Saturday, March 12, 2011

Doing It

Do you listen to podcasts? I do. I listen to them every chance I get - while I walk to pilates or to the market, while I'm on the tram, while I'm watering the vegetable garden.

One of my favourites is Radiolab, a podcast that sets out to explore the boundary between science, philosophy and the human experience. The episode I just listened to is called 'Help!' and it looks at how we might control those forces inside us that are so strong that they seem to come from outside. Some of these are bad, like addictions, others are good, like creative insights, but what they all have in common is that they feel uncontrollable.

What particularly interests me in the programme is the way people manage these forces as they apply to writing, both negative elements, such as procrastination or being stuck or blocked, and also positive elements, like inspiration.

The problem seems to be that one part of you knows what it wants to do but another stronger part is resistant. The answer the programme offers is to make a deal with yourself that forces you into the behaviour you need, arranging things so you can't compromise. The question that then arises is what kind of deal could you make with yourself when the words don't want to come? How would you force your own back against the wall?

It seems to be about now versus later, with the now part of the brain being much stronger. About tying the long term plan into a present tense battle, thus giving it an emotional prominence. I guess that's what people mean when they say they work better with a deadline.

The neurologist and prolific author, Oliver Sacks, says that when he couldn't start writing his first book because he was so stuck, he gave himself the ultimatum that if he hadn't written the book in ten days he would commit suicide.The result of this was that after months of stewing and not doing anything he suddenly felt he had a 'wonderful engine' inside him that was pulling things out of him and putting them on the page, as though the book was being dictated, and he managed to finish the book a day early.

That's a bit extreme for most of us though.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, talks about speaking directly - bargaining even - with the muse. In order to live a lifetime of creativity without cutting your ear off (or threatening yourself with suicide) she recommends learning to talk to Inspiration, as though the source is outside you, to establish negotiating distance, to set terms and boundaries.

She refers to that old saying, 'Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.' If you consistently show up at the page, sooner or later Inspiration will join you.

All this has great resonance for me. I'm naturally very lazy. To force myself to work I mainly use a mixture of some pretty strong self-talk ('If you don't write you're not a writer, and that's all there is to it.' 'You're not getting any younger and you may develop Alzheimer's.') and the deadline of my regular workshop group meetings. 

I also talk to my book, write it letters, beg it to help me. I always feel that the work exists somewhere and it's up to me to persist until I make contact with it. It's nice to know I'm not crazy - or at least not alone in my craziness.

How about you? Are you naturally self-disciplined? Is any of this even a problem for you? What methods work for you in getting yourself to sit down and write?

Whatever your work habits, the podcast is well worth listening to, I think.