People have a lot of reasons they don’t write. Every time I meet an amateur writer they tell me what stops them from writing—for the most part I think the reasons are valid, though a long way from insurmountable.
Probably one of the biggest problems people have is the sitting down and writing part. It’s hard to focus, there are too many distractions and most importantly, they just stare blankly at the page and can’t think of what to write.
Lack of ideas is another problem. Being too tired, not having enough time... all of these things can be fixed when you take a step back and really look at the root of the problem.
We often think of our thoughts as something obscure. However the brain is an organ. It’s just like the heart or liver or skin. Our thoughts too, are physical things. They’re electrical pulses we can ‘see’ with machines and our emotions are chemicals and signals that run through our bodies. They can be measured, extracted and looked at through a microscope.
Poor health affects all our other organs, by we often ignore the effects it can have on the brain. However the effects are there. They’re very obvious and easily tested in a laboratory.
If you want to be an athlete, you have to train your muscles by exercising and eating well. The brain is the same. Not metaphorically, LITERALLY.
So I am going to take this time to address several aspects of brain health and training and how you can improve your writing and concentration by applying them.
Here’s the thing about the brain: it needs good food to function. Different parts of the body work better with different foods, but the brain in particular needs carbohydrates and fatty omega acids to be at optimal performance.
If you are on a low or no carb diet, concentration becomes more difficult. You might lose weight, but your writing is going to suffer. Eat carbs. Don’t go nuts and make a hog of yourself, but don’t deny your brain energy if you want to focus long enough to get words down every day. The CSIRO recommends two slices of bread OR a cup of pasta OR a medium sized baked potato per person, per day.
The brain also needs foods high in omega acids. No really. All of the most intelligent animals on the planet have diets high in omega three, dolphins eat fish, African grey parrots and chimpanzees eat nuts and seeds. Women who are suffering the sluggish, irritability of PMS are almost always low in omega six and omega three is currently being tested as an effective treatment for depression.
Also, try and avoid eating crap. Processed foods clog up your brain like shit in a drain. The healthier your diet, the better your brain will work. Fibre and drinking lots of water will help too. A constipated belly is a constipated mind.
Two of the largest arteries in the body go into the brain. They’re in your neck and if severed they can coat a ceiling with blood in about half a second. Ask any emergency room nurse who’s been sprayed head to foot.
So what does this have to do with exercise? Well, for one, arteries clogged with fat aren’t as good at getting blood to your brain as clean ones. And more importantly, running around and getting your heart rate up improves the flow of blood to your brain. It also releases endorphins, so it’s kind of like taking crystal meth, only without the trip to ER or death.
A brain with good blood flow is a happy brain.
I do all my writing at a treadmill desk—which is a desk that is raised to a height that makes it comfortable not to sit in a chair, but to walk on a treadmill while on the computer. I am walking 2kms an hour as I type this and I do that every day, for about four hours.
Studies have shown keeping the brain active with brain teaser games can slow the onset of Alzheimer’s. Why do you care? Well, they’re also the brain’s equivalent of fitness training.
Brain trainers, reading and a few other activities (Not watching TV!) increase the number of neural pathways in the brain. This makes you smarter, makes your memory better and allows you to think faster.
Pick up a crossword or a book of Sudoku. It helps.
This could really have a tutorial all of its own, however I’ve seen more than one long discussion about it online—so if you hunt around a little, you’re bound to find something more in depth on the subject.
One of the most important things a writer can do to increase creativity, motivation and capacity for ideas is to expose themselves to things. Reading fiction and nonfiction, watching good movies, good TV, trying new things, visiting new places: I consider all of these CRITICAL to good brain function. They interest and encourage and they stop your mind from becoming stagnate, sullen or uninspired.
Having trouble writing? Go to a gallery. Pick up a book and read for a few hours. Hire a documentary from the video store.
A lot of people don’t like to read in the genres they’re writing in. That’s fine. There are several dozen other genres out there. Nonfiction is great too. Culture, cooking, gardening and other books and magazines of that nature are great for inspiring you when it comes to different settings and ideas.
Do or read something new. It’s vital for writing and good mental health.
This is a real no-brainer. Your brain needs to sleep so it can process all the crap that happens to you all day and your body needs sleep to heal. A lack of sleep can’t kill you, but it can make you hallucinate and lower your immune system.
It’s recommended the average adult get eight hours of sleep in a twenty four hour period. Children need more and old people need less.
Tired writers are usually shitty writers.
Here’s a big surprise, it’s hard to concentrate when you’re stressed. The more stressed you are, the harder it is to focus. People in burning buildings can rarely focus on their novel. To a lesser degree, all of our stresses chip away at the Zen of creation.
If you’re like me, you may come up with brilliant story ideas while the house is on fire (true story). However in the long run, stress is going to hamper your efforts.
Don’t use it as an excuse, take logical steps to minimize the stress in your life and work around it. Also, remember if you are very stressed, don’t be ashamed to go out into the world and ask for help. Talk to a doctor or psychologist if you are having trouble managing your situation. Call the fire brigade if your house is on fire, though. Psychologists are terrible at fire fighting.
I’ll be 100% honest, there are drugs out there that some people find help them write better. There is somewhat of a cliché about writers being smokers, drinkers or abusing drugs in aid of their craft.
Almost every writer I know abuses caffeine. Heavily. I do not. Caffeine only works as a stimulant the first few times you take it—then it depresses your system and you need more caffeine to bring you back to normal. Caffeine doesn’t perk you up, it just brings you to where you would be, without caffeine.
You should also be aware if you are taking prescription medications that they may be affecting your cognitive functions, creativity or your ability to concentrate.
Also, recreational downers, such as marijuana, will decrease your focus and motivation considerably. Talk to a doctor if you are concerned about any medications you may be taking.
If you are sick with something, be it hay fever or cancer, it’s probably going to affect your writing. Maybe it will motivate, inspire and drive you. However it’s also likely it will make you feel like shit warmed over and make writing difficult occasionally.
I am disabled and have considerable organ damage which affects me daily. It makes life, and writing, hard. Doable, but hard.
Whatever you are sick with, see a professional and seek assistance in making your life as normal and manageable as possible.
The healthier you are, the healthier your brain is, the better equipped you are going to be to write well.
I’m willing to bet every single one of you that when your system is drug free, you have no vitamin or mineral deficiencies and your colon isn’t clogged with cheeseburgers, sitting down, focusing and getting ideas will be MUCH easier.
Talitha Kalago. Copyright 2008.