Go Ahead, Trick Your Brain! by Vicki Keire
So I’ve been laboring over a new project lately. And at first, the words were flying. The idea was all so new and shiny. And then we hit what I’ve heard called, “the morass of the middle,” and the real work began. I first encountered this syndrome in grad school. One day, a two hundred page writing assignment about obscure books and dead people totally blindsided me; I thought studying literature would be about good books of my choice. Hah! I had little interest in the assignment, so every “get things done” strategy I knew collapsed.
As a writer of fiction, this actually got worse. Writing is the ultimate long game. The payoff, of hopefully having readers, and if we’re very lucky, royalties too, still only happens after months of blood, sweat and tears. Maybe longer. So how do we motivate in the short term? Let’s return to grad school me.
I knew how to organize, and how to break things down into bite sized-chunks. I had short and long-term goals. I had accountability. Teachers and office mates always wanted to know how I was doing. So why couldn’t I get it done already? What was wrong?
My friend Jenn was a grad student in a different department, but she also had epic writing assignments that bored her stupid. She, however, was always bubbly and seemed mystified by the idea of writer’s block. We’d meet for coffee and she’d listen sympathetically before making suggestions:
“Have you broken your long-term goal down week by week?”
Duh. ”Yes, Jenn.”
“Do you have a daily word count?”
Grr. ”Of course.”
And so on. Over the course of months and enough bad university coffee to fuel a small ulcer, Jenn always had suggestions, including:
Dedicate space just for writing.
Have a ‘writing ritual,’ like lighting a candle.
Go for a walk.
Get up an hour early just to write.
It was sweet of her to keep encouraging me. The problem was, I’d already tried, or was actively trying, all of them. And none of it was working.
And then, one day, I found The List. Jenn and I shared a passion for designer notebooks. She’d just gotten a new one with a cover made of real pressed flowers. As I “oohed” and “aahed,” a folded piece of paper labeled “Weekly Rewards” floated onto my lap. It had things like “two hours of XBox,” “margarita body wash,” “pedicure,” and “the GOOD beer” written on it. Jenn had been using a system called behavioral modification for years.
Put simply, if we associate good things with certain kinds of behavior, we are more likely to repeat that behavior until it becomes a fixed habit. She cautioned me that it was harder than it looked. Yeah, right, I thought. How hard could it be to incorporate little rewards into my life? But Jenn insisted it wasn’t that simple. If I achieved my weekly goals, then I absolutely had to make myself take that weekly reward, no exceptions. If I didn’t make my goals, even partially, then absolutely no reward. Slowly, the brain learns that even the grunt work feels good.
It was surprisingly hard. I don’t think a lot of us are conditioned to reward ourselves on a regular basis. Self-denial and struggle can look like the best way to achievement. I know I still struggle with this. It’s tempting, if I meet my goals, to skip that hour-long candle light bubble bath. It’s Friday night. Isn’t there something on TV instead? I can fold some laundry while I’m at it…
But no! The reward is as much a part of the goal as the word count, or else it doesn’t work. The brain is wily. It will not be half-trained. Also, it gets cranky. I met your stupid word count, human of mine. Now where’s my lollipop?
My list of weekly rewards looks something like: read any one book I want, an hour of bad TV, the GOOD coffee, a new album or playlist, a half hour of aimless driving to really loud music, a nap. The funny thing is, when I finally finished that grad school project, I did celebrate with something big. I just don’t remember what. When I think back it’s the little rewards that stick out: the sugar cookie body wash; hiking with my family; watching bad movies with Jenn. And the writing, or the report, gets done, but without making us crazy.
Vicki Keire grew up in a 19th Century haunted house in the Deep South full of books, abandoned coal chutes, and plenty of places to get into trouble with her siblings. She spent the last decade teaching writing and literature at a large, football-obsessed university while slipping paranormal fiction in between the pages of her textbooks.
Published works include the bestselling Angel’s Edge series, which includes Gifts of the Blood, Darkness in the Blood, and Blood Redemption, The Chronicles of Nowhere series, and the stand-alone novel Daughter of Glass. She is included in the Dark Tomorrows anthology with J.L. Bryan and Amanda Hocking, and the Primetime anthology with J.R. Rain and Anita Exley.
When not reading and writing about all things paranormal, she enjoys other people’s cooking and keeps vampire hours. She’d rather burn the laundry than fold it, and believes that when an author wins the Newberry, he or she gets a secret lifetime pass to Neverland. She is fond of lost causes and loud music. She currently resides in Central Florida on a lake-front farm full of many furry friends. She loves hearing from readers and can be reached on most social media sites or through her blog (link: http://www.vickikeire.blogspot.com/), of which she is awfully fond.