You’ve set aside a couple of hours to write, and you’ve been looking forward to it all day. You finally get home. You get your snacks, your tea or coffee, settle down to write, and… You can’t find the mental energy to begin the process of writing, or stay in the groove long enough to be productive.
This lack of mental energy shouldn’t be confused with writer’s block or some other problem. It occurs simply because our writing brainpower is limited.
Every creative act requires us to make decisions. These decisions, conscious and un-, take a toll on the brain. It can only make so many in a day.
Writing requires TONS of decisions. In an hour, a writer makes hundreds if not thousands of decisions. Simply putting one word after the other means a decision: choosing what word comes next. And the English language in particular has many synonyms and shades of meaning to choose from. Then there’s the big-picture decisions. Character description and development. Dialogue. Scene. Overall plot. Subtext. The list goes on.
The problem is, our brain doesn’t distinguish between creative decisions and daily decisions, like what to wear, what route to take to work, what to eat, and etc. So when a writer sits down to write after a long day, her brain is likely already close to the maximum decisions it can handle in a 24-hour period. She has decision-fatigue. This makes engaging in the writing process extremely difficult.
Some famously creative people deal with decision-fatigue by cutting down on decisions. Steve Jobs, for example, had a uniform–the black turtleneck and jeans–so that he wouldn’t have to decide what to wear in the morning. Those were decisions he could spend on something more significant than his appearance. Routine ways of beginning the morning and schedules can also help.
Others choose to engage in their creative work first thing, before any other decisions crop up, demanding to be made. Sheila O’Connor, author of Sparrow Road and Keeping Safe the Stars, gets up in the morning and goes straight to her writing space. She doesn’t talk to anyone or interact with anything involving words. I don’t think she even gets dressed. Straight to writing, no questions asked. That way, her freshest, best decision-making energy is spent on her work.
It’s important to be aware of where our decision-making energy is spent.
It’s also important to know when a decision must be made, and to make it firmly.
Writers (myself included) often get ourselves into trouble by trying to put off decisions. Because of decision-fatigue or sheer wishy-washiness, we don’t want to commit to a certain character’s motivation, reaction, or an event in the plot. We want our options open. We keep writing, thinking we can come back later and clarify. Meanwhile, without a solid backbone of made decisions, the work that follows becomes spongy and disintegrates.
Even if we are managing our decision-making energy well, sometimes the fear that a decision is wrong holds us back from committing to it. It is almost impossible to know if the option we choose is the best one. Even those that feel right in the moment can be wrong.
But we have to choose an option. We can’t predict the result; we have to try the decision on and see what happens. Even if we lose pages of work on wrong decisions, we haven’t wasted our time. We come away from them knowing more about the world and the characters in it.
Writing, making endless decisions–it’s hard. Understanding the way our brains works can help us make the most of our writing time, and being willing to make decisions fearlessly helps us move forward, even if it sometimes feels like we’re moving backward.
If you want to learn more about the science behind creativity, check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. He goes into much more detail about this concept and many others that can give you a leg up in your writing life.