and motivation, it struck me that many of these factors are to blame for the books that aren't quite finished. They also account for another book that is an almost endless round of editing.

The computer versus handwriting research pushed me to buy another notebook to place in my purse and I am in search of that perfect, lightweight, easy-flow pen. If you have a suggestion, please comment. But it went further, into a serious question of whether my mojo has been hijacked with the ease of typing rather than writing in longhand and revising on paper.

I also realize why programming makes me's the instant gratification and an absolute fascination with the spatial wonders available to me. But I digress.

Some things are distractions that should be followed and embraced to aid us in our writing process. We need to consider these alerts, such as really tasting a chocolate bar, many times for the first time in our lives. We need to look up from that paper or computer keyboard to take a photo of a brilliant sunset or to laugh out loud at the antics of a cat, dog or the squirrel on our back fence.

Finally, if you are unconvinced that distractions bring out creativity. Consider a 2011 University of Michigan study that found individuals with ADD were more creative than those who weren't.

"For the same reason that ADHD might create problems, like distraction, it can also allow an openness to new ideas," says Holly White, assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida and co-author of the paper. "Not being completely focused on a task lets the mind make associations that might not have happened otherwise." (

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 11: The Computer as "Muse"

A 2001 New York Times article titled, "Where the PC is Mightier Than the Pen" (at highlighted a 23-year-old computer teacher in southern China who has lost his ability to write longhand in the Chinese language he learned as a child. But he readily "writes" the characters using a computer.

This points both to our growing dependence on computers as a helper and a destroyer. It will take more than a few decades to measure the effect computers have on creativity, literacy and freedom. However, it is up to each writer to determine whether this technology serves as a muse because of its ease, or cuts off an essential connection between brain and fingers that handwriting forges.

In the NYT's article above, Chinese traditionalists lamented the spiraling losses from a younger generation's inability to pen Chinese characters.On the other hand, consider how computers make turning words into art. For anyone who is artistically challenged, programs can turn the words in your head into a visual statement.

But as anyone who has ever sent an e-mail knows, immediate access to a computer while under the influence of strong emotions can lead to embarrassment or, at the least, provides an incentive to edit messages before you hit the send.

As with any artistic process, writers need to honestly consider whether computers help or hinder their progress. And if balance is needed, then it pays to work in every medium that helps you think and create.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 10: The Striking Effects of Computers

(I'm was away on business, so it was hit or miss with the Internet interactivity. At this point, I will attempt to catch up.)

Consider how computers and the screens that allow us to work even in the dark serve as a serious distraction and are potentially more damaging to your hands than pens and pencils. (At least, that has been my experience.)

First, while this post covers ergonomic adjustments that might help avoid "complications" from our dependence on computers, the next one will describe how computers have changed the writing process overall. (Once again, it all begins in early childhood classrooms. This begs the question: Do children learn to use a mouse before a pencil? But that will keep for tomorrow.)

For now, we will stick with the physical aspects of writing on computers and how to avoid the repetitive stress injuries (RSI) that can painfully sideline anyone who uses computers.

Look at how you are sitting at the moment, what fingers you use to scroll and think about whether you have stepped away from the computer screen for more than 10 minutes at any time in the past two hours.

The repetitive part of RSI involves both mouse work and striking the keys, but a few basic adjustments can make a world of difference in continuing to create those worlds.

According to Jonathan Bailin, Ph.D. in "Ergonomics & Computer Injury: FAQs" at
Two main themes permeate ergonomic study of RSI prevention: posture and relaxation. Appropriate posture is necessary to keep the strain of performing work in a near stationary position (static exertion) to a minimum. But even the best posture can fall prey to overload when combined with bad work habits.
Relaxation involves taking regular breaks and stretching, rather than working, "through" the pain, and ensuring that you don't tense your neck, hands, shoulders and back while you type. And, for older writers, don't recreate the typewriter in your past -- your wrists should not flex upward or downward, because this causes stress. Also, few desks and chairs are coordinated to ensure that you don't strain in working on a keyboard, so take that into consideration.

You can find out more about this issue on a number of sites, including But, if you are already experiencing pain, tell your physician and get help before the mini-tears in your muscles and the inflammation in finger and wrist joints (upper arms and neck, also) cause you more tears than the critics.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 9: Pain and Ergonomics

This is one of those times when guidelines can aid the writing process, rather than slowing you down. As someone who underwent carpal tunnel surgery, it was a little late when I discovered that adjusting my seating, the height and angle of my keyboard (so my wrists weren't bent back), the size of a pen or pencil and the pressure applied when writing could help head off this injury.

Part of the problem is genetic, so many of you could conceivably do your worst and never suffer a day of being unable to write. (And even surgery doesn't have to stop you from writing because of voice recognition programs that help you tell a story in the oral tradition.)

This entry focuses on the ergonomics involved in writing with a pencil or pen. The University of California--Los Angeles (UCLA) offers a number of suggestions for avoiding injury and continuing to write at

  • Keep your weight off your forearm.
  • Position your elbow at 90 degrees or more, because wrist and hand strain increases past that point.
  • Relax your fingers. If your knuckles or fingers turn white and cold when you are writing, you are putting too much pressure on yourself and the pencil or pen.
  • Give your fingers a break by using the wrist and forearm to move a pen or pencil.
  • Instead of writing on a desk or propped up on a table, put the pad in your lap with the top of the pad pointed toward the ground and keep your wrist relaxed.
  • If your thumb hurts, adjust the pen in the webbed space between your index and middle fingers.
  • Write in a large, cursive style rather than printing.
  • Use large diameter pens, but make sure they are lighter, and pencils. Rubber grips can also help remind you to loosen your grip.
  • Find pens that feel good in your hand and easily flow, such as ink fountain pens, roller balls and gel ink pens.
  • Give yourself breaks. If it starts to hurt, get up for a glass of water and walk around for a few minutes, at least.  
 As always, this is about listening to your body and following your inspiration.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Day 8: Resounding Silence (Or Not)

Not counting the noise in our heads that sometimes drowns out the pitter-patter of writing confidence, can music or background conversations aid in the process?

Although numerous smaller studies (all with fewer than 500 participants) have considered the effect of noise on productivity, mood and creativity, none provide guidance that makes sense to everyone. We have noise machines to help us sleep, can be distracted by "elevator music" in office buildings, are lulled (up to 70 decibels) by the background noise in a coffee shop and can even use a computer program in some workplaces to focus more on the job at hand.

Personally, I can't write fiction listening to any music that affects my moods or it changes the tone. (On the other hand, if the passage requires more moodiness, bring on Grieg.) And after reading some of the literature on noise and creativity, writing in a coffee shop or bookstore is my connection to low-decibel comfort.

I found numerous websites on work-based creativity, but one article struck a "chord" at

"Is creativity just the gift of a few--just sprinkled on a few people and that's it? I would argue no, that creativity is something that we all have inside of us and what it's all about is finding out, how do we unlock that creativity," he says."

The "he" in the quote is Parag Chordia, director of the Music Intelligence Lab at Georgia Tech.

Chordia and others emphasize one aspect of creativity that is applicable to writing: We take in everything around us and make it ours by processing the sounds that surround us, the things we touch and how we interpret the emotions garnered from those stimuli. Finally, our writing lives are far richer than we believe at times.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 7: Let Me Sleep

In the U.S., this is the beginning of daylight savings time. As a writer and any creative individual understands, the springing ahead does nothing but drop productivity overall and require extra measures to adjust our sleep cycles.

But sleep itself is important to the writing process. Leslie Berlin said it brilliantly in a New York Times article on a sleep study from 2008 at

"Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas."

Berlin interviewed other experts who theorized that sleep may improve creativity through a breakdown in the standard thinking we employ. That means that our resting brain fills in the missing parts we may not recognize when we are awake.

Once again, be kind to yourself if you are in a U.S. state that pushes an outdated attempt to control time and energy through DST. And, if you can't sleep, try writing longhand or speaking your ideas into a recorder to prime your brain for when sleep comes again.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Day 6: Put a Light on It

The buzzing fluorescent lighting that follows us from preschool through college is familiar but mostly a distraction. That is, unless your brain is the type that adjusts easily and readily to anything in your environment.

For the majority of us, however, the closer we are to natural light, the better we can concentrate and create. This goes back to science aiding in our understanding of the writing process.

This subject also relates to the colors we seek, which was Day 5's observation:

Cool white fluorescent lights are concentrated in the yellow to red end of the visible light
spectrum. Incandescent lamps, similarly, are concentrated in the orange to red end of the
spectrum. In comparison, energy-efficient fluorescent lighting is typically concentrated in the yellow to green portion of the spectrum. These three light sources lack the blue portion of the color spectrum (Liberman 1991), which is the most important part for humans and is best provided by natural light. Full-spectrum fluorescent lighting is the electrical light source that has a spectrum of light most similar to natural light because it provides light in the blue portion of the spectrum. (A Literature Review of the Effects of Natural Light on Building Occupants by L. Edwards and P. Torcellini.)
So blue, within the color spectrum, is essential to mental health in humans. That means we stay calmer and more focused when our bodies are soaked in daylight, rather than lighting that lacks this essential element. Better still, write near a window. According to the literature review, "many countries in Europe require that workers be within 27 feet (8.2296 meters) of a window."

Failing that, walk outside for at least 10 minutes during the day and use a full-spectrum light source. Step by step this blog is addressing how we short-circuit our ability to write.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Day 5: Color My World in the Process

Color soothes, energizes and sabotages our writing process when we are unaware of the effects it has on our ability to concentrate and create.

For me, words speak in colors, rhythms and actions. So the science behind how colors affect our moods, creativity and confidence is relevant to the writing process.

For example, a 2009 study describing the emotional pull of red and blue (at found that:

"Red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31 percent compared to blue. Conversely, for creative tasks such as brainstorming, blue environmental cues prompted participants to produce twice as many creative outputs as when under the red color condition."
Personally, I surround myself with reds and greens when I write. Pink, purple and yellow don't inspire me in surroundings. (They may remind me too much of the early classrooms.) 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Day 4: Environmental Factors

As much as I knock the conformity of learning to write in schools, the influence of those days and the discomfort that surrounded us should be acknowledged to get beyond the deja vu of it.

The hard seats, the buzzing overhead lights and the hiss of the heater as it kicked in never leave us completely. That means that we must be aware of our environment to escape the association of noise and pain connected with our earliest efforts to form words.

To redirect that energy into writing, it helps to understand the more ideal school room described at Specifically: "To achieve environmentally pleasing classroom spaces, teachers need to get in touch with what feels good to them and attend to the specific population that will be using the room."

Once again, don't think about this too much or you ruin the effect. As a writer, be sure to hide or get rid of anything that distracts you, or still has the ability to make you wince.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Day 3: Comfort Above All

I'm not saying that this process means you can hide behind a slight discomfort with writing. Rather, just consider how we set ourselves up for success or failure based on learned behaviors like sitting up straight at a desk when writing.

If you deviate from this straight-spined majesty, which we tend to do despite essays to the contrary, then the focus is often on finding "just the spot" necessary to spark creativity. (See Day 2 for a prime example of misguided writing advice.)

Although you shouldn't spend too much time dwelling on this matter, how you sit or stand may decide how comfortable you are with putting pen to paper or typing away at a keyboard. Consider this article from NPR on thinking inside and outside a literal box:

Now, consider for a few minutes where you write most fluently. For me, the ideas come during walks, but the best writing I have ever accomplished was on a plane during a five-hour flight.  Although it's difficult to repeat this creative spurt, approximating this atmosphere at coffee shops, bookstores and other homes away from home also works. (So does committing to a blog...)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Day 2: Physiology & the Push for Conformity

     Throughout history, the writing process seems to have been studied with an eye to standardizing the practice. This ineffective attempt to teach our calling as a skill is what feeds the exhaustion many kids claim in writing "How I Spent My Summer Vacation."
     "No Child Left Behind" is just the latest in a push to drill "the basics" into children. The only magical thinking allowed is academically, not for silly children who would rather be in physical education than writing, for the most part.
    Consider an "Essay on the Physiology of Writing" from 1894 by Emile Javal at

    The Commission, without neglecting the questions of lighting, school furniture, typography of school books, adopted the formula of George Sand that I had brought to light, and came to this conclusion : that if the Administration adopts vertical writing for young children, the principal cause of nearsightedness will have disappeared.
     The following is the text of the report: "The Commission think that great progress will be made by exacting, according to Mme. G. Sand's formula, vertical writing on straight paper, the body erect. Thus both scoliosis and myopia will be avoided together."

   This "formula" for success, along with perfect eyesight, is only one of many that fail to encourage writing in any form.
     No wonder so many of us grow up as writers who avoid the act of writing. (By the way, this Library of Congress book is entertaining, even though it's  not meant to be.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Process: Day 1 on Knowing Yourself

This blog so far has concentrated on the many ways we are discouraged or encouraged to write.

Today, we will begin looking at the processes both mental and physical that help or hinder writing as a calling. 

The first, and most pressing mental process, for many writers is doubt. Like any art, writing starts in our emotions and the way we process what we see and what we believe about ourselves and the world around us. If you set arbitrary goals that feed guilt or write down deadlines that make you anxious rather than energized,  they only serve as constant reminders of supposed failure.

Write one word at a time, instead of setting deadlines. Make a sentence the triumph each day. If all else fails, write down your frustrations. Any and all writing is valid.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

From Organic to the Process

This blog was inspired by one too many people saying that they had to pay their dues to be considered a writer. In practical terms, this maxim may be a career-affirming ideal.  In terms of inspiration, however, it's a deal breaker for many of us who have played by rules we did not make and cannot write into submission.

First, never accept another person's edicts on what form great writing takes. Almost a decade back, I told another writer that one of my books in process was "literature." That woman frowned and said, "You don't get to decide that. If it's literature, then the experts determine its validity."

She was wrong. The greatest writers in history have been those who wrote and still write without looking at the market, the critics and all the experts on audience needs. How many times have you found great writing in surprising places? For instance, my bookshelves are filled with fiction and nonfiction lyricism from authors as diverse as J.K. Rowling (the whole Harry Potter series), Hillary Jordan (Mudbound), Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory), Linda Hogan (Solar Storms), many science fiction writers and Michio Kaku (Parallel Worlds).

Looking at these books reminds me that writing is an organic form of creative freedom we often take for granted or see as unreachable. Granted, some of the authors above are professors who must publish in their fields, but they didn't have to write books that are a pleasure to read.

If you are looking for inspiration, read some of your own writing to this point. Also, consider why you go back to the same authors over and over again on your own.

Up to this point, we have considered the roadblocks to finding your path as a writer. Now it's time to think about the writing process. Toward that goal, this blog will tackle 30 days of posts on how we approach writing and the many forms it can take.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Writing by the Numbers
When you paint by the numbers, the manufacturer provides all the paint, an outline for the painting and brushes. In childhood, a gingerbread man like the one at right could delight us even if we painted outside the lines.

In writing, the same cannot be said for its childish pleasures. Unfortunately, for many of us, learning our native language is tedious. The learning curve involves scrolling line after line of the alphabet with a death grip around a large crayon or pencil.

Then we are tasked with taking spelling tests that, once again, do not tie pleasure to knowledge. In these cases, it either matters that we get a 100 on the test, or we could not care less and steadily move away from the language as a whole.

As adults, we need to take back the power and majesty of the words, phrases and sentences that were drilled out of us. Playing with words can help. Or maybe replacing some of the numbers in these paint-by-number schemes with the words that speak colors, shapes or emotions can help us regain some of wonder that comes from writing outside the lines.