Wednesday, August 24, 2011

RTW: Writer's Block as Decision Fatigue, or How to Build a Better Bulldozer

This week's Road Trip Wednesday prompt is the very open-ended 
How do you get past writer's block?

and I wasn't sure if I was going to participate because
a) I am, at the moment, in the middle of the ice-fragile stage right AFTER writer's block wherein any iota of attention paid to the prospect of not being able to move forward might paralyze me, and
b) I don't really know how I got there, except for just saying to my brain, "welp, time to move on."
But then I was reading that fascinating article in the NYT about decision fatigue, and it occurred to me, that is EXACTLY what writer's block is. Because what is writing, if not a series of decision after decision after decision?
The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.
So yes. We're not real-life judges choosing which prisoners get paroled or don't, but we are doing the same things for our characters, our worlds, our words. I mean, last night it took me a good five minutes to get from this:

Did she believe her now that this hungover Brandi had been forced out by the petite blonde?
to this:
Did she believe her now, now that this hungover Brandi had been forced out by the petite blonde?
to this:
Did she believe her now, now that this hungover Brandi had evidently been forced out by the petite blonde?
Tiny changes, and ones that today I'm not even sure I approve of. Which makes sense, since they were the last things I managed to accomplish before I had to give in to exhaustion and sleep, or risk feeling too overwhelmed by minutiae to go on (the second, full-stop, side-effect of decision fatigue). And that's not even considering the larger, major structural changes I was trying to work through before nit-picking that last page.

So if writing is all decision making, and writer's block is decision fatigue, then according to the article, the best way to solve it is by…

(wait for it)

Glucose, specifically, and while I could make a joke about all that Bonnaroo Buzz I've been into lately, or about the average writer's penchant for chocolate anything*, the real advice being given by the scientists is to Just. Eat. Better. All the time. More proteins, more whole foods with natural glucose (thank goodness for peach season). 

Glucose, however, isn't everything.

So how else do you build yourself a better bulldozer? 

You learn not to trust yourself. Or rather, WHEN not to trust yourself: 
“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.
“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

So how do we apply this to writer's block? Because writers don't want to just avoid bad decision making (that surly troll can always be cut out of—or added back INTO—the scene later), but that other wall hit by the mentally fatigued, the one where it's easier to make NO decision than risk a bad one. I'd imagine something reasonable and familiar-sounding, like
• establishing a writing schedule, and sticking to it no matter what (even better if you have a motivation buddy/crit partner to commit to something similar with you).
writing as early in the day as possible, and making sure not to write on an empty stomach if you can't get to it until later in the day.
make a habit/schedule of as many other things in your life as possible, to avoid having to add those decisions to your plate on a daily basis. Make a grocery list you will STICK to before shopping; make a meal plan for the week, so you don't stress about it three times a day; embrace the romanticism of chance by just reading the first book on your TBR pile instead of digging through each day and mulling, by just letting Netflix send you whatever's next instead of obsessing over what you might feel like watching in two days, even by ordering library books for hold instead of wandering the aisles aimlessly for an hour (although the joy of finding a gem in the stacks shouldn't be avoided always—maybe just when a deadline is looming). I am sure there are plenty of other things that can be turned into habit to free up mental decision-making energy, but that's at least a start.
As with anything simple, this won't be easy. Not for me, anyway. But I think thinking about writer's block in terms of decision fatigue, and trying to solve it with approaches used FOR decision fatigue, is something that I can embrace.
Now fingers crossed it works…
*my own ambivalence towards chocolate, I realize—along with the fact I couldn't feel the earthquake in MD yesterday, and watched a driveways full of shaking cars thinking, "huh, wonder why that huge gust of wind missed me"—makes me seem something other than human. I'm just going to go with Superhuman, call myself that. That sounds better (than crazy, I mean).

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