On Oliver Sacks

On Oliver Sacks: his writing process, how he used notebooks, and his views on creativity. Via Field Notes.

Where making is driven by association and memory, birthing “needs ‘incubation’” and is marked by intuition. But before we hasten to assume that he valued the latter type of creative work more highly than the former, he lists Darwin as an example of a writer who makes and Rilke as one who births, which strongly suggests that he saw the two not as a hierarchy but as distinct, complementary forms of creative work — Darwin was, after all, one of Dr. Sacks’s great heroes.

Source: Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain

Monomaniacal multitasking

I’ve long struggled to balance the need to be somewhat monomaniacal (in order to complete a large project) and the need to perform at least the bare minimum necessary tasks of everyday living. This struggle is made all the harder by the realization that multitasking is a terrible strategy for getting things done.

So, I was interested in the recent post by J.D. Roth, Moderators and Abstainers: Two Approaches to Balance and Temptation, which argues that there are two kinds of people: Those who can achieve a moderate balance versus those who lurch from excess to excess unless they go for a zero option with regard to the things they’re prone to overdo. Of course, it immediately made me think of my recent conversation with my doctor about how addiction was the right model for thinking about diet and weight loss.

More than that, though, it made me feel pretty good about how things are going for me right now. It’s still early days, but I’m feeling like I’ve found a pretty good balance between productivity and fitness. I’m getting my writing done, and I’m getting my exercise in. Rather than finding myself doomed to lurch from regular exercise (and no writing) to lots of writing (but no exercise), I’m having pretty good success with a schedule that includes both.

I’ve been working my way toward this for a long time. As far back as 2008 I wrote Being Routinely Creative, where I argue that rather than constraining your creativity, having a firm schedule protects the time you need for creative pursuits. It took me a while to find that post, because I had been conflating it with the even earlier 2007 post Scheduling Time versus Scheduling Tasks, where I make a related point praising the value of blocking out chunks a time (as opposed to the then-recent time management fad where you instead organize your work around lists of “next actions”).

One key for me has been the realization (really, the re-realization, because I’ve known this for a long time too), that the writing has to come early in the day. Once I’ve started writing—once I’ve gotten my brain in the story space—I can take a break for exercise (or whatever), and then return to writing later in the day. Starting with exercise is much less effective. After exercise, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, which blunts my urge to be productive. I’m also often tired. And, if I’ve had to go out to exercise (such as to the Fitness Center or the Savoy Rec Center), it seems only reasonable to run an errand or two on the way home, which has the effect of postponing the start of writing even further. The result, far too often, is no writing at all.

One concern I have is that the block of time that I’m protecting for my writing falls right in the middle of the early morning hours when it’s cool enough to exercise outdoors during the hot days of summer. But I can’t work up much worry. At this point in the winter, I positively yearn for a long afternoon too hot for vigorous exercise.

Oh—and this post would not be complete without a shout-out to Jackie, who performs so many of the necessary tasks of everyday living for both of us, freeing me up to do far more of my creative work than would otherwise be possible. (And who somehow does it while also doing her own creative work.)

Entering flow state

I use a trick for getting into flow state.

Anybody who does creative work knows about flow state, where your surroundings vanish and for a timeless period you’re creating whatever is you create. If you’re a writer, the words just, well, flow.

Many writers have some sort of process for achieving flow state, such as a pre-writing ritual, or a specific place or specific set of tools that they reserve for their creative work.

I’ve seen working writers mock these techniques—making fun of the writer who needs the right kind of tea in the right special cup and the right ink in the right fountain pen before they can write. And I do see the mocking potential. But I find having such a process is highly effective in speeding the process of getting into flow state.

The key here is speeding. If your pre-writing ritual takes twenty minutes, it’s not likely to be faster than just starting to write. (Which is, after all, the only essential step.)

But some very short ritual, or some special place or object, if you start using it when you’re working, will become associated with entering flow state. And once it has become associated, just following it or having it or using it makes it easier and quicker to enter flow state.

In my case, it’s a vest that Jackie made me. I reserve it just for fiction writing. Having written a lot of fiction wearing that vest, just putting it on puts me in the frame of mind that I’m going to write fiction.

I can write without it. I probably write more without it than I do with it. But especially when I have only a short period of time to write, it’s worth the 30 seconds it takes to put my vest on when I sit down to write.

[Update: I just remembered that I’ve mentioned my writing vest before, in my Clarion journal, in reference to Steven Barnes talking about learning to enter flow state.]

Brain chemicals and artist’s dates

In my family, “brain chemicals” is the shorthand term for unmotivated negative feelings. That is, when you’re feeling sad because something bad happened, that’s normal, but when you’re feeling sad for no particular reason, that’s brain chemicals. (On the theory that you’ve probably got a chemical imbalance or something, and that you should probably see a doctor about it when you’ve got the time.) The same applies to anger, frustration, anxiety, etc.

I mention this because I often suffer from brain chemicals, especially this time of year, when the days get short and dark and cold.

I’m actually doing pretty well this year. I’m doing a bunch of things that help. I’m taking my vitamin D. I’m trying to get outdoors for some actual sunlight, any day that there is any. I’m getting my exercise in. (For many months now, Jackie and I have been lifting weights three times a week and doing an hour of taiji three times a week. I’m trying to get in an hour of walking and at least a few minutes of additional taiji on the other days of the week.) I’m being productive. I’m getting enough sleep.

Still, despite all that, brain chemicals seemed to be setting in yesterday. I was feeling over-busy, under-accomplished, and frustrated. So, I went to level two in the fight against brain chemicals, and scheduled an artist’s date.

I think of it as a date with my muse. A proper artist’s date involves going somewhere and spending time with something that spurs creativity. That could be almost anything, and if I did them more often (and I really should) I’d probably have to broaden the range of places that I go. But I don’t do them very often, so I can usually get away with taking my muse to the same few places.

I started at the Krannert Art Center. Much of their exhibit space today was full of stuff that I had little interest in, but outside the museum proper there’s a changing exhibit of student work that’s often more interesting than the work in the museum itself. Today it had the work of school children. There were a lot of interesting ideas—for example, a low passageway made of cardboard where kids who’d studied ancient cave paintings had painted their own—even if only a few of the actual pieces spoke to me.

Connected to the museum is the school of design building. They often have some student work on display in the hallway, and I rather liked a small group of pieces by students who had apparently had the assignment to create a brand identity for themselves. They produced the same elements that a brand identity package from a marketing firm would provide—a name and logo (provided in a couple of sizes and formats, in both color and black & white), together with some key terms and images that could go into a branded ad campaign.

It was everything an artist’s date needs to be—a reminder that creativity is everywhere, a reminder that there can be joy in art of all sorts.

I was already feeling better today, and expect that I’ll feel even better tomorrow.