Cognitive Flexibility and the Writer’s Brain

I was recently asked why it was so difficult to switch from business-style writing to a more creative style.  I actually had to stop and ponder this myself because I often find that at the end of my business blogs, it’s really hard to pick up and work on other long-unfinished projects.  But, Deborah, I hear you and I am going to try to dissect this issue.

So, first, let’s just get all of this out of the way.  I’m not a doctor, I’m not a psychologist, I’m just a writer who happens to have too much time on her hands.  I write these blogs to help you do better in your career, not because I actually know anything.  I am a professional twat, just so we’re clear.

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Have you ever noticed how it’s difficult to go from, say, jogging, to doing push-ups without a lot of effort?  Well, your brain works the same way as your body.  Once it’s headed in a direction, with a certain set of rules, it tends to sort of want to stay that way.  Like a body in motion wants to stay in motion, a brain on a rampage wants to stay rampaging.  Whether that means you’re writing technical documents or analyzing Shakespearean plays, your brain is most comfortable doing that thing that it’s doing.

The more you do it, the better you get at it, and a sort of mental muscle memory develops.  This is why sick writers can still work.  There’s no secret, they just know how to do it — they don’t need some magical inspirational thing to happen.  They’ve practiced and practiced and practiced until they can do the thing without being wholly present.  This isn’t a fault, we all do it.  Mechanics do it when they change your spark plugs, farmers do it when they’re sowing seed, bakers do it when they’re kneading dough — those basic things we’ve all done a million times are just us cruising on our practice.  That’s our body in motion, if you will.  (I realize this isn’t how physics works.  Shut up.)

Anyway, so the trick comes in when you need to do something else.  That’s what cognitive flexibility is all about.  It’s the ability to switch from one task to another, mentally, despite rules that may be wholly different or goals that have nothing in common.  Just like with spinal flexibility, cognitive flexibility gets easier the more we practice.  We have to stretch and stretch until our brains are all pliable and ready to turn 180 degrees at the drop of a hat.

This, I believe, is the root of the issue.  This is why it’s hard to write technical manuals all day and then go home and write poetry.  The rules are different, the motion is different, the mental muscles involved are totally different.  But, just because there’s a hard turn at the end of your day doesn’t mean you CAN’T write tech manuals AND badass lyrics.

Cross-Training Your Writing Brain

I know most of you slobs are also sloths, so I’m going to explain cross-training a bit and then move on to how to do this with your brain.  Cross-training is when you use your body (that thing your head sits on) and you train for two or more different activities.  So, for example, you might run a mile and then hit a heavy bag for 20 minutes.  Or you might swim some laps and then hop on a bike.  Or you might wrestle an alligator and then hang glide.  It’s about balancing the muscle groups so that you don’t develop an abnormally fast gate and the rest of you goes straight to Hell.

This applies to writing in two ways.  First, you lazy bastards need to get moving a bit and second, writing can become a very niche exercise, where you’re only ever strengthening those mental muscles that you use for work.  Hey, it’s not a fault, it means you’re really super dedicated to your job — but it can hurt you in the long term.  For example, if you’re only ever been a reporter and suddenly newspapers go out of business… but I digress.

Just like starting to cross-train your body, cross-training your brain can be pretty painful at first, but if you keep at it, I promise you’ll see results.  As per usual, I have a few tips.

1. Baby steps.  When you’re first starting to try to move into a different genre, for fun or for profit, don’t go all in.  Don’t jump in with both feet.  Start slow, keep your expectations low and for fuck’s sake, don’t try to compare yourself to someone else who is at a different place in their journey than you are.  Keep your eye on the prize and baby step your way there.

2. Slow increase your frequency and duration.  You can’t run a marathon without training, you also can’t write a novel without it.  This is one of the MANY bitches I have with NaNoWriMo, but that’s for the fall and not for now.  You can’t expect you’re going to crank out gems, especially if you decide TODAY that you’re going to write two hours a day, every day, on your novel.  It doesn’t work like that.  Start small.  Write a creative description, sketch a character, write a fucking haiku in the beginning.  Tomorrow, write something that’s slightly longer.  Don’t push yourself to the point of hurting your vital brain bits.

3. Remember to have fun.  Ok, this sounds like garbage, I know.  But the key to success with exercise is to find something you enjoy — and the same goes for writing.  You might be really good as a tech writer and not exactly get thrilled about it, but you can’t pursue a new genre with the same hum-drum attitude.  Choose something you really love and you’ll find that working to perfect it doesn’t seem like another boring writing exercise.

I hope this helps, Deborah,  I understand the pickle you’re in.  There was a time not all that long ago that I realized my work was suffering badly because I was only writing one type of copy all the time.  It was getting repetitive, I wasn’t able to give my clients what they deserved because I didn’t have the cognitive flexibility for it. So, for you, I prescribe “A Book of Luminous Things,” a collection of lots of different kinds of poetry that require different types of technical prowess.  I think that’s a good place to start practicing creative writing — different sorts of simple exercises.  I love haiku and often write stupid haikus when I find I’m not stretching my mental muscles enough.  April is National Poetry Writing Month, so there’s also that to look forward to.

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