Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Decisions, Decisions

Cricket McRae


Last weekend I led a workshop on avoiding self-sabotage at the Northern Colorado Writers Conference. Even when I proposed it to the conference director, I wondered if anyone would show up. The things that writers do to get in their own way often seem like dirty little secrets.

All of us are, after all, highly efficient, well-organized, fabulous time managers, and understand that nothing is ever perfect so we know when to stop agonizing and move on. Furthermore, we never procrastinate. Ever.


Nevertheless, I thought I’d share one thing I learned when putting the workshop together. This is about writing, but also applies to just about any other artistic endeavor.

I went to hear the comedian Lewis Black speak when he was on a book tour about six years ago. He said, with his typical New York sass, that it would be a good long time before he wrote another book. Someone asked him why.

“Because when you’re writing a book it feels like you’re a ten-year-old boy, and it’s Sunday night, and you haven’t even started your homework yet. And it feels like that ALL THE TIME.”

I laughed. I winced. It struck home.

There can be so much anxiety about not writing when you’re not writing. How can that not provide the impetus to chuck your dinner plans, put the kids to bed at six, and race to the keyboard?

Because writing can also cause anxiety. And if it doesn’t, at least sometimes, then it’s possible we’re not challenging ourselves quite enough.

But why would it cause anxiety?

Because we have to make decisions. In fact, we make decisions about every single aspect of writing. Even after we’ve decided between fiction and nonfiction, long or short, genre, subgenre, and even sub-subgenre, we have to decide about plot, subplot, setting, character, scene placement, pacing, overarching themes and meaning. And then? Every sentence and every word is a decision. The more we do it the easier some of those decisions become, but they’re still there. Then comes the editing – what to keep, what to toss, what to add.

Not to mention the decisions we have to make once we’re finished. After we’ve actually decided we’re finished, of course.

Yeah, yeah. Life if full of decisions. So what’s the big deal? Buck up.

Of course. But it’s helpful to be aware that decisions are exhausting. Literally, physically exhausting. Our brain makes up about 4% of of our physiology, but uses 20% of the available glucose in our bodies. The more it has to work making decisions, the more glucose it uses.

In study after study, subjects who have recently eaten display more willpower than those who don’t. (Hello, procrastinators! Have a snack and try again!)

They also make better – or at least better thought-out – decisions. For example, a study of judges showed that they were more likely to grant parole to prisoners whose parole hearings were first thing in the morning or shortly after lunch. If a prisoner was unlucky enough to be scheduled for a hearing late in the afternoon the chances that they’d be granted parole went way down.

It was determined that was in part because the judges had used up the ready glucose in their systems and so tended, in essence, to not decide by simply choosing the status quo. It was also in part because they were suffering from decision fatigue. The more decisions you make, the harder the next one will be.

And we already have a lot of choices in our lives already. I don’t know about you, but after a good, strong writing session of three or four hours I can walk away feeling stretched thin and acting pretty spaced out. Forget asking me what I want for dinner.

Does any of this resonate with you, whether in writing or another form of creating? Or does it sound like a bunch o’ hooey?

(p.s. – the workshop was packed!)


Robin Allen said...

So *that's* why writing a book is so dang hard. Great info, Cricket--especially the license to eat more!

Any other tips?

Lois Winston said...

Great post, Cricket! I've recently changed the way I write. I now set a goal of 5,000 words a week. I write Mon. - Fri., hopefully, 1,000 words a day, but if I fall short one day, I make it up by the end of the week. I find this new style of writing far less stressful for me, and I'm staring at a blinking cursor much less.

Beth Groundwater said...

Oh yeah, this resonates!

Kathleen Ernst said...

What a fascinating post! Thanks for sharing, Cricket. I tend to spend so much time thinking about the writing itself that I rarely pause to consider such things, but it all makes sense. Thanks for sharing. I'm off to have a snack...

Cricket McRae said...

Robin, I wondered about that "license to eat more" since half the time I procrastinate seems to consist of standing in front of the open refrigerator as if something interesting might have found its way inside since the last time I opened it.

I think one take away would be that writing first thing in the morning before either willpower or decision fatigue kicks in would be good.

Lois, I really like the way you approach your quota -- and it seems quite realistically doable. I am the Queen of Too Long To Dos!

Beth, I think of you as never procrastinating (same with the rest of you, actually). So you've made me feel better!

You're so smart to come at it like that, Kathleen -- one of the other things I found out is that we're over twice as creative when we have an "approach" versus "avoid" attitude toward a writing session.