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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Want to Write Better? Think Different!

In our previous post, we explored how your brain is naturally creative, always making new associations and connections, but that you don’t notice because your brain prefers rational, logical thinking so much it drowns out other styles of cognition.

Allan Snyder’s research suggests that we can increase our awareness of our creativity by temporarily inhibiting areas of the brain responsible for rational thinking. Until the “electronic thinking cap” Snyder mentions is available, we have to find other ways to change our thinking.

Let’s start with four simple steps. Try these every day for a month.

  1. Describe an ordinary object by its component parts. Instead of calling it a “pen,” list: metal tube, inner plastic tube, ink, ball fitted in metal tip, spring, gears, clip.
  2. Describe the same object by its function. Instead of “pen,” call it a “hand-held device to hold, direct and dispense ink evenly on paper and to prevent ink from leaking when not in use.”
  3. Describe the same object by alternative functions. Make doodles. Stir coffee. Slip between pages to mark location in a book. Clean ear canal. Prop door open. Poke people to annoy them. Throw at cat to make it stop making that awful noise. Arrange with other pens to create a mosaic pattern. Remove ink, insert poison and murder someone (possibly the co-worker who pokes you with the pen he used to clean his ears and stir his latte).
  4. Describe an object by the function of its parts. Instead of focusing the function of the whole (“direct and dispense ink onto paper”), identify the functions of the parts: tube to hold ink, ball point to dispense ink evenly, gear to compress or release spring, spring to move ball point in or out of outer tube, outer tube to protect inner tube, inner tube to contain ink and keep it from drying out, and so on.

Any objections? Resistance anyone?

All the reasons you just thought of to NOT do these four exercises on even one object, let alone on a different object every day for a month, are roadblocks thrown up by your brain operating in its dominant cognitive style of rational thinking.

It’s a waste of time. It’s too hard. Who cares? What’s the point? Like that’s going to make me a better writer. It’s too fussy. I don’t notice those kind of details. That level of detail is irrelevant. I don’t want to. It’s stupid. What a weird thing to do. When would I ever use anything like this? How could this remotely apply to my life?

Exactly. Those four exercises are weird. They’re uncomfortable. They take time because it’s hard to be focus your attention in an unusual way.

Anything that breaks from your brain’s business-as-usual, default mode of cognition will feel weird, difficult and pointless.

But anything creative requires deviating from your brain’s business-as-usual, default mode of cognition.

Your brain will try to ignore this. You may be thinking you really need to stop reading this post (just for now, of course you’ll come back) and get busy with something else (“Anything else, please,” whispers your brain’s dominant mode).

You will forget to do this. You will skip parts of the exercise. You’ll think about it, but not take time to sit down and write your responses.

I know this because this is what my brain wants to do.

“Business-as-usual, dammit!” our brains insist.

Except business-as-usual will not give us creative insight. It will not expand our capacity to think new thoughts. It will not increase our fortitude and ability to wrestle uncertain possibilities into soaring prose or poetry.

Come on, be weird with me! Let your writing freak flag fly!

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