In my last post, we explored how the power of routine helps quiet the irritating “self-talk” we experience when we sit down to write. AKA: The Censor and Radio KFKD.
But why does it work? From Anne Lamott to Flannery O’Connor to Toni Morrison, why do writers swear by the power of routine to quiet the inner critic?
Because… brain science!
I came across a research study via the New York Times that examined the brain activity of experienced and novice writers. The researchers found that different parts of the brain light up in experienced writers and novices. Even before they began writing, the expert and beginner brains worked differently. In the experienced writers, the researchers saw activity in the brain regions involved in speech, while the novices showed activity in the visual centers.
But here’s what I found really interesting. The basal ganglia (the part of the brain responsible for habit and automatic processes) and the caudate nucleus (the brain structure responsible for procedural learning such as pitching a baseball, learning to play the piano, or knitting a sweater) was lit up in experienced writers but not in the brains of novices.
When you learn a new skill, you need a tremendous amount of brain energy to concentrate. Do you remember learning to ride a bike? At first, you concentrate on the separate steps: pedal, balance, speed up, balance, coast, slow down, break. When you practice the steps over and over, the caudate nucleus helps you memorize the process. You no longer think in steps: you’ve learned the skill. It’s automatic. It’s habit.
Habits are stored in the area of the brain called the basal ganglia (near the caudate nucleus). Decisions, which you make when learning a new skill, are made in the prefrontal cortex. Once behavior becomes a habit, the decision maker is quieted. You’re on autopilot.
The basal ganglia was active in the brain of experienced writers, but not novice writers. To me, this is confirmation that writing––like all the other arts and skills––is a practice. When we develop and maintain a writing routine, our brains change. We don’t have to make the decision––it’s automatic.
But what stops us from writing in the first place? It’s “The Critic,” the internal Debbie Downer that chatters on and on about grammar, spelling, cliche, and how you’re just not a good writer anyway, so what’s the point?
In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott calls these voices: “Radio Station KFKD.” Julia Cameron calls the voices “The Censor.”
So how do we quiet the noise? Lamott says, “Sometimes ritual quiets the racket.” Julia Cameron swears by the ritual of morning pages.
Habit. Ritual. Routine.
The more times we sit down in front of the page, the more the process becomes automatic. The momentum of habit, of the brain’s automatic processes, is a powerful ally against KFKD and The Censor. Your brain has learned a few backroad pathways around negative self talk, and lo and behold, your ass is in the chair and you’re writing.
It’s clear from reading the testimonies of renowned writers that these voices are never completely quieted. Writers keep their routines and quirky rituals sacred because writing is always hard. You might always feel, as Vonnegut claims, like you have no arms, legs, and are trying to color with a crayon in your mouth.
But, with routine, those voices can never stop you from putting words on a page. They may rage and scream and shoot arrows at the fleshiest, most tender parts of you. Routine is your inertia. It is the blast-start that thrusts you through the atmosphere into the quiet space where you can get work done. You might despise the words that come out (“Shitty First Drafts” are key!), but you have words to work with. You can call on Debbie, The Editor, later.
“You Do You”
I believe in a holistic approach to the writing life––we’re all different, so different habits, strategies, theories, and advice will be different for each writer. I’m a “take what you need, leave what you don’t” writing teacher.
There is one piece of writing advice I believe is absolute for all writers:
To be a writer, you must write.
Whether it’s every day, every other day, or every month on the full moon, routine is the most effective way to turn down the volume of the voices telling you to do something, anything, but write.
Flannery O’Connor said, “Routine is a condition of survival.” A writing routine is the momentum pushing you through a burning, crushing atmosphere toward imaginative space. It is the steel shield over your intuition and creativity, protecting you from burning inner voices. It is a place where the only decisions to be made are on the page. Routine is a home where you can breathe fresh air, where your blood pumps, and you’re alive in a sacred place.
And you’re a writer.
Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way. TarcherPerigee, 1992.
Currey, Mason. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. Random House, 2014.
Erhard, K, et al. “Professional training in creative writing is associated with enhanced fronto-striatal activity in a literary text continuation task.” NeuroImage, vol. 100, 2014, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811914004613
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Anchor, 1995.
Zimmer, Carl. “This is Your Brain on Writing.” The New York Times, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/science/researching-the-brain-of-writers.html