Last year, after reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I decided to start tracking my time. Specifically, I wanted to start tracking how many hours a day I was spending in what Newport calls a state of “Deep Work,” focused on one important, rather than urgent, task. However, I soon decided to take it a step further. Instead of just tracking blocks of deep work, I tracked everything I did during the workday, and what was going on in my head. I thought it would be a good way to stay on task and check in with myself. My own form of mindfulness. On that very first day, I wrote down something that I’ve been chewing on ever since:
“3:25-3:54: Read an interesting and pretty inspiring article from James Clear about different writer’s habits. Was struck by the thought that good writing can only come from a beautiful or interesting mind. Anyone can write a draft—that’s just perseverance—and anyone can edit a draft, find those hidden connections and bring them to the forefront. But not everyone has a good story, with all that richness, in them. Craft is important. But so is what we fill our heads with. What am I filling my head with?”
It’s a question every creative person should be asking: What am I filling my head with?
There is so much content available. Every day we are presented with ten million ways to be entertained. News. Email. Social media. Industry gossip. All of that content shapes us, and bleeds out into the stories we tell. There are so many articles out there about how to tell a good story, but markedly less on what stories to tell, and how to come up with them. Idea generation is, after all, an inexact science. But it stands to reason that what our minds produce will be shaped by what they consume.
In the same way that an athlete hones his body—taking into account what he eats and wears, what gear he uses, what exercises he does, how well he sleeps—so we writers need to think about more than just how much time we spend writing. I like to think of it as protecting my creative brain.
I like to think of my brain as a well. And I like to ask myself: what am I filling it with? How am I protecting it? Here are four ways to help you protect your creative brain.
1) Ask Yourself the Hard Questions
Before starting to set up any type of system, or trying to change a habit, it’s important to understand the purpose behind it. Successful companies “Start With Why” according to Simon Sinek. Highly effective people, “Begin with the end in mind,” according to Stephen Covey.
An endeavor is only worthwhile if we understand the end goal. So, if we’re seeking to protect our creative brains, it’s worth asking, “Why?” What do I want to accomplish with my creativity? What do I want it to look like? Am I seeking to deepen my skill? To spread a message? To become smarter? What makes me feel most in tune with myself and the world? Where do I strike a note and feel the earth sing? Do I want to make beautiful things, speak hard truths, just tell a good story? Take a few moments to reflect on that, and write down your answers. I keep a creative mission statement on my computer, and check in with it regularly. It helps me remember the bigger purpose behind the work I’m doing, and keeps me on task even when the work is mundane or difficult.
2) Curate Your Reading List
We cannot write well without reading well. Probably most of us got started in writing because we love to read. However, there is only so much time in a day, a week, a life. Taking steps to curate a reading list can help us use our precious reading time effectively. The point here isn’t to be prescriptive. Each writer, after all, will be different. The point, however, is to read with purpose.
Here are five types of beneficial reading:
1) Short stories
Ursula Le Guin said short stories were her favorite medium. If you read a few of hers, it’s easy to see the joy she poured into her writing of them. Short stories are a fantastic way to try out new writers before committing to their larger works, to get a taste of a genre or study a particular form. In them, we experience the full structure of a story, but in a condensed word count. This continues to imprint the universal story onto our brains. Also, if you’re short on time, short stories give you a sense of accomplishment and completion—and that’s encouraging to keep reading!
Pro-tip: Try doing a short story “Master Copy.” One way painters perfect their art is by copying the styles of the greats, doing studies of their paintings. As a writing exercise, try doing a “master copy” of a short story. Take the basic structure, world, plot, or character, and write a similar story in your own style, voice, or world. Just be sure that you are only using this as an exercise, and not for publication—there can be a fine line between “inspired by” and plagiarism.
One of my favorite discoveries of last year was Mary Oliver. Her book of essays on writing led me to her poetry, which was a delight to read. I’m a speculative writer, and the place I usually embellish is world-building, not prose. But poetry provides us a great opportunity to sink into rich use of language, to linger over a description, turn of phrase, or idea. It’s also a wonderful break from other more stressful short forms, like, say, Twitter.
Pro-tip: The next time you grab your phone just for the sake of grabbing it, try googling a poem instead of your usual go-to boredom busting app. Read the poem. Pick your favorite sentence from it. Close your phone, and think about why that sentence struck you so much. Was it the way it was described? The surprising metaphor? Just the thought itself? Now ask yourself: what could I create that does this?
Like poetry or short stories, essays can provide a window into a particular writer, genre, or idea. They’re shorter than a book, so more easily accessible. Do you have a particular theme in your book that you’re exploring, or a topic that you want to learn more about? Sometimes, when I’m researching, if I find a book on the topic, but don’t really have time to read it, I’ll look up if the author has written any essays, or published excerpts online. It’s a great way to explore whether I want to read the full book, and to learn something.
Pro-tip: A lot of online magazines, like The New Yorker, offer a few free articles a month. Make a list of a few you enjoy—or think you might enjoy—and set a goal to hit that article quota each month. Who knows what inspiration awaits!
If you’re a fiction writer, this is pretty much essential. But taking the time to think about why you’re reading something can help you curate. Some books are just for fun, or favorites that you re-read to be inspired. But are you also reading books that are selling in your current genre? Classics of your field? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this. If you’re writing a dystopian that you know will be compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll probably want to read it at some point, but maybe not when you’re writing, so you won’t be influenced by it. I have certain authors I love, but I don’t read their books when I’m drafting, because they tend to make me start wailing, “I’ll never be this good!”, but they’re great vacation reads. Some writers can’t stand classics—and that’s okay. But it’s worth being strategic about the books you’re reading.
Pro-tip: Create a Goodreads account, if you don’t have one. The Goodreads Challenge is a great way to track what you’re reading, and it can lead you to discover other current books that are working in the market right now.
If you’re a fiction writer, nonfiction is often essential for research. If you’re writing about a particular war, you’ll probably want to read a lot of first-hand accounts, fiction books set during that time, but also factual accounts that give you the big picture and the details. Authentic writing is richly researched. So, take some time and make a list. And try to think outside the box! The world is a fascinating place, and there’s so much rich and interesting information out there. The deeper you know the corner of the world you’re writing about—whether it’s a high school or outer space—the more authentic you’ll be able to make your writing.
3) Set Limits on Screen Time
Here’s the thing about the internet: it’s a fascinating deep well of information, and a wide, vast social network capable of creating massive influence and change, but it’s also designed to be addictive. Every website, every article, every advertisement, is set up with the intent of you clicking on it, staying on it, and A) Buying something, or B) Providing information so that next time you buy something. Facebook isn’t free. We are all paying in our personal information. And that’s becoming true of every platform. In ancient Greece, the Agora was the place to exchange and debate ideas, but it was still a market.
So how do we protect our brains but still engage with the internet? Simple. Set limits. How this looks is up to you, but here’s a few ideas:
1) Track it
Write down how you spend your time on the internet, either in a word document, or using a time tracking app. There are plenty out there, and they will give you a better idea of just how much time you’re spending on certain apps or sites. It was a sobering realization when I learned I was spending more than an hour a day on Instagram—just scrolling!
This doesn’t need to be a painful or judgmental exercise. Just take stock. Then you can make an informed decision on if you need to make a change.
2) Plan it
Next, set some goals for yourself! This will look different for everyone. Perhaps the best option is to set time limits on certain apps. Or try replacing social media scrolling with a different, more purposeful activity. Schedule unplugged time, take a digital sabbath, or just try putting your phone in a different room for a couple hours, or turning off your phone at night. Small steps toward limiting screen time can reap huge benefits, and free up time for more creatively rewarding pursuits.
4) Think Outside the Box
Of course, we can always be reading and doing things on our computers, but another way to protect and enrich our creative brains is through activities that might seem unrelated to writing. Going for a walk, listening to music, visiting a museum or hanging out with writing friends are all ways of filling the well, too. Try to plan to do enriching activities the way you might plan to read, work out, or write.
In A Game of Thrones, when asked why he reads so much, Tyrion Lannister says, “My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer and I have my mind…and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge. That’s why I read so much Jon Snow.”
For writers, our brains are our swords. And there are so many ways to keep them sharp! What do you do to protect and exercise your brain? Let me know in the comments!
Bess McAllister writes epic books in expansive worlds from a tiny town in the Midwest. Previously, she lived in New York and worked as a fiction editor at Tor Books. Now, she spends her days telling stories and helping other writers tell theirs. Her work is represented by Brooks Sherman of Janklow and Nesbit Associates.