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The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine

31 August 2014

From Brain Pickings:

Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with.” Samuel Johnson similarly contended that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” And yet some of history’s most successful and prolific writers were women and men of religious daily routines and odd creative rituals. (Even Buk himself ended up sticking to a peculiar daily routine.)

Such strategies, it turns out, may be psychologically sound and cognitively fruitful. In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library), cognitive psychologist Roland T. Kellogg explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments affect the amount of time invested in trying to write and the degree to which that time is spent in a state of boredom, anxiety, or creative flow. Kellogg writes:

[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.

. . . .

Kellogg surmises that writers more afflicted with the modern epidemic of anxiety tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. Proust and Carlyle appear to have been among those writers — the former wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds and the latter in a noiseproof chamber to ensure absolute silence — whereas Allen Ginsberg was known for being able to write anywhere, from trains to planes to parks. What matters, Kellogg points out, are each writer’s highly subjective requirements for preserving the state of flow:

The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.

. . . .

He also cites a 1985 study of circadian rhythms — something scientists have since explored with swelling rigor — which found that performance on intellectual tasks peaks during morning hours, whereas perceptual-motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening. Hemingway, in fact, intuited this from his own experience, telling George Plimpton in a rare 1989 interview:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until morning when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

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27 Comments to “The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine”

  1. That Hemingway interview of 1989 was indeed rare as he died in 1961.

  2. “Hemingway, in fact, intuited this from his own experience, telling George Plimpton in a rare 1989 interview:”

    Must be miraculously rare, since Hemingway died in 1961. (Note, it was actually 1958.)

  3. “What matters, Kellogg points out, are each writer’s highly subjective requirements for preserving the state of flow” –

    yep, three thousand times 🙂

  4. I have discovered that I can train my muse the way Pavlov conditioned dogs. Time of day, a certain type and amount of noise, a specific coffee cup, clothing–all create the bell that sets my muse slavering and make it raring to go.

    Unfortunately, the downside is, without those specific stimuli, my brain shuts down. Any interruption or deviation and I’m hopeless, hapless and lost.

    Of course, this is probably just me. >:(

    • Nope. Me, too. Perversely, I put off starting the routine, even though I know there is pleasure there once I get into it – and that nothing is going to get written by itself.

      With me, it’s fine-tuning the brain – and I know it will only last for a while – so it’s doubly stupid not to get going right away. Humans don’t like to be told what to do, even if it’s themselves who are telling them. Contrary critters.

  5. Odd, isn’t it? How you must free your imagination to run wild in a strict rut formed by time, schedule, and ritual.

    One of my worst nightmares was attending writing workshops where the leader asked the group to write on demand.

    No can do. Given that request, the mind snaps shut like a bear trap.

  6. Motivation gets me started. Habit keeps me going.

  7. Though I prefer to do my fiction writing in the early morning hours, it often doesn’t work out – the demands of parenting and day job (nonfiction articles) intrude. If I wait for optimum conditions, I get far less work done. If I am not free to write in the morning, I write in the evening. In the end, I find the quality of work is the same. The worse thing, the most terrible thing, the absolutely unacceptable thing, is not to write at all.

    • Ditto.

      I’d prefer early morning, but if I get stuck on doing only what’s “best,” good or better may not happen. There’s always rewriting.

  8. my angels torture me with ideas until I agree to sit and write [which is daily 7/30-31, BUT in between other matters of family caregiving, trying to stay healthy although right now challenged, and you know groceries, laundry, cleaning car, changing oil, the jillons of things. I tell the angel if they dont let me rest, I wont listen to their ideas. Deal. And deal. Mostly. I keep my bargain to write daily. Sometimes they try like a dog seeing an open door, to sneak in anyway while I’m resting. I am in empathic regard to those raising families…. and helping parents and grandparents. Been there. It was an honor. And also took a good deal of time. Looking back, I am so glad I did. But also i liked what john w. said… and it is true… quality of writing appears to be good/decent, most of the time, no matter what time of day or night one writes.

  9. Early morning for me. I do best after getting up, doing a little meditation, and then jumping right into writing. I have about 40 min max every morning before breakfast and heading out to the day job. (And I really try to stick to that schedule on the weekends, minus the day job.)

    I manage 900+ words in that time, enough to finish a novella every month. That’s my new goal.

    Marketing and coaching in the afternoon, plotting in the evening. It’s awesome how that has freed my muse lately.

    • I really like the idea of writing in the morning – before the day and work and other duties call me away and distract me.

      But I tried it. I set the alarm for 5 am and it was like putting spikes in my brain trying to get up. I did it for three days in a row, and then stopped.

      So, how does one get up that early in the morning?

  10. Unfortunately for my writing, in my life all of my routines revolve around my children. I have two young autistic sons (and 3 “mundanes” 😉 ) so for the foreseeable future I have to put them and their needs first. This is why I am not yet self-publishing. I have chosen in my life to be a mom first and so for me there is no such thing as a writing routine or schedule. There is just snatching time where I may which makes for slow going. But I’ll get there eventually, even if it’s not until my kids are grown up enough that they don’t depend on me so much.

    • And they do grow. Enjoy every moment you can (even the ones that seem unpleasant). Take notes! Just imagine all the stories you’ll get out of the journey.

      My youngest son (cue theme to ‘My Three Sons’) just turned 18. I feel like I accomplished something big. 🙂

    • I totally understand this! I am only just now finding ways to make writing a bigger priority and create a routine. You will get there eventually! This is a season of life and it won’t last forever. Don’t let go of the dream.

  11. A long while back I read some advice for aspiring authors which went something like this: You will need a day job until you make it big. Don’t be a teacher or anything that requires creativity/writing or you will not have any creativity left to be a writer when you get home.

    I find that the opposite is true for me. If I teach and if I ponder how to make a complex idea accessible to a non-specialist, I find I am more creative, not less. Physical fatigue and health issues may render writing difficult, but not lack of creativity because I had taught my bunnies.

    Creativity, for me, seems to have a multiplier effect. The more I create, the more creative I become.

    Others thoughts on this?

    • John, I wrote my first novel to the imposed deadline of a writing competition. I worked all day writing for a computer game company, then went home and wrote a few hours every evening. Somewhere in there, I moved to a new house. I also imploded and didn’t write anything for six weeks, but I still got a novel ready to send out in six months. Not at all sure how.

      In one blow, I’d killed all my whingey excuses about why I couldn’t write because I wrote for a living. After that I wrote to publishers’ deadlines. Now that I’m back to making my own, and looking at an overfull editing schedule, I’m back to whingeing.

  12. Re: Sarah and Dianne’s comments above. I have five sons. Some are grown and gone now, but they still make emergency demands on my time, which I willingly give. They are the only thing I give priority to above my writing. Many is the time I had to forsake my word quota or put a story or novel on hold to tend to my young ones. If I did not have them, I would probably be either off on the road somewhere filthy and homeless, or I would be dead. They add depth and nuance to my life. And now that they are growing up, they have become my biggest fans and supporters. I can’t imagine life without them. And somehow, through the 30-hour days even when they were young, I found time to write. I missed days, sure, but the vision was always there, and I tried to schedule myself to get at least something done. I remember for a time I resolved to write a mere 200 words a day before I went to bed no matter what. It worked; I got some good short stories out of that period, some of which eventually were published in trad magazines. Parenting is awesome. I’m a great fan of both writing and parenting.

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