The first chapter of Book Craft – chapter 0, on courage – used to be 25K of fascinating historical trivia, but it tended to veer mostly towards creative confidence and then got pretty deep into alternative, questionable suggestions, so I’ll keep this super brief for now and extend it later.
Basically, we have too many tabs open. Tidy your workplace, close your tabs, use the writing tips in the productivity article. But lets say you’re still having trouble feeling creative or inspired or motivated.
Here’s what I’ve learned: the secret to productivity, or overcoming procrastination, is not more caffeine or stimulation – that will just turn the resistance into anxiety. The trick is to remove the block. The problem is, if you’re feeling blocked, you’re probably avoiding something you don’t want to do; something that feels hard, that you don’t enjoy. There are tricks, like starting in 5 seconds, or scheduling a consequential writing time (*when* I finish my coffee/after lunch…I’ll write 500 words).
If a 500 word goal feels like an obligation and keeps you from writing, set a goal of 50 words, or just one sentence. Getting started is the hardest part. But even then… you can’t really *choose* to feel differently, because it’s a mental state you can’t control (but thinking you can will lead to guilt and unhappiness, because you know you could or should be doing better, but you don’t).
A century ago, the definition of Creative Genius was a manic state; associated with depression, the melancholic humor and black bile. Aristotle writes that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of the atrabilious (melancholy) temperament. This is where it gets interesting: melancholy is tied to sadness or depression, but is also linked with mania (a kind of furor or frenzy). Ficino, in Three Books on Life, says that “melancholy and furor” are same phenomenon.
Creative Genius didn’t used to be a way of thinking, it was a physiological reaction. It had specific symptoms. I get these same symptoms when I’m in a manic state: breathlessness, extra sweating, increased confidence and boldness, flushing, rapid talking, insomnia… my friends and family will tell me something is off. I’ll be extremely excited about EVERYTHING and think what I’m doing is going to change the world. I’ll get a ton of creative work done, but I could also endanger myself and others through bad decision making.
Check out this excerpt from the 11th century Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, attributed to John of Milano, give the basic run-down as to the effects of too much of one humor or another:
If Sanguin humour do too much abound,
These signes will be thereof appearing cheefe,
The face will swell, the cheeks grow red and round,
With staring eies, the pulse beate soft and breefe,
The veynes exceed, the belly will be bound,
The temples, and the forehead full of griefe,
Unquiet sleeps, that so strange dreames will make
To cause one blush to tell when he doth wake:
Besides the moysture of the mouth and spittle,
Will taste too sweet, and seeme the throat to tickle.
If Choller do exceed, as may sometime,
Your eares will ring, and make you to be wakefull,
Your tongue will seeme all rough, and oftentimes
Cause vomits, unaccustomed and hatefull,
Great thirst, your excrements are full of slime,
The stomacke squeamish, sustenance ungratefull,
Your appetite will seeme in nought delighting,
Your heart still greeued with continuall byting,
The pulse beate hard and swift, all hot, extreame,
Your spittle soure, of fire-worke oft you dreame.
If Flegme abundance haue due limits past,
These signes are here set downe will plainly shew,
The mouth will seeme to you quite out of taste,
And apt with moisture still to overflow,
Your sides will seeme all sore downe to the waist,
Your meat wax loathsome, your digestion slow,
Your head and stomacke both in so ill taking,
One seeming euer griping tother aking:
With empty veynes, the pulse beat slow and soft,
In sleepe, of seas and ryuers dreaming oft.
But if that dangerous humour ouer-raigne,
Of Melancholy, sometime making mad,
These tokens then will be appearing plaine,
The pulse beat hard, the colour darke and bad:
The water thin, a weake fantasticke braine,
False-grounded ioy, or else perpetuall sad,
Affrighted oftentimes with dreames like visions,
Presenting to the thought ill apparitions,
Of bitter belches from the stomacke comming,
His eare (the left especiall) euer humming.
These are real physical symptoms; even if ancient doctors were wrong about the four humors causing them, the remedies for fixing an imbalance tended to work, appearing to justify the whole system. And the most dangerous was Melancholy, which could make one experience “false grounded joy” or “perceptual sadness” or even visions. I already shared my 3-stages to creative confidence, but I think the “false grounded joy” and sadness go together for most creatives who are amateurs or what I call “fools” (people without experience who create for the love of it, not to make money from it.) “Fool” isn’t meant as an insult, only a contrast with the magician from the Tarot tradition: one is not better or worse than the other, but one has more experience and skill.
The inevitable fear after the work is done whether anybody else will appreciate it; the all-too-common indifference or dismissal of the work after you’ve finished will always trigger both feelings of joy and defeat. But perhaps artistic types who want to create are also just more likely to be melancholic.
Classic melancholic personalities have these (“artistic”) qualities:
- Easily embarrassed
- Easily hurt
- Likes to be alone
- Often artistic
- Often fussy and perfectionist
- Prone to depression, avarice, and gluttony
Melancholy is tied to apparitions and dreams
In Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” the rooster, Chanticleer, has a dream in which he was being pursued by a yellowish-red hound-like creature. He wonders if the dream is prophetic, so his wife, Pertelote, reassures him by telling him:
Certes this dream, which ye have mette tonight,
Cometh of the great supefluity
Of youre rede cholera, pardie,
Which causeth folk to dreaden in their dreams
Of arrows, and of fire with redde beams,
Of redde beastes, that they will them bite,
Of conteke [contention], and of whelpes great and lite [little];
Right as the humour of melancholy
Causeth full many a man in sleep to cry,
For fear of bulles, or of beares blake,
Or elles that black devils will them take,
Of other humours could I tell also,
That worke many a man in sleep much woe;
That I will pass as lightly as I can.
Based on the description, this actually sounds like Sleep Paralysis, a terrifying experience that seems like it has to be caused by supernatural forces (that’s the only way I could explain them, which my friends and family couldn’t help explain my visions and night terrors. It’s different now that we have the internet to look things up).
I think there’s also a link with migraines, which can have uncanny side effects. Both can both manifest in hearing voices, distorted sensory perception, the feeling of persecution, delusions of grandeur. Migraines are associated in classical texts with black bile; and the associated dietary restrictions match up with migraine triggers pretty well).
If you aren’t naturally on the bipolar spectrum, this kind of creative “flow” state can be induced. And you don’t have to go full manic; you can simply support your brain’s own chemistry to make sure it’s getting the nutrients it needs. I actually think the four humors are related to modern understanding of important neurotransmitters.
Each one can be supported or blocked, depending your own brain chemistry.
What I’ve found for me personally, especially since being diagnosed with ADHD and starting ritalin, is that ritalin doesn’t speed me up or make me focused. It just takes away the block (if you don’t have ADHD, try ritalin anyway, it probably WILL speed you up… which can work.) As far as that goes though, I far prefer and recommend modafinil, which makes me hyper-focused, more intelligent and more eloquent.
Modafinil also triggers recklessness and overconfidence. Genius is being bold, fervently confident in one’s own infallibility, great risk and daring, fearless. This is what I feel on modafinil… or if I’ve had too much Huperzine A for several days – a common ingredient in most “brain boost nootropics.”
Huperzine A which increases the amount of acetylcholine in the brain. People with acetylcholine natures as “highly innovative, intuitive, flexible and impulsive; writers, artists and advertising are natural occupations for the acetylcholine type.”
My guess is, manic and depressive states represent an imbalance of acetylcholine; and that certain types of people have a harder time regulating it – something that can be improved by avoiding certain foods, and eating other foods. The fact that food can change brain chemistry and alter mood gives credence to the original humors system, whose dietary prescriptions aren’t that far off from modern counterpoints.
If these seem too experimental, another common ingredient in most cognitive boosters is theanine – one of the main compounds in green tea. While coffee can make you jittery or come with side effects like tension, tea has caffeine and theanine, which has a calming effect.
I don’t actually love it (most supplements have too much theanine which feels sedative.) I like to feel crazy alert and hyper-focused. But the truth is, especially if you’re writing the rough draft, you want to be a bit relaxed. Creativity comes from the more chill part of our brain; or the lateral insights flourishing between hemispheres. Strong green tea (a lot of it) should have a very nice effect. Mate (something I drank from the gourd in Argentina after polo matches) is similar to green but more stimulating with some unique properties.
Kratom is an Asian root still sold over the counter in many places, that is a bit like pure, powdered Japanese matcha (in preparation, not taste). It gives a nice mood boost and usually focus and energy. Not that I’m recommending them, but opioid-based painkillers like Vicodin remove social anxieties.
To me, the feeling of anti-social avoidance as an introvert feels exactly like my avoidance to writing or tasks I dislike. Not fear or dread or anything, just a very strong, stubborn refusal to do the thing. The feeling of being in the flow, of being “turned on” and “focused” and “inspired” – is the surplus of certain brain chemicals, mostly dopamine (pleasure) serotonin (happiness) and norepinephrine (enthusiasm). When you’re firing at all cylinders, you’re using these up – so you’ll feel drained or uncreative the next day, until your brain makes more.
But there are things that boost or replenish these faster: supplements like L-Carnitine or N-Acetyl Tyrosine (NALT); or herbs like Ashwagandha or Lion’s Mane mushroom – both help with a calm, relaxed focus, better sleep and better dreams. Even something simple like “Bullet Proof Coffee” (with butter) is basically giving your brain the nutrients it needs to do more good work. (Four Sigmatic has a “mushroom mix coffee” with Lion’s Mane that’s pretty great).
Gabapentin regulates dopaminergic neuron firing, which may help specifically with writer’s block; St. John’s Wort boost optimism and feelings of general satisfaction. If you feel general brain fog, make sure you don’t have any basic deficiencies like iron, b12 or magnesium. High quality krill oil (fish oil) might help too.
Most of these things can be find easily online or over the counter. The point is, you as a writer, have chosen to run your brain on high capacity for months at a time. Writing a book is more challenging for brains than nearly anything else. Make sure you know how your brain works, what it needs, and take that into account. You can’t fill the tank with wishful thinking.
If you’re in a state where marijuana is legal, you may find that it works better for you than most of the things listed above. Stay away from hybrids. Use an indica (relaxing) while brainstorming or drafting, and a sativa while editing (stimulating). And indica might make you sleepy; a sativa might make you anxious. Both are great for visualization crisp and vivid scenes, and unique flashes of insight as both sides of your brain begin to talk to each other (multi-tasking, not so much – so pick one thing to focus on, set a timer and zero-in on one project). I prefer edibles with coffee for breakfast.
As a final point – though this could be (and might be) a whole book, nearly every famous writer in history was using mind-stimulating or mind-altering substances; from opium and marijuana (Shakespeare) to more common staples like tobacco, coffee and sugar (all have significant psychoactive effects). For the past several centuries, beer was the most common, safest drink when clean water wasn’t reliable; so you can assume they were semi-buzzed, if not outright drunk, as many authors were. Nearly all medicinal pain killers from the pharmacy contained opium, marijuana or even heroin.
I could argue, easily, that every “great work of literature” was drug induced, and that you’d be hard-pressed to find one that isn’t; that the overlap of “brilliant” literary works from the enlightenment and modern period was not accidental, but due to the introduction of stimulants and narcotics (tea, coffee, and tobacco were once seen as dangerous elements that led to revolutionary courage). Don’t assume that your sober writing is your best writing; or that great writers of the past succeeded despite their consumptive habits, rather than because of them.
Dopamine levels in the brain improve attention
Attention is caring enough or being interested enough in the thing to keep considering it. ADHD is a type of hyper-sensitivity. We’re aware of so much, and feel it so deeply, we can’t do anything. Nothing holds our attention. It’s also tied with reward-deficiency.
Dopamine allows us to regulate emotional responses and take action to achieve specific rewards.
People without dopamine don’t care enough about any potential rewards to fake or force interest or attention towards something we have negative feelings for. The overwhelm outweighs any possible benefit; or any possible punishment. Sticks and carrots won’t work on us.
Writing is probably going to be a part-time hobby for most authors, because there is no specific drive or goal towards rewards (unless you create one yourself and focus on earnings, rather than something vague like a positive review); there’s also probably no real penalty or consequence if you don’t get it done. You should make some, as artificial or self-imposed deadlines help, a little less than hard or real deadlines like a preorder launch date.
But even so, your biggest struggle will be maintaining your dopamine levels to stay creative over the long haul, while feeling good about it, and mostly by removing that stupid mental block that makes you watch 12 hours of Netflix when the *only* thing you had on your todo list was write 500 words.
Therefore, when I talk about “mindset” I don’t recommend just positive affirmations (though those can definitely help), because motivation is rarely a simple case of forcing yourself to do the thing. You don’t need to fight that beast every day; it’s a battle you’ll often lose twice – once when you do nothing, and again when you feel guilty about it. Instead, you can charm or distract the beast. You just may need to try a few things to see what makes it sit quietly in the corner while you get to work, with no resistance.
PS. If you’re into that sort of thing, try something as simple as a tiger’s eye (energy), obsidian (remove blocks) or onyx (willpower) bracelet; or a big citrine (stimulating) or rose quartz (relaxing) globe for your office. If you’re really into that sort of thing, check out your Vedic horoscope gemstone recommendation based on the planets in this cycle of your life.
Fool or Magician (Love or Purpose?)
A beginner’s job is to fall in love with the process. To find joy. To want to do this. This is why passion matters. Passion and enthusiasm must outweigh and overwhelm the frustration inherent in becoming proficient: a practitioner’s job is to get better. Practice is not about doing, it’s about learning, the mind intent on improving until they are qualified to turn their joy and hobby into a profession. And the professional’s job is to get paid more, while working less. To maximize profit, to write better books, faster.
You may disagree, because a handful of famous writers only write a few books which took a very long time. I would point out that they probably wasted years in creative turmoil wrestling with these very things; and that most of them did *not* earn a living from their books. It’s not an easy thing, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Your beliefs do not impact the work. You can choose beliefs that make it easier, or better yet, set beliefs aside entirely and focus on the Creating Your Best Work. This path, is normalized and yet backwards and often includes a debilitating crisis of faith: a boiling point. After struggling righteously and failing for years (which I, like every creative person, have certainly done) you may start to turn from love to money. Not because it’s about the money – it never really is – but because you want to use your words to provide value; to impact; to share and be heard. That won’t happen if nobody reads your books. And if nobody is reading them, either you don’t have anything interesting to say, or you’re not saying it well.
Remember the process I recommended in the book:
- Choose joy
- aim for value
- practice your craft
If you stick only with the first, remember your courage will always be offset by an appropriate amount of anxiety which cannot be resolved. You’re going to experience more severe and more frequent bouts of burnout, dissatisfaction and overwhelm, and that’s fine… to an extent. Practice is not about doing, it’s about deliberate improvement; you can only improve if you have an aim and a clear goal. If your only goal is to continue making yourself happy, by choosing those same happy feelings and hits of dopamine, you’ll be an addict chasing the next high. It is not the case that mania always leads to genius. Sometimes it’s just crazy. The joy is necessary because it’s the only reliable fuel. You still need to furnace, the fire, the train and the tracks, locomotion, movement, travel, destination, and purpose: to transport others, to provide value.
Otherwise, it’s just a destructive wildfire.
But what if you could skip the years of stumbling around in the dark: years of getting it wrong, or writing bad books, or sinking your whole heart and paycheck into your book launch and be devastated to realize this is going to be so much harder than you imagined and simply choose, right now, to become a better writer on purpose? It’s possible, but you’re the only person who can.
OK FINE…. MINDSET
I’m not sure if I have mentioned any specific mindset tactics, so here’s one. Recently I was watching a YouTuber talk about how she instantly manifested her dream life, and her steps were nearly exactly the same as this quote from St. Paul.
So here you have advice, from the Bible and from YouTube: the ancient and the modern, and they are saying the same thing. Whether or not you believe explicitly in the Law of Attraction, you’ve probably been cultured into some form of casual optimism. You might believe your thoughts have power, because, like Buddha said…
“Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.”
Actually, Buddha probably never said this: more likely, it came from the sermon of a priest from Iowa in 1856, and I like his version better:
Always check quotes you find on the internet.
Plant a thought and reap a word;
plant a word and reap an action;
plant an action and reap a habit;
plant a habit and reap a character;
plant a character and reap a destiny.
So without considering what type of books you want to write, or what kind of book readers want to read, consider this: when you say things like, “I don’t care if I sell any” or “it’s not about the money” or “I’d be happy selling just one copy of my book.” What if that wasn’t just humble misdirection? What if that was your order to the universe. Do you think small, limited, self-effacing beliefs like that are exciting and empowering? Are you surprised when you get exactly what you wanted, which was “I don’t want to sell any books”?
Ask for what you want. Expect and accept that it is coming to you. Be grateful, but make your position clear.
Authors give up their greatest powers by playing small and choosing the low-risk path to obscurity, with accidental intention. It’s scary to shoot big, because it forces you to play the game. If you intend to sell 10,000 copies, any behavior that doesn’t aim for that goal – including the types of books you write – will need to be modified. You can drift, allowing whatever the universe decides to grant you, or you can steer, by choosing what you want.