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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.

Do Writers Need to Keep Our Butts in the Chair?

In 1937, Sinclair Lewis shared his version of an often repeated and often reworded bit of writerly wisdom:

And as the recipe for writing, all writing, I remember no high-flown counsel but always and only Mary Heaton Vorse’s jibe, delivered to a bunch of young and mostly incompetent hopefuls back in 1911: ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’

Not necessary so, Ms. Vorse. Several of my coaching clients employ the most obvious exceptions to that “rule” – they write at standing or walking desks.

Fingers on Keyboard?

Okay, so you don’t have to put your butt in the chair, but you do need to keep your fingers on the keyboard, right? Wrong!

Fingers on the keyboard or pen on the page happens only in Stage 5 of the six stages of the creative process. (More about stages of creative process or in chapter 4 of AWB.) Daydreaming, brainstorming, researching, even staring out the window while juggling ideas and options are all valuable Product Time activities.

As long as you’re available to your writing project and not distracting yourself with email, your phone, doing laundry or looking for answers in the refrigerator, it counts as Product Time.

Locked in Your Writing Room?

So then, we revise the conventional wisdom to “The art of writing is the art of locking yourself in your writing space.”

But that doesn’t exactly work either.

Sometimes, the most effective way to resolve a writing challenge is to walk away.

Incubation (Stage 3) in particular, is a time when wandering aimlessly, daydreaming, watching clouds, cruising on the interstate, floating in water, or listening and moving to music can generate far more A-ha insights than chaining yourself to your desk.

The challenge is to recognize when wandering away from your writing space is incubation and when it’s just a way to avoid writing by distracting yourself.

Keep Your Head in the Chair

The trick is to keep your head in the “chair,” not your butt. You don’t have to be consciously focused, striving mightily to solve the writing problem, you just can’t let your mind get too busy with another task or problem to solve.

Some problems can’t be solved until frustration forces us to give up our conscious attempts to solve them.

When you stop trying to pay attention, your brain goes from Task Positive Mode, when brain activity is focused on a few specific areas that can solve a problem, to the Default Mode Network, when brain activity is defused across the entire brain. Areas that don’t connect during Task Positive Mode do connect in a brain in Default Mode Network.

Connecting two previously disparate ideas is one definition of creativity. The more connections your brain makes, the more opportunities you have to recognize innovative solutions and generate creative insights.  

How to Keep Your Head in the Chair

To keep your head in the “chair,” do things that are relaxing, mentally untaxing, and mildly engaging. Social media will take your head out of the chair because it’s addictive. The brain on social media gives itself frequent hits of dopamine, which of course, distracts you from writing.

On the other hand, a mildly enjoyable activity like watching clouds is not addictive because it’s not exciting enough to trigger dopamine hits. This keeps you available for Default Mode insights. 

The Courage to Keep Your Head in the Chair

We have re-wired our brains to avoid the Default Mode by skipping from one Task Positive activity to another. The more you distract yourself with social media, email, texts, shopping, games and the like, the more you crave those distractions.

Frustration is not fun. Not knowing how what to do with your writing can be painful. It’s more painful if you’re living in the delusion that you’re supposed to always know. It’s less painful when you embrace uncertainty as a necessary part of the creative journey and a creative life.

Task Positive Mode is all about speed and power (forcing a solution as quickly as possible). When you’re in Default Modem you’re relaxed, trusting insight will happen when it happens and hey, look at the cool clouds along the way.

If you want more creative insights and joy, fight the impulse to run away from your discomfort to a distraction. Mosey along with the frustration. Wander with your uncertainty. Relish the mystery.

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6 Comments on “Do Writers Need to Keep Our Butts in the Chair?”

  1. Glynis Jolly July 22, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

    I touched on this very subject in my post this last Thursday, although, for me, having my butt in the chair in front of the keyboard is a must but that is just me. The idea of my current WiP is from people watching, which is a favorite of mine when I am having problems getting my mind to wrap around the notion of writing.


    • rosannebane July 25, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

      Thanks Glynis. It’s essential for each writer to find out what works best for her/him. People watching is a great way to let your mind wander in a creative way.


  2. Joel D Canfield July 21, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

    I think possibly I’ve needed some incubation time for my WIP. Some of my delay has certainly been Resistance, but as I’ve dug in to complete the first draft, questions keep arising that I don’t have the answers to yet. I write what I can, and sometimes answers pop up, other times, I run out of steam.

    Things have been disrupted so I haven’t kept my daily commitment. That would help me know what’s incubation and what’s Resistance, eh?


    • rosannebane July 21, 2017 at 3:15 pm #

      Hi Joel, Congrats on playing around with your WIP. Yup, questions rising is a symptom of incubation. Sometimes it’s a sign to circle through First Insight (to generate as mnay open-ended questions as you can) and Saturation (to research answers to as many questions as you can).

      And yes, tracking what you do for your daily commitment is vital to distinguishing incubation from resistance. When life gets chaotic (always a sign of transformation to come BTW), it’s a good time to reduce your commitments so they’re doable no matter what and get crystal clear about what your commitments are. Ahh, but you already know this, yes?

      Have you seen Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius? It might help you clarify where you’re going with your first draft. If not else, it can give you something to read (counts as Product Time) when you run out of steam for drafting…

      I’m in the (hopefully) final revisions on my novel, so I haven’t worked Lisa’s blueprinting method yet, but look forward to it when I move on to the next book in the series (while simultaneously finding an agent and publisher). I suspect blueprinting might be a way to cycle through First Insight, Saturation and Incubation.

      If you try it, let me know what you think.
      Best of luck getting back in the saddle!


      • Joel D Canfield July 21, 2017 at 3:46 pm #

        Huge fan of Lisa’s books. I used much of it on the time travel fantasy, but the story was more or less already set in my mind before I discovered her work so it was more patching remedial stuff than a full story-genius-drafting. But that’s my goal for the next book I start from scratch.


        • rosannebane July 25, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

          Thanks Joel. I’m with you — next book is story-genius from the very start. (“Story genius — I like the sound of that!” to paraphrase Wylie Coyote.)


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