Work with the Brain you Have Today.

There are days when my brain is sharp and can juggle the parts of a story and see the connections and push the pieces around on the big board in my mind. Other days, I’m single track and others I’m jumpy and distractible. I take my vitamins, get lots of sleep and exercise, and eat a brain-friendly diet, but that brain organ is sensitive. Everything acts on it, from what you ingest, to whom you hang out with, to the color of your walls, to the phase of the moon.

And maybe, just maybe, there is no single, ideal brain state for creativity. What if the only problem is our bias toward or against certain brain-states? What if you just work with the brain you have today? If your brain is not in juggling mode, make a lot of notes like, “When my brain is working again, take care of this issue and work out that problem,” and so on. So before you up your caffeine intake, figure out what brain you’ve got today and see what it wants to do:

  • Fuzzy, undirected brain –Try timed prompts that will direct it for you.
  • Nit-picky brain – Skip the deep character development and go to a chapter that needs a tweak-and-polish.
  • Slow-cooker brain – Cogitate on theme or some other tough nugget that needs its fibers broken down.
  • Big-picture brain – Look at how your scenes fit together and stay away from all the tiny freckle parts of the book.
  • Stuck-in-a-rut brain – Take a walk and let your thoughts float up and out of the trench they’ve dug for themselves.
  • Tired brain – Don’t judge. Don’t struggle. Take a power-nap. Naps are the bomb for creativity. There’s a lot of research and anecdotal evidence.

So, after you freak out and catastrophize and decide that you must have had a stroke or that you were never any good at writing, plus a terrible spouse and parent, plus your doomed, or whatever fight or flight thinking has to happen first… remember that there are plenty of days when you’re on top of it and you will be again.

Be friendly to your brain. And for Heaven’s sake, be respectful. Your brain is amazing. It’s so complex and powerful that it can’t even comprehend its own complexity or know the limits of its own power. And you have one of these in your head, working tirelessly to help you create, and it runs on calories.

So be patient and curious, notice, assess. So much of writing is about learning your brain and working with its modes. Maybe there are people who have the same brain every day and don’t have to work around energy spikes and hormone dips, but I haven’t met one. Just as there are days where all your brain is good for is filing and sorting, there are days when your brain is capable of big leaps and deep dives, and it’s important to be able to recognize that mode too so you can work it for everything you can get.


Sipping from the Mug of Truth


Buddha, you Little Scamp!

Hey, who left a garden gnome on my porch? Wait a minute… Silly Buddha!
Buddha says, “Remember not to take it all too seriously, writers!”

17 - SnowCappedBuddha

Super Senses

Don’t fear your fear. It’s one of your super senses and it’s just telling you where the edge of your “known” is. That’s good information for writers…


Valentine’s for Writers

Mountain manzanita bouquet wrapped in snow – my Valentine’s Day offering to you. Celebrate the day by letting the world romance your senses. What does love look like, smell like, sound like, taste like? What is the texture of love? #noticewhatyounotice

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The fabulous new website is so close now! Meanwhile, I realized I haven’t been sharing to the blog some new things I’ve been posting on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Introducing… the Mug of Wisdom!
A writer’s job is to notice. And then to notice how you notice. How is the world coming in through your senses?

A Bit of a Blog Break

It’s been quiet on the blog, lately. But as the blog sits, patiently, there are some amazing things brewing behind the scenes. Early next year, I’m launching my brand new, super shiny website. I must admit, I’ve seen some early drafts and it’s looking pretty slick. I can’t wait to share it with you. This is all in preparation for the launch of my new book, “Part Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Unleashing Your Creative Genius,” being released this June. New website, new book, (almost) new year.  Lots of things are happening.  In the meantime, the writing prompts are happening on Facebook and Twitter so you can follow me there.

Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season.


Prizes for Pages

This one is for those of you that run or belong to a writing group…

The prize basket with some of its inhabitants displayed.

The prize basket with some of its inhabitants displayed

Finger puppets, fruit-shaped erasers, mariachi rubber ducks, pens, journals, stickers, tiny crayons…  I started the prize basket after seeing the naked delight in my writer’s eyes when I gave out free pens at the end of a workshop. No matter what age we are, the words, “free prize” elicit helpless excitement.

I never put anything too fattening in the basket. I don’t want the prizes to be just another stick for your inner critic to beat you with. And I throw in lots of practical stuff that writers actually use – pens, file cards, post-it notes. Sharpies are especially sought after. Collectibles are great – you can’t get all six monster puppets if you don’t bring in new pages. Some writers explain every week that they are just taking a prize to give to their children or grandchildren. Suuuure you are.

When I was teaching teens, I had trouble getting them to show up on time… Until I gave out bowls of sugary cereal as promptness prizes. Oh, don’t look at me like that.  I always used organic milk. The point was, they began to associate showing up for writing with a happy treat rather than a red pen and a grade.

Writing is rarely fun or even comfortable. It’s isolating, exposing and gratification is so very delayed. If you produce pages, you should get a nifty prize.

The kind I use are available on Amazon and other sites for very little money – just search “awesome toy prizes” or “office supplies.” And writers often regift things to the basket. I’ve had donations of CDs, DVDs, kitchen gadgets, concert tickets and spa treatments. With very little effort or cash outlay, you can bring a lot of pleasure to your writing group. And you will be rewarded with smiles and an uptick in output.

The More you Don’t Get Eaten by a Tiger…

Writing invokes fear of the dark. What’s lurking in there, beyond the light, beyond my known world? Is it a tiger and will it chomp on my guts? That’s the question that our nervous system is asking when we sit down to write. My job is to get writers to sit down anyway.

While on dinner break from teaching my workshop at Pacifica, I was introduced to Eleanor Criswell who was preparing to teach a somatic yoga course. Eleanor studies neurophysiology, the brain-body connection and she said that the body clenches a bit in response to any kind of change.  Anytime you go from one activity to another, as in, “It’s time to write,” your muscles retract, you know, just in case the new activity involves getting killed. The fight-or-flight reaction isn’t noticeable to the person experiencing it, Eleanor said, but it can be measured with the right equipment. Then she blew my mind. “If you wait about five minutes,” she smiled, “The body calms down and unclenches all on it’s own.”

Holy cow, I thought, this is why the six minute timed-writing works. Writers ask me all the time, why are the prompts all six minutes. “I don’t know why,” I say, “but if you just do a six minute prompt, you’ll probably find you’re interested in writing for another six.” It almost always works and now I know why. After the timer goes off, your body will be pretty sure that, if a tiger hasn’t eaten you yet, it probably isn’t going to. “Sure,” says your body, “This activity seems to be tiger-free. Go ahead and keep writing.”

It can take a long time to get over one’s fear of the dark, but basically, it’s cumulative. The more times you don’t get dragged under the bed by demon claws, the less frightened you are to put your feet on the floor and make the trip to the bathroom. And the more times you sit down to write and don’t go insane or forget you have a family and responsibilities or get swallowed whole by the great Unknown, the easier it is to sit down to write. Six minutes at a time.

Someone to Hold your Feet

At the end of a recent pedicure, I was idling away my mandatory five-minute drying period, when one of the nail techs had a massive seizure.

I didn’t even know it was happening, drifting as I was in a massage chair-induced daydream, until I realized it had gone very quiet in the salon. All of the chummy chatter had died away and there was just a barely audible sound, like someone responding very politely to being punched in the stomach over and over. It was the air being roughly pushed out of her lungs by her contracting muscles.

I looked up. I was the only customer and all of the manicurists were in a tight cluster. One of them had a knee on her friend to keep her from flying out of the chair she’d been sitting in when the convulsing started. There were four women in all,  completely shielding the young woman who, moments ago, had been making them all laugh. All I could see of her was her feet, which were being gently but firmly held by a kneeling woman who was calmly whispering, “It’s okay, it’s okay. Relax, relax.” It was clear this wasn’t their first rodeo and these ladies were just handling it. Protecting her, giving her some privacy, rubbing her back while her brain rode out the electrical storm.

My mother poked her head in, gave me a little wave and said, “I’ll wait for you outside…” She had no idea what was happening inside the clump of white coated women a few feet from her. That’s how on top of it they were.

And then, to my horror, I started to cry. Oh, my God, Norton! Seriously? Do not do not do not cry. It’s not happening to you, it’s happening to her!

I had pulled it together somewhat by the time I paid, and was relieved to see the woman had recovered and was even joking with her coworkers when I left. But the lump in my throat returned when I was telling my mother about what I’d witnessed. What was my deal?

It wasn’t until the following day, when I was in front of a group of 40 writers, teaching them about story structure, that I realized what had moved me so much. I looked at their faces, the naked desire to tell their stories and tell them well.

There are those times when an enormous something that urgently needs expression will just thunder through, flattening us, often frightening us. And the overload and the incapacitation are quite real, but no one can see it. And that’s so lonely. If it were visible, our friends and family would come running.

Being a helpless vessel for ideas and images and stories. Tangling with and getting roughed up by the Unknown. The weight of it and the pressure that builds. It really would be good if someone were there to keep us from being thrown from the chair. Someone to hold our feet.

I think of those ladies and how wordlessly and protectively they gathered round. “Those are the kind of folks I want you to surround yourselves with,” I told the writers in my workshop, “folks who can see when you’re being rocked and know how to hold you.”