The Brain as a Sense Organ

In connection with my post on Writer’s Block, let me add a useful way to think about how your brain works.

It’s common in Buddhism to regard your brain as a sense organ, just like your eyes, ears, etc. This isn’t anything mystic; it’s simply an observation about similarities between thoughts and the five senses.

You only have partial control over your senses. For example, you only have partial control over what you hear. You can listen to specific music, you can avoid places that you expect will be noisy, and so on. Still, you can’t control everything: you hear every sound that reaches your ears. Inevitably, your ears will deliver sensations you don’t expect.

The same applies to the other four conventional senses. You see whatever is in front of your eyes, you smell whatever wafts into your nostrils, and so on. You can try to control your life’s circumstances, but you’ll always end up with surprises.

And the same applies to your brain. Your brain delivers thoughts, just like your eyes deliver visual input. You can partly control your thoughts, but only partly. Inevitably, your brain will serve up thoughts you don’t ask for, and maybe thoughts you don’t want.

We’ve all had the experience of walking down the street and suddenly remembering some embarrassment from long ago. We’ve also found ourselves having inappropriate thoughts, unkind thoughts, prejudiced thoughts, etc. At times like this, I find it useful to consider the brain as a sense organ. Just as our eyes sometimes show us sights we’d rather not see, our brain sometimes serves up thoughts we’d rather not have.

And that’s okay. We don’t have to think about such thoughts as us, any more than the things we see are us. The brain is not our complete identity; it does a lot of stuff without our input.

What matters isn’t some random thought we never asked for, but how we react to the thought. We have a great deal more control over our actions than we do over our thoughts.

Or at least that’s the goal. We sometimes have trouble controlling our actions too―we get caught up in emotion and do things we aren’t happy with. But that’s a topic for another time. (Hint: it’s related to the seven deadly sins.)

Writer’s Block

I’ve recently become (a bit) active on Goodreads, and that means answering a few questions about writing. One of the questions is, “How do you deal with writer’s block?” So let me deal with that by coming at the question sideways.

The English word “meditation” covers a lot of techniques from a lot of different traditions. However, one common type of meditation is (silently) naming what you’re feeling. This can include physical feelings (“My nose is itchy”) as well as mental ones (“I’m restless”).

Specificity is useful. For example, what are the physical qualities of restlessness? (Perhaps tense shoulders, a tendency to bounce your foot, and so on.) Specificity helps you pay attention to what’s going on in your body and mind. Specificity during meditation may help you recognize the same symptoms when you aren’t meditating, so perhaps you’ll be more aware of your feelings and better prepared to deal with them.

What isn’t useful is interpretation: stories to explain why you feel a certain way. “I’m restless because I have so much to do…” etc. Telling yourself this kind of story distracts you from your real feelings. It’s not that the stories are false (although they very often are). It’s that the stories take over your brain. You put your time and energy into the stories, letting them spin and suck you in. The stories replace your actual experience, so that you stop being aware of what you’re really feeling. Even worse, you can cling to stories for a long long time…as opposed to real physical and mental sensations which tend to come and go relatively quickly.

For example, suppose someone cuts you off in traffic. You get a jolt of fear and adrenaline. Then the actual experience is over. You may have a reaction of anger immediately after. Fair enough―you feel what you feel. But if you start making up stories, you can ruin the rest of your day: you feed your anger, you attribute all kinds of horrible qualities to the other driver, you might reinforce unfortunate prejudices (“Any driver who wears that kind of hat is a moron!”), and so on. The stories inflate a momentary experience into something that eats up a chunk of your life.

And for what? The incident only lasts a second. You may never encounter that driver again. Making a big emotional story about the experience does you no good at all. Conceivably, it might be useful to have some clearheaded thoughts about what happened―“At this corner from now on, I should drive extra carefully”―but that’s different from getting carried away with the story.

Now let’s come back to writer’s block. Writer’s block is a story. It’s a phrase that blinds you to whatever you’re actually experiencing. The actual experience may be sleepiness, or restlessness, or (often) some internal monologue about the story, your abilities, or whatever. But just like obsessing over a brief incident, calling an experience “writer’s block” isn’t useful. That’s just feeding an unhelpful story.

So if you’re having trouble putting down one word after another, try stopping for a few minutes in order to become aware of what you’re experiencing. Identify your physical experiences as specifically as you can, but just labeling, not interpreting: “I’m hungry”, “I’m cold”, “My mouth is dry”, “My arms are tense.”

Identify your thoughts too, but be careful. If you’ve got some big internal monologue going on, just identify it as, “Talk” without any further comment. Otherwise, you’re likely to get sucked into the story. If the monologue keeps going, every few seconds identify it as “Talk” again. If you can retain enough detachment to do that, the monologue will usually settle down and dwindle away. A new monologue may spring up again, but you can label that as “Talk” too.

After a few minutes, you’ll have a better idea of where your body and head are at. You can then deal more clearheadedly with your situation. Are you hungry? Have something to eat. Are you cold? Put on a sweater. Are you tense? Do some pushups, go for a walk around the block, or take five minutes to relax in some other way. (Notice the difference between this and procrastination. Procrastination is avoidance, whereas I’m talking about dealing with issues that you’ve observed through direct experience.)

Improving your clearheadedness also helps you with creative issues. You may realize that you’re having trouble because you can visualize a scene, or because you don’t know what happens next. Okay, that’s just a matter of brainstorming: get a piece of paper and scribble down a bunch of different ideas, or make a mind-map, or open a separate file and do some freestyle experimentation. Pull out the tools in your writing tool kit, and see what you can make.

So my point is that “Writer’s Block” is an unhelpful story that masks what you actually experience. If you’re having trouble writing, take five minutes out to pay attention to your body and mind. Identify what you’re feeling, and label your thoughts, but without interpretation. That will help you clear your head and make you aware of actual problems that you should address…as opposed to feeding unproductive narratives that just spin and use up your energy.

In a way, this is like the internet maxim, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Don’t feed unhelpful stories. Stop. Step away. Clear your head. Then do something that will actually be useful, rather than getting trapped in emotional quicksand.

Commitment

When I recently revised my web site, I revisited the Seminar on Writing Prose to put it into WordPress format. This gave me a chance to read stuff I hadn’t looked at in several years. One part that particularly stood out for me was the section on comedy: specifically, the idea of commitment to comedy. This got me thinking about commitment…so let me talk about that.

Comedians have a reputation for being hard to live with. It may not be true for all comedians all the time, but most of the funny people I know are more interested in being funny than being nice. They’ve made a commitment to comedy; if they think of a joke, they’ll tell it, without worrying about hurt feelings or propriety.

I’m not a stand-up comedian, but I do write a lot of comedy and I’ve made my commitment. When I’m writing a joke, there are only two questions I ask: “Is this funny?” and “How can I make it funnier?” Later, when I’m editing, I may ask, “Does this work here?”…and occasionally I decide that a joke is out of place in a particular part of a story. But one thing I never ask: “What will people think of me because of this joke?”

Making a commitment means ignoring, “What will people think of me?” I only care about, “Is this artistically successful?”

The same principle applies to other aspects of writing. Writers often put their characters through hell—good sympathetic people can suffer terribly. But writers can’t allow themselves to flinch. Writers have to commit to the story, no matter how awful or tragic it might become. I’m sure there are readers who want every story to have a happy ending, but some stories simply can’t be like that. A happy ending would betray what the story needs to be.

You have to commit to fulfilling the story, wherever it ought to go. You should never soft-pedal a story’s pain simply because you’re asking, “Am I going too far?”

Commitment applies to a writer’s discipline as well as to story content. A writer must be able to say no to friends and family: “I can’t, I have to write.”

I don’t mean telling your blood-soaked child, “Sorry, I can’t drive you to the hospital until I’ve finished my 1000 words.” But writing takes time—more time than you can find in the gaps of a normal day. You truly can’t have it all; you can’t watch all the good TV, and read all the good books, and have an active social life, while also putting in enough time to produce high quality writing.

Commitment means sometimes saying no. You don’t have to turn down everything—if you do nothing but write, you won’t acquire enough experience of the world to have anything to write about—but you have to carve out enough time to do the work.

A New Start: Writing and Editing

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a significant web presence, but I have a new novel coming out and I’m really excited about it. The new book (ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT) is a whole lot of fun, and an excellent start to a new series.

Also, I’m leaving my part-time day job, so I can devote all my energy to writing and editing. And let me repeat: editing. In the past, I’ve given editing feedback to friends, but now I’m hanging up my shingle for paying clients. If you’re interested in what I can do for you, click the “Editing Services” button elsewhere on this page to see what I’m offering.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to chatting with you all here. Hurray for a new beginning!