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Talking Back to Your Brain


Harry and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard from writers frustrated and “stuck” on their current work in progress.

Often they say something like, “Why am I such a crummy writer?” “Why is this book so hard to write?”

Or sometimes you hear people express goals like, “This year I’m going to write a novel that hits the USA Today list.” The truth is, we’ve engaged in some of those practices ourselves.

But those expressions are a disaster for writers, primarily because of how the human brain actually works. However, once you know how to engage your brain properly, it can work for you and not against you, not only in your writing life but your private life as well.

Harry took several seminars from a psychologist named Bob Maurer (, who lectured to creative people around the country about how to use your brain to help your creativity, avoid writer’s block, and generally improve your life. He has a wonderful book called One Small Step Can Change Your Life, ( ), which is the basis for the ideas we’ll share.

First, a quick tour through the brain. It has three parts.

  • The brain stem that sits on top of your spinal column developed about 500 million years ago. It’s the reptile brain that keeps your body functioning on a physical level—breathing, circulation, etc.

  • About 300 million years ago the mid-brain or mammal brain evolved. That’s the one that controls emotions (including fear.)

  • And finally the cortex evolved about 50,000 years ago. It’s the crinkly outer covering we know as the human brain. It controls language, creativity—all the higher functions of being human.

One thing the cortex was designed for is to answer questions. The first sorts of questions it answered were about basic survival. (“Is that a leopard in that shadow?”) It can’t help but answer any question you ask.

And it has done a really good job of keeping our species alive.

That characteristic of the cortex can be an immense advantage to you or a horrible disadvantage, depending on the type of questions you ask yourself.

If you could get the cortex to answer questions that would help you further your goals, it would be great, wouldn’t it? But be careful what you wish for. Say you’re thinking about your love life (instead of your book) and you ask, “Why am I such a loser with the opposite sex?” Get ready for your cortex to provide a list of answers—possibly a long list. You might decide to go back to bed and hide under the covers for the day.

If you frame the question in a positive light, for instance, “What could I do to be more attractive to the opposite sex?”, you might come up with some productive answers. (Our brains are answering even as we write—Well, you could listen more instead of talking. There’s the extra weight—you could lose that, etc. etc.) However, since it’s a big question, there might be a lot of answers.

And that’s a problem. When the list starts to get long, we’re back to being so depressed or fearful that we can’t address the issue. We’re unlikely to take any action at all. The question is so big it freezes us up with fear.

That little journey in improving your love life we just took is an excellent example of another brain fact.

The cortex thinks it’s in charge because it has all those higher functions. But you know what? The mid-brain that runs our emotions is the real boss. If we are frightened or depressed it’s very hard to focus on anything else.

When you ask yourself why you are such a horrible writer, and the list starts coming back from your cortex, you may be invoking one of the writer’s biggest fears—that we won’t finish the book, won’t sell won’t be taken seriously—we won’t reach our secret goal. And when we’re afraid, we just shut down. When negative emotions take over, it’s NOT conducive to creativity.

So the trick is to get the brain to answer your questions without invoking fear or depression. How do you do that?

Think small.   

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